Thursday, April 19, 2007

Verificationism in Philosophy of Mind

I'll give four examples in which the verificationism I've been discussing in the last two posts gives interesting and plausible results: philosophy of mind, metaethics, epistemology, and social/political philosophy. The gist of verificationism is V:

V: If S knows what S means by an X, then S has an idea of what S would take as evidence that the X correctly described a given object and what S would take as evidence that the X incorrectly described another given object.

Now, in philosophy of mind there is a celebrated and strange individual. He is quite a considerable personage, forcing hoards of materialists, who've rejected dualistic ontologies of mind and brain, to acknowledge the fellow's impossible possibility and shore up this contradiction either by conceding that materialism is false and dualism correct, or by some ornate contortions of theory, to devise a better-defended materialism which can afford acknowledge the brute as a merely a remote possibility of no genuine threat.

The poor fellow is the zombie.

Skip this paragraph if you know well what "zombie" means in philosophy of mind. Otherwise, consider. A zombie is a person just like us in physical and behavioral respects; he is not the groaning, groping monster of the horror movies. No, he acts just like everyone else. If you prick him, he cries. If you examine his actions throughout the day, he is indistinguishable in habit from any normal person you please. He seems to enjoy a pint and a laugh. He appears alarmed when told of some foreboding danger. But, you see, the poor zombie has no mental states. Or, more precisely, he is never conscious. He feels no pain or joy, he has never experienced any visual sensation, nor any sense of worry or eager anticipation. We might say that your spouse or the lady who works down the hall from you might very well be zombies. But as a matter of biological contingency, in our natural world zombies are physically impossible. For in this world, any animal of our exact physical description, down to the biochemical and neurological detail, is conscious. So, consider that the zombie dwells only in a logically possible world that we may imagine.

So, there is no contradiction in the concept "zombie" in other words. Or so it is believed by materialists and dualists alike. This has lead materialists to feel themselves forced to show how consciousness and brain could be one and the same when in fact we can as clearly conceive of consciousness being stripped away from the brain as imagine an apple washed clean of its waxy coating. The zombie has a brain (and all the requisite behaviors) but he has no consciousness. So, they aren't the same thing. Or if they are, the materialist is bound to show how they are one and the same here while in the zombie's possible world they are not. And from there the ink is spilled by the gallon, filling the philosophy journals and books with the back and forth between the materialist and the dualist. You can practically specialize in zombies these days as a philosophy professor.

But I accept a form of materialism that is orthogonal to this tirade, as well as unpopular, old-fashioned and hopelessly benighted by the illusion that verificationism is not dead. Won't you join me? Verificationism is not dead. Go reread V. Now this:

What would you take as evidence that there was a zombie? Nothing would count as evidence. Zombie is an empty concept. It is hand-waving at its core. Therefore, the supposed threat to materialism is groundless. It's no threat at all. We'll make all this clear in the next post. We also need to understand more about concepts and terms, such that they can be meaningless and yet appear to everyone to have a perfectly clear meaning.