Blog powered by Typepad

« Online Philosophy Conference | Main | Australasian Association of Philosophy »

May 11, 2006



Hi Dave, thanks for the link. (I meant to email you, like I said in the thread, but - trollsquashing and brawling and whatnot. I'd lose my mind if it didn't supervene on my brain, some days.)

I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll post a longer stretch of Zizek writing about you and maybe you can respond. Or not. I promise to keep the troll at bay as best I can.

By the by, would you care to comment on my characterization of you as having a Spinozistic view of the place of consciousness in nature? That is, there is a sense in which your speculations about information as the common denominator of consciousness and matter are rather like Spinoza's dual aspect monism. What you call information he calls God, not to put too fine a point on it. Your protopanpsychism is his pantheism, in a way.

I also think your conceivability/possibility stuff aligns with Spinoza on 'adequate conceptions', and this may have something to do with your similar views of mind. (I'm less confident about this generalization.) And maybe your 'dancing qualia' argument has some resonances with his necessitarianism, but now I'm stretching ...

I don't ask this because I want to much out of it. I don't have any particular inclination to claim you are more likely to be right, or wrong, IF you are like Spinoza. I'm not a Spinoza specialist, so I don't have any fancy texts I'm waiting to baffle you with. Just curious whether you think about Spinoza. (No Spinoza in the index of your big book, I notice.)

Timothy J Scriven

This is my favourite bit.

"There are also three modalities of the real:

The symbolic real : the signifier reduced to a meaningless formula (as in quantum physics, which like every science grasps at the real but only produces barely comprehensible concepts)
The real real: a horrific thing, that which conveys the sense of horror in horror films
The imaginary real: an unfathomable something that permeates things as a trace of the sublime. This form of the real becomes perceptible in the film The Full Monty, for instance, in the fact that in stripping the unemployed protagonists disrobe completely; in other words, through this extra gesture of voluntary degradation something else, of the order of the sublime, becomes visible."

Vadim Vasilyev

I am not quite sure that we don't waste time trying to compare ideas of Chalmers with that of Spinoza, as they are irrelevant to most contemporary discussions. And if someone likes to seek for historical analogies, I can suggest one, almost totally forgotten, but interesting nonetheless. But let me ask a question first: do you know any philosopher before Chalmers who was deeply engaged in demonstration of possibility of zombies? I know one - it was Christian Wolff (1679 - 1754). In his German "Metaphysik" (1719) he tried hard to prove that it was really possible for human body to make a reasonable speech, to behave just as people do etc. - with total absence of consciousness (P. 471-522, 3 ed. 1725). Some people were terrified with his ideas and turned away from Wolff.


I wasn't suggesting wasting time on the comparison, Vadim. That would be up to the discretion of its employer, naturally.


John: I'm not really any sort of expert on Spinoza, so I'm not really in a position to discuss potential connections in detail without making a fool of myself. But it's probably fair to say that I feel some sort of broad affinity with him, and with Leibniz, both because of the metaphysics of mind and the underlying rationalism.

As for Zizek's characterization of me as a "vulgar materialist": to be fair to him, there's some sense in which one might regard seeing consciousness as a fundamental property of nature as akin to a sort of vulgar materialism, though probably "vulgar naturalism" would be better. I take it that his point is very roughly that we shouldn't be looking for a bit of nature that corresponds to consciousness -- rather, it arises from something to do with our finite perspective on nature. But here I'm way out of my depth.

Vadim: Thanks for the reference to Wolff. I'll check that out. There's also a little zombie-esque discussion in Descartes, and in Huxley, though in these cases it looks like behavioral duplication rather than physical duplication is what's at issue. From your description it sounds like that might also be the case for Wolff. Of course more recently, there are Robert Kirk's two important articles on zombies from the 1970s.


Thanks Dave. I'll just give you a brief update on the Zizek situation, since it turns out I misrepresented him a little. He doesn't call you a 'vulgar materialist'. He sees that you really aren't a materialist at all. But he still insists - for reasons best known to himself - that the way to understand you is to think of it as a collision of pure idealism and vulgar materialism. (And then we are all supposed to go off and read Hegel to get the right answer.)

So now you know.




Thanks, John. I've put in a link. Characterizing my view as a cross between materialism and idealism is actually pretty apt at least for the type-F view, as you note in your post. I can't really follow his argument against the view in the passages you quote, though.

Perhaps one could read Zizek charitably as suggesting that even complete knowledge of physical reality is impossible, so one can't draw any conclusions from what would or wouldn't follow from such knowledge. To get a grip on this objection, one wants to know just why such knowledge is impossible. His allusion to Kant might suggest that the problem is one of knowing the noumenal features of physical reality, as opposed to the phenomenal features. On one understanding of the noumenal/phenomenal distinction, this will amount roughly to the problem of knowing the intrinsic features of physical reality, as opposed to structural or relational features. But if that's the issue, the space that this move opens up is precisely the space opened up by type-F monism, where it's the unknown intrinsic features of physical reality that do the crucial work in constituting consciousness. I suspect that this isn't the kind of obstacle to complete knowledge that he has in mind -- but then I'm not sure exactly what the obstacle is supposed to be. I guess somewhere around here I'd need to read Hegel and Lacan.

