Crazyism and Consciousness

This week I attended a talk sponsored by the Center for the Explanation of Consciousness at Stanford University on “Crazyism about Consciousness and Morality,” by Eric Schwitzgebel. Eric is a philosopher at the University of California at Riverside. I’ve appreciated his work for some time, and I quote him in Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You.

“Crazyism” about consciousness is the claim that to understand consciousness we will need to accept some idea that currently seems bizarre (bonkers, ludicrous, off the wall, ‘round the bend) and that has not yet been proven to be true. We do not yet know which crazy idea about consciousness will solve its deepest mysteries. We may not have even thought of it yet! But until we accept it, we will be totally unable to understand conscious experience.

As Schwitzgebel wrote in Perplexities of Consciousness, “it became evident in the late twentieth century … that all metaphysical accounts of consciousness will have some highly counterintuitive consequences. … Something apparently preposterous, it seems, must be true of consciousness.”*

Eric told us that he likes to open up new possibilities, to expand the range of alternatives. Many philosophers try to do the opposite. They concentrate on eliminating incorrect ideas, so as to zero in on The Truth. I tend to do this myself. I want to keep “cutting to the chase,” pushing to the bottom line, aiming for the bullseye. This attitude is often helpful, but Schwitzgebel’s work helps keep me from being too confident about my own pet theories.

I haven’t space to recap the arguments he marshalled for crazyism, but they were impressive, and I mostly agree with them. In my own work I’ve emphasized the idea that we make crucial mistakes in understanding our own minds, and that these errors make consciousness seem stranger than it really is. More broadly, we need to re-evaluate the relationship between:

What’s so

Our beliefs about what’s so

The words we use to express these beliefs

Many of our beliefs about consciousness are based on introspection. If there’s something kooky about our concept of consciousness, perhaps something has gone awry in our introspection-based judgments. So in what ways does introspection inform us about consciousness, and in what ways does it mislead us? In Your Living Mind I wrote:


For now, it seems likely that we usually do well at detecting, recognizing, and noticing changes in conscious sensory perceptions, including particular qualia. Sometimes we also make helpful comparisons among qualia. But we often make mistakes about other aspects of our experiences. Here are some errors that are particularly common and pernicious:

  1. Confusing our experiences with our judgments about experiences
  2. Thinking introspection reveals the internal structure of experiences
  3. Thinking introspection reveals the essential nature of experiences**


What do you think? By re-assessing introspection can we deliver ourselves from crazyism about consciousness? Your comments are welcome!

Roger Christan Schriner

*Schwitzgebel, Perplexities of Consciousness, p. x.

**Schriner, Your Living Mind, p. 155.

More on Zombies

In my last post I discussed David Chalmer’s idea of philosophical zombies – hypothetical creatures whose brains have precisely the same physical structures as ours and function in the same ways that our brains do, but without consciousness. Several people who read early drafts of my book, Your Living Mind, dismissed zombies as irrelevant. The whole idea is moot, one of them remarked, since it would be impossible for us to know that such a creature is a zombie. (Maybe the person sitting right next to you is one of them!) But Chalmers’ scenario is an example of both the value and the subtlety of thought experiments. If there actually could be such creatures, then conscious experiences are not brain events.

The zombie story asserts that if there could be a creature that is physically identical to you, but not conscious, then consciousness is not a state of your brain. We could dispute this claim by arguing that even though a creature physically identical to you could exist without being conscious, nevertheless consciousness is a state of your brain. But that won’t work. Let’s call your current brain state CBS. If your brain’s being in state CBS is sufficient for your being conscious, then if some other brain is in CBS, it would also have to be conscious. So you could not have a physically identical zombie twin. (What a relief!) On the other hand, if a brain’s being in state CBS is not sufficient for its being conscious, then consciousness is not a brain state. We would need a brain state plus something else to have consciousness – or we would just need the “something else.” So if zombies are truly possible, qualia are not brain states. Since there has been a strong trend toward saying that all real things are, in some sense, physical, that would be a revolutionary finding.

