Filosofische lezingen en workshops over bijna alles


Perfect zombies and the meaning of life

René van Delft, MA

Introduction – visions. 2

Part One - Perfect Zombies. 4

1.     A hard distinction. 4

2.     The perfect zombie. 8

3.     Method. 9

4.     Goliath, how do you do?. 12

Option 1: Sincere, Truthful Goliath. 14

Option 2a Not telling the truth: The Big Liar 16

Option 2b Not telling the truth: The Ignoramus. 18

1 Temporary Goliath. 24

2 Partial Goliath. 27

Semantic intermezzo. 29

3 Tragic Goliath. 30

5.     Goodbye Goliath. 31

Part Two – The Meaning Of Life. 33

6.     Problems after the defeat of Goliath. 33

7.     History of the phenomenal gap. 36

A primary distinction. 36

Perfect isolation. 37

8.     The world as we know it 43

The full story. 43

Alternative stories. 45

Explanations. 49

Phenomena as meaningful 53

Buts. 56

9.     Welcome, all ye zimboes – practical aspects. 57

Conclusion – intuitions. 60

Abstract 62

Literature. 63



What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?

Matthew 16:26


That’s the way the stomach rumbles / That’s the way the bee bumbles / That’s the way the needle pricks

That’s the way the glue sticks / That’s the way the potato mashes / That’s the way the pan flashes

That’s the way the market crashes / That’s the way the whip lashes / That’s the way the teeth knashes

That’s the way the gravy stains / That’s the way the moon wanes

William Burroughs (on Tom Waits’ The Black Rider)




Introduction – visions

The zombie is a favourite character in present day mind-body thought experiments[1]. It comes alive in for instance Consciousness Explained of Daniel Dennett, and, which has our special attention here, in The Conscious Mind of David Chalmers. We will investigate and criticise some of Chalmers’ ideas and in this discussion we will confine mostly to these two philosophers, with some important input from Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The first part of this paper will concern the question of the possibility of perfect zombies: creatures without experiences. Propelled by the consequences and presuppositions of this subject, I will, in the second part, reflect on the relation between science and phenomena. The dubious point I try to make there is how not to reconcile first and third person views. Surprisingly, this will make a clear picture of the aforementioned relation possible.


Chalmers and Dennett form an interesting couple of – philosophical – enemies. The contrast is huge. These are the first impressions: Chalmers typically approaches human beings respectful. He does not treat us as machines, but concentrates on what makes us special: our experiences! Dennett, on the other side, is the analytic shredder of everything that we find important. Our very essence as personalities seems to be mocked. In chilly metaphors even our deepest passions and values are explained as mere information processing plus some complicated physical movement.

Although mainly focusing on Chalmers, I hope to provide a totally different way of looking at both philosophers, and of course on the subject of subjectivity and reality. The conclusion after reading this paper may well be that Chalmers’ view is thoroughly bleak, abstract and from the human point of view unrecognisable, while Dennett’s conception of the possibilities and borders of science gives us all space to describe the rich, warm and fascinating world as we encounter it.


Part One - Perfect Zombies

1.              A hard distinction

In The Conscious Mind David Chalmers tries to find a conception of consciousness that allows us to develop theories about it. His special contribution is that consciousness needs to be taken seriously: it cannot be ‘explained away’ – it is a phenomenon in itself, apart from physical things. Two ideas are very important here: 1) consciousness cannot be reductively explained without losing the inherent character in the explanation, 2) as long as the physical realm seems to be a closed circuit, consciousness cannot be an element in the causal chain of events.

This leads him to a form of dualism. The first part of this duality, the physical and psychological, is so far quite successfully investigated by science (although with still a lot to be known), but to explain the second part – the phenomenal consciousness –

is what Chalmers calls ‘the hard problem’.

Before we enter the zombie subject, these three levels of intelligent organisms, covering two domains of properties, need to be distinguished first: the physical and the psychological on one side and the phenomenal on the other. Classical Dualism sees two worlds as bodily versus mentally, Chalmers’ version – enriched by modern views – posits this other abyss:

Simply Physical


Body (reflexes, gestures, smiling, talking)





(awareness, intelligence, noticing, reacting, cause, be influenced, say, judge, think, registration, perception)



(subjectivity, consciousness, qualia, experience, sensation, phenomenal belief)


The physical

The first level, the physical, seems to give no problem in the scope of this paper: it is the energy/mass stuff we are made of, including its laws and organisation. In this context we especially have neurons, body parts, etc., in mind.


The functional

The psychological is defined by Chalmers as ‘internal’ states that play ‘the right sort of causal role in the production of behavior’.[2] It is also called ‘functional’, being manifest in the functions of the organism. For instance: one function is the ability to repeat what one has learned. This is what we call knowing: one special way the organism can function. In Chalmers’ view these functions can be seen as a highly abstracted level of organised matter. Body and functional psyche overlap, but that is not explicitly the target of the discussion here.

Other typical functional words are: notice, react, cause, be influenced, say, think, etc. The meanings of these words play an important and sometimes confusing role in the discussion. In some chapters he distinguishes deflationary and inflationary uses of the words. The second incorporates a phenomenal aspect, so the words are in that respect not fully merely functional. In the first part of this paper I will, with some difficulty, try to use them as much as possible in the first sense.


Phenomenal consciousness

This psychological level is sharply contrasted with the phenomenal. This is typical for Chalmers and one of the issues that make The Conscious Mind interesting. The phenomenal is not part of the interactions in or of the organism. It will probably in some way arise from the physical level – this is what Chalmers would like to have investigated – but it plays no role in the explanation of behaviour.[3]

The psychological may simply exist in a one-to-one translation of organisational patterns of the bio-chemical stuff, but the phenomenal is – and this is Chalmers’ crucial point – something extra. The psychological is the way the mind ‘does’ things, while the phenomenal is the way it ‘feels’ things.

The mental concept ‘phenomenal’ has several aliases or synonyms here: subjective, conscious, qualia, experience. These notions are sometimes used pleonastically. It is ‘conscious experience’, for instance, and the ‘subjective quality of experience’.[4] For the time being I will adopt this use. It is useful to keep in mind that in the discussion below these words are used in the specific meanings that Chalmers gives them. Especially when my remarks sound counterintuitive, this will probably be where the tension between my reasoning and Chalmers’ meaning of the terms comes out.

Furthermore, this phenomenal consciousness is called ‘important’, ‘familiar’ and ‘surprising’. This is what makes us humans remarkable, what makes living worth it, and what is the reason for having a philosophy of the mind. Asking, not only: how does my reaction pattern work, but also: how can this strange surplus arise above the mere physical?


There is a tremendous difference between registration and experience, or, in the terminology of Chalmers, between perception and sensation. A similar terminological distinction he makes, one that I will mainly use here, is between awareness and consciousness. Awareness being functional or psychological and consciousness being phenomenal.

But if this consciousness has no explanatory role, how can we know we are conscious? Is not our knowledge of consciousness explained by being influenced by consciousness? Well, no. Our judgment is ruled by the awareness level, so consciousness makes no difference here. Still, we are sure we have consciousness and, avoiding a notion of causality here, Chalmers calls this ‘direct access’, ‘acquaintance’,[5] or phenomenal belief. [6] I put this in the sector of the phenomenal, but I’m not entirely confident in doing so. This is some foreshadowing that this distinction may be not so obvious.

With the psychological you can register the colour of the sky, process this information and give an adequate reaction, like: ‘time for swimming!’, while with the phenomenal the ‘blueness’ or the ‘blue quality’ of the sky is in the picture. In Chalmers’ way of thinking, the latter is logically independent of the former. And that is also what the first half of this paper is about. If the one is independent of the other, we can imagine a creature that has the first, but not the second. This could imply some sort of dualism, where the physical and psychological is familiar territory for science, but where the phenomenal part or aspect of the mind so far hardly seems touched by the powers of investigation. The logical independency then, would urge us to look for additional laws, connecting awareness and consciousness. These, so far, strange laws are still to be found and Chalmers’ book tries to provide at least a start for it.

Now this is only one of the challenging arguments Chalmers uses, and we will not close the discussion he provokes by handling this, but I think this is a topic that illuminates ways of thinking, and is worthy of zooming in on. So let’s go to the zombie.


2.              The perfect zombie

The philosophical zombie-figure is described as quite different from the movie-characters. Zombies produced in Hollywood typically have a very stupid expression, and the only thing they can think about, if anything, is if they can spill enough blood to spoil the audience’s appetite. They are more machine-like than humanoid and sometimes even more plant-like than mammalian.

Chalmers’ zombie is, on the other hand, so human-like that an innocent passer-by cannot notice the difference between it and a proper human being. Chalmers takes an almost identical copy of himself, so that we have to put away any of the connotations of cannibalistic tendencies of our not too handsome movie stars. If so, then we might as well give him a name. I baptize him – or it, if you like – Goliath.

In what way exactly is Goliath identical with human beings? Well, it is easier to say where he lacks identity: he has no subjective qualities of experience. For the rest we can take him to be, as Chalmers does, a molecule-for-molecule and function-for-function indistinguishable twin for him. He has awareness (registers/knows when something is blue), but no phenomenal consciousness (sees nothing blue, has no blue ‘qualia’).

We could rephrase the zombie thesis as:

It is logically possible that a creature exists that has all human awareness events, but no human consciousness events.

Perfect zombie is short for ‘perfect un-zombie-like zombie’. It is perfect, except for the phenomenal aspect as Chalmers sees it. The phrase ‘perfect zombie’ here is mine, and I use it because I think the strength (and weakness) of the hypothesis lies in the perfect way of Goliath mimicking a human being. ‘Perfect zombie’ taken in this context is synonymous with ‘twin zombie’, which is used more regularly. So: not only the physical behaviour level is completely identical, but – as they are seen as related – also the psychological and all information processing is. Goliath can distinguish milk and plain chocolate. He can explain why Rembrandt is superior to his contemporaries. He will easily make superfluous gestures while drawing attention to the pencil touch of the painter. He can report on ‘inner states’ (“I was wondering if Rembrandt really was a genius, or if I am just being brainwashed by the presumptions of our culture. But then I came in the room with the painting of the Jewish Bride, and I said to myself: yes, this is what establishes the art of painting!”). (Mind, with double quotes I quote the Goliath I make up, not Chalmers.)

Where the original, David Chalmers, has ‘nice green sensations from seeing the trees’, ‘pleasant taste experiences through munching on a chocolate bar’ and ‘a dull aching sensation’ in his right shoulder,[7] the copy has no real mental experience at all. He only has the information and the ability to respond well. He does not see – is not conscious of the subjective quality of the red dress of the Jewish Bride, but only perceives the relative positions and frequencies of spots on the canvas, and he knows how to think and act like a culturally enriched person (come to think of it, he does remind me of certain existing people).


3.              Method

How can we say such a copy is logically possible or not? Is not everything we conceive by definition logically possible? And as Chalmers says, it seems possible to him, even though it is highly improbable, and even though he himself thinks that to have this physical and psychological constitution will in practice go along with having the phenomenal features.

According to him it’s up to the opponent to prove the impossibility, if possible.

But how can we do this? Can we be sure it is impossible to make such a copy as long as we haven’t tried? And current technologies being far from able to do so, will we just have to wait? Even worse: if we succeed in making the copy, how do we know it hasn’t got experiences?

