Author Archives: Andy Walsh - Page 2

Running with Zombies

Zombies have a large part to play in philosophy. I don’t just mean as academics and lecturers -although that is also true (especially when tenure is involved). What I mean is that the concept of a zombie provides a starting point for some pretty interesting philosophical discussion. Let me explain.

If I were to ask you what, fundamentally, you are, how would you reply? You might assert that you are a human being with arms, legs, eyes, ears etc. But you would probably agree that this is hardly the whole story. You would probably also insist that you are a thinking subject, with a mind consisting of beliefs, desires, pains, intentions, hopes etc. And you might concur that it is this complex of mental states that makes you not simply a human being but also a person. If I was to then ask you: where is this mind located? You might reply (having conceded that the question is intelligible) that it is “located” in your brain. And on the face of it the reply seems reasonable. It is my brain that makes it possible for me to feel pain, to anticipate pleasure, to regret the way I voted, to believe that Mo Farah is the best distance runner in Europe.

But what does it mean to say that the mind is “located” in the brain? Is it even a preamble to an explanation to assert that the brain “makes  possible” the sensation of pain? What sort of relation is being, hesitantly, hinted at?  To say that it is your brain that makes your mind possible is not necessarily to assert a relation of identity, for example, since by “makes possible” we might mean “causes”; and when one thing causes another thing there are two distinct things, not one (the possible exception here being God). Some philosophers do indeed wish to assert that the relation is one of identity: that minds are nothing but brains or (more unusually) that brains are “logical constructions” from mental events. Others wish to argue that the mental and physical are ontologically distinct and each as fundamental as the other. Some philosophers wish to deny that minds exist in the first place (yes, honestly).

This, of course, is the mind-body problem which can be summed up in the conjunction of two questions: how to reconcile the dull, grey, synaptic firings in our brains with the richness of phenomenal experience; and how do we bind ourselves as thinking subjects to the world of objects as described by science?

Enter the zombie.

There is an ingenious argument that has been given succinct expression in the writings of David Chalmers. It goes something like this. We are familiar with zombies as they are presented in popular culture, as beings physically like us and yet different from us in that they lack conscious experience. Another way of saying this would be to state that zombies are possible in the sense that to assert that they exist might be false but does not involve a contradiction. In other words, zombies are logically possible (they might exist in some possible universe) even if they are not nomologically possible (ruled out by the physical laws which govern this universe). I am, as it happens, a fan of the actor Dick Van Dyke and consider Diagnosis Murder to be the acme of cheap television shows which appertain to hospital doctors who also happen to be detectives. We can imagine a possible world in which Mr Van Dyke has a zombie-counterpart, a physically like-for-like equivalent to the non-zombie Van Dyke right down to the causal properties of his brain. But we can also intelligibly subtract from zombie-Van Dyke those features of felt consciousness that make “our” Van Dyke the fine actor that he is (the emotional range, the sense of empathy, along with the other felt properties shared with us non-thespians). From this it follows, surely, that those phenomenal features of consciousness (the qualia, or “what it’s like to us to be in pain etc) cannot be identical with the brain since if A is identical with B then necessarily whatever properties A has, B has also: and in the stated case this necessity does not seem to obtain.

The philosopher Michelle Maise, in a nice paper called The Power of Passion on Heartbreak Hill, discusses these issues in connection with running (the title refers to a rocky patch during the Boston marathon). Is it possible, she asks, for a zombie to run a marathon? On the face of it the answer seems straightforward: why not? If we can allow that there might be zombies then we can allow also that they would be able to run. And if they lack sensations such as pain, fatigue, despair and all the other companions of the long distance runner then it seems to follow that they’d make pretty good marathon runners. I’ve spent many a club race night running against club members who show no signs of discomfort and trust me, it’s dispiriting.

But the case of the stoical club runner is misleading for two reasons. For one thing they are normally bluffing: good runners are masters of concealment. She feels the same agony as the rest of us, she just chooses not to (behaviourally) disclose it. Secondly, as Maise points out, this spectrum of sensations is not accidental to the act of running but is on the contrary essential to it. The zombie, in other words, is not running  at  all. Sure it might be moving, but it is not running any more than my PC is flying when I launch it through the air following an email from my publisher. What is required in order to transform the fact of movement into the act of running is agency which, Maise suggests, cannot be legitimately ascribed to a zombie given their cognitive deficiencies.

