Wednesday, November 03, 2021

The Schmombie Blues

I bear bad news. You and I are schmombies. Disappointment drips from my voice. What impoverished lives we lead! Let me explain.

You probably know the work of David Chalmers and Robert Kirk on "zombies". A philosophical zombie is an entity exactly like a human being in all physical respects, except lacking consciousness. Your "zombie twin" is physically identical to you, molecule for molecule. Your zombie twin behaves identically to you, even giving the same verbal reports of consciousness. "Yes, of course I'm conscious," it will say. "I just introspected and infallibly know it to be so!" Sadly for your twin, these seeming-introspective reports are mistaken. The zombie is completely dark inside -- no conscious experience whatsoever.

Although zombies are widely held to be nomologically impossible -- that is, a violation of the laws of nature -- many philosophers, including Chalmers and early Kirk (but not later Kirk) hold them at least to be conceivable. And if they are conceivable, the argument goes, something important follows: Consciousness is not a physical property. There is a property you have that your hypothetical zombie twin lacks: being conscious. By stipulation you and your zombie twin share all physical properties. Therefore, the property of being conscious is not a physical property.

That zombies don't actually exist is irrelevant to the argument. If we can coherently conceive of both Eric and Zombie Eric, then we are understanding consciousness as a property that is in principle divorceable from all physical properties. Our ordinary conception of consciousness treats it as something separable from the physical.

How well does the zombie argument succeed against physicalism (the view that there are no non-physical entities or properties)? That's a topic of immense dispute. But let's assume that it does succeed. Consciousness is a non-physical property. Ordinary humans have it. Zombies lack it, though zombies fail to appreciate that fact.

Chalmers briefly notes that entities physically identical to us and lacking consciousness might have some other non-physical property, call it "schmonciousness" instead of "consciousness". Schmonciousness might be as amazingly wonderful and special as consciousness, though unknown to us. Chalmers quickly drops the idea, stipulating that zombies lack both consciousness and schmonsciousness if it exists. But let's consider the issue a bit.

My central thought is this. Once we allow that there is one type of nonphysical property, why stop with only one? Maybe in addition to conscious or "phenomenal" properties, there's another whole class of nonphysical properties, as radically different from both physical and conscious/phenomenal properties as conscious/phenomenal properties are (on the property dualist's conception) from physical ones.

Of course, we can't positively conceive of such properties. Lacking such properties ourselves, they will be as foreign and unimaginable to us as color is (supposedly) to a blind person, or even more so. But philosophically, metaphysically, once we abandon physicalism there seems no reason to rule out schmonsciousness in principle. We cannot detect it, since it is neither physically detectable like physical properties nor introspectively available to us. Schmonsciousness might well be entirely absent from our region of the cosmos, present only in wild, far-away regions, among wild, far-away entities. Or it might not exist anywhere at all, despite being a real property, one which we regrettably lack. Alternatively, schmonsciousness might be right here under our noses but unknown to us.

Thus we can conceive of at least four different kinds of entity, each physically identical to the other but differing in their nonphysical properties:

  • zombies, who have only physical properties and no consciousness or schmonsciousness;
  • ordinary humans, who have physical properties and consciousness but no schmonsciousness;
  • schumans, who have physical properties and schmonsciousness but no consciousness;
  • wonderkindred, who have physical properties, consciousness, and schmonsciousness.
  • Let me note one epistemic difference between zombies' relationship to consciousness and our relationship to schmonsciousness. Zombies falsely report consciousness (or at least engage in physical activities that from the outside look like reports). We do not report schmonsciousness, falsely or otherwise. But that epistemic difference is incidental to the question of whether schmonsciousness might exist.

    [The paragraph below was revised November 4]

    Now imagine the world from the perspective of philosophers who are aware of the existence of schmonciousness. They agree with us (or at least with human dualists) that consciousness is incredibly special. It cannot be reduced to the physical, and zombies are missing out on something incredibly important. Indeed, zombies are missing out on the very thing that makes life worth living. How sad for those zombies! Or maybe zombies, since they entirely lack conscious experiences of any sort whatsoever, are so far from being persons that even the idea of pitying them is misplaced.