Chalmers is, as may be clear already, not in the least interested in the physical possibility in this phase of arguing. As said, he thinks it is impossible to have such a copy implemented in whatever way. It’s only the logical possibility that counts here.[8]

And that sounds like a realistic task to me. As the zombie is an imagination, we will just have to imagine situations where all logical possibilities lead to an absurd conclusion. How do we proceed normally in such a case?

To try to imagine a square circle, that stops right at the beginning. It’s out of the question.

But, for instance, to imagine that the celestial bodies make a sound that nobody can hear, that takes a bit more of your time. You have to really give it a chance in trying to imagine it, which is not immediately impossible. At first we are stimulated by the surprising combination of these words: ‘celestial bodies’ and ‘sound’, so the thought has something promising. And only after you have been meditating on it, and pondered over the meaning of the words used, it will occur to you that the possibility is depending on what you mean exactly with the description. If you mean that we are hindered to hear the sound, due to an obstacle that can be removed in principle, then, yes, it is logically possible to conceive the existence of a sound that until now has been undetected – however improbable with the air between the bodies missing. But if we mean that no living being can ever hear the sound, and you think of sound as ‘something that can be heard by someone’, then the contradiction is clearly there before your eyes. Thinking the matter through and agreeing on this last given interpretation of the words, no rational being will defend the position any further.

If you still want to save the thesis, you can change the meaning of ‘sound’, namely as covering both audible and some non-audible events. But sound taken as non-audible loses its stimulating role here, and then probably the idea can be taken as logically in order, but the semantics are lost and it becomes a meaningless theory.

Stated like this, it is quite possible to disprove the perfect zombie: we have an unlimited reservoir of imaginations and only one that is both compatible with Chalmers’ description and leads to nothing but contradictions or empty statements is enough to falsify the possibility.[9] Showing that Goliath cannot keep up his perfection or his zombieness will count as a quod erat demonstrandum, as these are the starting points: if a hypothesis of having property a and b logically leads somehow to not having a or b, the hypothesis is doomed. And even if we fail, we will get a clearer grasp of what Chalmers might mean with his philosophy.

But if we follow Chalmers in using – if only temporarily – the concepts of functional versus phenomenal, doesn’t that already imply a logical division between these concepts? And doesn’t this already proof a logically separable world of functionality? No, we are not talking about the functional as such, but about functioning on a certain level, namely that of a human being. Logically the concept of multiple dots is different from the concept of a drawn line, but this difference is limited to a certain level of the multiplicity of the dots. 1000 pixels in a closed row, we call a (graphical) line; concepts can be separate within quantitative limits. It may well be that ‘Complexity does matter’,[10] that on certain levels the distinction can be understandable and that on another level the distinction collapses.

So, indeed everything we can conceive is logically possible, but some things are only seemingly conceivable, and will vanish as such after we have given it sufficient thought.

Chalmers only takes a few pages to introduce and describe his zombie, but time and again he refers back to it as one of the main arguments.[11] As long as we don’t find at least one such situation that demonstrates he is not really perfect or not really a zombie, Goliath is alive and kicking in the realm of our thought experiments.

Is that bad? Yes, I personally think it is bad. As long as Goliath has reasonable power to exist hypothetically, we will keep, as I see it, a wrong approach to ourselves. This will come out especially in the second part of the paper.

In my opinion we should try to stop him, and the stone I have in my sling is simple: ask Goliath about his phenomenal experiences.[12]


4.              Goliath, how do you do?

As Goliath is a copy of a philosopher, he will understand what we ask him about the differences between his psychology and his phenomenology, which is very handy. (‘Understanding’ and similar words are used, I have to repeat, in a functional meaning, although this distinction is not always easy to maintain. This will a point of discussion below.)

I bring this up, because it is not easy to explain to every layman the difference between the perceiving of facts and the conscious experience or sensation of them. Which is in itself food for thought. Is there really such a difference? Or is this difference created by philosophers?[13]

Goliath might have problems joining the discussion. It may be like discussing with a blind-born man the differences between the paintings of Barnett Newman and Marc Rothko. All the while it is necessary that someone or something describes or translates the character of the forms and colours. Put them in an accessible vocabulary. But, however hard it could be for Goliath, to us it seems that he has no problem at all. He appears after all – that is our starting point – at face value a perfect zombie.

Let’s ask him questions like if he sees the blue sky – emphasis on see – if he has ‘nice green sensations from seeing the trees’, if he likes listening to our voice, if he thinks it would change a thing for him if we swap red for yellow, etc. In short: questions that are explicitly about this specific kind of consciousness he is supposed not to have.

I will imagine several Goliaths in several situations. Chasing perfection I will start with easy versions and move on to sophisticated ones. Apart from investigating arguments, this will also help in sharpening our imagination in this case, which may be equally important.

There are two main possibilities: either he speaks the truth or he doesn’t. Option 1 will be not too complicated. Option 2, not speaking the truth, will unfold in many details, thought experiments, arguments and weighing of words.

All sub-possibilities will be traced until I think it is clear we have reached contradictions or have lost the meaning of the words used so far.


Option 1: Sincere, Truthful Goliath

He may say:

“It is not very polite of you to ask about things you know I know nothing about, that is ‘know’ in the sense that you know about your experiences”.

Of course he has the same information as we have, so he can say what it is for somebody else to have a subjective experience of something blue, but he cannot say what it is to himself, as he simply doesn’t have these experiences.

In fact, this is enough to conclude he is not a perfect zombie. We described the perfect zombie as someone we cannot distinguish from a person that has experiences. And now it appears to be perfectly easy to see the difference: just ask and the response will tell.

Spoilsport, an opponent could comment. Of course in this specific case Goliath will respond differently, as this is the exception in which he is not identical.

No, it is according to the description of Chalmers that the zombie is physically, and functionally indistinguishable from a normal human being. And right he is, because what would be the consequence of allowing this exception? It would be to allow Goliath never to do anything that can count as an expression of an experience in communication with other people. To say he will be honest[14] in reporting (the lack of) conscious experience, is to say he will be honest in situations that we think funny, culinary exciting, frightful, aesthetically arousing and so on. Sincere Goliath will not respond to the doctor “yes, it hurts” when being asked so after an accident. Automatic reflexes and registration of information will occur, but he will not mind a broken leg and will not express pain, fear, relief or gratitude in corresponding situations.

Of course a lot of what we call expression is in fact a social ritual: we thank the hostess for cooking, even though the dinner was really not so successful; we laugh many times just out of politeness. But nevertheless at least some part in our communication is meant as expression of how we feel about things, and if Goliath is totally honest he will be akin to the Hollywood zombies, a lot duller though. Yes, there will be differences: he may be a vegetarian and he will pay for the bus. But he will not be as lively as a real human being and he will be easily spotted in the group as ‘that zombie’.

Not nearly as good as Isaac Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw or Douglas Adams’ paranoid android Marvin. And these robotic characters are not even physically identical to humans.

Is this unfair to Chalmers? I think this subdued zombie is not what he has in mind, also because he jokes, in parentheses, ‘Perhaps it is not surprising that phenomenal zombies have not been popular in Hollywood, as there would be obvious problems with their depiction’.[15] There is no obvious problem for depicting this version of Goliath (producing an interesting scenario would be a much more serious challenge).

Goliath is in all his honesty a victim of truth here, his verbal and non-verbal utterances display that he is not perfect and he must leave the stage.


Option 2a Not telling the truth: The Big Liar

Can Goliath escape our ordeal if he is ready to simulate, to lie each second of the day? If he is a perfect actor? Saying things like:

“Wow, how touching, the drops of dew on this deep, deep, red rose”.

“Let’s have sex all night, you make me go to heaven!”.

“Madame, I really enjoyed your soup, though I normally dislike onions.”

“Rain, rain, rain, the whole day long. How depressing. Why has the good Lord, or scientists – whatever – created us? I wished He or they hadn’t.”

Keeping up such appearances seems highly improbable, but that should not bother us. Pathological liars exist – fascinating creatures, by the way – and they can be amazingly good at it. This Goliath is smart: he knows that there is something he is missing, but he also knows exactly how to deceive people. It is imaginable that our Goliath reaches utter perfection and will fool every spectator.

This Goliath makes a strong case for a dualism between public behaviour and ‘inner experiences’ and if we would only focus on the ‘functional’, say, in a crude behaviouristic manner, it will be very hard to argue for or against him. If his social public functioning is all we can compare and if this is indistinguishable, it is silly to look for differences.[16]

But, fortunately, Chalmers has described his case with more falsifiability. The psychological is not only described as a quality of bodily movements, but also as internal states.[17]

Chalmers’ point is related to, but not the same as, the one made in the Artificial Intelligence debates. He is not per se thinking about alternatives for human beings, but he is thinking about the human constitution, and the issue if the phenomenal level can be logically separated from the psychological level. So whatever we think of the psychological part, in the full human meaning, it should be identical with the original.

This makes the issue for this logical sub-possibility simple: where the original is (mostly, I suppose) speaking the truth about his experiences, Goliath is doing the opposite. As speaking the truth and lying are totally different psychological activities, here goes the other chance for Goliath to stay up in the arena. In fact, Goliath goes down because he is technically superior. In most cases it is easier to speak the truth, and it certainly is extremely difficult to maintain a life that is for such a big part based upon lies.

But, we may say, we cannot look inside Goliath’s mind, so how can we be sure there is a psychological difference? The judgements we make are made from the outside, so lying is just a possibility, isn’t it?

Yes, it is, and it is exactly this possibility that we are investigating in this section. We can look inside his mind to check psychological states, just in as far as we know that he does not have phenomenal experiences. In this logical niche Goliath does not have these specific experiences and is lying about them, and we know both facts, because we set this situation up.

If you would like to have it illustrated by working out the thought experiment in a physical manner, you can imagine (future) neuroscientists examining the neural patterns of Goliath while he is doing his lying tricks. Using a brain set-up identical to his original, the differences in mental activities will be neatly detected. It is sufficient to focus on quantity alone: Goliath – or his brain – , in doing a more complicated task than David, has to do everything the original does plus finding subtle ways to lie about it plus dividing his attentions to lying and maintaining the same level of intelligence as his original. Gigantic indeed, but no perfect copy.


Option 2b Not telling the truth: The Ignoramus

In option 2a we assumed that Goliath would fool us by using tricks, and then he would know it if he were not speaking the truth, which would make him a liar, as discussed. Theoretically it is also possible that he errs about his having experiences: he has no experiences, but he really thinks he speaks the truth when ‘reporting’ them. This may well be what Chalmers has in mind, as we shall see, so we have to investigate it in detail.

Also if we consider this to be a real logical possibility, though slightly surreal, the discussion at first sight seems to be coming to a quick end. For: Goliath has the ‘illusion’ he has experiences. He does not see a blue sky, does not enjoy the Chablis, but he is convinced he sees a blue sky and thinks he likes the taste of this wine. In his first person ‘view’ it is just as if he is having experiences. In other words: for him, it is something for him to taste and see, so he is not a real zombie, case closed.

But we are treading on linguistic thin ice here. One of the criticisms of Chalmers on Daniel Dennett is that Dennett would be right in stating that awareness is all that needs explaining, as the only thing that needs explaining is how it seems to us, if not for the fact that he does not distinguish two meanings in ‘to seem’ in his argument.[18]

A lot of words under discussion here can have both a functional and a phenomenal interpretation. I tried to consistently use ‘dispositional’ words for this Goliath. At least words that can be fairly easily understood in a functionalist, Rylean, way: thinks, knows, reacts, errs, etc., to keep it as neutral as possible. I also used ‘illusion’, ‘view’, ‘impression’ and ‘seeming’ here as functional words, because Chalmers makes a point when he says that we cannot sneakily shift from the functional meaning to the phenomenal meaning.

