Philosophical Zombies, Consciousness, and Vegetarianism

So this post is going to be about the origins of consciousness. This, obviously, is a ridiculously silly thing to try and squish into a blog post without being extremely biased and unscholarly…so I will do just that (be biased and unscholarly). Without going into too much detail, one of the main divides in terms of philosophy of mind is between dualists and, er, non-dualists (I want to say physicalists…but I’m unsure if that is exact opposite of a dualist). Dualists, for example Descartes (*cough* David Chalmers *cough*), believe that the mind relies on an as yet unknown special substance that makes it ‘mind-like’, and not like anything that relies on the things that have been empirically observed in the physical world modern science has so far discovered. For example, a non-dualist would say that, somehow, your brain tissue creates the mind you experience; whereas dualists would say that the mind requires ‘something else’.

(as a digression, I also feel like this division can often lead to the division of determinists and non-determinists: dualists being non-determinists, and physicalists being determinists. Note, however, that determinism is not necessarily the same as saying that there is no free will, at least in the usage that I understand it as given by Daniel Dennett…but that whole thing is another unsatisfactory blog post (if you’re interested, read “Elbow Room” by Dennett [note I have not read it] or “Freedom Evolves”, by Dennett again, which I have read and would recommend))

Ok, so I forget who first came up with the thought experiment (actually, I don’t think I ever knew. Wikipedia seems to suggest Nagel), but as Ryan North from Dinosaur Comics comically explains, philosophical zombies are people, like you and me, who lack the experience of consciousness, and yet act EXACTLY like someone who (like myself and I imagine like yourself) experiences consciousness. P-zombies (as I believe they are sometimes referred to as) are used as an argument against physicalism, as follows (Chalmers):

  1. If physicalism is true, then it is not possible for there to be a world in which all the physical facts are the same as those of the actual world but in which there are additional facts. (This is because, according to physicalism, all the facts are fully determined by the physical facts; so any world that is physically indistinguishable from our world is entirely indistinguishable from our world.)
  2. But there is a possible world in which all the physical facts are the same as those of our world but in which there are additional facts. (For example, it is possible that there is a world exactly like ours in every physical respect, but in it everyone lacks certain mental states, namely any phenomenal experiences or qualia. The people there look and act just like people in the actual world, but they don’t feel anything; when one gets shot, for example, he yells out as if he is in pain, but he doesn’t feel any pain.)
  3. Therefore, physicalism is false. (The conclusion follows by modus tollens.

I’m not going to go into why I believe this is wrong (but if you want to find out for yourself, I would suggest reading “Sweet Dreams” by Dennett (yes, I love Dennett. He’s one of my 5 favourite philosophers…as I believe I’ve posted previously), but, if you’re a real keener, you may like to know that “Sweet Dreams” acts as a sequel to his magnum opus “Consciousness Explained”), but I feel like it’s important for me to point out that P-zombies make me think of another really interesting issue: evolutionary origins of conscious experience.

“Why did consciousness evolve?”
Ask this question to anyone who has a highschool education, and you may get a response like “so that we could feel pain, and know to take our hand away from the cactus” or something. However, these responses are all horribly incorrect, for the simple reason that we don’t need to feel pain for pain to be useful. Nociceptors (‘pain receptors’) can transmit the information, which can be unconsciously (funny story, a friend of mine couldn’t finish Malcolm Gladwell’s (terrible) book Blink because she said he alternated between using subconscious and unconscious to mean computations taking place without conscious awareness. The reason this upset her was because she though unconscious was a word that only meant that the person was no longer conscious… upon reflection, this story is not funny at all…) computed by your brain, and an action decided upon, without any conscious experience ever required.

I don’t have the patience to really expound my point here… I’m probably only preaching to the choir then, but my main point is that direct evolutionary reasons for why consciousness evolved, I believe, will always fail. By direct evolution, I simply mean something like “eyes evolved because they helped the organism see food, and thus eat it”. Hmmm, at this point, I’m sure some people might think that I know nothing about evolution, if I’m suggesting things can evolve if they don’t actually provide a direct advantage to the creature. My best example is religion, but that’s a contentious argument, since the explanation for the evolution of religion remains debatable… Regardless, the reason I’m using religion as an example of indirect evolution is because, some have suggested, and I would agree with them, that religion came about from the evolution of various tools that the brain evolved for various reasons (like an over active agent detector) which actually directly provides an reproductive advantage (better to be safe and think that the sound outside is from an enemy, rather than a gust of wind), and religion simply came about because all the right ingredients were there, but not because religion itself gave an advantage to humans…

Right, so what I’m suggesting (simply because I’ve read others suggest it before me) is that consciousness came about as a byproduct of other things that did evolve because they provided a reproductive advantage to the creatures which evolved it. But, before I get into what evolved which ultimately led to consciousness as a byproduct, I must first digress to talk about the difference between emotions and feelings.

Oh god. this is going to take forever. Ok, I’m publishing this as it is, unfinished, with a conclusion to follow…(which will ultimately lead to conversations about how consciousness evolved (I believe), and thus which creatures have it and to which degree they have it (that’s right, I’m suggesting consciousness is not binary)).

To be continued…


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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3 Responses to Philosophical Zombies, Consciousness, and Vegetarianism

  1. Pingback: Evolution of Consciousness Concluded, Vegetarianism « Dontdontoperate’s Blog

  2. Sam Denny says:

    If I had a dollar for each time I came to Great read!

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