Michael Tye clarifies Chalmers’ idea with an omnipotent-being scenario. “One way to picture what is being claimed here is to imagine God laying out all the microphysical phenomena throughout the universe. Having done so, and having settled all the microphysical properties of those phenomena along with the basic microphysical laws, God did not then have to ask Himself ‘Shall I make lightning flashes or caterpillars or mountains … ?’ No further work was needed on His part.” Why? Because a lightning flash simply is a group of microphysical entities operating according to certain laws. By making all these particles and deciding how they would interact, the Creator would have ensured that lightning flashes, caterpillars, etc. would exist.

But what if consciousness is not physical? In that case zombies are possible. “Even if God had no further work to do in determining whether there would be a tree in place p or a river in place q or a neuron-firing in place r, say, having settled all the microphysical facts, God did have more work to do to guarantee that we were not zombies.”*

Tye is not trying to show that a deity created consciousness. That’s not the point. He’s just noting that this is one way of understanding Chalmers’ scenario. Conceivably, then, there could be an exact physical duplicate of you, right down to the last whirling electron, that does not enjoy a single millisecond of conscious experience.

Chalmers emphasizes that he is not trying to prove that a zombie duplicate of you or me could really exist in this universe – only that this sort of thing is conceivable. But what does “conceivable” mean? Now the fog drifts in. There are several types of conceivability, including a contentious notion called “ideal conceivability.” Philosophical professionals have not yet sorted out these intricacies.

In trying to solve the hardest problems of consciousness we seem to be perpetually stuck at square one. Nagel has stated bluntly that “we have at present no conception of what an explanation of the physical nature of a mental phenomenon would be. Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless.”** And William Seager concludes his book, Theories of Consciousness, with this dispirited admission: “It is indecent to have a ragged and unpatchable hole in our picture of the world. Cold comfort to end with the tautology that an unpatchable hole is … unpatchable.”***

To some it seems as if these scholars are worrying about trivialities, as irrelevant as asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But some questions about the nature of reality actually are quite difficult. I have my own ideas about how to understand consciousness, but on some level I must also bow to this great mystery.

Roger Christan Schriner

*Michael Tye (2009) Consciousness Revisited: Materialism without Phenomenal Concepts. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press), pp. 25-26.

**Thomas Nagel (1974) “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Philosophical Review, October, 1984, Vol. 83, No. 4, p. 436.

***William Seager (1999) Theories of Consciousness: an Introduction and Assessment. (New York: Routledge), p. 252. Ellipses are in the original text.

The Philosophical Zombie

Can old bedraggled zombies reflect logically on their condition and calmly resign themselves to their fate? Perhaps, but that’s not what this post is about. In the study of consciousness, philosophical zombies were first described in a famous thought experiment by Australian philosopher David Chalmers. His discussion helps underscore the mysterious nature of qualia (the qualities of sensory experiences).

Chalmers proposed the zombie idea to highlight the Hard Problem of consciousness, the problem of understanding how conscious experiences result from (or are identical to) brain activities. A philosophical zombie is a hypothetical creature whose brain has precisely the same physical structures as ours and operates in the same ways that our brains do, but without consciousness.

Here’s an important point that is often overlooked: This creature would be conscious in the ways that psychology understands the structures, abilities, and functions of consciousness. “He will be awake, able to report the contents of his internal states, able to focus attention in various places, and so on.”* Furthermore a psychologist studying you and your zombie twin would discern no difference in behavior. But even though it would be conscious in a certain sense, it would lack conscious experiences. It would be utterly devoid of qualia, and it would never be in any state that is “like something.”

Thus, as Philip Goff notes, when it screams it is not in pain. “Its smiles are not accompanied by a feeling of pleasure. Its negotiation of its environment does not involve a visual/auditory experience of that environment.”**

Although zombies would have thoughts, these thoughts would not involve conscious perceptions or sensations. A zombie that is screaming might think, “I’m in pain!” but it would have no pain qualia, no conscious sensations of pain. This is an example of the important difference between aspects of consciousness that do and do not seem “present.” The philosophically puzzling states are the ones that seem thus-there-now, and zombies don’t have them.

I’ll allow a few days for comments about these hypothetical organisms, and then journey further into zombieland.

