Thursday, 3 December 2015

Chalmers, Conceivability, Zombies, Allah

David Chalmers' frequent uses of conceivabilities (as it were) or possibilities irks many scientists and not a few philosophers. What exactly are we getting from these “thought experiments”? All sorts of strange and bizarre possibilities, it seems.

David Chalmers, for example, argues that it's logically possible that zombies could exist. What do these claims amount to? Do they amount to much and should we be put-out by them? Bertrand Russell thinks not. He wrote the following about one well-known logical possibility:

"No logical absurdity results from the hypothesis that the world consists of nothing but myself… and that everything else is mere fancy. But although this is not logically impossible, there is no reason whatever to suppose that it is true; and it is, in fact, a less simple hypothesis, viewed as a means of accounting for the facts of our own life, than the commonsense hypothesis that there really are objects independent of us, whose action on us causes our sensations." [1912]

Thus, when I woke up this morning, it was logically possible that I was still asleep. When I moved over to the tap, it was logically possible that poison (not water) could have come out of the tap. If it was water, it was also logically possible that I might have choked on it. Then I looked out of the window and it was logically possible that the town I saw in front of me was a projected simulation of what I had seen the day before. And so on.

Still, logical possibility excites sceptics and philosophers like Chalmers. So should I conclude in the same way as Russell above? Should I say that 

"although [they are] not logically impossible, there is no reason whatever to suppose that [they are] true"?

Put simply: something that's logically possible may not be actual (or the case). Indeed what's logically possible is often not the case. So why contemplate the logically possible at all - even philosophically? Where will it get us?

As I said, many people are bemused - and sometimes annoyed - by Chalmers' various “zombie” scenarios. Perhaps that's because they believe that they involve natural or metaphysical theses; whereas in fact they're often only about logical possibility.

That basically means that they're about possibilities - not actualities or realities. Then again, people already know that there are no zombies. Thus the logical nature of these thought experiments should already be apparent.

Zombies and Conceivability

Prima facie, conceivability (as Chalmers sees it) isn't as strange or broad as may be presumed. Chalmers himself says that “a claim is conceivable when it is not ruled out a priori”. Put simply, there'll be an indefinite (infinite?) number of scenarios (or claims) which can't be “ruled out a priori”. Even the existence of shark with legs or mushrooms with a sense of humour can't be ruled out a priori. In other words, the only things which can be ruled out a priori are claims/scenarios which break known logical laws or which contain contradictions. Thus the conceivable universe (as it were) could be highly populated with strange and bizarre entities, conditions, events, etc.

Chalmers offers his own example of the conceivable. He says that it's “conceivable that there are mile-high unicycles”.

Again, what are we supposed to gain or achieve by saying that mile-high unicycles are conceivable and therefore possible? Where does it take us?

Conceivability is strongly tied to Chalmers' scenarios of possibility. Thus:

Zombies are logically possible because they're conceivable.

Or contrawise:

If zombies are conceivable, then they're logically possible.

Of course that leaves us with questions about this supposedly strong tie between conceivability and logical possibility.


Kripke said that he was working with his own “Cartesian intuitions” when he tackled the mind-body problem. It's also fairly clear that Chalmers has Kripkean intuitions on the same subject.

Kripke is an interesting philosopher to bring into this debate because, prima facie, he seems to hold two mutually-contradictory positions on conceivability (or on the philosophical use of the imagination).

In the first instance, Kripke tell us about an act of imagination which misleads us (metaphysically speaking). He writes:

“... we thought erroneously that we could imagine a situation in which heat was not the motion of molecules. Because although we can say that we pick out heat contingently by the contingent property that it affects us in such and such way...” [1971]

Imagination (or what we can conceive), on the other hand, can also tell us something important (as well as true) about the world. In Kripke's words:

“[J]ust as it seems that the brain state could have existed without any pain, so it seems that the pain could have existed without the corresponding brain state.” [1980]

Thus Kripke stresses our ability to imagine a pain state without its correlated brain state (usually characterised as the “firing of C-fibres”). Thus Kripke concludes:

If we can imagine mental states without their correlated brain states,
        then such states are possible.

Or, alternatively, Kripke is saying that there's no necessary identity between mental states and brain states.

Kripke, on the other hand, also claims that those who imagine heat being caused by something that's not “molecular motion” aren't really imagining heat at all. They just think that they are because they've based their act of imagination on a contingent property of heat – its affect on persons.

Zombies and Qualia in Practice

Chalmers believe that zombies are worth discussing because “there seems to be no a priori contradiction in the idea” of zombies. There's also no a priori contradiction in a human having 26 legs; though such a thing won't tell us much. So it's not just the bare possibility that zombies exist. It's that the possibility can tell us something about the world.

What's the link between possibility and actuality? Clearly possibilities can be a thousand miles away from actualities and the zombie scenario appears to be a good example of this. However, Chalmers' possible zombies tell us something about the limits of physicalism.