But on the other hand, what we are investigating here is if it is possible at the level of human functioning to split these words in a functional and a subjective sense. If that poses difficulties, then maybe not only does consciousness imply awareness (what Chalmers agrees on), but also when we say that a fully awake being is attentively aware of the blueness of the sky, this could imply that he is in some way conscious of the blue sky.[19] Which logical implication is exactly what Chalmers tries to refute with his possibility of the zombie.[20]

Clearly, it is not so simple. Let’s go back to this Goliath that is on the verge of perfection. Goliath thinks he really sees the red apple, he reacts exactly the way a fully conscious man would, he does not err about the apple or colour itself, he knows precisely the same as his twin brother. In every detail from the inside and the outside – as far as he knows (which is identical to what the original knows) – he is indistinguishable from the original, but still the difference we try to state is: the one has real experiences, the other has no experiences.

If we ask Goliath, who is just as aware of the difference between the psychological aspect and something called the phenomenal as Chalmers is, he may say something like the following:

“I would gladly give you my impressions, but first I have to say that a mistake has been made. For the arguments used it doesn’t matter, of course, but it does matter to me. When we came out of the room where he received my memories and the streaks of my personality, I noticed that I was wearing the nametag ‘Goliath’. Yes, you may laugh, and it’s funny in a way, but it’s also a bit eerie. And I must say that I do not highly appreciate your sceptical looks.

“Off the record, I admit that I am looking for weak spots in him. In some childish way I would like to prove that I am smarter, more sensitive and, naturally, more apparently conscious than he is. But – if it were possible – that would immediately weaken my position, so this brings an extra tension with it. I hope it won’t distract us from the subject.

“As I cannot prove to you that he is the real Goliath (if one of us is) – and as theoretically it shouldn’t matter – I will take up this role, just for the sake of argument. And I will try not to think of the frightening moment after the experiment, that you might want to dismantle one of us.

“Anyway, you want a confession of my experiences, or what I understand to be experiences. According to the thought experiment I do not really so much as see, which is what gives me the zombie-role, but if you ask me if I see the purple sun diving majestically in the red-blue sea, I have to answer: yes, yes, I do, with everything I know about the good use of the words, I simply see the things in all of their colourfulness and impressive existence. They sometimes are intriguing and have a, if I may say so, ineffable feel. Sometimes funny, sometimes uninteresting, sometimes painful, etc.

“Mm. Still I cannot help thinking my reports are a bit irrelevant for the moment, due to this unfortunate mistake that’s been made. I somehow have the primitive feeling that my words would sound differently when spoken by a real zombie.”


As we know he is sincere, we cannot doubt this first-person ‘view’. If you would defend that 2b is still a logical possibility, you should be able to combine rejecting this first-person (phenomenal) view and believing that Goliath means what he says. In fact, I believe this is what Chalmers sees as a challenge, which he merely calls odd and paradoxical.[21]

It leads us to thoughts like: he really means that he is in pain, but he is wrong. Or: his experience is an illusion.

If these words mean anything, they are bound to lead into confusion, and they do.

Thoughts like these lead even philosophers like Dennett to say: ‘Are zombies possible? They’re not just possible, they’re actual. We’re all zombies.’.[22] He may add the note ‘It would be an act of desperate intellectual dishonesty to quote this assertion out of context!’, which is true of course, but the damage is done. Due to remarks like these, people will think that Dennett says mental processes do not exist (no matter how he rejects this interpretation of his words).[23]

The ‘zombies’ of Dennett are as far as I can see, ‘Goliaths’ of this Option 2b. He sometimes calls them zimbo’s[24] because he rejects the whole notion. He states that properly taken in this case there is nothing ‘extra’ that is missing, no ‘extra’ mental thing in a falsely imagined more human counterpart that needs explaining.

Calling humans zombies, even tongue-in-cheek as Dennett does, will not help in clarifying the matter. But this border case stays interesting, although it almost looks entirely linguistic.[25] It is on this border we balance when deciding on the human nature: to be or not to be.

So we have a creature judging the same as we, and for exactly the same reasons. Still his judgment is wrong. Now why does Chalmers call this a paradox, and not a contradiction? Can he keep up the gap here between the psychological and the phenomenal? Did he go far enough in imagining a perfect functional copy?

We have to give him credit that he tries to pursue the issue till the end. Goliath being a perfect twin, in a twin world it could have been him writing The Conscious Mind: wondering about something he calls consciousness and philosophising about its nature and the contrast with what he calls awareness.[26]

One of them is judging wrong. But being equals on the judging level, equally convinced, how could they have any means in finding out if they are David or Goliath.[27]

It is curious that Chalmers does not accept the absurdity of this position. Isn’t there a clear contradiction, even with the very first sentence of the book: ‘Consciousness is at once the most familiar thing in the world and the most mysterious’.[28] What is really mysterious here to me, is: how can consciousness be seriously called the most familiar thing in the world by Goliath when he doesn’t have it? Or what could he have in mind when it is not consciousness? Unless he confuses it with awareness (which would make the whole book absurd, as the main idea is to defend their difference), he has no idea what he is talking about. Then either we lost the meaning of ‘familiar’ here, or something is deeply wrong with ‘consciousness’.

David several times claims that he is absolutely certain in having consciousness, but as Goliath makes the same judgement with exactly the same certainty, stressing the same undeniability of immediate evidence[29] – although it is supposed to be false in his case – this certainty changes, on the judging level, into absolute uncertainty.

We may have succeeded in depicting this position as bizarre, but that will not hurt Chalmers’ philosophy, as he himself happily agrees that it is utterly improbable that human psychology does not result in consciousness. All he demands here is an attack against the logical possibility.

Our intuition says that for bizarre philosophical positions it must be possible to be logically dismantled or at least get the absurdity made explicit, and I guess that several destructions are possible. I use three.


1 Temporary Goliath

Take an ‘evil genius’ that can flip consciousness on and off, thereby changing David into Goliath and vice versa, say every ten seconds. That would seem to lead to two facts.

a) Consciousness is something ‘extra’ according to Chalmers, so D/G must (every twenty seconds) experience it. And he must experience it wildly, as it makes the difference between experiencing ‘something it is like to be’ and not experiencing anything at all. (The difference must by all means be much bigger than changing back and forth to being a human and a bat.) Not just a slight difference, but all the difference in the world. It sounds like an understatement that: he can tell there is a difference: he must know that something has changed.

b) D/G cannot know when he is Goliath. The difference is that half of the time David is right in judging himself to be David, but there is no way to reflect on, or express this otherwise, than he would while being Goliath. Each time – or better: the whole of the time – he is sure he is David, and he is equally sure that he has the right and unique criterion for that. For both it seems (yes, still functionally) that they have access to something that is fundamentally different from awareness. Something that is related to the qualitative intensity he thinks he has by perceiving the rose and what he thinks should be called pain.[30] He wouldn’t know when he changes to David or when he changes to Goliath. Remember: also after having been David, every neuron, every thought, any excitement will remain ‘Davidian’. If anything has changed – whatever peculiar or reasonable idea someone might have of this additional subjective quality – he wouldn’t notice as he notices the same in both situations. He cannot tell if anything has changed at all.

This sounds like a contradiction to me. The only way out is to repudiate one of the options. But if we reject the first, our intuitive conception of this ‘extra’ consciousness gets lost, and if we reject the second, the logical independence is gone.

Still, I think in Chalmers’ view if he wants to drop one option, the first one is sacrificed.

Chalmers’ consciousness is called important, but as it has no consequence for other people whatsoever, it can be seen as only important to him and only at the moment that he is David.[31] Not his judgment, but this quite vague and totally isolated private phenomenal belief is the relation between importance and experience. (This first person domain in which the phenomenal consciousness matters is shown here to be perfectly isolated, let’s keep this in mind for the remaining chapters.) The moment he is Goliath, D/G’s consciousness or lack of it is not important to anyone.

This leaves us with the second option, that David has no idea that he previously totally lost consciousness for a while, which may be the strangest case until now, but which in itself contains no logical contradiction.

Let’s try another turn of the screw. Imagine the ‘evil genius’ to flip D & G every tenth of a second.

Is a slow piece of music influenced by this? Will David notice that Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings sounds distorted? Maybe, but that could take a long extra argument. What happens if we take a rhythmic piece? A slow reggae? Imagine D/G to press a button as long as he finds he is listening to a nice rhythmic song and suppose he does this for quite a while. At the D moments this is a true expression of his experience, as incorrigible true in the phenomenal sense as his certainty of all specific conscious experiences, but at the G moments it is erratic and strictly spoken not an expression at all.

Now the ‘evil genius’ adjusts his metaphysical machine so that subjective consciousness is mainly off, and only once at a specific moment, at the precise beat of a snare drum, it is put on for this short period of time. What happens at that moment? David expresses that he is listening to a nice rhythmic piece, but of course the fragment itself cannot be heard as rhythmic at all. Hearing rhythm presupposes anticipation and, even more important, having heard the preceding music: the sound you hear must be heard in context to be experienced as a rhythmical sound. The specific rhythmic quality depends on music longer than just one moment.

Several possibilities arise here, all leading, I think, to the end of Goliath.

a) This event can be experienced as a sudden burst of real music, which will then stir up a notable effect on D/G. Then David reacts differently than Goliath.

b) David’s expression of his experience is wrong, as phenomenally spoken – in Chalmers philosophy – there is now no real experienced rhythmical music at all. Then what he knows (in any possible meaning) about his conscious experience can be wrong, and there is no reason to distinguish phenomenal from functional belief. Something can erratically only seem to be phenomenal.

c) David’s belief of hearing nice rhythmical music is true, because it’s an expression of how D/G experiences this over the length of, say, a bar of music. But then Goliath is no zombie anymore, as it is only the combination D/G that has access to rhythmical quality.


2 Partial Goliath

A similar strategy can be used for a David that is only in part a Goliath. This may sound strange, as the zombie concept is some sort of a total concept. But as we have different kinds of awareness – seeing, hearing, feeling, etc. – that, according to Chalmers, are all accompanied by phenomenal counterparts, we can imagine a D/g that is perfectly normal, but only missing one or more phenomenal dimensions. For example: he hears things, but he does not see things, he merely – psychologically – thinks or judges he is seeing, while in fact he is only processing visual data. Which makes him auditory normal, but a visual zombie: he perceives frequencies, judges them mistakenly as phenomenal, copes accordingly, etc.

If it is possible to conceive a total zombie, it must be easier to imagine a human being missing qualities but no functions in only some aspects.[32] We might do some funny experiments already, but let’s immediately take a further step. Why not let only a part of one of the senses drop the quality level? If the phenomenal is logically independent, than this must also be logically possible.

The one and only ‘evil genius’ switches the phenomenal consciousness to off on only part of the visual spectrum. We place D/g in a room with velvet fabric samples of four colour groups: red, green, orange and blue shades and ask him to perform some actions: for a number of coloured backgrounds select which of the patches you like most. Let’s say there were 20 backgrounds and from every colour group at least one was favourite on one of the backgrounds, as would be quite possible for a complete David, who would of course not act otherwise. In fact, we could arrange it so that his favourite colour sensation, say orange, is the one that is turned off (which, I agree, is very evil of me).