That said, I wouldn’t want one chasing me. I’ve seen Night of the Living Dead, those zombies can shift.


“The Power of Passion on Heartbreak Hill” is included in Michael W. Austin’s collection “Running and Philosophy: a marathon for the mind”. Other papers in the collection will be the subject of future posts.

On The Lam

I’m on the lam. A fugitive from the State and its capricious application of “justice”. The “one armed man” has nothing on me.

My crimes are manifold, and like all habitual offenders I started small. Ignorance is no excuse but I genuinely was unaware that in 21st Century Britain it was an offence to change a light bulb without the appropriate state-approved certification. What can I say? My baby needed feeding and the main light had blown.

Criminality is a habit like any other, and it was not long before I had changed all the light bulbs in my flat whether they needed changing or not. I consoled myself with the fiction that what I was doing was some form of protest, against the war in Afghanistan perhaps, or the cancellation of the 24 hour drinking laws, or the failure of my local church to recognise the Tridentine Mass. But who was I kidding? I support the war, don’t drink, and have forgotten most of my Latin.

Before long I was irredeemable: mixing the recyclable rubbish with the household waste on collection day; driving my god daughter to school without submitting myself to the requisite criminal records check; cycling on a public road without a helmet. On one occasion I activated a speed camera on an empty dual carriageway at three o’clock in the morning. I even broke my “no dinner party” rule in order to announce my version of climate change scepticism. I had dipped my toe into the murky currents of the underworld and every time I thought I was out….they dragged me back in.

And so I have fled, pausing briefly to throw together a bag of clothes and to grab my well-thumbed copy of Paul Feyerabend’s autobiography Killing Time. Feyerabend understood the mindset of the outsider, but as his anarchism was formed on the Eastern Front rather than in the harsher context of 21st Century Britain, my empathy with him is somewhat abbreviated.

As I write this “they” will be searching the flat. Doubtless by now “they” will have found my copy of Anarchy, State and Utopia with the indiscreet marginalia decrying the extensive nature of Nozick’s “minimal state”. Will “they” be able to use that against me at the inevitable trial? Fortunately I have hidden my Roger Scruton: A Reader underneath the floor boards. As agents of the State are forbidden to attack floorboards (on health and safety grounds) I am confident that it will remain undiscovered.

I am reconciled to eventual capture and interrogation. I have accepted that some form of “re-education” will be inevitable. Possibly in the form of a “driving awareness” course, or compulsory enrolment in a bicycling proficiency course. Any incipient recidivism will be stamped out, ruthlessly.

The best I can hope for is “urban hero” status, but I suspect my crimes are too common to allow for this.

Why I No Longer Attend Dinner Parties (Part One)

I no longer attend dinner parties, for two reasons. Firstly I no longer drink, and find it difficult to be in the company of those who do. Secondly, the  only people who would ever invite me to a dinner party are the people who remember what I was like when I did drink, and they tend to adjust their intention accordingly. That said, I retain fond memories of those occasions on which the philosophy flowed freely with the wine, and clarity was imposed upon those issues which, when constrained by sobriety, presented themselves as intractable.

It goes without saying that the memories are false. 

Here’s how I remember one such occasion from several years ago following a staff research seminar on…something or other.

Me: I’ve been giving some thought to the question of arbitrariness as it relates to a divine command morality.

Nicholas: Divine command morality being the thesis that the ultimate foundations of a genuine moral system are determined by God’s will? More wine Andy?

Me: No thank you. One glass is my absolute limit. Yes, you are quite correct. Divine command theory holds that those actions which are good are so in virtue of the fact that they are commanded by Him and those actions which are wrong are those which He forbids. For example, we can take charity to be a duty because God commands it and we can take murder to be wrong because God has forbidden it. Those who endorse this view are minded to argue that it follows from the traditionally conceived character of God, i.e. that He is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. There are, it goes without saying, other ways of construing the connection between religion and morality, even within what might be called the Christian tradition. Divine command theory is, if you like, a way of maximising the strength of that connection.

Howard: I seem to remember there is some discussion of  something like this in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, in which it is asked, roughly: “Do the gods command what is right or is what is right simply that which the gods command”.

