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August 7, 2017 | by  | in Philosoraptor | [ssba]


Let’s imagine for a moment that God is creating the universe. In an instant, God determines all of the physical facts about the universe, down to the exact position of every single atom. The question now is — is God done? That is to say, has God created everything that exists?

“Physicalists” would say yes. They believe that everything in the world is physical, i.e. is made of atoms or subatomic particles. Physicalism seems like the commonsense scientific position. Yet “dualists” deny physicalism, and claim that something extra, something non-physical, exists. Two famous Australian philosophers, David Chalmers and Frank Jackson, believe that this mysterious non-physical thing is conscious experience, and they present a pair of innovative arguments to demonstrate that conscious experience cannot be explained physically.

Jackson first. He asks us to imagine Mary, a neuroscientist who has spent her whole life in a black and white room interacting with black and white objects. Mary spends her time studying the neuroscience of colour experience — studying exactly how different-wavelength photons stimulate the retina and create reactions which travel to and stimulate the neurons in our brain. Mary knows every physical fact there is to know about how colour experience works, despite having never seen colour.

Then, one day, someone brings an apple into the room. Jackson claims that, in this instant, Mary learns something new — namely, she learns what it is like to see red. Yet if Mary knows everything there is to know about the physical aspects of colour experiences, and she nevertheless learns something new, there must be some non-physical facts about colour experience.

Chalmers, meanwhile, asks us to imagine a “zombie world” — a world which is physically identical to ours, but in which there is no conscious experience. The world is populated by “zombies” — people who look just like us and act just like us, but who experience nothing. All that Chalmers requires for his argument to succeed is that this world is logically coherent, that there is no contradiction involved in imagining it. If it is logically coherent that two situations are physically identical but differ with respect to conscious experience, then conscious experience must be non-physical.

The concept of “dualism” may intuitively seem unscientific, a sort of spiritual mysticism. And it may seem that Chalmers and Jackson are ignoring the ability of neuroscience to provide physical explanations of conscious experience. Far from it. Chalmers, in his discussion of the issue, does not deny that neuroscience can provide physical explanations of many aspects of mental processes. It can explain what he calls “functional” properties — things like learning, information processing, or responses to stimuli like pain or light or sound. But, Chalmers claims, neuroscience cannot explain why there is something it is like to feel pain. Neuroscience is silent on the question of conscious experience.

Interestingly, Frank Jackson changed his mind about his own argument, and is now a physicalist. But his argument, and Chalmers’s, continue to be powerful defenses of dualism.


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