Now, could he say which colour is missing in his phenomenal experiences? No, since all colours have the same effect on his judgement and other psychological features. His functioning is perfectly suitable in all four cases, he will in no way make an exception in thoughts or other behaviour. Intuitively: Yes, as only in three out of four cases he found, maybe by introspection, corresponding subjective qualities.[33] And when putting the colours next to each other to compare them, phenomenally something is missing. In ¾ of the cases, in some awkward way, he has the ‘justified belief’ that his experience is there and that it is important. But the remaining colour, the one he holds in the highest esteem, is the one that lacks this special value.

Paradox or contradiction?

Chalmers might still call this only a paradox, saying: No, D/g will not in the least be aware of a difference and that is no problem, as the only time he experiences the qualities as important is when looking at these qualities and only exactly in as far as he experiences them.[34]

OK, weird, but – strictly logically taken – fair enough, although with risky consequences, as we will see below. Anyway, the same kind of argument used for temporary Goliath can be made: if D/g rightfully expresses his conscious experiences of the fascinating contrast of orange and blue, his belief is in a complex quality that is partly something in which Goliath contributes a part, which either bereaves him of his zombieness or David of his extra talent.


Semantic intermezzo

The risky consequences I referred to, is that the above line of thought sheds light on what we could mean with ‘importance’, ‘familiar’ and ‘surprising’. These were the features of consciousness that Chalmers grabbed our attention with. This was what made it worth to try to create a new science of the conscious mind.

If orange was the favourite ‘colour’ that was turned ‘off’ and D/g would compare it with blue that was ‘on’, he might say:

“I don’t know why I prefer orange. Here, see for yourself, it just looks nice, especially as the velvet shines so deep and when the sunlight gives it a soft, warm, glow. Against this soft purple background, it’s breathtaking. It could be that I have some more pleasant associations with orange, but that’s not what makes the decision. I’m not sure if it’s the hue, brightness or saturation that does it. It’s just the colour as it is that inspires me. Blue is OK, but it doesn’t make me enthusiastic like orange does.”

Here, discussing ‘partial Goliath’, it comes out in the open, but in fact it was there all along when presenting consciousness as non-functional, as having no role in explaining our behaviour. It is not the subjective quality that influences how we react or what we do. When looking at a beautiful person, our heart may beat faster, our thoughts get tangled up, our nervous jokes come out in a stutter, and we feel delighted when (s)he laughs, but this cannot be the consequence of our conscious experience of the person. This explanation is wrong. Our ‘reaction pattern’ is merely influenced by our registration level. Choosing between two situations with or without these specific qualities has no relation to them.

Choosing orange over blue here says: consciousness is not what makes something important, loveable or preferable.[35]

All the reactions we normally mean or at least associate with importance are ruled by perception and mechanical processes (yes, we’re still talking Chalmers here). Of course you can think they are connected, that you laugh because you find something funny, but this explanation must be simply wrong in Chalmers’ philosophy.

The same should be said of the other valuing words. If conscious experiences are surprising[36] or fascinating, then not in the manner that it would catch our attention. If they are familiar, then not in such a way that we would notice it if they were gone. In the conventional usage of these words consciousness shows to be unimportant and uninteresting. And neither familiar nor striking.

As a result, experience is depicted here not only as impotent but also as utterly stoic; a kind of staring, devoid of related thought, opinion or excitement. At the beginning it maybe seemed natural and intuitively correct to draw a sharp line between what we do and what we feel, but stated like this, in the end, human life seems reduced to mechanical movements on one side and an unmoving way of ‘seeing’ on the other.


3 Tragic Goliath

Another argument would be to point out the psychological difference between the two writers of The Conscious Mind: David has a more or less clear grasp of the difference between awareness and consciousness, and as far as we agree on this distinction we can, in part, follow his train of thought.

Goliath’s idea of the difference must be much more subtle and difficult. Furthermore, as Goliath’s opponents in a twin world are right and he is clearly wrong about the fundamental difference of the two words awareness and consciousness (in the only meanings he can give them), he is much more stubborn and unreasonable than David. He says he has 100% evidence for having consciousness, which in fact he is missing for 100%.

He will be a very reasonable person otherwise, but when changing the subject to consciousness, his inclination for being reasonable changes rapidly into a tendency to autism.

So while ‘possible possible’ Goliath is a strong but at least slightly deranged, tragic hero, we know David as someone with a very different, healthy and consistent psyche, which destroys the perfect similarity. In fact, this Don Quixote of the zombies would be highly gifted to write an intelligent and passionate book about the deeply important difference of two things of which anyone in his zombie world can see it is only one thing. We can safely bet without surgery (or we must hope for the sake of David) that at least some neurons are firing differently. David is certainly no fool, but he cannot compete with the size of Goliath here. Again Goliath goes down by sheer magnitude.


5.              Goodbye Goliath

If more arguments could be found without boring the reader, they all would add up to the one issue at stake: you cannot eat your cake and have it; consciousness cannot at the same time be important (and familiar) and not (functionally) make a difference. In The Conscious Mind Chalmers defends the impact of something that has no role in normal life whatsoever. Put differently, in a Wittgensteinian mode: if consciousness can be understood as functionless, it cannot function in the discussion. We would be talking about something that cannot be spoken of, or at least not in scientific or daily life terms.

An argument can only work as such, if it starts with something both proponent and opponent agree upon. As Chalmers rightfully doesn’t state that it is possible for a perfect zombie to exist, he restricts himself in saying it seems possible, for that surely must be valid for both parties. Isn’t it? Unfortunately, no, it does not seem possible at all yet. The view leads to conceptual problems that first need to be solved. Saying ‘it seems possible’ appeals to our intuition that we can have an electronic Santa Claus that waves and smiles, but has no feelings, but it conflicts with our intuition that somebody who cannot see cannot have the same subtle doubts in evaluating colours as seeing persons.

We can try to conceive a fantastic and complex kind of zombie-machine that functions like we do – especially after reading Dennett and Chalmers – but when we try to pay attention to the details we either imagine the ‘zombie’ as having what we call a first person view or we lose the meaning of what we mean with human experience.[37] (That is, when we do not simply get into logical contradictions.) Imagining is not the same as conceiving, but imagining gives us an indication if the concepts used are still valid.

As Chalmers’ view and specific concepts are deeply related to the possibility of the zombie, it is not an argument, but a thesis. So in the end, so far neither the perfect zombie, nor the zombie-argument exists.

Part Two – The Meaning Of Life

6.              Problems after the defeat of Goliath

Assuming my defence of the logical or conceptual implausibility of Goliath was convincing, where does it lead us? Is this a mere theoretical game, or are we talking about important issues here? I made an implicit promise by calling Chalmers interesting, and now it seems as though at least one of his ideas already is destroyed.

Philosophers that discuss Chalmers often heartily disagree with him, but still the fact remains that his ideas trigger agitated reactions. I guess it’s his intuition that the phenomenal is something that in one way or another is not fully described by physical and functional theories that appeals to us. Maybe surprisingly: I share this intuition, which is even irrefutable in my opinion. There is something more to be told than the psychological and physical facts. But that doesn’t mean we should follow Chalmers’ way.

What does our argument do? It seems to attack part of Chalmers’ defence against the dark arts of reductionism:[38] his argument of the possibility of a perfect zombie will no longer help in destroying the ‘logical supervenience’ of the phenomenal on the psychological, and thus on the physical. Or worse: by showing this possibility so far, with the current concepts used, to be inconceivable, it looks like the levels simply are not logically independent. Taking the human physical and psychological constitution, whatever we call phenomenal seems somehow logically or conceptually incorporated.

What then? Is this a cry for materialism? Is all explained when all the physical is explained? Can we allow only that which is fit for analysis and reduction? Do experiences not exist at all?

There are two big misunderstandings at stake here. The first one is the nature of reductionism, the second one is the nature of the phenomenal. The former is easily dealt with, the latter is somewhat tougher.

The easy part is clearly described, among others, by Dennett. He tells us that explanation is always reductive, it must always explain something in terms that explicitly do not refer to the original phenomenon. (In the same way, I may add, as we must leave out the entry itself from its definition.) And that is a good thing. As long as you keep the original phenomenon in the explanation, the explanation simply is not finished. There must be something left out of the original phenomenon to make it explainable. ‘Leaving something out is not a feature of failed explanation, but of successful explanations’.[39] In any explanation of the properties of for example gold, the ‘goldness’ surely must be left out. An other example he gives is to say somebody looks good in pictures because she is photogenic.[40]

To put it differently: there is no logic in explaining the phenomenon as phenomenon. Consciousness, or ‘what is experienced’, is no exception here, but rather paradigmatic.

This leads us to the second job: what is the phenomenon here? What should count as a phenomenon?

In the philosophy of mind a big role is played by what we could call mind-imperialism. There is almost always a subtle shift of topic in this tradition: you first speak of sensing the apple, then of having the sensation of seeing an apple, and then of sensing the sensation. Time and again this last use of language is manifest in The Conscious Mind. The first time an actual experience is described it is already stated as ‘I find myself absorbed in an orange sensation’ (p. xii). This sounds strange. I have never seen an orange sensation – let alone be absorbed in it – and I don’t think anybody else has. This is not even an illusion of some kind, it is just an awkward way of saying that you are absorbed in seeing something orange. It is perfectly well to say that you have a sensation of an orange, but that does not make the sensation itself orange. The colour is not the quality of the sensation, but of the orange. Not the sensation is the phenomenon here, but the orange. Even when there is talk of ‘secondary qualities’, which we will discuss below, these are qualities of the object.

Chalmers appears to agree on this. He says having a red sensation is only short for the ‘experience of the type I usually have (in the actual world) when looking at red objects’.[41] And something is happening when we look at an orange, isn’t it? Looking at an orange that rolled down a pile and stops before our feet, making us picking it up, is a completely different story than an orange falling from a pile, passing the electronic eye of a door and triggering the opening mechanism. If we make the electronic eye device very complex, we might find it justified to say that it is ‘aware’ of the orange rolling by, but that doesn’t say much about it being conscious of the orange as orange. Seeing the orange as I see an orange is not experienced by me as receiving certain information and functioning accordingly. This first person view of a conscious person is clearly something else than the third person view we use to understand an electronic door device.

On the other side, our investigation in zombie-matters points in the direction of the view that the psychological level of a human being implies having sensations: the functional and the phenomenal seem to be logically inseparable. So far we only made the problems worse.


7.              History of the phenomenal gap

Some broad historic outlines for the background of the troubles must follow. The problem that Chalmers wants to address is roughly: how could we get from the physical properties of things to the phenomenal mental events we all know? Or: which laws make the connection between the third person properties such as frequencies and first person properties such as seeing something orange?


A primary distinction

Chalmers is a direct descendant from the Lockean tradition. Locke himself already saw the very same problem. It seems like a good idea to distinguish primary and secondary properties of things; the former being number, weight, etc – quantities, easily attributed to the things themselves and easily scientifically, objectively investigated – the latter being colour, perspective, etc. – impressions, easily seen as something in which the subject contributes something. The first ‘real’, and the second ‘imputed’.[42] But how could we ever come to understand the secondary properties in terms of the primary? And so: how could we ever have a scientific theory that incorporates everything, the full story; not only the physical things, but also whatever we experience? ‘We must know what primary qualities of any body produce certain sensations or ideas in us’, says Locke, who displays an admirable modesty here concerning this at least tough problem: ‘our discoveries amount to very little beyond perfect ignorance and incapacity.’[43]

Science has been steadily improved, but this question was never really answered. More and more things that counted as secondary could be seen as actually best understood in terms of the primary, quantizable descriptions, but some residue always seems to remain. One way of treating this is ignoring the issue – which is the common method, another way is having the guts to ask the question as loud and specific as you can – this is what Chalmers does, and what we should prefer. A third way is understanding consciousness in a different way.