Me: Plato talks about the gods rather than from within the monotheistic tradition, but the issue he raises is indeed taken to be a problem for divine command morality. Does God command what is good (in which case “the good” is logically prior to God’s command) or is whatever God commands “good” simply in virtue of the fact that God has commanded it ? If the former is true then it seems to follow that God reports what is “good” rather than determines what is “good” and the connection between religion and morality seems to come apart. But if the latter is true then it seems to follow that morality is in a sense arbitrary: that murder could become a duty were God to decide to will it so.

Stephen: This is indeed a problem is it not? It seems that in order for divine command theory to establish that God is logically prior to morality it is necessary to accept that morality is arbitrary in the way you suggest. And yet such arbitrariness is surely inimical to morality as any of us would understand it. There simply seem to be some moral precepts that are inviolable and binding across cultures and over time.

Me: But might there not be a way through this? Could we allow that morality is determined via His will, allow further that this implies arbitrariness and yet insist that it is nevertheless the case that there are some things that He would not will.

Nicholas: It’s difficult to see how this might work. For it would remain the case that He might decide to command us to torture our children and on this view we would be obliged to do so. Would this not constitute a reductio of the divine command thesis? Once you concede arbitrariness is it not the case that the reductio is available?

Me: Not necessarily. We might argue that arbitrariness does not of itself imply an absolute absence of constraints. We might want to say that it is a feature of the divine character that there are some things He cannot will and some states of affairs that He cannot endorse. God cannot bring into being a square circle: but to accept this is not to compromise on His omnipotence because to suggest otherwise would be absurd, and it can hardly be an argument against omnipotence to suggest that He can’t do the impossible: quite the reverse. Likewise there may be some states of affairs that it is outwith His character to will  but this does not impugn His omnibenevolence so much as underline it. At the very least we need an examination of what “arbitrariness” might mean when applied to a God as traditionally described.

Nicholas: I think that there might be a more basic and obvious objection to any attempt to make morality dependent on religion which is that many people who live more or less blameless lives have no religious faith. They simply do not need religion to tell them what to do.

Me: Yes but this is to confuse the epistemic for the logical. From the fact that a person has a sense of right or wrong independent of faith it does not follow that goodness is  not logically founded in religion. A can be logically constitutive of B and it can remain the case that a person has knowledge of B and no knowledge of the constitutive relationship. A divine command theorist is not committed to denying that an atheist can lead a morally good life; she is committed merely to the different claim that it is God who makes that “morally good life” logically possible.

Such, anyway, is how I remember the evening’s discussion. The reality, I am told is somewhat different: I hogged the wine, animadverted at tedious length about alleged ball tampering in the cricket, and managed to get lost on my way back from the  toilet (a distance of some 10 feet).

There is an excellent discussion of the nature of arbitrariness and God’s will in Paul Rooney’s Divine Command Morality (published by Avebury Press)….or at least I think there is.

The Public Funding of Political Parties

In order for democracy to be healthy -we are told- it is essential that political parties be allowed to flourish. In order that political parties be able to flourish it is essential that they exist. In order to exist it is essential that they are funded. Since therefore the citizen (or subject) has an interest in a healthy democracy it is in her interest to fund political parties; and since she might not be able to discern her own interest with the clarity of the political classes it is best all round that the funding be non-voluntary and via the usual mechanism of confiscatory taxation. This, or something like it, seems to be the argument in favour of the “state” funding of political parties: an argument that erupts intermittently within the United Kingdom chattering classes.

The argument is nonsense of course, not least because it assumes that the current political parties are the only ones that might exist. Of course it might be the case that democracy requires the existence of some political parties. But why these political parties? Political parties are human institutions, and like all human institutions they evolve and die – to be replaced by other institutions. If the Labour Party, or the Conservative Party, is unable to finance itself without reaching unbidden into my pay packet then tough. Why should I be required to pay for the continued existence of an institution whose politics and values I do not share (I already do that once with the BBC)? It is surely absurd that a political party should offer itself as custodian of the nation’s finances without being able to manage its own.

There is, in the UK, a “consensus” between the major parties that some form of public funding might be desirable. Well there would be wouldn’t there? It is a very felicitous consensus that includes those who would benefit from the policy and yet excludes those who would pay for it.

