Zombies and Ignorance of the Formal Cause

Let’s look again at Robin Hanson’s account of the human mind, considered previously here.

Now what I’ve said so far is usually accepted as uncontroversial, at least when applied to the usual parts of our world, such as rivers, cars, mountains laptops, or ants. But as soon as one claims that all this applies to human minds, suddenly it gets more controversial. People often state things like this:

I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care mainly about feelings, not physical parts interacting; we want to know what out there feels so we can know what to care about.

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

What would someone mean by making the original statement that “I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves”? If we give this a charitable interpretation, the meaning is that “a collection of physical parts” is something many, and so is not a suitable subject for predicates like “sees” and “understands.” Something that sees is something one, and something that understands is something one.

This however is not Robin’s interpretation. Instead, he understands it to mean that besides the physical parts, there has to be one additional part, namely one which is a part in the same sense of “part”, but which is not physical. And indeed, some tend to think this way. But this of course is not helpful, because the reason a collection of parts is not a suitable subject for seeing or understanding is not because those parts are physical, but because the subject is not something one. And this would remain even if you add a non-physical part or parts. Instead, what is needed to be such a subject is that the subject be something one, namely a living being with the sense of sight, in order to see, or one with the power of reason, for understanding.

What do you need in order to get one such subject from “a collection of parts”? Any additional part, physical or otherwise, will just make the collection bigger; it will not make the subject something one. It is rather the formal cause of a whole that makes the parts one, and this formal cause is not a part in the same sense. It is not yet another part, even a non-physical one.

Reading Robin’s discussion in this light, it is clear that he never even considers formal causes. He does not even ask whether there is such a thing. Rather, he speaks only of material and efficient causes, and appears to be entirely oblivious even to the idea of a formal cause. Thus when asking whether there is anything in addition to the “collection of parts,” he is asking whether there is any additional material cause. And naturally, nothing will have material causes other than the things it is made out of, since “what a thing is made out of” is the very meaning of a material cause.

Likewise, when he says, “Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?”, he shows in two ways his ignorance of formal causes. First, by talking about “feeling stuff,” which implies a kind of material cause. Second, when he says, “actual cause of humans making statements” he is evidently speaking about the efficient cause of people producing sounds or written words.

In both cases, formal causality is the relevant causality. There is no “feeling stuff” at all; rather, certain things are things like seeing or understanding, which are unified actions, and these are unified by their forms. Likewise, we can consider the “humans making statements” in two ways; if we simply consider the efficient causes of the sounds, one by one, you might indeed explain them as “simple parts interacting simply.” But they are not actually mere sounds; they are meaningful and express the intention and meaning of a subject. And they have meaning by reason of the forms of the action and of the subject.

In other words, the idea of the philosophical zombie is that the zombie is indeed producing mere sounds. It is not only that the zombie is not conscious, but rather that it really is just interacting parts, and the sounds it produces are just a collection of sounds. We don’t need, then, some complicated method to determine that we are not such zombies. We are by definition not zombies if we say, think, or understanding at all.

The same ignorance of the formal cause is seen in the rest of Robin’s comments:

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

Again, he is asking whether there is some additional part which has some additional efficient causality, and suggesting that this is unlikely. It is indeed unlikely, but irrelevant, because consciousness is not an additional part, but a formal way of being that a thing has. He continues:

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

First, there is no “extra feeling stuff.” There is only a way of being, namely in this case being alive and conscious. Second, there is no coincidence. Robin’s supposed coincidence is that “I am conscious” is thought to mean, “I have feeling stuff,” but the feeling stuff is not the efficient cause of my saying that I have it; instead, the efficient cause is said to be simple parts interacting simply.

