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How the Zombie Argument Functions and Why It Cannot Ease the Problem Between Physicalism and Dualism

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This paper will explore how the zombie argument functions and why it cannot ease the problem between physicalism and dualism. It will first define the theories of physicalism and dualism, and the disagreements between them, focusing on the concept of Qualia. It will then explain the importance, function of thought experiments, and define the zombie argument. Based on physicalist Jack Smart’s thoughts, it will then provide a response to the zombie argument. Finally, it will elaborate the epistemic problems between physicalism and dualism. It will also explain why a thought experiment such as the zombie argument cannot overcome or engage either school of thought.

Physicalism is an influential theory on the relationship between mind and body in a human being. It holds that “human persons are physical things.” (Van Ingwagen, 168) In this context, a physical thing is “an individual thing made entirely of those things whose nature physics investigates,” e.g. chemical substances, biological functions, and neurons (167). The main idea of this theory is that there is no separation between the human “person” and the human organism, and that all changes to the human person are physical changes (171). This would refuse the existence of the “mental” and “psychological” as separate categories; with that said, mental and psychological characteristics are subordinated to the physical changes (172).

Another theory of the mind-body problem is Dualism. Dualism says that human beings, specifically their minds, are non-physical things. To be more precise: “the person is, strictly speaking, a non-physical thing, but it is very intimately associated with a certain physical thing, a human organism, which is called the person’s body.” (Van Ingwagen168). Fundamental to Dualism is the concept of Qualia. Frank Jackson, a renowned epiphenomenalist (a subset of Dualism) describes qualia as “certain features of the bodily sensations... which no amount of purely physical information includes... hurtfulness of pains, the itchiness of itches, pangs of jealousy, or the characteristic experience of tasting a lemon.” (127) The concept of qualia is one of the main disagreements between physicalism and dualism.

Dualism holds that even if we knew everything one could possibly know about the physical makeup of an object, we still could not understand Qualia (129). This reminds me about Armstrong’s quote that we discussed in class: “If you have to ask what jazz is, you will never know”. Qualia (sensations like “seeing red”) are unexplainable and can only be experienced. You cannot measure Qualia or find where it happens in the body; it simply occurs. This would put physicalism in a tight spot: if the human being were only combinations of physical things, and can be fully understood that way, then there cannot be anything (such as Qualia) missing from that point. This theoretical disagreement is described the Zombie argument. Designed as a thought experiment, the Zombie argument mentions the following: Physicalism states that everything that makes up a human being is physical. A world physically identical to ours would have every aspect of a human being, including consciousness. In this new world, we can conceive of beings that are physically identical to us, but lack consciousness (these are the zombies). Because we can comprehend this, physicalism is false.

To understand the implications of this argument, we have to take a look at how a thought experiment functions. The most important aspect of a thought experiment is conceivability. If it is logically possible to imagine such a given scenario, then the thought experiment has proven its point. In this world, physicalism cannot explain the absence of consciousness, despite this world being physically identical to ours. Because such a world is possible (conceivable), then physicalism is not able to explain a human being as a completely physical being, because there must be aspects of human beings that are non-physical (Jackson 130-131).

A simple response by physicalists is the zombie experiment is not logically sound. For the dualist to claim that everything in this new world is physically identical to the old, but lacks consciousness, creates a false separation between sensation and the physical world. Physicalists argue that sensations are caused by physical stimuli (something Dualists can agree with). If this were the case, the identical nature of the physical world would logically cause the same sensations in our zombies. This means that these zombies would have to feel some sort of sensations, and thus have consciousness.

Daniel Dennett brings another counterargument to the zombie argument. In “The Unimagined Preposterousness of Zombies”, Dennett reveals how zombies can be conceivable, but not how dualists hoped they would be. According to Dennett, if the conditions of the zombie argument were true, then there is no way we could know the difference between humans and zombies: “If zombies are behaviorally indistinguishable from us normal folk, then they are really behaviorally indistinguishable! They say just what we say, they understand what they say, and they believe what we believe, right down to having beliefs that perfectly mirror all our beliefs about...

“qualia,” and every other possible topic of human reflection and conversation.” (Dennet 1995) To think that these zombies also lacked consciousness would be impossible, because it would have to rely on physical information, which is identical to humans. This would also indicate that zombies have mind and intelligence, and perhaps even same ones that human beings possess. For the thought experiment to work, dualists would have to admit that every belief a human has would be an analogue to zombie’s one. We can assume this because zombies and humans are behaviorally indistinguishable, and their actions towards “beliefs” would be the same. Dennett argues that Dualists’ misconception regarding actually existing zombies arises from a poor understanding of consciousness. “Supposing that by an act of ... imagination you can remove consciousness while leaving all cognitive systems intact ... is like supposing ... you can remove while leaving all bodily functions and powers intact.” (Dennett 1991). For Dennett, consciousness and physical existence are not two separate entities but are a cohesive whole that make up human beings.

Further comprehension of a physicalist’s response to this argument, requires exploring how physicalists interpret the idea of Qualia that Jackson puts forward. According to Jack Smart, qualia (which he names as “sensations”) are no more than brain-processes (Smart 191). “Why should not sensations just be brain processes of a certain sort... in so far as ‘after-image’ or ‘ache’ is a report of a process, it is a report of a process that



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