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Sniffing the camembert: on the conceivability of zombies

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The ‘real’ issue concerns the status of qualia, that is, the subjective sensory states into which we are thrown when (say) looking at a yellow leaf, hearing a musical chord, sniffing a camembert, or running our fingers over a piece of sandpaper. Is it possible to provide a satisfactory account of such states using only the resources of a materialist functionalism? Or is it the case -- as it has seemed to many, and as it seems to David Chalmers -- that once we have said all there is to say about the physical basis of, and the functional role of, such states, there remains an uneliminable residue: the brute qualitative matter of ‘what it is like’ to sniff the camembert? Since it is extraordinarily hard to tackle this question head-on, we seek the leverage afforded by the notion of the philosopher's zombie, the point being that if we have a coherent intuition to the effect that there is indeed such a residue, then we ought to be able to conceive of the zombie. Just subtract the residue while leaving all the physical/functional stuff in place. Conversely, if it transpires that the notion of the philosopher's zombie breaks down under stress, this would seem to indicate that the intuition of the ineliminable residue is itself problematic.

The ‘remedy’ for a belief in zombies is the sort of Dennettian exercise in imagination proposed in this paper. One must be forced to recognize the huge gulf between the simple informational economies of the thermostat, and even the PC, and the amazingly subtle and layered informational economy of a normal human being. Taking the PC, or the severely degraded registrations of actual blindsight victims, as the model, one may fool oneself into thinking one has imagined something when one has not really confronted its detailed implications. This piece will have accomplished its aim if it encourages a few readers to take the latter possibility more seriously than hitherto.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Wake Forest University, Dept. of Economics, Box 7505, Winston-Salem NC 27109, USA.

Publication date: 1999-01-01

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