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Zombies and ConsciousnessReview - Zombies and Consciousness
by Robert Kirk
Oxford University Press, 2006
Review by Maria Antonietta Perna, Ph.D.
Sep 5th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 36)

The zombie idea haunts the literature dedicated to the philosophy of mind and consciousness.  The philosophical zombie is an exact physical duplicate of a human being and lives in a world essentially like ours, but without subjectivity or 'inner world'.  Among philosophers of mind we find both supporters and detractors of the zombie idea; Robert Kirk, by his own admission a former 'zombie freak' himself (p.25, fn.1), offers a thorough and cogent refutation of the concept of zombie as understood above.   In the first four chapters of the book, the reader is presented with a compelling case for the inconceivability of zombies.   The remaining seven chapters offer a fresh view of phenomenal consciousness which is based on Kirk's own brand of functionalism.

In chapter 2, 'Zombies and Minimal Physicalism', Kirk argues that 'if zombies are even possible, physicalism is false' (p.7).   The Author puts forward his 'strict implication thesis', which is necessary for a commitment to minimal physicalism (i.e., no one who professes to be a physicalist can consistently withdraw adherence to this thesis and still remain a physicalist).  Strict implication is defined as follows: 'A statement A strictly implies a statement B just in case "not- (if A then B)" is inconsistent or incoherent for broadly logical or conceptual reasons' (p.10).  On the basis of this definition, if P stands for the 'conjunction of all actually true statements' in the 'austere vocabulary of idealised contemporary physics (p.9), and Q stands for the 'conjunction of the totality of actually true statements in psychological language about the individuals whose existence physicalists suppose to be provided for by P' (p.10), then the strict implication thesis can be stated thus: 'P strictly implies Q'.  In other words:

"P and not-Q" involves inconsistency or other incoherence of a broadly logical or conceptual kind... (p.10).

That we cannot easily imagine or conceive of how P entails Q or, alternatively, that we can easily conceive P and not-Q, is no valid argument against such entailment (p.11).  Further, Kirk states the 'redescription thesis', which runs as follows:

Any true statements about the world not expressible in the austere physical vocabulary of P are pure redescriptions of the world specified by P. (p.9).
The above allows Kirk to argue that physicalists are not committed to the impossible task of finding austerely physical equivalents of psychological descriptions.  Finally, although the strict implication thesis is necessary for minimal physicalism, it is not sufficient; it is to be supplemented by the following: 'nothing exists other than what is strictly implied to exist by P' (p.17).  Although whether P implies Q is a question of logical entailment, the strict implication thesis itself is empirical in character: 'This is because P includes empirical statements that just happen to be true in our world.' (p.11).  More will be said about this crucial point later.   The consequence of the zombie idea for the strict implication thesis is that, since P implies Q, then, if zombies were possible, this would contravene the strict implication thesis, hence (minimal) physicalism would be false.   

Chapter 3, 'The Case for Zombies', examines some previous arguments for the existence of zombies by such well-established philosophers in the field as Chalmers, Block, Jackson, Nagel, as well as by Kirk himself.  The central point Kirk makes is that if something does seem conceivable it does not follow that it is therefore possible.  Further, conceivability itself is constrained by possibility in the following sense:

Conceivability in the relevant sense needs to be an epistemic matter.  Arguing from conceivability to possibility makes sense only so long as you don't already know that the situation in question is impossible... (pp.27-8).

In Chapter 4, 'Zapping the Zombie Idea', Kirk points out that zombists fall prey to what he calls the 'jacket fallacy':

[Zombists] mistakenly assume that phenomenal consciousness is a property, which can be stripped off while leaving the individual's other main properties intact. (p.39).