Is it, anyway, the case that a healthy democracy requires the constant existence of legislators? Would an interruption to the legislative process, for five years say, be such a disaster? It would for the legislators perhaps, but not for the rest of us. The rise of the professional politician has seen an unwelcome expansion in the powers of the state and how could it be otherwise? The only people who are fit to be sent to the House of Commons are those who really don’t want to be there. There is much controversy here over whether MPs should have second jobs. But of course they should: the second job should be “being an MP”.

The Departmental Meeting…

As secretary to the university’s department of philsophy it fell to me to make a record of the discussion at the most recent academic committee meeting. And what a meeting it was! The main item for discussion that day was “the matter at hand”. And this is how the meeting unfolded…

Professor Moore: “I now think it is time to turn to the matter at hand.”

An uncontroversial beginning one might have thought, but rarely are things so simple at a gathering of the philosophical “great and good”:

“I object to that!”  offered Professor Bradley, more sharply than was normal on these occasions, “there is no ‘matter’  to be ‘at hand’ if by that you intend to refer to some underlying substrate in which ‘matter’ might inhere. I might give you a ‘hand’ but there will be no accompanying ‘matter’ to place next to it. Or underneath it. Or anywhere else for that….And any ‘hand’ whose existence I am prepared to assent to would not be individuated separately but would be part of an inclusive Whole.”

My colleagues appeared restless at this. For Professor Bradley had a point: if we could not agree on the existence of matter then  it followed a fortiori  that there could be no matter at hand and that further discussion was therefore pointless. Luckily Professor Ayer, his mind no doubt on a later assignation, was keen to move things along…

Professor Ayer: “We can accept, following Berkeley, that to talk of ‘matter’ in this way is literal nonsense. There can be no discussion of the matter in hand since any proposition which includes the term ‘matter in hand’ will be neither analytic nor verifiable. We might, however, following Russell (following Hume), agree to refer instead to ‘the logical construction out of sense data at hand’. We could then proceed in a manner that preserves the requisite clarity and rigour. We can if you like (and following me) resume discussion of the matter in a hand in a way that is analogous to the discussion of other minds…” there were nods of assent at this sage proposal and it looked as if Professor Ayer might have saved the day. But then, not for the first time, he overreached himself, “…and anyway time is marching on.”

At this there was a sharp intake of breath for we all knew what was coming…

“I would ask you to retract that Sir!” thundered Professor McTaggart, “I have not spent the best part of the last decade proving that time does not exist only for you to glibly ascribe to it not merely existence but some peculiar species of causal powers! “Marching on” indeed! I did not come here only to be confronted by your obnoxious conflation of the A-series with the B-series! Were there such a thing as time you would undoubtedly be wasting mine Sir!”

At this the idealists sided with McTaggart against the empiricists whom they accused of attempting to hijack the agenda of the meeting. The rationalists took the side of the idealists whilst the contrarians took the side of nobody. At one point Professor Wittgenstein demanded that everyone be quiet. And, as head of department, Profeesor Moore appealed in vain for common sense to prevail. It fell to the department’s token Kantian, Professor Strawson, to effect an uneasy truce between these disparate camps.

Discussion of the matter at hand was eventually deferred until the next meeting of the academic committee where it appears on the agenda as Item 3: “the logical-construction-from-sense-data-at-hand-in-a-way-that-is-metaphysically-and-ontologically-neutral”.

Spare a Thought For the Thought Experiment

In his paper Epiphenomenal Qualia Frank Jackson invites us to consider the imaginary case of Mary, kept in a monochromatic room from birth and who, presumably out of boredom, spends her time becoming acquainted with all that neuroscience can tell us  regarding the mechanisms that underlie our experience of colour vision. Mary herself has never seen a red object, but when it comes to the physical facts that attend such an experience, she knows them all. What, Jackson asks, would happen were she to be released from her room and to see a red object for the first time? Would she learn something new? Surely she would: she would learn what the experience of seeing a red object is like. But in that case would it not follow that, since she already knew all the physical facts about “seeing red”, what she learns must be a “non-physical fact” (a fact not present in the developed neuroscience of colour vision)? And if there are such “non-physical” facts does it not follow that physicalism is false?