Perfect isolation

First let’s take a look at the birth of this distinction of properties. This is not an invention of Locke. An earlier version exists, with some changes, in the writings of Galileo Galilei[44], for whom this separation of primary and secondary qualities seems mainly a means to develop a good model for investigating mechanics.

Galilei represents an important and successful break away from (Aristotelian) attention for quality to attention for quantity.

In order to have solid scientific results, it was a wise decision to restrict ourselves to the experimentally repeatable and measurable aspects of the investigated thing. This success spread out all over the world, continually being improved by making itself vulnerable for correction.

But, at a loss. This loss was at first mainly felt on the European continent, creating the counter-movement of Romanticism, which did not confine itself to the truth of physics, but was equally interested in the truth of art, of feelings, history and language. A lot of great men contributed to the development of this alternative approach, either as a revolt, or as trying to combine objective and subjective aspects. But it was only in the 20th century, especially with Martin Heidegger, that this line of thought got self-conscious enough to point out forcefully where things had gone wrong: models like these of primary and secondary properties, were transformed into an absolute basic feature of reality itself, while in fact they were so scientifically powerful because they neglected how reality presents itself to us, the appearance of reality. Reality as we know it, what we primarily mean when using the word ‘real’, had to give way for a world that was reconstructed: a world we conclude upon, based on our thoughts. From the phenomena certain elements were isolated and divided into objective and subjective domains. The objective, quantizable features, were perfect for a solid science; the subjective features satisfied our desire for expression of feelings and values – but both were extracted from the phenomena that we knew as real.

Also for the ‘subjective’ domain, there’s a shift from what we actually experience and describe to what fits in a rationally modelled ontology. Saying ‘persons have subjective experiences of how this thing looks like’, is something else then saying: ‘it looks like this’.

The risk Romantics normally see in Galilean ideas, is that the third person view, or objectivity, is seen as more basic and ‘real’ than the first person view. On the other hand: the risk that Heideggerian phenomenology observes, is that the distinction between third and first person view is seen as fundamental and obvious, and that talking about reality needs a combination or a choice in this. In the Heideggerian approach, this view-issue can be seen as produced by the history of philosophy: certain aspects of life were separated and began to live a life of their own, leading to problems of their own. Like: given your one point of view, how can you ever get to the objective reality? Or: given objective reality, how could it ever lead to my one personal point of view?

In fact, I would say, most people do not have one point of view. They have at least two, making it possible to see depth. That sounds like a poor joke, but it is easily forgotten that the one – so-called subjective – point of view is not given, but created. When we encounter things in real life, we see things immediately and essentially as something we can approach from more than one side.

Of course we have our idiosyncrasies. These are things we have to be aware of when thinking about truth and these we might call a form of subjectivity that is part of real life. But coping with the phenomena is everything but handling ‘subjective things’: the phenomena themselves lead us to thinking about them in relation to ourselves and so to be prudent when applicable. Conflicts about phenomena can give rise to distinguishing how others see something and how I see something, but these conflicts can only arise within a world of mainly unproblematic phenomena.

We could distinguish three types of subjectivity here: deviant-subjectivity, kind-subjectivity and absolute-subjectivity. Deviant is what I described above: it is opinions, tastes and personal prejudices that differ. All my neighbours eat meat, but I think we should avoid killing. A duck in the pool can be seen by them as game, and by me as a nice fellow creature. To know in what way we differ as a person helps us to develop personality, to see where we are connected and where we disagree. These different points of view, literally and metaphorically, are certainly important.

This is also true for kind-subjectivity: when two groups clash in their approach, the conflicting matters look different through our eyes and through their eyes. This can be subtle, as with the inhabitants of two cities in the same country. But also rough and immense, as in the collision between the lumberjacks and the monkeys in a rainforest. It’s this us-kind versus them-kind confrontation, that leads to the important and philosophical wisdom that puts things in perspective.

These two sorts of subjectivity can be seen as natural, real-life phenomena, and as something that, by exaggeration or extrapolation, led to the third: absolute subjectivity. The (unconscious) reasoning could have been:

It sometimes happens that two persons share their vision on something and that later it comes out that they actually had two different versions in mind. So you won’t know if visions differ if this does not accidentally becomes manifest in a conflict.

Now wouldn’t it be better to think concerning all items that as long as there is no explicit consensus, everybody has his own vision? Maybe, yes. But then, could there be a way of finding out if the vision of two persons can overlap? That’s difficult, as we cannot look inside somebody else’s head. Talking only clarifies a tiny portion of what we experience, and besides that, how do we know we really mean the same things?

So what could be a proper bridging method? As long as there is no such method, we must assume that everyone lives in some kind of perfectly isolated unique sphere of experiences. Sure, on the objective, ‘third-person’ things, we can come to agreements, as these can be described in a quantitative manner, but the way things are experienced by every subject is utterly incommensurable. And to think that certain experiences are similar is nothing more than a belief based on indirect proof.

This way of thinking, tempting as it seems, is thoroughly criticised in the 20th century. It is drastically refuted by Heidegger, but I think it is more clearly attacked by Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein warns us that we cannot take ways of speaking out of their practical context and expect they will still function equally well. When you elevate something from daily life to a metaphysical level, you run the risk of totally misleading your thoughts. More specific: the first two sorts of subjectivity work through a relative, visible contrast. But to use relativity in this third, absolute way, destroys the possibility of visible contrast. In deviant- and kind-subjectivity it is clear that we can disagree on things, because there is a common ground: a background that is not subject to discussion. If, in the metaphysical exaggeration, you lose this common ground, you also lose its very basis of functioning, use and meaning.

You may doubt one number in a calculation, but you cannot doubt all numbers in a calculation. You may doubt if a certain move in a game of chess is illegitimate, but you cannot doubt all moves that are ever made. That simply misses the point of doubting and disputing. Discussing the value of a chess move presupposes an un-discussed framework. Debating politics concerning Iraq is possible because we implicitly agree on that it is, for one thing, a country.

Comparing my and your red, however, in this way of the absolutely isolated phenomenal subject, is impossible; not only might your red be blue, but you may also mean something completely different with ‘colour’, ‘seeing’, and in fact all words. It’s not so much a problem that the discussion would never end, but it could never properly begin.[45]

But the classical philosophers didn’t just make something up. Isn’t the distinction of primary and secondary properties an obvious move?

No, in fact it isn’t. It is possible to use a system of comparable colour samples, just as it is to use a system of length samples (like the standard meter). And to check the property of length, you still need vision, or tactility.

With Galilei, Descartes and Locke, the phenomena as subjectively experienced were separated from the phenomena as untouched things. The first became something mental – included in the realm of ideas –, the second spatial, or material. An isolated inner domain was separated from an external domain. Redness and joy were placed in the first, length and weight in the second. This happened not completely without reasons[46] and furthermore it appealed to the religious beliefs, so it appeared to be something natural, obvious and preferable, but it was certainly not based on the nature of the phenomena.

Till far in the 20th century this became the leading frame of thought, so that when somebody like Gilbert Ryle made a frontal attack on this inner/outer separation, he was immediately seen as an enemy of the mind and a repudiator of feelings.

It seems an ironic twist that after this subject/object development the Lockean tradition once again with Chalmers[47] comes to the point of asking for the phenomenal. In science the phenomenon as phenomenon has been left out: it is abstracted from, and clearly for good reasons. But it is strange to demand that this aspect should now reappear as a further step. That would be like projecting a 3D object to two dimensions, and then wondering how to reconstruct the 3D thing purely based on the information contained in the two-dimensional picture.


8.              The world as we know it

The full story

I think David Chalmers deserves praise for giving attention to the phenomenal, but nevertheless it looks like something is thoroughly wrong in his approach. The background structure of his ideas as I see it, is that we start with phase 1) the physical. This builds up – via complexity and coherence of the functions – to phase 2) the psychological. Which in turn – via laws yet to be discovered – results in phase 3) the phenomenal.

figure 1


One way this background structure comes to light in his text, is that many times he calls it an ­­­extra, ‘over and above the physical facts’[48].

The fundamental mistake as I see it – leading to severe problems as shown in the zombie discussion – is the concoction of phenomena and subjectivity, of experience and the mental. The cause is that as the way the phenomena appear to us cannot be understood in ‘primary properties’, it is sought in the other domain that the Lockean tradition leaves us. As we don’t recognise redness in frequencies and chemical changes, it is supposed to be something subjective, something mental. But you may be trying to mix two disparate elements or approaches.

Chalmers says: ‘I am constituted by both physical and non-physical properties, and the full story about me cannot be told by focusing on only one half’.[49] I agree with the last part: neither a story in 3rd person, nor a story in 1st person tells all there is to be told, but from there it does not follow that we are constituted by 3rd and 1st person parts or properties.

I used the word ‘start’ in the description of his scheme, although this is a problematic term. I kept it vague and broad here, so you can read it as that ‘thinking’ starts, or that ‘reality’ starts.[50] We could take it as the start of the ‘story’ as Chalmers calls it. The boxes in the several pictures used in this chapter can be seen as stories, topics, practices, language games, styles, or, to speak with Richard Rorty: vocabularies.

Beginning with physical characterizations, we can add psychological concepts, to finish the complete story with phenomenal words. Figure 1 can also be seen as one single timeline. In a big way: first there were rocks, then plants, then consciousness. Or small: first there’s a 3rd person needle on my chair, leading to 3rd person changes in my nerves, which in turn leads to my 1st person pain. But then somewhere a magical border must be crossed: the transition from 3rd to 1st person. And not only to pass here is a problem, but also the nature and the location of this border. It is very understandable that Chalmers says: ‘when it comes to consciousness, it can seem that all the alternatives are bad’.[51]


Alternative stories

A different storyboard that I suggest here, backed up by alternative traditions,[52] is that the phenomenal should be ‘phase one’. Based upon this phase, or rather: living and working within this context, we can abstract physical properties, and we can divide more objective and more subjective features, material and mental aspects, whenever there is some need for it.

One defender of this view is, as said, Martin Heidegger.

It is funny how a mystical, existence-oriented, hermeneutical phenomenologist like Heidegger can be on a par with hard-boiled material-reductionist Dennett concerning subjects similar to the ‘orange’ discussion. As I put it: the orange as we know it, namely as something orange, is not a mental thing, not (at first) a physical object, but it is an edible thing. Nice and useful.