    To this, they add the further idea that we ordinary humans are also radically impoverished, since we are lacking schmonsciousness. Schmonsciousness is every bit as important and valuable to these philosophers as consciousness. They can hardly fathom life without it. They imagine mere humans with pity, calling us schmombies. They ask, is it even worth living life as a schmombie? Sure, consciousness is present, but schmonsciousness is missing! It's like being half of a person. Or worse. Wonderpigs and wondermonkeys might not have the full richness of consciousness and schmonsciousness, but at least they have some limited animal-like consciousness and animal-like schmonsciousness. Mere schmombies (i.e., ordinary humans) don't have even that.

    Are you sad yet? No, not yet?

    Well, consider: Why stop at three types of property? Why only physical properties, phenomenal properties, and schmenomenal properties? Schmonsciousness-aware philosophers might contemplate and conceive of indefinitely many distinct types of properties beyond these three.

    We'll need a new naming convention. Call physical properties 0-nomenal properties, conscious/phenomenal properties 1-nomenal properties, and schmonscious/schmenomenal properties 2-nomenal properties. There could be 3-nomenal, 4-nomenal, 5-nomenal, .... n-nomenal, n+1-nomenal... properties, with no limit. (I am imagining these properties as categorically different rather than scalar or ranked. The choice of the integers as labels is only convenience.)

    If we assume that every entity bearing such properties must at least have physical properties, then we can conceive of entities with 0-nomenal properties plus any combination of n-nomenal properties. Some entities might have 0, 1, 17, and 22-nomenal properties. Others might have 0, 16, 28, 300, 45698, and 4.48833x10^25-nomenal properties. Others might have all the even-numbered properties (and thus infinitely many types of property), or every property whose last digit is zero in the decimal system, or the Fibonacci sequence of properties.

    Compared to such magnificent beings, we mere humans are radically impoverished indeed. Sigh. I'm sad, at least. How much I'm missing out on, which I can't even begin to understand! Cue the schmombie blues.

    [image adapted from here]

    P.S. Don't confuse schmombies with shombies, zoombies, or zimboes. That will make everyone quite upset.


    Howard B said...

    Isaac Asimov wrote as story about creatures having three sexes. I'd guess Asimov would approve of your thought experiment- but what assumptions about the physical universe would we have to make for there to be 'schmonciousness"?

    Kris Rhodes said...

    Does anyone pursue a line of thought wherein Zombies, when they say "consciousness," are actually referring to schmonsciousness?

    This would require a theory of reference that allows epiphenomena to partially determine what a term refers to but that doesn't seem completely a non-starter.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Howard B: I'd hope Asimov would like it! There might have to be laws connecting schmonscious states with physical states -- a whole separate set of laws in addition to the ordinary physical ones (which could remain the same).

    Kris: You could read Chalmers as briefly entertaining that idea in the paper I linked to. However, on the view I explore in this post that probably wouldn't work due to the epistemic point I made partway through. Zombies either refer to or seem to refer to consciousness by saying things like "I'm conscious". They don't claim to be schmonscious and so don't normally refer to it or even seem to be referring to it (except for my zombie twin who wrote this post).

    James of Seattle said...

    Question: Is correlation a physical property? If I have a particle that’s spin-up, there is no physical way to determine just from that particle that it is (anti)correlated with a particular spin-down particle.So correlation requires physical stuff to happen, but is it a physical property?


    Philosopher Eric said...

    I don’t know the professor’s thoughts on that James though I’ll give you mine since I like the question. Nothing can exist unless it’s physical under my own naturalistic brand of metaphysics, which is to say unless it transpires by means of worldly causal dynamics. So if we can say that correlations do exist, which seems productive to me, then we should also be able to refer to them as physical properties of reality as I see it. The question is how? I consider them physical in an epistemic capacity, or as a product of a conscious assessment. Numbers are also physical properties of reality in an epistemic capacity from my perspective — I consider them products of the mind as well.