Firstly, Kirk points out that underpinning the zombie idea is an incoherent view of phenomenally conscious experience, which he calls the 'e-qualia story'.  Undermining the e-qualia story by showing that it is inconceivable will logically undermine the conceivability of zombies.  The e-qualia story's central point is that what makes individuals phenomenally conscious is that 'they stand in some relation to a special kind of non-physical properties, e-qualia; e-qualia are caused by physical properties but have no effect in the physical world (causal closure of the physical): the e-qualia could disappear and nothing would change in the physical world as a consequence (i.e., jacket fallacy); human beings are made of functioning bodies and their e-qualia; finally, human beings do enjoy what Chalmers, a supporter of the conceivability of the zombie idea, calls 'epistemic intimacy' with their e-qualia, that is, they 'are able to notice, attend to, think about , and compare their e-qualia.' (p.40).  The incoherence to which Kirk points is that the last essential requisite, namely, epistemic intimacy, is logically incompatible with the other components of the e-qualia story listed above.  To prove the incoherency of the e-qualia story, Kirk introduces the 'sole-pictures' thought experiment.  In short, if Zob, Kirk's zombie twin, were suddenly endowed with qualia, by the e-qualia story he would be conscious.  Kirk enjoins us to imagine the following:  by a change in the laws of nature, those neural processes which according to the e-qualia story cause his visual e-qualia, are mirrored in Zob's brain, only those visual processes give rise to constantly changing pictures on the soles of Zob's feet.  Is it conceivable -- asks Kirk -- that Zob's cognitive processes are at all epistemically relevant to the sole pictures?  Zob does not even notice the sole pictures and the latter have no effect whatsoever on his perceptual and cognitive processes, which by hypothesis mirror Kirk's (not Zob's).  Sole pictures have been modelled according to the structure of e-qualia as they are conceptualised in the e-qualia story (at least in the relevant respects), hence highlighting that story's internal  inconsistency: 'the story allows individuals no more epistemic access to their e-qualia than Zob has to his sole pictures ...that is, none.' (p.48).  The inconsistency of the e-qualia story can be assessed by a priori reflection, which makes it not conceivable.  Kirk points out that the e-qualia story is presupposed by parallelism and epiphenomenalism, hence from the incoherence of the e-qualia story the misconception of the view of consciousness entailed by both these metaphysical positions follows.  Regarding dualistic interactionism, Kirk admits that it is 'incompatible with the scientific evidence', but that he knows of no 'a priori refutation of it' (p.56). 

Chapter 5, 'What Has To Be Done', paves the way to the second part of Kirk's project of working out necessary and sufficient conditions for phenomenal consciousness.  The refutation of the zombie idea leads to the suggestion that descriptions of the qualitative aspect of experience, or in technical language 'qualia', are ways of talking about physical processes.   Kirk examines Nagel's well-known distinction between first- and third-person perspective, or, in Kirk's preferred terminology, between viewpoint-relative and viewpoint-neutral concepts.  Viewpoint-relative concepts can be fully grasped only by creatures endowed with the appropriate point of view, which might be said to involve, among other things, a certain sensory apparatus.  Further, grasping such kind of concepts 'also requires actual experiences in the right sensory capacities, perhaps even, in some cases, experiences of the specific kinds to which the concepts apply.  At least it requires the ability to create in imagination something akin to the experiences in question.' (p.62).  Viewpoint-neutral concepts are those which 'are accessible to any sufficiently intelligent creature -- human, Martian, robot -- regardless of the specific nature of their perceptual systems' (p.61), e.g., logico-mathematical concepts, concepts of physical theory, shape, distance, mass, etc.  Nagel's point is that it is impossible to convey the viewpoint relative concepts or the 'what-it-is-like' perspective in viewpoint-neutral language and, for this reason, a functional-scientific account of an organism, e.g., a bat, cannot convey knowledge of what it is like to be that organism; Nagel sees this as constituting serious problems for physicalism.  It is Kirk's view that Nagel has conflated two distinct problems.  Specifically:

One is the problem [Nagel] has emphasized: whether we can get from a knowledge of relevant viewpoint-neutral facts to a knowledge of the character of the bat's conscious experiences: a knowledge of what it is like (for the bat).  That is the what-is-it-like problem.  The other problem is whether we can get from a knowledge of those same viewpoint-neutral facts to a knowledge of whether the bat is phenomenally conscious at all.  That is the is-it-like-anything problem.  (p.63).

Kirk aims to tackle the second problem, that is, 'what does it take -- or what is it -- for something to be perceptually conscious?' (p.63).  Although solving the what-it-is problem does not warrant any solution to the what-it-is-like problem, what we would expect to achieve is 'to explain how, assuming the universe is a purely physical system, the purely physical facts about us can necessitate phenomenal consciousness' (p.72); by doing so, 'we should have cracked a major component of the mind-body problem.  We should also have largely vindicated physicalism' (p.64).  The direction Kirk takes consists in working out 'necessary and sufficient conditions for perceptual-phenomenal consciousness in terms which we can understand pretty well' (p.74); namely, 'in terms of everyday psychology (p.76).  What Kirk calls 'moderate  realism'  is the feature of everyday psychology to which he appeals, which requires 'no more than that there be some processes going on which constitute the system's working out its own response to the situation as it assesses it.' (p.75).