Again, the mistake here is simply to completely overlook the formal cause. “I am conscious” does not mean that I have any feeling stuff; it says that I am something that perceives. Of course we can modify Robin’s question: what is the efficient cause of my saying that I am conscious? Is it the fact that I actually perceive things, or is it simple parts interacting simply? But if we think of this in relation to form, it is like asking whether the properties of a square follow from squareness, or from the properties of the parts of a square. And it is perfectly obvious that the properties of a square follow both from squareness, and from the properties of the parts of a square, without any coincidence, and without interfering with one another. In the same way, the fact that I perceive things is the efficient cause of my saying that I perceive things. But the only difference between this actual situation and a philosophical zombie is one of form, not of matter; in a corresponding zombie, “simple parts interacting simply” are the cause of its producing sounds, but it neither perceives anything nor asserts that it is conscious, since its words are meaningless.

The same basic issue, namely Robin’s lack of the concept of a formal cause, is responsible for his statements about philosophical zombies:

Carroll inspires me to try to make one point I think worth making, even if it is also ignored. My target is people who think philosophical zombies make sense. Zombies are supposedly just like real people in having the same physical brains, which arose the through the same causal history. The only difference is that while real people really “feel”, zombies do not. But since this state of “feeling” is presumed to have zero causal influence on behavior, zombies act exactly like real people, including being passionate and articulate about claiming they are not zombies. People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a “hard question” regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel. (And which other systems feel as well.)

The one point I want to make is: if zombies are conceivable, then none of us will ever have any more relevant info than we do now about which systems actually feel. Which is pretty much zero info! You will never have any info about whether you ever really felt in the past, or will ever feel in the future. No one part of your brain ever gets any info from any other part of your brain about whether it really feels.

The state of “feeling” is not presumed to have zero causal influence on behavior. It is thought to have precisely a formal influence on behavior. That is, being conscious is why the activity of the conscious person is “saying that they feel” instead of “producing random meaningless sounds that others mistakenly interpret as meaning that they feel.”

Robin is right that philosophical zombies are impossible, however, although not for the reasons that he supposes. The actual reason for this is that it is impossible for a disposed matter to be lacking its corresponding form, and the idea of a zombie is precisely the idea of humanly disposed matter lacking human form.

Regarding his point about “info,” the possession of any information at all is already a proof that one is not a zombie. Since the zombie lacks form, any correlation between one part and another in it is essentially a random material correlation, not one that contains any information. If the correlation is noticed as having any info, then the thing noticing the information, and the information itself, are things which possess form. This argument, as far as it goes, is consistent with Robin’s claim that zombies do not make sense; they do not, but not for the reasons that he posits.


11 thoughts on “Zombies and Ignorance of the Formal Cause

  1. I’m no philosopher, but how does this idea of the “form of a conscious being” relate to possibilities of artificial intelligence? Is it possible for man to construct a system of logic circuits that produces meaningless sounds, having no actual formal content, but which we mistake for being meaningful? Or would such a well-spoken AI necessarily be “a thing that is conscious”?


  2. That is more or less answered by what I said in the post. Something could act in some ways like something intelligent without really being intelligent, as even chat bots do. But “it acts in every way like it is intelligent, but it is not,” is impossible, for the same reason that a geometrical object cannot act in every way like a square, without actually being a square. So if an artificial intelligence acts in every way like a real intelligence, it will be a real one.


  3. There is a lot here in this blog about James Larson. I would like to contact him regarding permission to quote from an article on his website, the one about the Rosmini Rehabilitation, but I cannot find an email address or a Contact Me page anywhere on his site. Is this blog in communication with Mr. Larson? Does anyone know how to reach him?


      • Thank you for that – I think I could go to that website and look everywhere in every link and still not find that email address, and I have no explanation for my inability to see it. But as long as I now have the information I need, I am grateful.


  4. It seems to me like you’re violently agreeing with Hanson: p-zombies are impossible because if something had the exact same form as a human it would simply be a human.

    But I don’t think it’s justified to call it “ignorance of formal cause”: the four causes model is just that, a model, and not a set of facts you are compelled to accept; disagreement isn’t the same as ignorance. He’s just not using that particular abstracted map, because he wants to talk about the territory – there is nothing but interacting physical parts in the territory (and he’s arguing against other people than you there, it seems). However, that doesn’t contradict that there can be meaningful higher-level abstractions like “something one” or different kinds of causes.