    You also seemed to bring up quantum mechanics, which can of course get spooky. I don’t quite know what’s going with entanglement and such, though I can say that it should either be natural or supernatural, which is to say physical or non-physical.

    David Duffy said...

    One might simplify the argument along the same lines as those regarding inaccessibility of others' qualia. Rather than skepticism about other minds, unknowability of the type of consciousness others experience.

    As to conceivability arguments, I always found these odd. Many people conceived there was a method of squaring the circle, but I am not sure what we can deduce from this.

    Unknown said...

    Great post, Eric. Surely you mean it as a reductio of the coherent conceivability of zombies, right? You suggest that we don't report schmonsciousness. But I think your reductio works better if we imagine that we are reporting on schmonscious properties all the time. Of course, we don't realize we are failing to refer to them in the same way that zombies are failing to refer to the (purported) non-physical properties of consciousness. Zombies are presumably accurately referring to the physical or functional properties of consciousness, and are properly caused to do so. Similarly, we are referring to the non-physical properties of schmonsciousness when we talk about it and we are properly caused to do so (and behave accordingly) by the physical and functional properties of schmonsciousness.

    There are two ways to make sense of this idea. One is that schmonscious properties perfectly correlate with (supervene on) the physical properties that are the realizers of conscious properties. So, when we talk about consciousness, we are saying what wunderkinds say when they talk about schmonsciousness. The second is that we have no clue when we are referring to schmoncious properties (just as zombies have no clue)--maybe they attend all our talk and behavior related to math (remember Lewis' mad pain). But the wunderkinds look at our math talk and behavior and, Chalmers like, conceive of us being schmombies regarding all the wonderful non-physical properties that attend the wunderkinds math experiences.

    chinaphil said...

    Yeah, this is definitely the problem with trying to work with a concept like consciousness before there's a good definition available.

    It seems like there are some good candidates for schmonsciousness. Buddhist (or Buddhist-adjacent) enlightenment could be one. Or perhaps something more serious, like the perception that Star Wars Part I is better than Part IV. Or more trivial, like QAnon.

    I think there was some confusion in the post about whether those with schmonsciousness claim it, and whether it affects them. First you said zombies with schmonsciousness don't claim it, but then your wonderkindren do claim it (at least to themselves).

    So some work needs to be done to more clearly delineate what kinds of properties these are. Because we definitely all have properties that we don't perceive and and don't know about (we are whirling through space; we are made of quantum probabilities; whatever scientific discovery comes next). And there are definitely properties that some/all of us claim that are not true (knowing what the markets are going to do tomorrow; hearing the voice of god). And there are definitely some properties that some of us claim but others don't, and probably only some portion of us have (IQs above 100? appreciation of modern art? rich emotional lives? internal imagery?).

    All of these different kinds of thing seem to exist, so until more precision is given to the concept of consciousness, I don't think juggling kinds gets us anywhere.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

    James / Phil E: If there are nonphysical properties, then correlation can be a relationship between physical and physical, non and non, or physical and non. But if we go for physicalism, then obviously that won’t work.

    David: Yes, interesting variation! I agree that also fits with the general scheme here.

    Unknown 05:30: Nice! That’s another was to run with it.

    Chinaphil: Thanks for the catch on the confusion about Wonderkindred reporting. I’ve tweaked the post to fix that.

    David/China/unknown: One potential advantage of setting things out as I do here rather than looking for what properties we have that might be or correlate with schmonciousness is maybe this: By making schmonciousness completely alien and unreachable, that makes vivid the possibility that maybe there really is some amazingly wonderful property we are missing

    Arnold said...

    One could try (B)being here without one's body..., anything would be possible...

    Is it true the only knowledge human bodies have, is hereness...
    ...and-then, the possibility of feel-ing may become a means, towards (B)being conscious-ness...

    believable-ness abstractable-ness

    Tyrrell McAllister said...