Incidentally, although you're right that idealism doesn't make the "top six" views (type A through type F) distinguished in "Consciousness and its Place in Nature", it does make the "top nine", in that it's one of three other views distinguished along the way: it's discussed as "type I" in the conclusion (there's also a type O and a type Q in the mix somewhere).

Vadim Vasilyev

Thank you, David, for very useful comments. Of course, Descartes believed that animals were zombies. At the same time he was sure it was not even an option for human beings. Wolff, however, disagreed. In fact, he couldn't think differently as such a view was the direct consequence of his theory of pre-established harmony between mind and body (his teacher Leibniz faced no similar problems with his famous theory of pre-established harmony as his physical particles, monads, were mental essences as well - Wolff denied such "idealism"). But the point is that Wolff tried to show the possibility of exact nonconscious physical and functional duplicates of humans independently of his theory of pre-established harmony - treating his conclusions as a confirmation of this theory. As for Kirk, it's interesting that in his new book he seems to deny the possibility of zombies.

Ignacio Prado

Dr. Chalmers notes

"I take it that his point is very roughly that we shouldn't be looking for a bit of nature that corresponds to consciousness -- rather, it arises from something to do with our finite perspective on nature. But here I'm way out of my depth."

While freely admitting that I am also out of my depth here (inclusive of not having a complete grip on Dr. Chalmers’ own positive theory of consciousness), I take Dr. Chalmers comments in this thread to be a fruitful way of construing what Zizek's point might be (or the point of some other philosopher, perhaps Schmzizek, whose position I will reconstruct in what follows). Since it is a point that does not get made often in analytic philosophy of mind, it may be worth exploring.

Schmzizek's point would be that both "Idealism" and "Vulgar Materialism" are grand unifying theories of speculative philosophy. Despite their obvious inconsistency (neither can be true if the other is), they are both construed by Schmzizek to be false or misleading pictures of human consciousness for essentially the same reason. Therefore, using a fairly loose sense of 'therefore,' they collapse into the same philosophical theory of consciousness (where 'same' is really more a matter of methodological presupposition, rather than actual content). In effect, both philosophical theories assume they can provide an answer to the puzzling nature of consciousness via some unifying theory of speculative, a priori philosophy cum naturalistic reduction.

Schmzizek's point seems to be the Heideggerian one (and here's where I am way out of my depth) that a priori, speculative philosophy cum naturalistic reduction is simply the wrong way to do an ontology of consciousness, or an ontology of anything for that matter. Heidegger's problem with traditional, speculative "first philosophy" was that it assumes a cognitive and causal breach between (i) conscious human subjects and (ii) the world they represent in thought and interact with in action. Since our access to the world in thought and action comes through consciousness, the traditional Western philosopher then tries to construct an a priori or reductive theory of consciousness that could account for of our knowledge and agential interaction with things in the natural world (0he best picture to work with here would probably be Descartes’ project in the Meditations).

Schmzizek sees a two-fold problem with the Cartesian picture of the tasks of philosophy: (1) it assumes a cognitive and causal split between conscious human subjects and things in the world they interact with and (2) it assumes that things in the world have independent, ready-made natures that are there to be known prior to our cognitive and agential engagement with them. However, for a Heideggerian like Schmzizek (to continue plunging deeper beyond my depth), what is most apparent in our phenomenological encounter with the world is that we "already understand" the things that show up in it via our initiation into various cultural practices and our modes of bodily engagement with our environment. This is, as Dr. Chalmers puts it, the point in saying that "we shouldn't be looking for a bit of nature that corresponds to consciousness -- rather, it arises from something to do with our finite perspective on nature." Our finite perspective is precisely our situatedness in a particular kind of culture and body that opens up our access to the world.

Idealism goes wrong for Schmzizek in attempting to overcome the breach between human consciousness and the physical world by collapsing physical entities into conscious ones, and Vulgar Materialism goes wrong by explaining away or denying those facets of consciousness that seem most problematic from the materialist point of view. However, both Idealism and Vulgar Materialism share a common methodological presupposition: the presupposition is that (i) there is a breach between human consciousness and the physical world and that (ii) we need a grand philosophical theory to overcome it. Dr. Chalmers' position is supposed to "ironically" lead from (i) the shared the methodological presupposition that Idealism and Vulgar Materialism start out from into (ii) a "collapse" of both theories into one at the level of actual metaphysical content. In effect, the two views collapse into each other in Dr. Chalmers' understanding of consciousness, where that is glossed as the reduction physical entities and processes as proto-phenomenal structures in information space that, via the functional organization of their matter, are capable of producing higher-level, ontologically novel phenomenal properties. We become aware of these ontologically novel phenomenal properties from the first-person point of view, but we can ascribe them to other creatures via the relation of natural, if not metaphysical, supervenience that phenomenal properties have to their functional bases. Our scientific knowledge of how the emergence of the phenomenal works naturalistically will come via some set of yet-to-be formulated physical laws, possibly some future interpretation of quantum mechanics (note, I may have Dr. Chalmers' view completely wrong here; I am just guessing at what Schmzizek thinks Dr. Chalmers' view is in the passages cited).

N.B., in case my construal of the Heideggerian position strikes many as overwhelmingly anti-realist or non-scientific, Michael Wheeler has more careful and well-informed things to say about this in his recent book, "Reconstructing the Cognitive World."

Mark Zlomislic

His claims are vague, contradictory, inaccurate and banal. This describes Zizek at the height of his analytic powers.

The comments to this entry are closed.