Chalmers and epiphenomenalism

This carries on from the last post where I was pondering what David Chalmers really thought about consciousness. Well, I thought, maybe Eliezer Yudkowsky knows. He wrote a posting on zombies and so I looked at the posting again. I am not going to quote all the Yudkowsky’s arguments – (here) is the link. Below is his summing up of why he feels Chalmers is wrong about epiphenomenalism (the technical term for the belief that consciousness is there, but has no effect on the physical world):

Chalmers is one of the most frustrating philosophers I know. … Chalmers does this really sharp analysis and then turns left at the last minute. He lays out everything that’s wrong with the Zombie World scenario, and then, having reduced the whole argument to smithereens, calmly accepts it…

Humanity has accumulated some broad experience with what correct theories of the world look like. This is not what a correct theory looks like.

“Argument from incredulity,” you say. Fine, you want it spelled out? The said Chalmersian theory postulates multiple unexplained complex miracles. This drives down its prior probability, by the conjunction rule of probability and Occam’s Razor. It is therefore dominated by at least two theories which postulate fewer miracles, namely:

  • Substance dualism (Descarte for example):

    • There is a stuff of consciousness which is not yet understood, an extraordinary super-physical stuff that visibly affects our world; and this stuff is what makes us talk about consciousness.

  • Not-quite-faith-based reductionism:

    • That-which-we-name “consciousness” happens within physics, in a way not yet understood, just like what happened the last three thousand times humanity ran into something mysterious.

    • Your intuition that no material substance can possibly add up to consciousness is incorrect. If you actually knew exactly why you talk about consciousness, this would give you new insights, of a form you can’t now anticipate; and afterward you would realize that your arguments about normal physics having no room for consciousness were flawed.

Compare to:

  • Epiphenomenal property dualism:

    • Matter has additional consciousness-properties which are not yet understood. These properties are epiphenomenal with respect to ordinarily observable physics – they make no difference to the motion of particles.

    • Separately, there exists a not-yet-understood reason within normal physics why philosophers talk about consciousness and invent theories of dual properties.

    • Miraculously, when philosophers talk about consciousness, the bridging laws of our world are exactly right to make this talk about consciousness correct, even though it arises from a malfunction (drawing of logically unwarranted conclusions) in the causally closed cognitive system that types philosophy papers.

I know I’m speaking from limited experience, here. But based on my limited experience, the Zombie Argument may be a candidate for the most deranged idea in all of philosophy.

There are times when, as a rationalist, you have to believe things that seem weird to you. Relativity seems weird, quantum mechanics seems weird, natural selection seems weird.

But these weirdnesses are pinned down by massive evidence. There’s a difference between believing something weird because science has confirmed it overwhelmingly –

– versus believing a proposition that seems downright deranged, because of a great big complicated philosophical argument centered around unspecified miracles and giant blank spots not even claimed to be understood –

– in a case where even if you accept everything that has been told to you so far, afterward the phenomenon will still seem like a mystery and still have the same quality of wondrous impenetrability that it had at the start.

The correct thing for a rationalist to say at this point, if all of David Chalmers’s arguments seem individually plausible – which they don’t seem to me – is:

“Okay… I don’t know how consciousness works… I admit that… and maybe I’m approaching the whole problem wrong, or asking the wrong questions… but this zombie business can’t possibly be right. The arguments aren’t nailed down enough to make me believe this – especially when accepting it won’t make me feel any less confused. On a core gut level, this just doesn’t look like the way reality could really really work.”

So, considering this evaluation including what came before the summing up and what I have tried to read of Chalmers work itself, I will stop even trying to follow what Chalmers believes about consciousness. Life is too short.

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