Monday, August 30, 2010

The zombie within me

In my blog last week I attacked the argumentations by Nagel and Chalmers that there must be something subjective or conscious in us. I argued that we can at least know what it is like to be a zombie, since we often behave like a zombie and we know that we do. Of course, my reasoning was not serious. What is serious, however, is that we often do behave like a zombie. And this raises substantial questions about who and what we are and why we do what we do. Is it an exception that I sometimes behave like a zombie, for example when I am riding my bike? Maybe we think so, because we can come back to ourselves, by way of speaking, and become conscious of and reflect on that we were behaving like a zombie for a while. But this may be mere illusion.
On July 20, 2009, I published here a blog about free will and a cup of coffee. There I mentioned that Lawrence Williams and John A. Bargh had shown that holding a warm cup of coffee makes you have more positive attitudes towards a stranger than when you hold a cup of ice coffee. We think that the stranger is “really” sympathetic, while actually it is the temperature of our hands that makes us think so. Our consciousness of the fact (if it is a fact) that the stranger is sympathetic is apparently merely an epiphenomenon and has no influence on our feelings towards the stranger, at least not in this case. It is as if we first feel a person sympathetic because of an objective cause (the warm cup of coffee) and that only then we think that we feel that the person is sympathetic, namely because of this objectively caused feeling. It is as if our consciousness, our thinking, does not count.
This idea is supported by a case that I just read in a book about the free will by Victor Lamme. Here he describes the case of a woman who was blind because of a brain damage and who could grasp objects on a table just as a person with normal visibility does and not as someone does who is blind because of eye damages. When a person with normal visibility takes an object like a cup or an object with an irregular form like a piece of art, s/he grasps it immediately in the right way, unhesitatingly. A person with eye damage or a person with a blindfold must first feel what the shape of the object is before s/he can get a good grip on it. It was as if the woman concerned could see the object, although she was blind. This and other research brough Goodale to the conclusion that we have two systems in our brain that guide our actions. In addition to the system that makes us consciously do what we do there is one that determines our actions unconsciously. (cf Victor Lamme, De vrije wil bestaat niet, 2010, ch. 2). Or does the former system merely accompany our actions like an epiphenomenon? For what should the function of consciousness be for us if we can act also without being conscious of it? It looks as if there is something in us that is like a zombie. The question remains then, of course: who writes this blog? Do I write it or does my zombie write it?

Monday, August 23, 2010

What it is like to be a zombie

Me philosophizing

(Background music: David Chalmers sings “The Zombie Blues”: )
In a famous article, “What is it like to be a bat?”, Thomas Nagel argues that it is impossible to “catch” the inner experiences of a bat, a human being, a Martian or whatever being with an inner subjective life in the objective description of an outsider. What it is like to be or to experience for a bat, for a human being, for a Martian or for any other being with inner experiences is inherently different from how an outsider, for instance an investigator, observes these same inner experiences. Inner experiences as they are for the holder and as they are for an outsider looking at them are fundamentally of a different type. Therefore we have to distinguish between the perspective of the first person and the perspective of the third person when describing them (see ).
Some twenty years later, David Chalmers argued in a similar way that we must make a distinction between the mental and the physical and that a physical reduction of our inner experiences is not possible. In his reasoning he used the so-called Zombie argument. A philosophical zombie is not the terrifying figure we know from films and the like but, in the words of Chalmers, “someone or something physically identical to me (or to any other conscious being), but lacking conscious experiences altogether” (The conscious mind, 1996, 94). However, if we try to describe a zombie, we must conclude that “There is nothing it is like to be a zombie” (id., 95). Arguing from here, Chalmers concludes that consciousness does exist, which makes that reducing conscious inner experiences to physical experiences is not possible. I know that my summary is too oversimplified, and maybe Chalmers will protest, but what I want to discuss is: Is there really nothing it is like to be a zombie?
Once upon a day I made a bike tour on my race bike, as I do so often. I had a strong wind against me and my legs were wheeling round like mad to fight the natural counter forces. The evening sun was dazzling me and I couldn’t see anything. My head had become empty and I felt like in trance. Suddenly I came back to myself and at once I knew it: So it is to feel like a zombie. Zombies do exist! And there is something it is like to be a zombie, for I experienced being a zombie! And we can experience how it is like to be a different creature! How sad for Chalmers and Nagel that such a simple bike ride can topple their theories. The upshot is: Take a bike and philosophize!