Roger Christan Schriner

*David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 95. Technical note: Chalmers was suggesting that there is an ontological gap between conscious experiences and brain states, not just the sort of epistemic gap that Joseph Levine has discussed. In other words, qualia and brain states don’t just seem different; they really are quite different. In this way Chalmers was following in the footsteps of Saul Kripke, whereas Levine was trying to avoid Kripke’s ontological conclusions.

**Philip Goff, “The Zombie Threat to a Science of Mind,” Philosophy Now, May/June, 2013: Goff provides an engaging and detailed explanation of the zombie problem, graced with charming color illustrations of non-philosophical zombies.

Colored numbers, tasteable shapes

I’ve been posting thoughts about qualia, the qualities of sensuous experience. One way to reflect upon qualia is by considering synesthesia, a remarkable syndrome in which a perception that typically occurs through one sensory system (such as hearing) can also be represented in another (such as sight). For instance, some people both hear and “see” sounds. They experience the same auditory inputs with two different types of qualia. “Some synesthetes hear what they see, others see what they hear. One of them felt tastes with his hands. The taste of mint, for instance, felt to his hands as smooth, cool columns of glass. Every taste had its systematically associated feel, and he found this quite useful as an aid to creative cooking.”*

Synthesthetes sometimes see strange colors that they only perceive in association with numbers. How I wish I could see those atypical colors!

Let’s play with the concept of synesthesia by using a thought experiment. Thought experiments are imaginary and often bizarre scenarios that are intended to shed light on philosophical problems. Sometimes these scenarios invoke the concept of God as a metaphorical way of erasing practical difficulties which are irrelevant to the basic idea behind the experiment.

Suppose an all-powerful being altered our bodies so that we started detecting pain as tastes. Instead of feeling a stabbing sensation, a person who stepped on a tack might notice a terribly bitter taste in the bottom of her foot. This taste would represent the damage done by the tack. If something like this is possible, then perhaps when we notice the distinction between tactile and taste sensations, we are noticing something which goes beyond detecting the features of bodily states – something about the mental states that represent these body-states. This would support the internalist claim that we experience states of our own minds rather than just states of the outside world.

To all my readers, may your holiday season be memorable and fulfilling.

Roger Christan Schriner

* Davies, T. N. et al. (2002) “Visual Worlds: Construction or Reconstruction?” Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 9, No. 5-6, p. 75.

Where Are Colors?

I’ll now return to my series on mysteries of consciousness, and next on my list is the puzzle of qualia. To put it very briefly, qualia are the qualities of experience, and I’ll begin by talking about a kind of qualia that is especially vivid and interesting, the qualities of our color-experiences.

Although colors are one of the most widely discussed features of consciousness, it’s hard to know where they are actually located. Think of a bright yellow lemon, for example. When scientists examine the brain, they find grayish neurons, and when they examine the fruit itself, they just find a lot of molecules in motion – no color at all. So if we find no colors on the lemon, and no colors in the brain states that occur when we see the lemon, where is the experience that we call “yellow?”

Of course it seems as if colors are on the surfaces of objects, as if every speck of matter sports a paint job, but is that really so? Here are six ways of thinking about this problem:

  1. Colors are surface properties of physical objects. They are not inner experiences.
  2. Colors are inner experiences. Strictly speaking, it is a mistake to say that objects are colored.
  3. “Color” is a word for two different things – features of the surfaces of objects and color-experiences within the mind.
  4. Colors are one thing, located in two places – the surfaces we see and our experiences of those surfaces.
  5. Colors are whatever cause us to be in states that we refer to as colors. You could have a state that you call “seeing purple” on many different occasions, and each time it might be caused by something different.
  6. Colors don’t exist.

I accept option 2, and I’m also comfortable with 3 as long as we remember that surface colors and experienced colors are quite different. But it’s hard to override our common-sense view that “yellow” is both out there and in here, unproblematically one and the same. In any case, one of the deep mysteries of consciousness is the fact that experience seems to have certain qualities that we cannot locate anywhere in the physical world. More about that next time.

Roger Christan Schriner