    • I agree with Robin that if something was physically identical to a human, it would be a human, and in this way zombies are impossible. However, Robin does not know why this is true, and when people try to explain it, he misunderstands what they are saying and interprets it to mean something else, e.g. with the talk about “consciousness stuff.” I think it is fair to characterize this as ignorance of formal causes.

      “the four causes model is just that, a model, and not a set of facts you are compelled to accept; disagreement isn’t the same as ignorance. He’s just not using that particular abstracted map, because he wants to talk about the territory”

      I don’t think the distinction between map and territory is helping here. Every map is meant to be a map of a territory, and it is either accurate or inaccurate. And as for talking about the territory, every map talks about the territory, since that is what it is supposed to be a map of. Either it does a good job or a bad job, but it tries to talk about the territory, so wanting to talk about a territory is not a reason not to use a map; it is a reason to use a good one.

      Talk about causes in particular is about explanations. Consider a case of this: I went to the store this morning, and the reason was in order to buy groceries (actually true by the way). The final cause was buying groceries. Suppose you say that this is just a model, not a set of facts that you are compelled to accept. The problem is this: “I went to the store to buy groceries” is a statement about reality — it is about the territory, not about a map. If you assert that buying groceries was not the purpose, but it was something else instead, your statement is false: you are rejecting a fact. And sure, no one can compel you to accept the facts. But they are facts whether or not you accept them, and buying groceries was actually my motive, in the real world. This is a question of territory, not of maps.

      “there is nothing but interacting physical parts in the territory”

      Again, the words “in the territory” here contribute nothing. Every statement is meant to be a statement about how things are, so is meant to say something about the territory. So your statement amounts to, “There is nothing interacting physical parts.”

      Now the word part is relative to a whole. So if there are parts, there is also a whole. So the statement that there are nothing but interacting physical parts is false.

      You might respond that the terminology of “part” and “whole” is just vague talk. Actually, according to this, there are just interacting particles “in the territory”: no parts, and no wholes. But again, saying “in the territory” contributes nothing: this is just the statement that nothing exists except particles. But if this is true, then humans do not exist, since humans are not particles. Likewise, conscious would not exist, since particles are presumably not conscious. Consequently the claim will still be false.

      In effect, you are equating “in the territory” with “what things are made out of.” Robin is doing something similar. But this is not true: “in the territory” just means what is real, and both parts and wholes are real.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. When you’re exactly the right distance apart in philosophy-space, conversation becomes the perfect combination of rewarding and frustrating to make it a great game. My fingers are itching to write a long response to more or less every sentence and I’d love to have this conversation at 2 in the morning after a few beers, but now I don’t have enough time so I’ll just write some brusque assertions to indicate my position:

    I don’t know exactly who Hanson is responding to, but in my experience people who don’t think consciousness can exist in an all-material world at all are quite common.

    I think either you or I misunderstand what “map and territory” means. In my view, everything that consists of more fundamental parts do not exist in the territory. The territory only has ontologically basic entities and all higher-order abstractions are models. “Human” is not an ontologically fundamental entity, which is what “doesn’t exist in the territory” means. In general, however “doesn’t exist” can mean different things, depending on context (so can “real”). “In the territory” is meant to indicate how we are to interpret “exist” here.

    As a consequence, only statements about ontologically fundamental entities (elementary particles or such) are completely about the territory and everything else is maps. Maps do point to the territory, but not with perfect fidelity so when you use ordinary words you’re not talking directly about the territory and what you’re saying doesn’t have a strict truth value. We call it true or false anyway but that’s pragmatism. Words like “purpose” are definitely not ontologically fundamental things.

    I actually has a half-draft of a blog post on something like this in mothballs. This makes me want to dig it up.


    • It feels like you’ve just repeated your disagreements (which is perhaps what you meant to do.)