In Chapter 6, 'Deciders', Kirk begins the work of solving the 'what-it-is' problem.  Firstly, he points out that what matters in regard of differentiating between phenomenally conscious and non-conscious creatures is not simply a question of appearance.  Obviously, patterns of behavior play a central role in the working of our everyday psychological concepts.  In what is purportedly a neutral, non-question-begging, language, that is, in language that does not presuppose the object to be defined (p.95), Kirk presents a core cluster of concepts which figure as necessary conditions for phenomenal consciousness; these are  'Decider' and 'basic package'.  A decider possesses the capacities included in the basic package.  Namely:

(i)                 Initiate and control its own behavior on the basis of incoming and retained information: information that it can use.

(ii)               Acquire and retain information about its environment.

(iii)             Interpret information.

(iv)             Assess its situation.

(v)               Choose between alternative courses of action on the basis of retained and incoming information (equivalently, it can decide on a particular course of action).

(vi)             Have goals. (89).

Each one of the above capacities entails and is entailed by the others, although not all of them must be present to the same degree in a single entity for it to qualify as phenomenally conscious.  Further, the capacities included in the basic package must be integrated, otherwise it would be inappropriate to qualify the behavior exhibited by the system in question as being its own or to say that the system is in control of its own behavior.  It is not sufficient that information gets into the system one way or another, but the information must be for the system.  The unity of the basic package is of a functional rather than a natural kind, although the working of the inner processing is of central importance for the appropriateness of the functional description, which, Kirk points out, distinguishes his approach from the markedly behaviorist one proposed by Dennett (pp.91-2).  Kirk's detailed arguments in defense of the basic package as a necessary condition for perceptual-phenomenal consciousness (and as both necessary and sufficient for non-conscious perception) proceeds by analyzing some apparent counter-examples, among which are Strawson's 'Weather Watchers', Alzheimer's sufferers, and paralyzed people.   

Chapter 7, 'Decision, Control, and Integration' develops and refines the discourse on deciders and the basic package.  Kirk shows how the basic package works in practice as we attempt to apply it to 'indeterminate cases' where our intuitions about the presence of conscious perception in a system fail us.  Among the systems in question, Kirk mentions simple organisms such as protozoa, bees, etc., human systems such as embryo, fetus and neonate, split-brain patients, and artificial systems such as robots.  In addition, creatures popping up from the philosophical world of thought-experiments are discussed in relation to the basic package idea, such as the artificial giant, zombies (again), Block machines and Commander Data.  Kirk notices that when we apply our ordinary concepts of deciding, interpreting and assessing to a system, if we do so carefully and on reflection, 'we will use these notions only in connection with systems with something like the basic package.' (p.100).

Chapter 8, 'De-sophisticating the Framework', answers a possible objection to the basic package solution proposed in the previous chapters.  Namely:

If being a decider requires not only the capacity to acquire and use information, but to do so in a sense which involves the ability to represent the world and to have concepts, and in some sense to think about what it is doing, then a decider is a sophisticated system. is difficult to understand how [that ability] could be possessed without language.  If that is right, then...either perceptual consciousness does not require the basic package, or else only creatures with language can be perceptually conscious.  (pp.119-20).

The above objection appears to be seriously damaging to Kirk's view, but Kirk does counter it by pointing out that its acceptance is based on unwarranted assumptions regarding what it is involved in representation, belief, and rationality more generally.  The prevalent views are strongly rationalistic and Kantian in their inspiration; in discussing such proposals as Evans', Bermúdez' and Davidson's, among others, Kirk points out that they set unnecessarily strong conditions on concept possession and believing which cannot be met by non-linguistic creatures.  

