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Picture:  Avshalom C. Elitzur. Over at, they’ve noticed a bit of a resurgence of dualism recently, and it seems that Avshalom C. Elitzur is in the vanguard, with this paper presenting an argument from bafflement.

The first part of the paper provides a nice, gentle introduction to the issue of qualia in dialogue form. Elitzur explains the bind that we’re in in this respect: we seem to have an undeniable first-hand experience of qualia, yet they don’t fit into the normal physical account of the world. We seem to be faced with a dilemma: either reject qualia – perhaps we just misperceive our percepts as qualia – or accept some violation of normal physics. The position is baffling: but Elitzur wants to suggest that that very bafflement provides a clue.  His strategy is to try to drag the issue into the realm of science, and the argument goes like this:

1. By physicalism, consciousness and brain processes are identical.
2. Whence, then, the dualistic bafflement about their apparent nonidentity?
3. By physicalism, this nonidentity, and hence the resultant bafflement, must be due to error.
4. But then, again by physicalism, an error must have a causal explanation.
5. Logic, cognitive science and AI are advanced enough nowadays to provide such an explanation for the alleged error underlying dualism, and future neurophysiology must be able to point out its neural correlate.

That last point seems optimistic. Cognitive science may be advanced enough to provide explanations for a number of cognitive deficits and illusions, but sometimes only partial ones; and not all errors are the result of a structural problem. It’s particularly optimistic to think that all errors must have an identifiable neural correlate. But this seems to be what Elitzur believes. He actually says

“When future neurophysiology becomes advanced enough to point out the neural correlates of false beliefs, a specific correlate of this kind would be found to underlie the bafflement about qualia.”

The neural correlates of false beliefs? Crikey! It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that all false beliefs have neural correlates – because one assumes that all beliefs do – but the idea that false ones can be distinguished by their neural properties is surely evidently wrong. An argument hardly seems required, but it’s easy, for example, to picture a man who believes a coin has come down heads. If it has, his belief is true, but if it’s actually tails, exactly the same belief, with identical neural patterns would be false. I think Elitzur must mean something less startling than what he seems to be saying; he must, I think, take it as read that if qualia are a delusion, they would be a product of some twist or quirk in our mental set-up. That’s not an unreasonable position, one that would be shared by Metzinger, for example (discussion coming soon).

As it happens, Elitzur doesn’t think qualia are delusions; instead he has an argument which he thinks shows that interactionist dualism – a position he doesn’t otherwise find very attractive – must be true. The argument is to do with  zombies.  Zombies in this context, as regular readers will know, are people who have all the qualities normal people posess, except qualia. Because qualia have no physical causal effects,  the behaviour of zombies, caused by normal physical factors, is exactly like that of normal people. Elitzur quotes Chalmers explaining that zombie-Chalmers even talks about qualia and writes philosophical papers about them, though in fact he has none. The core of Elitzur’s position is his incredulity over this conclusion. How could zombies who don’t have qualia come to be worried about them?

It is an uncomfortable position, but if we accept that zombies are possible and qualia exist, Chalmers’ logic seems irrefutable.  Ex hypothesi, zombies follow the same physical laws as us:  it’s ultimately physics that causes the movements of our hands and mouths involved in writing or speaking about qualia: so our zombie counterparts must go through the same motions, writing the same books and emitting the same sounds. Since this seems totally illogical to Elitzur, he offers the rationalisation that when zombies talk about qualia, they must in fact merely be talking about their percepts. But this asymmetry provides a chink which can be used to prose zombies and qualiate people apart. If we ask Chalmers whether his zombie equivalent is possible, he replies that it is; but, suggests Elitzur, if we ask zombie Chalmers (whom he call ‘Charmless’) the same question, he replies in the negative.  Chalmers can imagine himself functioning without qualia, because qualia have no functional role: but Charmless cannot imagine himself functioning without percepts, because percepts are part of the essence of his sensory system. (It is possible to take the analogous view about qualia of course – namely that zombies are impossible, because a physically identical person just would necessarily have the same qualia). So zombies differ from us, oddly enough, in not being able to conceive of their own zombies.

For Elitzur, the conclusion is inescapable; qualia do have an effect on our brains. He chooses therefore to bite the bullet of accepting that the laws of physics must be messed up in some way – that where qualia intervene, conservation laws are breached, unpalatable as this conclusion is. One consoling feature is that if qualia do have physical effects, they can be included in the evolutionary story; perhaps they serve to hasten or intensify our responses: but overall it’s regrettable that dualism turns out to be the answer.

I don’t think this is a convincing conclusion; it seems as if Elitzur’s incredulity has led him into not taking the premises of the zombie question seriously enough. It just is the case ex hypothesi that all of our zombies’ behaviour is caused by the same physical factors as our own behaviour; it follows that if their talk about qualia is not caused by qualia, neither is ours (note that this doesn’t have to mean that either we or the zombies fail to talk about qualia). There are other ways out of this uncomfortable position, discussed by Chalmers (perhaps, for example, our words about qualia are over-determined, caused both by physical factors and by our actual experiences). My own preferred view is that whatever qualia might be, they certainly go along with certain physical brain functions, and that therefore any physical duplicate of ourselves would have the same qualia; that zombies, in other words, are not possible. It’s just a coincidence, I’m sure, that in Elitzur’s theory this is the kind of thing a zombie would say…

Posted in Conscious Entities.