Mind And Tense: Zombies In The Here And Now

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: A philosophical zombie is a being physically/behaviorally identical to a human, but lacking any ‘inner’ experience.

Zombies have become a mainstay of philosophy as much as of pulp fiction—a confluence that it would be fallacious to assume implies some further connection between the two, naturally. Zombies are beings that act in many ways like living humans—they move around, they interact with the world, and they, to generally horrific effect, consume resources for sustenance—not ending up as which is the typical goal of the protagonists of various kinds of zombie media. Yet, they lack the crucial quality of actually being alive, instead generally being considered merely ‘undead’.

Zombies are thus creatures of lack, creatures that have been robbed of some quality we otherwise think essential. Consider, for instance, the notion of the soulless zombie: a being which, despite acting and reacting just like any other human being—in fact, we might stipulate, in a way exactly paralleling your actions and reactions—lacks a ‘soul’ of any kind. If this is imaginable, then, the argument goes, there’s nothing that you’d actually need a soul for—and hence, we can strike it from the list of essential qualities without any resulting deficit.

A counterpoint to this particular argument is the floating man thought experiment of Ibn Sina (often Latinised as Avicenna), the eleventh century Persian polymath and physician. Ibn Sina imagines being created ‘at a stroke’, fully formed, in a state of free fall, and in darkness. Lacking any external sensory impression, one would still be certain of one’s own existence. But if there is nothing physical one could be conscious off absent such sensory data, then that sensation of being aware of one’s own self must be a sensation of something non-physical—the soul, or Nafs in the Quran. To Ibn Sina, then, the soulless zombie would merely show that the world is not exhausted by the physical, by our behaviors and reactions to external stimuli. Read more »

Mind The Matter: Consciousness As Self-Representational Access

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Von Neumann’s replicator-design in its original cellular automaton guise. The tape stretches to the right, and the second-generation replicator is finishing up construction of the third.

There are two main problems that bedevil any purported theory of the mind. The first is the Problem of Intentionality: the question of how mental states can come to be about, or refer to, things in the world. The second is the Problem of Phenomenal Experience: the question of how come there is ‘something it is like’ to be in a certain mental state, how mental content is something that appears to us in a certain way (this is also often referred to as simply the ‘Hard Problem’).

These problems are often assumed to be separate issues. However, in a recent article published in the journal Erkenntnis (pre-print version), I propose that one can make progress on the Problem of Intentionality, but at the expense of leaving the Hard Problem unsolvable—indeed, making the task of ‘solving’ it a kind of conceptual confusion: an attempt of capturing the non-structural, non-relational in terms of structure and relation.

In a nutshell, I propose that states of mind are intentional because, through what I call the von Neumann-process, their own properties are represented to themselves; to the extent that these properties then reflect those of objects in the world, the properties of those objects are available to them. Hence, a mental state becomes ‘about’ the world by being, first and foremost, about itself. Read more »

The Von Neumann Mind: Constructing Meaning

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: The homunculus fallacy: attempting to explain understanding in terms of representation begs the question of how that representation is itself understood, leading to infinite regress.

Turn your head to the left, and make a conscious inventory of what you’re seeing. In my case, I see a radiator upon which a tin can painted with an image of Santa Claus is perched; above that, a window, whose white frame delimits a slate gray sky and the very topmost potion of the roof of the neighboring building, brownish tiles punctuated by gray smokestacks and sheet-metal covered dormers lined by rain gutters.

Now turn your head to the right: the printer sitting on the smaller projection of my ‘L’-shaped, black desk; behind it, a brass floor lamp with an off-white lampshade; a black rocking chair; and then, black and white bookshelves in need of tidying up.

If you followed along so far, the above did two things: first, it made you execute certain movements; second, it gave you an impression of the room where I’m writing this. You probably find nothing extraordinary in this—yet, it raises a profound question: how can words, mere marks on paper (or ordered dots of light on a screen), have the power to make you do things (like turning your head), or transport ideas (like how the sky outside my window looks as I’m writing this)? Read more »

Do Octopuses Have Souls? (On the Nature of Animal Consciousness)

by Leanne Ogasawara

Anyone who has ever found themselves caught in a staring contest with an octopus –those soulful cat-eyes returning your gaze through the thick glass of an aquarium tank– can attest to the uncanny power these creatures exert over our human imagination.

They certainly look alien. With three hearts pumping blue, copper-infused blood, their tentacles (“each with a mind of its own”) are covered in suckers that can feel AND taste. Because their beaks are the only hard parts of their bodies, a large octopus can squeeze through a hole not much bigger than one of their eyeballs. They are like the Great Houdinis of the deep! Without a hard shell like other mollusks, octopuses have evolved clever ways for keeping a step ahead of predators: Not only can they change colors to camouflage themselves, blending into almost any watery environment, but they can also send out ink bombs. After lobbing one to confuse an enemy, an octopus can jet propel away from danger at surprising speeds in a funnel of water.

Is it any wonder that there have been people who believe they might have originated in space? From the Scandinavian myth of the Kraken and Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to Japanese sea monsters and the sexual predators found in erotic shunga prints, again and again–in so many cultures around the world– these creatures show up in stories and art as monsters and space aliens. And who could forget the fear instilled in the losing soccer teams by Paul the Clairvoyant World Cup Octopus? The Argentines got so angry at him that they threatened to kill him and cook him in a paella, if he kept foretelling their bad luck!

My own personal octopus “horror” is the not-as-rare-as–you-would-think sight of Japanese TV personalities (and a few of my friends) traveling in Korea and eating live octopuses–desperate tentacles clawing their way out of the people’s mouths! Read more »

Translating Descartes

by Leanne Ogasawara

1. The philosopher and the translator

It was probably the most interesting translation job I ever had. Hired directly by the philosopher himself, my task was to translate into English a series of talks and papers he would be delivering in the US and Europe in the coming year. Philosophy being what I studied as an undergraduate, I had high hopes for the job. But my Japanese philosopher quickly became frustrated with me.

Leanne-san, is it possible for you to forget Descartes while you translate my papers? He wrote superciliously in a style of Japanese designed to be condescending beyond belief.

Well, this took me by surprise! Was it possible that I was guilty of an unconscious Cartesianism? Surely, he must be joking; for had I not studied at the feet of the great Heidegger scholar, Hubert Dreyfus, who had made it his mission to demolish Descartes in front of our very eyes –before turning to Heidegger? In all my philosophy classes, in fact, Descartes (always referred to as “the father of modern philosophy”) came up again and again–mainly in the form of other philosophers’ reactions to some aspect of his work.

So much so, that sometimes I think my understanding of Descartes is itself a rejection of Descartes.

And so, I informed my philosopher that not only had I forgotten Descartes long ago, but that I had no plans to ever remember him again.

He was not convinced and pressed his point. Read more »