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Absent-Minded Science, Part II: The Zombie Defense

by Tam Hunt

Here’s a head-scratcher for you: Can zombies argue that they don’t exist? Empirical evidence suggests they can. Or does it?

The philosophy of mind is a thriving field in recent decades, with new books and articles appearing with increasing frequency. This article is the second in an occasional series on the role of mind in the universe and, thus, in science.

Strangely, modern science is dominated by the idea that to be scientific means to remove consciousness from our explanations in order to be “objective.” This was, of course, the rationale behind behaviorism, a now-dead theory of psychology that took this trend to a perverse extreme. Behaviorists like John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner scrupulously avoided any discussion of what their subjects thought, intended, or wanted and focused, instead, entirely on behavior. They believed that because thoughts in other people’s heads, or even in animals, are impossible to know with certainty, we should simply ignore them in our theories. We can only be truly scientific, they asserted, if we focus solely on what can be directly observed and measured: behavior.

This point of view is known most generally as “positivism,” which asserts that only those things we can measure directly should be part of our theories in science. Positivism has held sway in various branches of science to varying degrees over the last couple of centuries. Early in his career, Einstein was strongly inspired by Ernst Mach’s version of positivism, creating his special theory of relativity in 1905 partly as a response to this philosophy (and thus expelling the luminiferous ether from physics as “superfluous”). But Einstein learned better, rejecting positivism by the middle of his career as inadequate. A great passage from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein is very telling:

“We cannot observe electron orbits inside the atom,” Heisenberg said [to Einstein]. “A good theory must be based on directly observable magnitudes.”

“But you don’t seriously believe,” Einstein protested, “that none but observable magnitudes must go into a physical theory?”

“Isn’t that precisely what you have done with relativity?” Heisenberg asked with some surprise.

“Possibly I did use this kind of reasoning,” Einstein admitted, “but it is nonsense all the same.”

In other words, Einstein’s approach had evolved. He had a similar conversation with his friend in Prague, Philipp Frank.

“A new fashion has arisen in physics,” Einstein complained, “which declares that certain things cannot be observed and therefore should not be ascribed reality.”

“But the fashion you speak of,” Frank protested, “was invented by you in 1905!”

Replied Einstein: “A good joke should not be repeated too often.”1

Twenty-first-century scientistsand philosophers are steadily beginning to realize that Einstein was right and most physicists have generally abandoned a strong positivist stance. But modern science still suffers in many ways from its own version of cognitive dissonance by maintaining what is essentially a behaviorist/positivist stance in, of all places, the philosophy of mind – and in biology, the focus of my next installment in this series.

Erwin Schrödinger, one of the key architects of quantum mechanics in the early part of the twentieth century, labeled this approach in 1954 the “principle of objectivation” and expressed it clearly:

By [the principle of objectivation] I mean … a certain simplification which we adopt in order to master the infinitely intricate problem of nature. Without being aware of it and without being rigorously systematic about it, we exclude the Subject of Cognizance from the domain of nature that we endeavor to understand. We step with our own person back into the part of an onlooker who does not belong to the world, which by this very procedure becomes an objective world.2

Schrödinger did, however, identify both the problem and the solution. He recognized that “objectivation” is just a simplification that is a temporary step in the progress of science in understanding the natural world. We are now at the point where we must abandon, where appropriate, the principle of objectivation – and so gain a more complete understanding of reality, and thus ourselves.

Now back to the zombies… In defending positivism and a radical materialist view of consciousness, some writers have argued that consciousness is an illusion, a view described as “eliminativism” because it attempts to resolve the problem of explaining consciousness by arguing that it doesn’t really exist. Under this view, once we have explained what brains do, we have said all there is to say about consciousness. So “mind” and subjectivity reduces to what the brain does, which is just matter and energy in motion. Daniel Dennett, W.V.O. Quine, Douglas Hofstadter, and Susan Blackmore all arguably fall into this camp. These writers argue, accordingly, that they themselves, as subjective beings, don’t exist. Let’s call this the “zombie defense.”

A zombie, in the philosophy of mind, is a person who looks and acts exactly the same as a real person. But the zombie lacks any inner life, any consciousness. Eliminativists who argue that mind can be explained entirely as electrochemical signals in the brain are arguing, effectively, that they are themselves zombies, and so is everyone else.

Now, my description here isn’t entirely fair, because no philosopher has, to my knowledge, argued literally that she is a zombie. But arguing that consciousness itself is an illusion amounts to the same thing. Words are important, so this strange state of affairs should prompt us to re-examine our terms – and more closely examine the writings of the eliminativists.

Dennett is the most well-known of these philosophers and he has argued that once we explain the processes of consciousness, there is nothing left to explain. But he also states in a key 1988 article: “I don't deny the reality of conscious experience.” So Dennett’s position is arguably contradictory. The better interpretation is, however, that Dennett’s key argument is primarily directed against any type of Cartesian dualism, under which there is a special substance that we can call mind, spirit, or soul that is distinct from matter. We find, in examining the works of Dennett, Blackmore, etc., that the most reasonable reading of their work is not: a) consciousness itself is an illusion (even though they may actually state this or something like this), but, rather, b) the “self,” as some kind of permanent or semi-permanent entity or “soul,” is an illusion.

The tension in Dennett’s position is that by acknowledging (necessarily, it would seem) the reality of conscious experience, Dennett can’t also argue that purely externalist objective explanations of consciousness say all that can be said about conscious experience. Rather, if conscious experience is real, it is surely different than simply describing – in as much detail as one likes – the electrochemical processes of a human brain. No matter how much detail we provide about electrochemical processes, such descriptions will never say anything at all about the quality of the subjective experience. This is the whole point of accepting an epistemological dualism between the “inside” and “outside” of things – which Dennett say he does accept.