Monday, August 16, 2010

The importance of Georg Henrik von Wright

In my last blog I mentioned the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright. I think that most people who read my blogs do not know him. However, he has been one of the most important analytical philosophers of the second half of the last century. When I had finished my dissertation many years ago I had the intention to write an article about von Wright, but for one reason or another I didn’t. So maybe I can make up for the omission here a bit, although a little blog can never be compared with a long article. In fact I must limit myself here to a short indication of the importance of von Wright for philosophy.
As said, von Wright (1916-2003) was a philosopher in the tradition of the analytical philosophy and. He studied first in Helsinki under the guidance of Eino Kaila, which brought him into touch with logical positivism, which was then in its heyday. Next, von Wright studied at several other universities in Europe including in Cambridge. In 1939, he met there Wittgenstein, but the first contact was disappointing for von Wright, because Wittgenstein was quite annoyed that a young man unknown to him dared to join his lectures while they had already started. Soon they became good friends, though. Later, after the death of Wittgenstein, von Wright became his successor in Cambridge and he edited Wittgenstein’s later works for publication.
Another important contribution by von Wright to philosophy is his development of deontic logic, the logic of ought. Although deontic logic was already known to the Greek, in fact von Wright can be seen as the founder of this branch of logic, because he proposed the first plausible system of deontic logic.
His third main contribution concerns my own field of interest: action theory. In my blog last week I mentioned already von Wright’s book Understanding and Explanation. This book has been influential in the discussion whether the relation between the premises and the conclusion of a practical syllogism for the explanation of actions is logical or causal. There has been a long and heavy debate on this question, which did not lead to a real solution. In my view, the best analysis of the issue, if not the solution of the problem, has come from von Wright, who showed that it is impossible to establish independently of each other which intention an actor had and the action that the same actor did on account of this intention. And this makes that it is impossible to verify the premises and the conclusion of a practical syllogism independently. However, this does not imply that one cannot explain an action, when one is able to establish separately what the intention of an action is and what the actor allegedly did on account of this intention. For me, von Wright’s approach is still the fundamental solution of the explanation-understanding controversy.
Be that as it is, the discussion gradually faded away, but the importance of von Wright’s book may still be judged from the fact that it has been reprinted in 2004, 33 years after its first publication.
It is true, von Wright is not a very well-known philosopher outside academic circles (and outside Finland), but its influence has not been unimportant as I have tried to show.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The influence of books (2)

I think that most people have read one or more books that have influenced them in a certain way. This influence may have been little, for example because it made one to read another book by the same author or to visit a museum or a town. Or the influence may have been much greater, sometimes even in that degree that it led to a turn in one’s life. I read many books through the years and so it is no wonder that they have influenced me in different ways. Most books I have read are interesting to my mind, but that’s it. It may have happened that I talked about them with someone else, but that did not happen often. Other books were related to one of my main interests and have broadened my knowledge in those fields, or maybe I used them when writing an article or a blog. However, a few books became very important to me in the sense that they had a substantial influence on my life. Maybe it was not a turning point but if I hadn’t read them my life would have been different. Actually there are two of such books and their influence is related. Once I was in a bookshop in Amsterdam and in the philosophy department my eye was caught by a new book by Karl-Otto Apel, one of my favourite authors: Die Erklären-Verstehen Kontroverse in transzendentalpragmatischer Sicht (The controversy between explanation and understanding from a transcendental-pragmatic perspective). Its subject was the methodical discussion about explaining or understanding in the humanities and social sciences. I found the book very interesting and what I found especially interesting was Apel’s discussion of a book by the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, a philosopher who was new to me at the time. I had the feeling that I had to read this book, Explanation and Understanding, anyhow. It took me much effort to buy it and in effect it was too expensive, but it came out that it was worth its money. Von Wright discussed here his solution of the explanation-understanding controversy and presented his methodological model for the social sciences. Basically I agreed with his methodology and the model, but in my view the model could be improved in several respects. Doing this became the leading theme of my PhD thesis and it made that I dedicated most of my time to philosophy for a long period. Actually, there is nothing to wonder at such an influence of books on your life, for isn’t it so that a book is nothing else than solidified human thoughts and relationships?

Monday, August 02, 2010

Man made future (2)

My blog published two weeks ago says nothing else than what Wittgenstein knew already long ago: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life have still not been touched at all.” (Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 6.52)