In  Chapter 9, 'Direct Activity', Kirk points out that phenomenal-perceptual consciousness must present some further condition that distinguishes it from cases such as blindsight, subliminal perception, and ordinary recollection of our perceptual experiences, all of which exclude phenomenal consciousness and may be carried out by means of the basic package.  In evolutionary terms, the 'point [of perceptual consciousness] is to provide the organism with instantly utilizable information about events in its current environment regardless of whether it chooses to summon up this or that particular item.' (p.141).  Kirk advances the idea of 'direct activity' as supplement to the basic package, so that direct activity plus the basic package are to be seen as providing a priori individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for perceptual-phenomenal consciousness, and the entity in possession of the relevant capacities is called 'decider-plus'.  Direct activity consists of 'instantaneity' and 'priority', which to Kirk are best conceptualized as 'the same property viewed in two ways' (p.151).  By 'instantaneity', Kirk means that 'it pretty well instantaneously endows the system with certain kinds of capacities' such as those of describing the kinds of sensory experiences one undergoes, recognizing the object of previous perceptions in similar circumstances, being able 'spontaneously to produce appropriate non-verbal behavior.'  The crucial point is that 'the sense in which these capacities are acquired instantaneously is that exercising them doesn't require any special acts of recall, any guessing, or any popping up.' (p.151).  With regard to 'priority', Kirk explains that 'those events have priority if they act on the organism's central processes of interpretation, assessment, and decision-making regardless of the information's relevance to whatever goals the organism may currently have.  ... information coming in with priority in this sense "forces itself" on the system's central processes, since it affects them in a way it cannot control ... regardless of its relevance to its current goals, and regardless of whether it actually gets used.'  This 'enables the system to alter or modify those goals, and may prompt it to do so.'  (p.153).  In the same context, Kirk tackles a problem which particularly besets higher-order theories of perception such as those examined in the previous chapter.  The problem has its sources in viewing conscious perception in terms of the dichotomy between concept-processing mechanisms and sensory information, which gives rise to the dilemma of either having to postulate a 'Cartesian Theatre' where the two components of conscious perception come together or having to explain conscious perception in terms of sub-processes which somehow ensue in a conscious experience.  Kirk's brilliant solution is the 'holistic approach'.  Namely: 

Instead, we need some way of conceiving of perceptual consciousness according to which it contributes to the working of the system as a whole. ... Give up thinking of non-conceptual representations as distinct from but 'poised' or 'available to', and processed by, an Evans-type concept-exercising and reasoning system.  Instead, conceive of certain large-scale complex processes as wholes, whose coordinated activity constitutes the system's taking-account-of-directly-active-perceptual-information.' (pp.154.55).

In Chapter 10, 'Gap?  What Gap?', Kirk goes on to reinforce the point made in the previous chapter by showing that the basic package-plus is not only nomologically sufficient to perceptual-phenomenal consciousness, but sufficient 'in such a way that contradiction or other incoherence would be involved in a decider-plus not being phenomenally conscious.' (p.164).  He proposes to do so by an extension of the sole-pictures argument to an 'arbitrary decider-plus', and concludes that 'if the basic package-plus satisfies all the purely functional conditions necessary for perceptual-phenomenal consciousness, then it satisfies all the conditions necessary for perceptual-phenomenal consciousness.' (p.166).  The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to answering a number of foreseeable objections.

Chapter 11, 'Survival of the Fittest', presents a critical overview of alternative approaches to the problem of perceptual-phenomenal consciousness.  This includes brief discussions of neuroscientific accounts, e.g., Edelman and Tononi, Damasio, metaphysical doctrines, i.e., dualism and physicalism, the philosophies of Wittgenstein and Sartre, Behaviorism, other kinds of functionalist approaches, Dennett's 'multiple drafts' and 'Joycean machine' model, pure representationalism, higher-order perception and higher-order thought theories.  The shortcomings of these alternatives are brought to the fore and the soundness and fruitfulness of Kirk's approach are highlighted. 

Kirk's compelling sole-pictures argument does make its point rather forcefully, although the book ends with the admission that 'the gulf between being the observer of a conscious subject and being that subject, and the associated gulf between viewpoint-neutral and viewpoint-relative concepts, are both wide.  ... [The zombie idea] will stay shimmering there, poised to dazzle and confuse.' (p.218).   

Kirk is to be credited for painstakingly reviewing a considerable number of objections to which his position might have been open; however, there is still some scope for a couple of general points. 