      Again, “a human exists,” and “a human exists in the territory,” do not mean different things. They mean the same thing. So if the second is false, as you assert, the first is false. And in the end you seem to be asserting this: “Maps do point to the territory, but not with perfect fidelity so when you use ordinary words you’re not talking directly about the territory and what you’re saying doesn’t have a strict truth value. We call it true or false anyway but that’s pragmatism.” One problem is that if your account is right, they do have a “strict” truth value: they are false. A second problem is that there is no such thing as a “strict” truth value in the first place: all words are vague, including words that are meant to apply to the most basic material constituent of things. Finally, there is no reason whatsoever to equate materially the most basic with most real, as you are doing here.

      Basically to think about “purpose” is to think about the aspect of reality that makes it tend to continue in existence. If something exists, it tends to continue to exist. And complex things tend to continue to exist in complex ways that involve various activities. So human beings, for example, tend to continue to exist in ways that involve complex human activities. This is purpose, and it is just as real as the fact that electrons continue to exist over time, although the electrons persist in a much simpler way.

      There are a number of dichotomies in your position that are simply unsustainable (e.g. statements that “do not have a strict truth value” vs other statements that apparently would have such a truth value). I would recommend this page (http://praxeology.net/unblog03-03.htm#02) for additional consideration.


      • It’s sort of pointless to discuss kwithout shared fundamentals, which is why I’ve tried to be clear with mine. Simply contradicting me isn’t going to lead to any constructive discussion. I guess what I object to from the start is your contention that your view is so obviously right that Hanson’s disagreement can b e described as “ignorance”. I’ve given my position to show that you can m milo see things differently.

        I do mean different things by “humans exist” and “humans exist in the territory”, and you can’t really tell me what I mean against my saying so. I haven’t asserted that humans don’t exist (it depends on the meaning of “exist”).

        Generally: we can’t use words like “real” and “exist” as if they are objective, context-invariant properties. They need to be tabooed because they are so confusing.

        There is definitely some sense of “real” in which electrons are more real than “purposes”, if you disagree with that maybe the inferential distance is too large. In my view, there must be a set of fundamental rules that the universe is running on and fundamental entities that doesn’t reduce to something else, and everything else is simply descriptions of the consequences of those rules. There is a difference between them, what we call it isn’t important. I don’t see how one could disagree with that without going into mystical-idealist territory.

        Strict truth value is a limit case as term vagueness approaches zero, in practice terms have varying vagueness and what counts true is context dependent. A consequence is that we can’t really make logical arguments with ordinary words, one of the main points in my blogpost on philosophy from two months ago.

        (I hold that we can have terms without vagueness if we define them properly, but that’s a longer argument.)


  6. I’m going to risk muddying the waters.

    @john nerst: I would argue that in the same way that electrons, leptons, quarks, and so on exist, so too exist their spatial and temporal combinations and relationships. It doesn’t make sense to abstract fundamental particles from their real placement in real world, a world in which they combine and produce emergent properties that themselves cannot be predicted solely by inference from the “fundamental rules” (see computational irreducibility). A carbon atom, as an emergent property of fundamental particles, exists in exactly the same way that its constituent parts exist – the fact that it is in some way able to be reduced in its material cause does not ipso facto make it less real.

    The statement that fundamental rules and particles are more real than those forms which are derived from them is a metaphysical statement, of the type that I suspect you’re trying to avoid. Furthermore, as a metaphysical statement, the onus is on that position to explain how it is that the higher-order structures we recongize with our common sense are so explicable in terms of formal, material, efficient, and final causes. Simply saying that we are using unreal map-abstractions on a real territory does not explain why these abstractions are so useful relative to that territory, nor where those abstractions themselves come from. The fact is that the simple, fundamental rules of the universe are insufficient to explain higher-order phenomena – in large BECAUSE of the fact that things like human beings appear to not exist, when only the lowest level material is accounted for.

    It should not be construed that i am saying that higher-order structures are “magically” independent of the rules of the universe – only that there are rules for rules, and some of them govern form, finality, purpose, etc., in order to make a universe that is greater than the sum of its fundamental particles, which is certainly what we humans at the level of common sense interact with.

    @EU: I apologize if I’ve obscured your point. I am attempting to defend your view in my own words.


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