    Spinoza thought that the mental and the physical are just two attributes of what exists. These two attributes happen to be the only two that we humans can perceive or conceive. However, existence itself has infinitely many other attributes, beyond these two, about which Spinoza says nothing other than that they must exist. His argument for their existence is that God (= what exists in its entirety) is essentially limitless, so He can't have only two attributes, because that would be a limit on Him.

    Jim Cross said...

    If there are nonphysical properties, then how could they measured? Isn't it an oxymoron?

    Philosopher Eric said...

    I agree that once we put ourselves on the slippery slope of magic (or the Genie is liberated from its bottle, or perhaps various other analogies), that further non intended implications should be difficult to contain. (If anyone would like to explain to me why being able to conceive of zombies means that consciousness shouldn’t be physical, I’d appreciate it. I can conceive of people who are unaffected by gravity, though my ability to do so shouldn’t mandate that gravity is non-physical. Or have I missed Chalmers’ argument?) Even given the premise that we live in a somewhat magical world however, I don’t quite go along with all of the implications presented in this post.

    I’m good with zombies that are physically like us and act like us, but through magic rather than phenomenal experience. Whatever. And of course I’m good with us not being zombies. On schmonciousness however it may be effective to note some examples of what would meet the provided parameters. While normal mass like that of the human body seems to be causally attracted to other mass by means of gravitational waves, let’s say that certain conceivable (and thus possible???) entities function that way as well, though their mass is also slightly repelled by mass by means of an otherworldly god. Thus they’d be a bit lighter than their mass would explain. It seems to me that we could refer to such antigravity as “schmonsciousness” given that this would be both magical and wouldn’t provide anything phenomenal.

    Perhaps it’s now apparent where I’m going with this. Just as it shouldn’t be impoverishing to lack this variety of schmonsciousness, it also shouldn’t be impoverishing to lack any other non-phenomenal dynamic. Value itself seems effectively defined under the domain of “phenomenal experience” exclusively. Of course one might call a tree “valuable”, though unless the tree phenomenally experiences its existence I wouldn’t say it has any value to itself. It’s the same for gold. But then I can’t conceive of any borderline cases to phenomenal experience either — by definition this should either exist in some capacity, or not at all.

    Arnold said...

    The idea of wormholes/strings (disparate-ness) as zombie(s) for non/un conscious-ness... seems possible or is traversable-ness conscious-ness too...

    Philosopher Eric said...

    I haven’t read more than snippets of Chalmers directly, though by simply pondering the situation here I may have figured out how it is that he has gotten so many to believe that if something strange like the p-zombie is conceivable, then its opposite (or causal consciousness) must not be physical. It could be that he has successfully gotten people to conflate epistemic possibility with metaphysical possibility.

    Notice that conceivability suggests epistemic possibility, or possible to the human. This isn’t all that interesting given how ignorant the human happens to be. Metaphysical possibility however references what does and does not actually exist. So it could be that somewhere in his argument things switched from one to the other, and unbeknownst to many and perhaps even himself!

    I agree that if the p-zombie is metaphysically possible rather than just epistemically possible, then consciousness cannot be physical. I’m afraid that my strong naturalism conflicts with this notion however, and quite regardless of how readily I personally can conceive of such magic.

    William Robinson said...

    I think your post is a reductio of the idea that consciousness is a property, and of the ubiquitous habit evidenced in discussions of 'consciousness'. The problem is how to locate sensory qualities, once we accept the Galilean exclusion of them from the world of ordinary physical things. What zombies lack should be thought of as, e.g., green. They have our neural events, but green does not occur in them. -- Of course I know that many are content to say green = reflectance profile such-and-such, or molecular surface structure so-and-so, or even neural activation event of kind thus-and-such. I've given arguments that these attempts implausible and indefensible. If those are successful, we should count green as not the same property as any physical candidate, and thus be (property, or, better, event) dualists.

    Arnold said...

    Understanding "sensory qualities" in time ...'s own presence in time, to one's own quantities and qualities in one's own time...

    That conscious-ness beyond dualism would include one's own Being present/quantity/quality...
    ...and probably then the beginning of many many more objective fundamental interactions (transferables) in cosmological-universal observations...

    Transferables relativity philosophy science...