Materialism, under this line of reasoning, reduces to what I label “crypto-panpsychism.” This is the case because if we accept that subjectivity is the most real thing we know, and that it springs from matter, then we have the view that all matter has some degree of mind or subjectivity – panpsychism under a different name. To be even more geeky, we can give this position a more complete label of “panpsychist materialism,” and this is what philosopher David Ray Griffin has done in his book Unsnarling the World-Knot (though he uses the similar phrase “panexperiential physicalism”).

To sum up, by ignoring mind in nature we ignore the only way we know the world – because the “world” is, for each of us, wholly a creation of our own mind, based on the imperfect sense data we receive from the objective world. But we also ignore the more complete science made possible by accepting mind as present in all of nature. Human minds are, then, a natural product of the evolution of mind and matter, which are just two aspects of the same thing. Human minds represent the most complex form of mind in this corner of our universe. We are, then, special in the complexity of our minds, but we are not distinct in a qualitative sense from the rest of nature, and the infinite number of far less complex minds that constitute nature – the world all around us.

In the last analysis, Teilhard de Chardin, another panpsychist, had it right, and expressed the thought beautifully in his 1959 book, The Phenomenon of Man: “To decipher man is essentially to try to find out how the world was made and how it ought to go on making itself.”


1. Isaacson, W., Einstein: His Life and Thought, 2007, p. 332.

2. Schrödinger, E. 1992. What Is Life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches, Cambridge University Press, p. 118.


Go here to read "Absent-Minded Science – Part I." "Absent-Minded Science Part III" is posted here.

  • Anonymous Icon

    batistinha Nov 06, 2010

    batistinha, oct/06

    The Tam Hunt´s writings in part 1 about "Absent-Minded Science" is very embodied in the various essays I´ve been touched since long ago authored at least by Jung,C.G.; Chardin , P. Teilhard ; Bergson, H. ; among many others. I remember a passage from the " The Human Phenomena" book ( P. Teilhard De Chardin) , where a singular experiment runned with a bacteria into a drop of liquid . In a such way the menthioned microorganism struck against the surficial tension of the liquid moving around the drop aiming the better position on it where the sunlight was comming from.! What other explanation rather than an odd tendency of any being - despite its level of organization - always moving accordingly its content of " consciousness and mind" ,even though the scarse it could be.

  • Anonymous Icon

    GAYF123 Nov 10, 2010

    I am grateful that the world always has "appeared" different from the structures and definitions taught in formal spaces, Occasionally, a glimmer of "sense" came,rarely in "the academy." Most often from the serendipitous offerings that began, consciously, with the gift of Margaret Mead's "Coming of Age in Samoa," as awareness of "the other." Later, hints from brilliant teachers who did so, perhaps, from beneath cloaks of intuitive insight. Then, Bucky Fuller, C. G. Jung and the world of the "60s" I watch and listen to the developments at IONS--for the wall to crumble. My focus/ key is the reality of holism.

  • Anonymous Icon

    Shaka Nov 15, 2010

    In the end, the intellectual pursuit leads to only one thing......nothing. It does not matter how many words are used to attempt to convey a perspective, it is just that, a perspective. The use of the mind up to this point in time has done little more than substantiate the individual perception of those who are seeking outside of themselves, for answers. Meditation will carry us to this same place but with a knowing that supersedes any explanation that comes from an intellectual (mind) source. However, as GayF123 implies, the knowing is inclusive of the whole....hence "reality of holism".
    Have spent a lifetime waiting for this to happen in the minds of those who want to know and prove our existence and have the attention of the masses. The answers to the riddles have been given we just need to use the mind to know the mind, this coming from a place that is within, not without....".Know thyself and though knowest all". Hermetic teachings make what you are expounding upon very understandable yet is rejected as it is not cloaked in the "scientific" paradigm. In my understanding law is law.....we cannot break it only break ourselves resisting it.

  • Tam Hunt Nov 15, 2010

    Shaka, I've been thinking/feeling a lot about the issues you raise. I'm preparing another blog essay entitled "On the Heart." Keep in mind that your comment itself constitutes the "intellectual pursuit" in its use of language to convey concepts. So when we argue something like "we can't intellectually grasp" this or that, or "reason fails us," we are in fact using reason to express these ideas. So there's a bit of a paradox at work. I agree, however, that because words and concepts are purely human creations that are by necessity imperfect and imprecise, that we can never grasp reality in itself through concepts and words. We must accept this if we are to immerse ourself in reality. Yet just as Zen Buddhism uses words, koans and exercises as "direct pointing" to reality itself, beyond words and concepts, intellectual pursuits more generally can, at their best, constitute direct pointing to the deeper reality.

  • Anonymous Icon

    cleiden7 Nov 29, 2010

    Human beings from the beginning probably intuited that reality is incredibly complex. Through the development of symbols and language, a way was developed to simplify the complexity to make it seem more manageable. This process continues today. As you write above, there is a paradox here. We read that "the map is not the territory" but we still discuss and search for the truth. As Yeats wrote, "the truth can only be embodied." Humans will continue to create stories and narratives to make sense of reality and answer the questions; who we are, why are we here, and where are we going. We can only hope that the next story helps human beings feel inside reality and a little less lonely than the present one does. Thanks for the good writing.

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