First of all, one objection in the book points to the fact that the language describing the basic package-plus is full of 'implications of consciousness' (p.173).   In his answer Kirk explains that his language is neutral, and that it is possible to assess whether to apply the concept of direct activity-plus to a creature without knowing in advance whether the creature is conscious or not.  Further, he adds that some philosophers, notably Chalmers, do keep separate the psychological from the phenomenal and claim that possession of the former does not entail possession of the latter; in fact, zombies are an exemplification of this very same conceptual distinction.  Perhaps, it might be worth pursuing the objection a little further.  For one thing, the neutrality of the language constitutes what is in question in the objection, so it cannot provide an answer.  Secondly, assessing whether a concept may or may not be applied to a certain entity is not the same as elaborating the content of the concept itself: in the present case, one may be in doubt whether an entity is or is not conscious when assessing whether the basic package-plus applies to that entity, but this does not mean that in elaborating the concept of basic package-plus as entailing phenomenal consciousness one can possibly do without using, implicitly or explicitly, what one already knows about phenomenally conscious creatures, their behavior, and internal processing according to the 'moderate realism of everyday psychology'.   Finally, it might seem odd that Kirk is here happy to build the very same distinction between psychological capacities and phenomenal consciousness and the very same zombie idea which his book is designed to relinquish into the presuppositions of the methodology he adopts in constructing the central concepts of his position.  In sum: it seems at least doubtful that one can plausibly conceive of a situation being for a system as a whole, of a system assessing and acting on the basis of instantly available incoming information which is for it, or of a concept like 'decision/decider', without necessarily (logically) implying some idea of consciousness.  Apart from its undeniable merits, I fail to see how the basic package-plus provides a step forward towards clarifying how a description of what is purely physical entails a description of the phenomenal.  Furthermore, if I understand Kirk correctly, he is not satisfied with a nomological truth, that is, a law of nature regarding the relation between the physical and the psychological: his conditions specifying the basic package-plus for phenomenal consciousness are meant to be necessary ones in a logical sense.   In fact, a purely empirical claim would, for example, weaken the structure of one of Kirk's crucial arguments, that is, the extended sole-pictures argument, which heavily relies on the core assumption that the basic package-plus satisfies 'all necessary functional conditions' for perceptual-phenomenal consciousness (p.165).  But, exclusively on the basis of empirical evidence, we could hardly know for sure that all conditions are satisfied at all times?  Kirk's view on causal relations is in fact that '[they] are contingent; anything which actually has certain effects could conceivably have failed to have them even if they and all other processes and events were held constant.' (p.49).  It is worth noticing that the basic package-plus is partly meant to justify the strict implication thesis for minimal physicalism, hence it cannot itself rely on that thesis for support.  This brings me to my last point, which is concerned with the strict implication thesis itself.

It is important to bring to light how Kirk is justified in making his entailment claim from the totality of physical truths to the totality of psychological truths.  Kirk puts forward various examples to illustrate his point, a point he makes extensively also in some of his other publications.  One of his examples is the digital camera one according to which if 'my camera produces something identifiable as an image of a duck', then 'a specification of that image in terms of pixels will strictly imply that description' (p.20).  Here entailment cannot be established by analyzing the meaning of the terms involved, since it is clear that 'we could fully understand the pixel-language specifications without being able to infer from them that they were of duck-images'.  Consequently, 'it will not generally be possible to establish such cases of strict implication by constructing a deductive argument.' (p.20).   Kirk's crucial move in establishing his entailment claim is that 'given [that particular image] is of a duck', could it 'have fitted the specification S and have failed to be of a duck' ?  'The answer to that question is a firm non-empirically based "No".' (p.21).  In Mind & Body (2003), Kirk explains that the strict implication thesis is necessary in the same sense in which the following sentence is necessary: '(A) the number of rabbits in our garden at this moment is greater than 5'.  Although, as a contingent fact, there could be any number of rabbits in the garden, still it has to be admitted that the 'number of rabbits in the garden at this moment' corresponds to a definite number.  So, if we suppose that there are 10 rabbits in the garden at this precise moment, then it is not contingent but necessary that 10 is greater than 5.  Both illustrations do highlight the idealistic presuppositions of the strict implication thesis; an odd predicament if no physicalist, according to Kirk, can avoid committing to such thesis without self-contradiction or other logical incoherence.  In particular, the entailment claim in the above examples works only on the implicit assumption that a conscious entity is there either to make the decision to build a digital camera in such a way that the duck-picture is specified by a certain pixel configuration, or to ascertain the number of rabbits in the garden at any given time; without such a conscious presence the entailment does not hold.  Because by Kirk's admission the structure of the strict implication thesis is the same as the structure of the above examples, it follows that a conscious (God-like) entity is similarly presupposed for the entailment of Q by P and for the truth that nothing else exists which is not implied by P.

Not an easy read, this excellent book is highly recommended to professional philosophers as well as to members of the scientific community who are interested in consciousness-related questions: Kirk presents his dense and tightly knit arguments in a compelling manner and advances invaluable insights into the nature of consciousness.    


© 2006 Maria Antonietta Perna.


Maria Antonietta Perna, Ph.D., Post-doctoral Research Fellow, University College London; Part-time Lecturer in Political Thought, Richmond University, London


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