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for the comment, Bill! I'm happy for this post to be read as a reductio although part of me also finds the possibility intriguing and wouldn't entirely rule it out. But I'm not clear on how to reconcile that with your last sentence. Is it that consciousness is not a property but we should be dualists, including possibly property dualists? Or is it that there's a problem with property dualism that substance dualism doesn't share? Or is that as a reductio it fails?

    In any case, I'm inclined to think a similar style argument could be given regarding substance dualism. Why stop with only two substances. Maybe there's a third, as amazing as mind and matter and radically different from each, but which isn't in our region of the cosmos and maybe doesn't exist at all but is at least possible?

    Bill Robinson said...

    No, I'm not recommending substance dualism. Maybe I should have put the left parenthesis after 'property' in my last sentence. I.e., I'm recommending property dualism (or, better, event dualism -- since I think events of neural activation cause events that are instantiations of sensory qualities).

    Philosopher Eric said...

    I consider it problematic to take the traditional “dualism” meme at face value. If so (as professor S. implies) why not two hundred kinds of stuff? I think we should define the standard classification as “causal”, with a second classification residing as any variety of deviation from the first. Observe that this would eliminate any possibility for three or more varieties. So whether a heavenly god alters things here, or quantum fundamental randomness, or any other proposal by which events are not fully determined by means of worldly causal dynamics, there’d be nothing more than natural versus unnatural function. As I understand it Chalmers does not consider phenomenal experience to be a causal product of brain function. Apparently you do Bill, as displayed by your causal emphasis.

    Many popular modern theories propose phenomenal experience by means of algorithms that are converted into other algorithms, though without associated instantiation mechanisms. I consider these proposals otherworldly because algorithms should not exist as such without instantiation mechanisms to even render them as “algorithms” — a VHS tape should only exist as such in respect to a machine that’s able to do things like play its video content. And what sort of physics renders certain brain function “phenomenal algorithms”? Johnjoe McFadden’s proposal that consciousness exists by means of electromagnetic radiation associated with certain types of synchronous neuron firing, is the only plausible idea that’s yet crossed my path. And actually he does refer to this as “dualism”, though it’s the causal dualism between energy and mass that Einstein reduced to E=MC^2.

    Until scientists are able to experimentally demonstrate the validity of some such proposal, our current consciousness circus should continue. To attain such an achievement however, our best philosophers may need to help straighten out some of science’s worst structural flaws.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for the continuing comments folks!

    Bill: Right, and epiphenomenal too, I assume. One question: Why not epiphenomenally cause a third type of event, either in us (undetected) or hypothetically in another type of creature. Why stop at two possible types?

    Phil E: I'm definitely in favor of philosophers and scientists complementing each other's strengths and weaknesses. As for the grab-bag approach to nonmaterial, there's nothing in principle preventing that, but if there's a *positive* characterization of some of the nonmaterial as phenomenal then that raises the question of whether there are properties/substances/events that are neither material nor phenomenal -- i.e., a third kind.

    Philosopher Eric said...

    Agreed professor, and I would hope that Bill sees it as we do as well. If we leave things as vague as properties/substances/events that can either be material or phenomenal, as standard dualists do, then we seem to leave open the door to yet more types of stuff, which is to say the possibility for varieties that are neither material nor phenomenal. So let’s ditch the vague “material” classification and use terminology that does indeed close the door. I believe that I’ve done exactly this by means of “worldly causal dynamics”, or an idea which mandates determinism inside a given system. If all things within our system are perfectly causal (and certainly phenomenal experience, as I suspect will be empirically demonstrated in science soon enough), then everything that ever has or will happen here, cannot possibly deviate. So that would be the first of two possibilities, or monism, naturalism, and so on. The only other possibility here would be under the category of anything that deviates. By definition there could not be a third option, and whether by means of quantum fundamental randomness, countless “other worlds” emerging from ours each second, or supernatural beings that demand our worship in order to escape an afterlife of Hell. Any thing which ontologically deviates from our system’s causal path would reside as the only other “kind of stuff”.