In more detail, zombies are, in Chalmers' words, “microphysically identical to us without consciousness”. Thus:

If zombies are identical to human beings physically and behaviourally (yet they don't have consciousness),
        then consciousness must be something over & above the physical.

In addition, Chalmers explains this disjunction between logically possibility and actuality (in relation to qualia) in the following way. 

Firstly he says that “absent qualia” and “inverted qualia” are “logically possible”. However, they're still “empirically and nomologically impossible”. In terms of science and the problem of consciousness, it can be intuitively said that if an x is “empirically and nomologically impossible”, then why should we care that it's also “logically possible”? What do we gain (philosophically and perhaps scientifically) from cogitating about scenarios which involve logical possibility yet, at the same time, empirical and nomological impossibility?

Chalmers supports his conceivability arguments by arguing thus:

“If P & ~Q is conceivable, [then] P & ~Q is metaphysically possible [as well as being] supported by general reasoning.”

Is there such a link between conceivability and possibility? If so, what kind of link is it? In other words, just as there are arguments about certain claims being conceivable and therefore possible, is that link itself grounded in conceivability or possibility (or both)? What is the nature of the link between conceivability and possibility?


Case Study: Andalusi Conceives of Allah

Asadullah Ali al-Andalusi (a philosopher at The Andalusian Project) says that the 

“mind is capable of imagining and conceiving of possibilities that the external world does not offer through direct experience”.

What does it mean to “imagine” the possibilities in Andalusi's argument? When people imagine such things, what, exactly, are they imagining? Is it the case that this psychological feat means virtually nothing until we find out what it is Andalusi is imagining? We also need to know why he takes it to be an imagination of something real/actual (or even possible), rather than simply free-standing imaginative act.

There are naturalist (as well as plain old empiricist) explanations as to why the mind is “capable of imagining and conceiving of possibilities that the external world does not offer through direct experience”. The thing is that the mind doesn't really move beyond experience in these instances (though it may in others). It simply plays with experiences and juxtaposes them to create something that doesn't itself exist in experience.

All sorts of philosophers have tackled this issue.

Take D.M. Armstrong's paper 'The Nature of Possibility' (1986). Armstrong sums up what happens with a single technical word: 'combinatorialism'. He states, for example, that “all mere possibilities are recombinations of actual elements”. Thus we can ask two questions:
                    i) What does it mean to imagine "Allah existing in a place beyond time and space"?
ii) What constitutes that act of imagination? Was it its content? What is being imagined?
Andalusi himself expresses a possible limitation with the combinatorialist position. He writes:

“The idea of something being beyond is not the result of direct experience from the natural world -- rather it is a projection.”

If by “going beyond” Andalusi means that such composite entities don't actually exist in the world, then that's correct. However, what makes up the composites isn't beyond... anything. The word 'composite' itself suggests that such an x doesn't actually exist in the natural world (or perhaps anywhere else).

Empiricists or naturalists have no reason to reject composites or combinatorialism.

We can simply say that Andalusi doesn't imagine or conceive such things in the first place. Sure, he conceives something. Though what he conceives is not an x "outside time and space".

In a similar vain, Andalusi writes:

“We can think of Allah being outside time and space (to an extent) and being beyond merciful and beyond kind, etc."
Whatever goes on in this writer's (or mystic's) mind when he says he can imagine “Allah outside time and space”, it doesn't mean that he has literally imagined Allah and his being outside time and space. His might have simply imagined what he deems to be Allah outside time and space.

No one conceives or imagines Allah beyond time and space. That which they do imagine will be proxies for Allah and a place beyond time and space. And those proxies may well be derived from our experiences of the natural world.

Andalusi also makes a distinction between the words 'conceive' and 'imagine' He writes:

“Let's not reduce my argument to only one of the terms I used: 'imagination'. I also used the word 'conceive'.”

They may not be synonyms. However, everything that's just been said about Andalusi's use of the word 'imagination' can also be applied to his use of the word 'conceive'. Exactly the same problems arise.

Despite that, Andalusi explains a distinction which can be made between conceiving and imagining. He writes:

“Imagination is the the result of experiences and the minds ability to mold them into different forms or to conclude connections between them. It takes two to tango in this regard. Conception is more abstract and doesn't require external experiences at all.”

Nonetheless, imagination may still be required to juxtapose (or 'tango' with) one's 'conceptions'. Even if conceptions (does Andalusi mean concepts?) are abstract entities, it will still require the imagination to juxtapose or use them. Allah and a place outside of space and time aren't themselves deemed to be merely abstract entities or concepts.


Al-Andalusi, Asadullah Ali. (2015) 'Understanding Atheism'.
-- (Summer 2015) Some of the quotes from Andalusi came from an online Facebook debate.
Armstrong, D.M. (1986) 'The Nature of Possibility'.
Chalmers, David. (1995) 'Absent Qualia, Fading Qualia, Dancing Qualia'.
-- (1997) The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory.
Kripke, Saul. (1971) 'Identity and Necessity'.
-- (1980) 'The Identity Thesis', in his Naming and Necessity.
Russell, Bertrand. (1912) The Problems of Philosophy.

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