In ‘What is called thinking?’ Heidegger (1984) discusses what happens when we encounter a blossoming tree. Although of course things are happening that we call ‘mental’, the tree itself as we see it, the phenomenon, is not seen as represented (a Vorstellung) in the mind, but it presents itself in the known world, out in the open: ‘Does the tree stand ‘in consciousness’, or does it stand on pastureland?’[53]

When Dennett discusses personal experiences, especially an intense case involving more than one sense (a ‘full’ and continuous experience, a ‘plenum’) he equally talks about experiencing the world:

‘No such ‘plenum’ ever came into his mind; the plenum remained out in the world where it didn’t have to be represented, but could just be. When we marvel, in those moments of heightened self-consciousness, at the glorious richness of our conscious experience, the richness we marvel at is actually the richness of the world outside, in all its ravishing detail. Is does not ‘enter’ our conscious minds, but is simply available.’[54]

Mind: This world, ‘outside’ or ‘the pastureland’, is not to be seen as some sort of physical and scientifically confirmed domain. Not for Heidegger of course, but neither for Dennett as I understand him. Dennett is reporting his own experience, which can be of things, but also of music, feelings, visions. He is often explicitly talking about illusions in this context. You could take a phantom leg and say it is hurting, this is just as rightfully a description of something ‘out there in the world’ as bricks are (although these of course are very differently experienced/described).

There is no reason why this should be limited to special, awesome, moments. When we are conscious of something, it is of the world – or something in the world – as we know it, in all its fantastic, or dull, or complicated aspects.

The tendency to duplicate the world – typical for dualists ways of thinking – is unnecessary and leads away from the phenomena. One way Chalmers describes the zombie twin is by saying that it ‘is dark’ in him. So, if I understand him correctly, when his idea of a zombie enters a dark room and turns on the light, the only thing that changes is that he has more information available. While for the real human being, not only the room is illuminated, but at the same time a light ‘within’ the human is switched on. This ‘inner’ room, then, can be seen as an extra phenomenon, that in one way or another is caused by or at least related to the first lit up room and is as much open for explanation as for instance the electronic switch. But in the world of Heidegger and Dennett, the only phenomenon here is the one actual room, and that we can experience this (or not) as such, is the way in which lit up rooms exist in our world. (In the strange but often inspiring language of Heidegger the light and darkness happen within a greater Lichtung:[55] because the world is already open to us – not to be confused with ‘external’ – we can enter both well-lit and dark rooms.)

Here’s my impression of Heidegger’s vision concerning our discussion:

figure 2

Of course this is only a tiny and incomplete portion of the (early) Heideggerian framework or frameworks. Not only should there be in fact arrows pointing backwards, as science (models and theories) deeply influences how we experience the world, but more importantly: these are just some things we do with the phenomenal reality. To abstract certain elements in order to make them available for science is only one way of making sense. For example: producing art and enjoying religious rituals are other interpreting activities, certainly not less profound. (They make sense in a very specific way of adding mysteries in stead of solving them.)

Hermeneutic phenomenology – represented here especially as interpreting interpretation – is again one more option to uncover meaning, in its unique way it is an activity specialised in meaning itself.

The world as we know it is a meaningful world, and the meanings can be translated and made explicit in unlimited ways. This phenomenology tries not to explain causal relations, but to characterise the multitude of experiences and their relations: what things mean to us, how they and we are related and how meaning takes place.

This scheme I present here is so general that several very different philosophers could in large part agree upon it, although they would not have a box for explicit phenomenology. I take Wittgenstein[56] when saying ‘explanations must after all sometime come to an end’[57] to be talking about this first, natural, phenomenal context of all thinking. It is the starting and finishing point of all explanations, not something that itself needs explanation or is even susceptible for explanation (or doubt). A lot of aspects of the orange can be investigated fruitfully. But it cannot be investigated why an orange looks like an orange, because that is simply what we call an orange.[58]

Oranges and most other phenomena, taken as what they are, that is: how they present themselves, have something inherently unproblematic. The phenomena we experience as being in no need for scientific explanation cannot be processed in science without losing this essential character.

(This unproblematic character in my opinion gives rise to important ‘mystical’ or ‘existential’ considerations, but not to scientific questions.)



For Dennett this is only a sidetrack. True, but not very helpful in developing explanations and theories (of intelligence, for example), and that is what interests him.

A picture of Dennett’s schematic background could be as follows:

figure 3


It is surprisingly compatible with Heidegger’s. One big difference between both is a matter of interest: Dennett wants to find the correct explanation, whereas Heidegger wants a meaningful description of the phenomena and of experiencing and understanding the phenomenal as such. Dennett is passionately interested in the best scientific theories, but only superficially in the context for science, and in science as a phenomenon. Also the phenomena as how they are experienced and understood are not an interesting end in itself for him. The reports are only a means for understanding how intelligent creatures work.

Instead of relying on his personal experiences alone, for understanding human functioning he suggests to work with multiple descriptions of investigated subjects, which he calls heterophenomenal reports. He sketches cognitive science as producing models, and even implementing physical models, that should be able to explain and maybe even repeat these reports. Not only the physical make-up and bodily expressions must be investigated, but also everything the subjects report to be experiencing.

The ‘reality’ that is indicated or expressed by these heterophenomenal reports is, as it were, set between brackets. The ‘truth’ of these appearances does not add to the investigation and justification of the scientific theories, only the reports themselves are useful information here. That certain music deeply touches Daniel Dennett is for his science ‘input’ in the same way as that the sun seems to dive into the ocean. Apart from emphasizing the plural, this neutrality is the main point of his idea of using heterophenomenal reports as data. He compares it with anthropologists who during their investigation better not believe in the God of the investigated tribe. This method ‘maintains a constructive and sympathetic neutrality, in the hopes of compiling a definitive description of the world according to the subjects’.[59]


This ‘neutrality’ is manifest in his use of some words, which, I must say, I find highly suspect. In fact both Chalmers and Dennett in some way miss the essence of advanced phenomenology. Chalmers because we do not experience the phenomena as ‘subjective, mental qualities’ and Dennett because we do not experience the phenomena as illusions. Of course it’s typical for illusions that the person is unaware of the illusional character, but calling the experiences illusions is not in sync with his chosen ‘neutrality’ concerning the world. It explains the problem many people have with Dennett’s view, as he seems to deny what we experience as standard reality.

Here is also a difference with Heidegger (and Wittgenstein), as Dennett in a way still ‘starts’ as a scientist: investigating ‘some’ race that has certain beliefs and impressions, while for Heidegger the scientist is a human being first. Science is a human practice. This is not some race, it is about us and what we call reality. Appearance of the phenomena is used by Dennett as ‘seems’, as mere ‘show’, while for Heidegger it is more like ‘manifestation’, how reality ‘shows itself’.[60] It is the difference between: ‘the trick had the appearance of a miracle’ and ‘he appeared in court yesterday’.

(To describe European continental phenomenology as ‘the study of phenomena: literally, appearances as opposed to reality’, as stated in the Stanford Encyclopedia under the lemma Phenomenology, in my opinion could not be further away from the truth.)

The tension is felt in Dennett’s remark that there is no real phenomenology.[61] This will appear as a fissure between the two, but I think this is the least of their controversies and merely a different use of words, as the non-existing world according to Dennett, is the world the providers of the reports, including Dennett, call real. The human being Dennett shares our world; the scientist Dennett cannot and methodically does not want to incorporate this world in his models of explanation – he has no world, but only data.

This is perfect for explaining phenomena, but I think it is bad for describing the world and how science fits into it. Practicing science and philosophy presuppose the known world. This is especially relevant when investigating the heterophenomenal reports: interpretation of expressions can only be done within the framework of a shared world.[62]

Besides this, Dennett is not clear in his use of illusions and phenomena. Many kinds of illusions are mixed in his vocabulary. For example, the dot – even though just two flashes of light after and next to each other – seems to move and change colour, and qualia seem to exist. But these are two very different sorts of ‘appearances’. Calling the first an ‘impression’ can count as a description of a psychological phenomenon, but the second must in a totally different way be seen as an illusion, viz. as a philosophical misinterpretation. Of course it depends on how you use ‘qualia’, but in the philosophy sketched here (which I claim to be for this discussion for a great part accordant with Dennett’s), an apple in no way seems to have absolute subjective redness and niceness qualia, but it is red and tasty. (But maybe Dennett is more ‘soft hearted’ or more consistent on this issue than I am: he wants to take the reports of the persons that are convinced they ‘see qualia’ serious. That makes sense.)

The several meanings of ‘illusion’ and ‘appearance’ seem to me very important, and a source of much debate in the philosophy of mind. It would be nice if Dennett could clarify this, but I don’t see how this could be done without some form of phenomenology. It would be more straightforward if he would – methodically – stick to the reports and relinquish characterisations as ‘illusion’ or ‘unreal’.


Phenomena as meaningful

Heidegger is, as indicated, not so much interested in explanations or theories, but in meaning, in descriptions of existence, in understanding this ‘first phase’, the phenomena as phenomena.[63] The quest for meaning here is not to be understood as a quest for purpose, but as an investigation in ‘what it is like to be’ (and, more specifically, what it is like to be a human being, as this establishes our relation to the general question about being as such).

The primary meaning of life is that things mean something to us. As far as something exists, it has a specific role: it appears as this or that thing in relation to other things.[64] These appearances have a structure, a coherence, and this is what Heidegger tries to enter and describe. One of the main structural features of the human world that he defends is that we care. We care for others, for things, for ourselves, and so for existence as such, which implies a practical understanding that precedes any scientific understanding. This primary ‘functional’ dealing with matters that we find important can in some cases lead to abstractions: theories, objective aspects, subjectivity. Minding precedes mind.

In this way of thinking, there are no neutral things to which we add value or subjective likes and dislikes, but the phenomena as such are already and immediately seen as ugly, useful, dangerous, boring, mysterious, painful. This is how we know them, how they are manifest in the world: they have meaning as such. ‘Knowing’ not used here as an epistemic (mental) act, but as meeting, encountering or dealing with.


Discussions of zombies and qualia, linked to a subjectivity that exists in perfect isolation, are related to solipsism or ‘the problem of other minds’.

One of the things that dawned early on Heidegger, is that in describing this experience of phenomena, an important role is taken by ‘the others’. Other conscious people are not creatures we understand by reconstructing copies of variations on ourselves, but they are primary constituents of the world as we know it, as are language and other social characteristics of our life.

Thus: ‘other souls’ are a founding part of the dynamics of the appearing of the phenomena, and there is no need for proving their existence, as little as prove is needed here for an ‘external world’. Other conscious people do not need to be explained, but are part of the framework, the context for all things that do need explanations. The orange we know, is essentially the orange we know.[65] We know the orange as something that can be possessed or shared.

To call this a we-view that precedes an I-view or a he-view is too simple, as the presentation of the phenomena is not – at first – available as a view at all.

Furthermore, this is certainly not a plea for democratic truth. Heidegger does not count the propositions we might share as true for this reason, but this community aspect is rather part of how truth works. (This is also an important overlap with Wittgenstein’s philosophy.)

Dennett uses hetero-phenomenology, in hermeneutics we use inter-subjectivity, or ‘Being-with’. There are big differences, but one ruling thought is the same: the world as we know it, is something we, in a deep sense, share. You may not think so after reading the papers, but in the most important sense and from the very start, the world is ours, not mine.


Yes, those were big steps, and I can imagine it raises objections. It may be some kind of crude answer to the problems that Chalmers evokes, but it is hardly satisfying, as it is far too simple in this short and rough sketch. I am aware of difficulties; one of them is that good phenomenology by its nature (in contrast with scientific explanations) cannot be a matter of tough arguments, but only of – more or less – recognisable descriptions. (Which is not to say that debate is useless, just that it differs in style.) I cannot give a detailed defence for Heideggerian phenomenology in the scope of this paper, but I hope to have given a possibility of how to address something that Chalmers in a certain way gives attention, the phenomenal, and at the same time how to escape the contradictions you get when you want to find something ‘beyond’ the functional. Namely by seeing ‘consciousness’ not as an extra phenomenon, but as the appearance, or the manifestation of phenomena. Not as ‘meta’-physics, but as ‘pre’-physics. His intuition that something important cannot be grasped with quantitative means is something even Dennett implicitly subscribes (in his vision on reductionism), but the question is: why would you want to find this non-quantitative aspect within the realm of science[66], that is by its nature limited to quantities? Why would you want to make one timeline for the different stories?