Jackson’s “knowledge argument” against physicalism has its detractors. These days they include Jackson himself who has, in his own phrase, “capitulated” to the orthodoxies of scientific materialism. More generally we can ask the question: what should we do when the results of a thought experiment are inconsistent with the prevailing view? Abandon the thought experiment? Or abandon the prevailing view? And is there a core philosophical principle, some piece of metaphilosophy, to which we can appeal in order to settle the matter?

Some argue that thought experiments tend to confuse what is possible (in the conceptual sense) with what is imaginable (in the epistemic sense). Thus Hilary Putnam: you can imagine that you can imagine that you are a “brain in a vat” and that what you take to be your thoughts and sensations are a collective and systematic misrepresentation of the world “as it really is”  but what you imagine you imagine is in fact no such thing. A brain in a vat would not be able to imagine itself to be a brain in a vat: the very notion is incoherent (an implication, Putnam argues, of a true theory of meaning). Similarly Bernard Williams has suggested that thought experiments which invite us to imagine ourselves in this or that scenario will often overlook that we are embodied originators of our own projects and goals, and that this fact describes an ineliminable feature of our personal identity. Thus when John Rawls constructs his version of political liberalism via the imagined consent of a freely choosing rational agent operating from behind a “veil of ignorance”, Williams will point out that when the free agent takes the veil she ceases to be an agent at all.

Small wonder then that the thought experiment passes in and out of fashion. The late philosopher of mind and freedom activist Kathy Wilkes described her own book on personal identity as being philosophy without thought experiments. John Searle in a series of exchanges with Paul and Patricia Churchland complained that the problem with thought experiments was their failure to preserve the philsophically salient features of the problem they are intended to illuminate. Pretty cheeky perhaps, from the inventor of the Chinese Room. But not without chutzpah.

Some of the great exponents of the thought experiment appreciate also the value of the genuine experiment. None more so than Berkeley who on one occasion attempted to hang himself in order to generate a near death experience. The episode is described by Oliver Goldsmith who noted that it was agreed that:

….his companion would take him down at a signal agreed upon…Berkeley was therefore tied up to the ceiling, and the chair taken from under his feet, but soon losing the use of his senses, his companion it seems waited a little too long for the signal agreed upon, and Berkeley had like to have been hanged in good earnest; for as soon as he was taken down he fell senseless and motionless upon the floor….

So take note: the next time you hear of a pop star or actor who has passed away in embarrassing circumstances things might not be so tawdry as first appears. Their final thoughts might have been deep ones.

The Turner Prize: I Miss Out Once Again

And so for the third year running the Turner Prize judges have passed me over in favour of an endorsement of modern so-called art. This year’s winner, an abstract mural by Richard Wright, is arresting enough but not innovative in the manner of my own entry: my training run from last Friday, conducted in front of a number of respected critics including Professor Hermione Nugget (Chair of the Department of Gender Outreach Studies, at the University of the West Country).

I really thought I was in with a shout this time. Especially given the feedback. My refusal to wear a garmin satnav fitness watch was described approvingly as “an attempt to place the run within the parameters of the traditional artistic canon without itself being bound by the constraints of that canon”. My distinctive running gait was said to be “the very opposite of poetry in motion and all the more iconoclastic for that” (I thought I was a mild overpronator but these critics had seen more than I). When I slipped and landed on my backside on the descent from Westwood into Bradford-on-Avon, the moment was praised as being “emblemtaic of the collapse of bourgeois aesthetic standards under the weight  of their internal contradictions”. Furthermore my place within the running pack (last, and behind a woman to boot) was described as being “a paradigm of developing neo-Hegelian subversions of the typical male hierarchies” (a good thing, apparently).

At one point I thought I’d embarrassed myself. On returning to the clubhouse I noticed that somebody had left the veranda door open and before I could stop myself the words were out: “For God’s sake can somebody shut that door?! I wasn’t brought up in a barn you know!” I turned to the critics, with every intention of apologising but was assured that no such apology was necessary on the grounds that my “my iconoclasm with respect to the prevailing religious stereotype involved a subtle restatement of a more desirable secular heterodoxy”. I was assured that I would get extra marks for that.

But it wasn’t to be and so once again I am a runner up (no pun intended).  It has been suggested that I write to the Turner judges and request the Appeals Procedure but this is no longer possible because, due to an administrative error, the Appeals Procedure did itself win the Turner Prize in 2003 and now sits in a designated viewing area within the Tate Modern (viewing by appointment only).

