Conceivability Arguments

Dissertation, Rutgers University (1998)
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The dissertation addresses the mind-body problem, and in particular, the problem of how to fit phenomenal consciousness into the rest of reality. Phenomenal consciousness - the what it’s like feature of experience - can appear to the scientifically inclined philosopher to be deeply mysterious. It is difficult to understand how the swirl of atoms in the void, the oscillation of field values, the firing of synapses, or anything physical can add up to the smells, tastes, feelings, moods, and so forth that comprise our phenomenal experience. There is a series of arguments - the so-called “Conceivability Arguments” - that spells out this puzzlement. If this arguments are successful then there is no place for phenomenal consciousness in a completely physical reality. The main conclusion of this dissertation is that the Conceivability Arguments are all dependent on a flawed premiss, and that therefore these arguments - perhaps the most powerful among anti-physicalist arguments - all fail. Conceivability Arguments begin with the premiss that we can conceive of any physical or functional facts obtaining without there being any phenomenal experience at all. This is sometimes expressed by saying that zombies (i.e., beings that are our physical and functional duplicates, but possess no phenomenal experiences) are conceivable. The claim that zombies are conceivable does not have to do with our powers of imagination, or our psychological abilities, but rather with the nature of physical and phenomenal concepts. The reason that zombies are claimed to be conceivable is that each person’s thinking about phenomenal properties is completely dependent on her first person acquaintance with her own experience. From this assertion of conceivability it is inferred that zombies are genuinely possible. And this conclusion is incompatible with physicalism as that doctrine is usually understood. I argue that these arguments all fail; they are refuted by a master argument that I call “the Zombie Refutation.” The reason they fail has to do with the very nature of phenomenal concepts that gives rise to the conceivability of zombies. Because of the special nature of these concepts, the principle underlying the Conceivability Arguments - that principle that links conceivability and possibility - turns out to be self-refuting. Thus, the zombies that the Conceivability Arguments supposedly demonstrate to be possible, return to undermine those very arguments; a fitting revenge.
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