But, isn’t a large portion of reality left unexplained this way? Isn’t this a pessimistic surrendering? Or providing a safe harbour for things I simply don’t want to see ‘spoilt’ by science? No, the phenomenal here is not to be taken as ‘a portion’ of reality, but as reality as reality. That is: the way the world is manifest, not ‘for’ us, not ‘caused by things’, but – as we experience it – as itself.

But, isn’t this all just a variation of ‘identity theory’? Stating that you have two parallel stories, one for how it feels and one for how it works? The similarity is tempting, I agree. But no, identity theory is still a way of fitting two stories into one. It is still a scientific – third person – view, that tries to incorporate a first person view kind of expressions. On the other hand: an identity theory way of speaking is possible, and maybe harmless, when you see the so-called first person view descriptions as abbreviations. For example, you could say after stimulating some brain cells: ‘now she feels happy’, meaning: ‘if you would ask her how she feels, she would say: I feel happy’.

But, talking about phenomena as things that are in the world and that you sometimes see, and sometimes not, is begging the question. As it is not a phenomenon that is only potentially sensed, but the phenomenon as instance of something consciously encountered. The philosophy of mind is concerned with this contrast of possibly sensed – which can be understood physically – and actually sensed – which must be understood mentally. No. It would take too much space to address this matter in detail, but I hope that it is sufficient to say that 1) this comment would already presuppose the object/subject distinction that is under discussion, and 2) every recognisable description of sensing something that you would call real is a description of an experience of something that appears (is taken) to exist also if the specific impression, isolated in time and/or space, changes.

But, splitting up phenomenal descriptions and science, or sensitive interpretations and impersonal theories, is nice when you have physics in mind, but it is not fit for other disciplines, like science of art or history. In which case you will always have mixes of argumentatively defended theories and culture dependant interpretations. Yes, that’s true. The picture I gave is an idealisation. It is good in all disciplines to be aware of the entanglement of interpretative and theoretic elements, but sometimes this is highly relevant – say in ethics – and sometimes not at all – say in mathematics. The conclusion is that my picture is too rough for an overview of all possible disciplines, but thus far I think in the scope of this paper – concerning the cognitive investigations as Dennett explores them and a critique of the philosophy of Chalmers – there’s no problem. I am focussed here on the tension between hard science and experiences.

But, isn’t Dennett’s whole idea of changing the quest for truth into a matter of engineering appalling? Granted, it gives a possible model of how humans function, including how they say or think they experience themselves, but how can we be certain this is the truth? Explaining chess computers is not the same as understanding Kasparov, even though the outcomes may be comparable. True. But this goes for all science: the practice of getting the simplest explanations for the phenomena in the finest details possible. Strictly taken, science does not provide the truth, but only theories that are not yet falsified and so far better verified than their alternatives.


9.              Welcome, all ye zimboes – practical aspects

The zombie discussion, which is paralleled by the qualia discussions, is highly theoretical. As mentioned earlier, there is a huge difference between the functioning of the light cell of an automated door and our own seeing. This looks like an academic issue, but there are many cases where the question is not only very subtle and difficult but also important. We can easily say that the question whether or not somebody or something has conscious experiences should be replaced by whether or not we share the world with her, but who do we share the world with? Most of the time it is easy to decide which is pawn and who is player, but there are a lot of ambiguous cases.

At some point between the meeting of sperm and ovum and the birth of a child, destroying means either medical treatment or murder. At some point between protozoan and human beings, organisms have, or should have, rights. At some point after developing highly intelligent systems, we might have to respect these as having intrinsic value.

For investigation and explanations it is great to use a mechanical model of living beings, but for description, communication and ethical choices it is fatal. Deciding between things versus autonomous beings will probably always be influenced by cultural prejudices. And just as we are ashamed now for questions like ‘do women have a soul’, and ‘should slaves have the right to vote’, we may well (hopefully, I’d say) be ashamed later for how we treat fellow-mammals today.

Of course, creatures like the zimbo’s of option 2b should always join the club of world-sharers. The criteria are: what do they seem to express and do we have reasons to think or think not that they are sincere? These are complicated questions in the several contexts and I certainly didn’t solve them here. One pro in the approach here is that we can decide on matters of consciousness in a gradual way, while with Chalmers’ approach only a binary answer seems possible: either something is conscious or not.[67] But beside this small profit, no concernable progress has been made. It is just a shift of the problem: from a theoretical discussion to a cultural (society related, ethical) reaching for consensus.

So why bring it up? I come up with it, because I believe that philosophical considerations can only have meaning if they are related to things that matter. Pragmatically, or vitalistically, speaking: thoughts can only be sensible, if they can be linked to our lives. The ultimate contradiction in Chalmers was that he stressed the role of consciousness for investigations, but by making consciousness so utterly non-functional, that it became un-worldly and could have no role or meaning at all.


Conclusion – intuitions

Consciousness is important. Consciousness was shown by Chalmers to be special by trying to point out something non-functional, and our conclusion was that something was utterly wrong with his conception of it. The normal, recognisable, experiences are devoured by an abstract version of ‘experiences’ in an unreachable and unimportant dimension. The phenomena themselves became something ‘mental’. Even in the pleonastic title this is reflected: The Conscious Mind suggests the existing of something called a mind that is conscious, while it’s in fact neither brains nor minds, but human beings that are conscious. Still: there’s more, or something else, to be told than functional explanations, albeit something more like an aspect of the world than a mental phenomenon.

Science is important. The work of Dennett shows that the reductive approach is the most useful to explain the phenomena that we know, including human awareness, or – time to drop the terminology of Chalmers – consciousness. What we experience as being of a high qualitative level, can be investigated by relating low quantitative level phenomena. Even in the title this is reflected: Consciousness Explained suggests an approach of consciousness exactly as far as it is susceptible to explanation. As long as we see expressions in the proper contexts, there is no fundamental problem of consciousness. If you want to study redness as such, do not study the mind or the brain, but study Rembrandt and Rothko.

Being is important. The cherished ‘mystery’ of being in this world does not exist because it is so difficult to explain, but because we can realise that we are here and because we can wonder about things being what they are. As some fascinating gift we didn’t even ask for.

We understand ourselves as partaking in a world, that appears in a certain way, and as far as we care for others and ourselves, we find this partaking important, which is how we can find the practical questions above meaningful and how we can in earnest reflect on ‘the richness we marvel at’. This importance, I think, is wider and deeper than any theoretical knowledge, however exciting, of ourselves as biological or cognitive systems and in a way it precedes everything else we might value. This is in no way an obstacle for science, but it makes it possible. Being conscious of the meaningful phenomena is the source of all explicit understanding.



In a reductionist-materialist account of what human beings are, we do not recognise what it is like to be such a being. The zombie-thesis, that a functional but unconscious copy of a human being is conceivable, states that, apart from what is explainable in functionalist terms, something extra must exist. Chalmers tries to establish a science that investigates our experiences as such: the phenomenal. The proof for the necessity of such an investigation lies in the logical distinction between these two levels. In this paper it is shown that when you systematically consider all possibilities, such a logical distinction either results in contradictions or in semantically empty terms and is in fact based upon a historical mistake.

The phenomenology of Heidegger is a way of avoiding this - dualistic - mistake. Both subjectivity and objectivity can be taken seriously, as long as the phenomenal is seen as preceding these two approaches or abstractions. A general picture is presented in which a reductionist approach of human beings, like Dennett's, is not in conflict  with phenomenology. In this view the phenomenal should not be seen as emerging from a third person realm, but instead: all science is rooted in the phenomena. Reductionist science is merely one way of dealing with reality, but fully respectable and potentially complete in its own genre.


·        Chalmers, David J.; The Conscious Mind, in search of a fundamental theory, Oxford University Press, 1996

·        Democritus, DK 68 B9, B10; Die Vorsokratiker II, Reclam, Stuttgart, 1986

·        Dennett, Daniel C.; Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1991

·        Dooremale, Hans; Evolution Shorthand, dissertation for the Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen, 2003

·        Druyfus, Hubert L.; Being-in-the-world, a commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1, The MIT press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991

·        Gadamer, Hans-Georg; Hermeneutik I, Wahrheit und Methode [Truth and Method], Grundzüge einer philosophische Hermeneutik, J.C.B. Mohr, Tübingen, 1986 (or. 1960)

·        Galilei, Galileo; Il Saggitore (The Assayer), translation: A. C. Danto, in Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West (2nd ed.; New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), vol. I, pp. 719-24 (or. 1623)

·        Heidegger, Martin; Was Heißt Denken? [What is called thinking?], Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen, 1984 (or. 1954)

·        Heidegger, Martin; Sein und Zeit, [Being and Time], Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen, 1986 (or. 1927)

·        Locke, John; Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (or. 1690)

·        Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Fenomenologie van de waarneming [Phenomenology of perception], Ambo, Amsterdam, 1997 (or. 1945)

·        Nagel, Thomas; What is it like to be a bat? (or. 1974)

·        Ryle, Gilbert; The Concept of Mind, Penguin books, Harmondsworth, 1970 (or. 1949)

·        Sellars, Wilfrid; Philosophy And The Scientific Image Of Man, (or. 1962)

·        Seager, William; Are Zombies Logically Possible? And Why It Matters. (year unknown)

·        Silby, Brent; On the Conceivability of Zombies (1998)

·        Wittgenstein, Ludwig; Über Gewißheit [On Certainty], Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1999

[1] The birth of the philosophical zombie is sometimes dated to Robert Kirk, 1974.

[2] Chalmers 1996, p. 11

[3] Chalmers 1996, p. 159. One might think this is equal to say that consciousness plays no causal role at all, but Chalmers is hesitant to say it like this. There may be some subtle influence from consciousness, p. 160: ‘I do not describe my view as epiphenomenalism’. But I’m afraid I have some trouble with separating ‘influence’ and ‘explanatory role’.

[4] For example: Chalmers 1996, p.4

[5] Chalmers 1996, p. 196/197

[6] For example: Chalmers 1996, p. 20

[7] All on Chalmers 1996, p. 94

[8] Hans Dooremale (Dooremale 2003, p.41 ff) makes a strong case in arguing against the conceivability argument as such: he defends that a possible logical possibility adds nothing to the discussion of physical possibility, on which terrain the dualist claim lies.

[9] In correspondence David Chalmers referred to a paper by Nigel Thomas which has a similar strategy: Stewart R. Hameroff, Alfred W. Kaszniak, & Alwyn C. Scott (eds.). Toward a Science of Consciousness II: The Second Tucson Discussions and Debates. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998, pp. 171-177. Although in my opinion this paper leaves some escape routes open.

[10] Dennett 1991, p.440.

[11] Other important arguments for dividing the psychological and the phenomenal are the ‘inverted sensations’ (if we would swap seeing blue and red with all connotations, we might function without change) and Frank Jackson’s black and white room experiment (for Mary only having theoretical information about colours, it seems to add something when she really gets out and sees red things). Familiar and interesting arguments, but we will not handle these here.