Oh well. There’s always next year. I might enter my 2002 London Marathon PB…..

Dawkins’ Mindless Delusions

This is a guest post by Andy Walsh.

It is tempting sometimes to think of Richard Dawkins as a sort of Max Bialystock of the popular science world, with his God Delusion being a sort of literary equivalent of The Producers. I sometimes imagine him, pre-publication, preparing to launch his rant, both irreligious and anti-religious in form, cloaked in the assumption that nobody would take it seriously. Were he ever to have displayed a sense of humour I would be tempted to make this thesis the central argument of this blog. More in keeping with his reverence for the scientific view, and of his own place in the shaping of that view, might be the thought that he offers his views as a sort of Secular Encyclical, albeit one designed to endorse the pre-existing opinions of his readership rather than to offer the consolations of more difficult truths.

Dawkins operates a sort of positivism with respect to theology: not only does he take its claims to be false he also suggests that it is meaningless to think of it as being an academic discipline at all. It is not clear how, even given the former view, one might arrive at the latter one. Is it sufficient that the beliefs suggested by theology are false? If so does it follow that Newtonian physics is meaningless as an academic discipline?

But it’s still Christmas as I write this and so in the spirit of the season (the celebration of which might or might not be meaningless) let us give Dawkins all he wants: let us agree that to meet the central, ahem, “arguments” of God Delusion it will not do to fall back into the idiom of theology. But we don’t need to. An objection to the Dawkins, possibly a fatal one, can be developed using thoughts suggested by that most scientifically sympathetic and materialist-inclined philosopher Donald Davidson (no theologian he!).

Dawkins assimilates all explanation to the scientific. The existence of consciousness is, for him a mere epiphenomenon: a causal product of the elaboration of the evolutionary story. But the existence of consciousness carries with it an alternative, though not competing, form of explanation, the personal explanation. Davidson, who affirms that all mental events are identical with physical events (and who locates the proper sphere of philosophical inquiry in the third-personal, rather than the subjective) nevertheless argues that the mental is anomalous with respect to the physical, and he does this precisely because of the strict (nomological) status of the laws of physics. On this view, a view which owes nothing to theology and everything to the “desert landscapes” of a scientific philosophy, the forms of explanation which make reference to human beliefs and desires etc will never be displaced by science, however developed that science eventually becomes.

Consider the following statement: “Christopher decided to buy a copy of Richard’s book as he wanted some light reading for the evening. He therefore decided to catch the bus to town as he believed that it would be quicker than the train at this time of day”. The statement cites Christopher’s intention to buy the book and to take the bus based on his desire to read the book and his belief that the bus would be quicker than the train. The form of explanation is personal (or folk psychological as some philosophers have called it) and its character is shaped by its reference to Christopher’s mental states. Now it may well be the case (and for Davidson it is the case) that the sequence of mental events described by the explanation are identical with physical events (synaptic firings etc) in Christopher’s brain. But it would, according to him, be a mistake to suggest that from this it follows that the mental and the physical are related in any law like way: not if by “law” we mean something with the character of a physical law. If we agree with this line of thought we might conclude that scientific explanation leaves untouched the phenomena of consciousness, agency and the forms of explanation they supply.

It is of course possible to deny that Davidson’s arguments prevent the development of a materialist conception of the mental. Eliminative materialists look at arguments such as this and conclude that if the existence of consciousness generates a barrier to the completion of the neuroscientific project then it’s best to conclude that consciousness does not exist (I kid you not –there are some philosophers of mind who endorse this view although in the case of one of them (Rorty) it might well be that his motive is mischief….assuming there are such things as motives of course). Such a maneuver might be an overreaction but at least it is a reaction: Dawkins seems to be unaware even of the debate.

It is not the case, as Dawkins seems to assume, that theists in formulating the “God hypothesis” are guilty of a thought too far. Rather, the fact of agency and the forms of explanation it furnishes, is immanent in the world, to at least the extent of science. You don’t need to do any “theology” to realise this; just a little philosophy.

Andy studied under the Berkleyan philosopher, Howard Robinson, at the University of Liverpool, and has a doctorate in contemporary philosophy of mind/language.