[12] Or possible Goliath, or even better: possible possible Goliath.

[13] Philosophy may be helped when we try half of the time not to think as a philosopher. Wittgenstein’s challenge may have been trying not to think as a philosopher the whole of the time.

[14] For some people speaking of ‘honesty’ and ‘lying’ may seem inappropriate here. But according to Ryle (1970) lots of words like these that seem to reflect an otherworldly ‘inner’ world, can in fact be very well understood in subtle functional ways. Chalmers seems to adopt this for a large part, so this is initially not a problem.

[15] Chalmers 1996, p. 95

[16] But then it makes us wonder what we could mean with this creature as ‘not having experiences’, as there would be no way of verifying or even imagine the start of a proof. The expression would be like the known (Wittgensteinian) wheel in the machine that is nowhere connected.

[17] On Chalmers 1996, p. 11: ‘internal states’ and on p. 16: ‘nonphenomenal mental states’ and ‘properties’ as ‘the functionalist account’ which is connected with internal states on p. 14. Personally I find it difficult to imagine what one calls internal states – thoughts, imaginations, and the like, I guess – without at the same time evoking the phenomenal aspect. I’d expect from ‘having a thought’ that it is something for a person to have the thought, and if it is not something for a person to have a thought, I have no idea what one could mean with ‘thought’. But lack of (my) imaginary powers, although important in our convictions, can not count as an argument. When having problems taking thinking as behaviour, simply imagine it as a quiet muttering that no-one but Goliath himself can perceive.

[18] Chalmers 1996, p. 190

[19] Or in variation: to know you feel pain, inherently describes the same situation as, or implies (but not causes): to feel pain. But once again the problem seems to hide itself in the words. The discussion about ‘feel’ here actually depends on the meaning of the first used ‘pain’. If you know this to be what humans call a real, phenomenal, pain as pain, it presupposes you are not a zombie. (And besides all this: is ‘knowing you have pain’ a proper use of language?)

[20] Put differently: either you say that functional knowledge events have relations with strictly phenomenal knowledge events (but then we will have to find out what a concept of a phenomenal knowledge event stripped of its functions could be), or you say the concept of a phenomenal knowledge event includes the concept of a functional knowledge event, but then these two concepts are not logically separable, which is the zombie thesis. You can say that removing state B can be done without removing state A, so state A is logically independent, but not while at the same time defining state B as A + C.

[21] Chalmers 1996, p. 177 ff

[22] Dennett 1991, p. 406

[23] See Dennett 1991, p. 462, joining Wittgenstein: ‘naturally we don’t want to deny them’.

[24] Dennett 1991, p. 310

[25] Which is not to say that being linguistic stops a case being interesting. But I mean that I cherish the hunch that if all partakers of the discussion (or any theoretical philosophical discussion) would share exactly the same meanings of all the words used, no quarrel would remain. But this is a difficult case to solve, as we are talking of groups of words: the words at stake are described with other words at stake. Some circularity may be unavoidable for all parties.

[26] Chalmers 1996, p. 180

[27] ‘I know that I am not him’, both David and Goliath cry out on Chalmers 1996, p. 199.

[28] Chalmers 1996, p. 3

[29] Chalmers 1996, p. 195 for instance. Also see p. 196 when Goliath (as the equally possible author) says: ‘the very fact that I have a red experience now provides justification for my belief that I am having a red experience’. And p. 198: ‘I have evidence for my believe’. Taking the suggestion seriously that the book just as well might be written by Goliath makes many parts very funny.

[30] In short: the knowledge they have of their situation is identical. If you know that x = a and y = a (where x and y are the situations and a is the knowledge), then you cannot know when x ‘turns’ into y.

This might be a point of more detailed debate. Can we really imagine that G turns to D without knowing it? We may think that the two separate positions contain the same knowledge, but that a contrast arises with the changing factor and that this contrast in some way changes Goliath’s psychological world. What if Goliath says, after having been David, something like: “Ooh. I’m struck with blindness. I still see the intense blueness, still my heart beats fast and my thoughts get distracted after seeing Barnett Newman’s Cathedra. I still feast my eyes on the painting, on its incredible variations and dynamic intermingling of shades of deep and brilliant blue. But still it became in some way totally dark.” Would he understand what he was saying? Would we?

[31] This is the consistent first person approach I think I recognise on Chalmers 1996, p. 199.

[32] Maybe my presumptions can be attacked here, but this partial version seems to be overlapped by the ‘total’ zombie case. We should rephrase the zombie thesis from “It is logically possible that a creature exists that has all human awareness events, but no human consciousness events.” to the weaker “It is logically possible that a creature exists that has all human awareness events, but not all human consciousness events.” Or: for every awareness event it is logically possible that a subjective quality may or may not exist.

[33] The three fully seen samples are three examples of the hard problem that demand a yet unknown scientific explanation. The fourth colour (which now seems to me much more intriguing, to be honest) only presents the ‘easy problem’ of awareness. But strangely enough, they can not be distinguished by D/g. Or, if he can, not in a way that he can think or talk about it.

[34] It is even more difficult with the ‘halfway’ experience of a painting that partly evokes subjective qualities. The quality of the piece is an aggregation of the qualities of the parts, so the ‘incorrigible phenomenal belief’ about the picture as a whole is partly constituted by false zombie judgments.

Or maybe intuitively stronger: take the sound of a chord, where all but one tone are phenomenally put off.

[35] You could say: no, we don’t mean with ‘importance’ what we normally mean, but we mean it in a special sense, as ‘phenomenal importance’, which apparently plays no role in our life – ‘role’ here to be taken as ‘making a difference anywhere outside itself’ – , but it is nevertheless there!

Maybe we should call this deflationary importance, some kind of ‘couldn’t care less importance’. The qualities of beauty do not make us linger, the qualities of jokes do not make us laugh, the qualities of pain do not make us pull back our hand from the fire.

[36] True, Chalmers uses ‘surprising’ in a different context. Meaning that it is not obvious that consciousness should arise. Still, also in this case, it is not ‘surprising’ as what we normally mean with it.

[37] Related is an important point in Brent Silby 1998: ‘Attempting to imagine a zombie involves imagining ‘what it would be like’ to be a zombie and have no conscious experiences. … How can we imagine what it is like to be something when there is nothing it is like to be it?’

[38] Although an attack on the perfect zombie possibility can also be seen as a defence for dualistic interactionism. Then the duality is best not seen as to lie between physical/psychological and phenomenal, but (pre-Rylean) between physical and the rest, or somewhere halfway the functional.

[39] Dennett 1991, p. 454

[40] Dennett 1991, p. 63-64; p. 386 ff. Chalmers, on the other hand, says that high-level explanations sometimes are reasonable (Chalmers 1996, p. 43). There is no point in explaining ‘Waterloo’ in quantum-mechanical terms. But even there: Waterloo cannot be explained by introducing something ‘waterlooish’. A historical – and thus high-level – explanation is relevant, but still the historic event of Napoleon’s defeat must be explained with events that are not identical to this event and that are partly responsible. These are the (historic) elements by which Waterloo is ‘reduced’.

[41] Calmers 1996, (note 3, Chapter 1) p. 359

[42] Locke 1690, book 2, chapter IV, paragraph 22. Although Chalmers of course tries to defend the realness of the second and so criticizes the tradition.

[43] Locke 1690, book 2, chapter VI, paragraph 14.

[44] Galilei 1623. An earlier account of this division is: Democritus 1986, fragment nr 100

[45] Clearly put in Wittgenstein 1999, for instance: #122, #115.

[46] An obvious cause for the success of the ‘inner world’, is that emotions are often accompanied by heart and belly sensations. Although the body can be seen as physical and so ‘out’, the ambiguous use of ‘in’ does the trick. The same accounts for thinking as a more silent, less outward, ‘whisper’. And for visualising with closed eyes, which is a world of subjects on itself. I do not discuss these subtle phenomena around imagination, feelings and thinking here, however interesting, as ‘consciousness’ as used by Chalmers can fully be understood with ‘normal’ phenomena. His zombie is negatively described by not having ‘nice green sensations’ etc. On Chalmers 1996, p. 11 he says: ‘a simple color sensation raises the question [of consciousness] as deeply as one’s experience of a Bach chorale’.

[47] And earlier: Nagel 1974

[48] For example on Chalmers 1996, p. 124

[49] Chalmers 1996, p.198

[50] Both epistemologically and ontologically the ‘starting’ problem is, and will probably always be, a startling and confusing subject. The problem is explicit in the thoughts of Heidegger and Derrida that for every philosophy we already have started in advance. There is no neutral ground we can go back to, but everything we say presumes so many other things (like vocabularies, practices, predispositions, etc.). We add to stories that have no first page. There’s no metaphysical cover.

[51] Chalmers 1996, p. 160

[52] Which is of course not an argument, but only a positioning.

[53] Heidegger 1984, p. 17. This is one of the easiest examples Heidegger gives, but it’s a typical illustration of his non-correspondence philosophy.

[54] Dennett 1991, p. 408

[55] Hard to translate Heideggerian word used in several texts. A Lichtung is a clearing, an open spot in the forest, but it brings with it a symbolism of light and the positive force of the negative, making the trees visible due to something that is left out, the openness.

[56] As does, I think, Dennett: Dennett 1991, p. 65

[57] Wittgenstein 1999, #34, or better #110

[58] It is typical that Chalmers treats consciousness as something we can be certain of or not, while for Wittgenstein the world as we know it precedes questions (and answers) concerning certainty. For Chalmers it is not only an issue if beliefs concerning the existence of consciousness is justified, but also how this justification takes place. For Wittgenstein (and me, and, sometimes, Dennett) belief and certainty are not at stake here, they do not fit the issue.

[59] Dennett 1991, p. 83

[60] Wilfrid Sellars’ ‘manifest image’ in his sensitive and sensible paper (1962) is clearly related to what I call the phenomenal here, although his ‘original image’ is another fit candidate (the ‘manifest’ already being a sophisticated image).

[61] Dennett 1991, p.365

[62] Hans-Georg Gadamer (1986) defends the view that for interpretation, and so communication, we cannot proceed methodically, but must be involved as the human being we are. But as long as the themes are so superficial, like ‘do you see a dot changing colour’ etc, this can hardly be a problem. With ‘science’ in this paper I have an ideal ‘hard’ science in mind. The sciences of literature and history, for example, will (probably) always be a, difficult mix of interpretations and explanations.

[63] There is no way you could seriously say that Heidegger is a physicalist, and in my defence here, I hope to make clear that ‘For to claim that zombies are logically possible is to deny a very common form of physicalism.’ (William Seager (year unknown)) does not mean that denying this possibility results in physicalism.

[64] I see this so-called ‘apophantic’ streak of the phenomena as the most important and typical contribution of European phenomenology, especially in Heidegger 1986.

[65] Dreyfus in his recommendable introduction into Heidegger calls this ‘being-with’ the ‘last nail in the coffin of the Cartesian tradition’ in Druyfus 1991, p. 143 ff. Although at the same time he, rightfully, criticises Heidegger for mixing up two ideas: defending an ideal (of authenticity) and describing our being.

[66] One might be careful about what to call and how to limit science. For instance Maurice Merleau-Ponty 1997 is a good example for an intelligent investigation into human perception and consciousness which for its details and consistency could be called scientific, although not confined to quantities.

[67] Related to the funny but strange consequences he draws when speculating that all information processing has some kind of consciousness, Chalmers 1996, p. 293 ff.