Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Zombic Hunch: Extinction of an Intuition?

  • Daniel Dennett


If Saul Steinberg's 1967 New Yorker cover is the metaphorical truth about consciousness, what is the literal truth? What is going on in the world (largely in this chap's brain, presumably) that makes it the case that this gorgeous metaphor is so apt?



Hide All

1 Eukaryotic cells.

2 Leibniz makes this particularly clear in another passage quoted in Latta's translation: ‘If in that which is organic there is nothing but mechanism, that is, bare matter, having differences of place, magnitude and figure; nothing can be deduced or explained from it, except mechanism, that is, except such differences as I have mentioned. For from anything taken by itself nothing can be deduced and explained, except differences of the attributes which constitute it. Hence we may readily conclude that in no mill or clock as such is there to be found any principle which perceives what takes place in it; and it matters not whether the things contained in the ‘machine’ are solid or fluid or made up of both. Further we know that there ence of magnitude. Whence it follows that, if it is inconceivable how perception arises in any coarse ‘machine’, whether it be made up of fluids or solids, it is equally inconceivable how perception can arise from a fine ‘machine’; for it our senses were finer, it would be the same as if we were perceiving a coarse ‘machine’, as we do at present.’ [from Commentatio de Anima Brutorum, 1710, quoted in footnote in Latta, p. 228.]

3 It would not, of course, prove anything at all. It is just an intuition pump.

4 Most recently, in the following works: Chomsky, Noam, ‘Naturalism and Dualism in the Study of Mind and Language’, Int. J. of Phil. Studies, vol. 2, pp. 181209 (his Agnes Cuming lecture of 1993), 1994. Nagel, Thomas, ‘Conceiving the Impossible and the Mind-Body Problem’, Philosophy, 73, 1998, pp. 337–52. McGinn, Colin, The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

5 Chalmers, David, ‘Facing Up to the Problems of Consciousness’, J. Consc. Studies, 2, pp. 200–19, and The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford University Press, 1996). Levine, Joseph, ‘Materialism and Qualia: The Explanatory Gap’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 64, pp. 354–61, 1983.

6 Chalmers, , ‘Facing Up to the Problems of Consciousness’, J. Consc. Studies, 2, pp. 200–19.

7 Nagel, op.cit., p. 338.

8 Chomsky, op. cit., 189. Chomsky is talking about the conclusion drawn by La Mettrie and Priestley, but his subsequent discussion, footnoting Roger Penrose and John Archibald Wheeler, makes it clear that he thinks this is a natural conclusion today, not just in early post-Newtonian days.

9 Galen Strawson, ‘Little Gray Cells,’ New York Times Book Review, 7/11/99, p. 13.

10 Incurable optimist that I am, I find this recent invasion by physicists into the domains of cognitive neuroscience to be a cloud with a silver lining: for the first time in my professional life, an interloping discipline beats out philosophy for the prize for combining arrogance with ignorance about the field being invaded. Neuroscientists and psychologists who used to stare glassy-eyed and uncomprehending at philosophers arguing about the fine points of supervenience and intensionality-with-an-s now have to contend in a similar spirit with the arcana of quantum entanglement and Bose-Einstein condensates. It is tempting to suppose that as it has become harder and harder to make progress in physics, some physicists have sought greener pastures where they can speculate with even less fear of experimental recalcitrance or clear contradiction.

11 A classic example of the topic problem in nature, and its ultimately computational solution, is Douglas Hofstadter's famous ‘Prelude … Ant Fugue’ in Godel Escher Bach (1979), the dialogue comparing an ant colony (‘Aunt Hillary’) to a brain, whose parts are equally clueless contributors to systemic knowledge of the whole. In his reflections following the reprinting of this essay in Hofstadter and Dennett, (eds), The Mind's I, (1981), he asks ‘Is the soul more than the hum of its parts?’

12 Chalmers, 1996, op. cit., esp. chapter 7.

13 Nagel, Thomas, 1974, ‘What is it Like to be a Bat?Phil. Review, 83, pp. 435–50.

14 Searle, John, The Rediscovery of the Mind, (MIT Press, 1992).

15 In the words of one of their most vehement spokespersons, ‘It all comes down to zombies.’ Selmer Bringsjord, ‘Dennett versus Searle: It All Comes Down to Zombies and Dennett is Wrong,’ (APA December, 1994).

16 Dennett, Daniel, 1991, Consciousness Explained, New York and Boston: Little Brown, esp chapters 10–12; 1994, ‘Get Real,’ reply to 14 essays, in Philosophical Topics, 22, no. 1 & 2, 1994, pp. 505–68; 1995, ‘The Unimagined Preposterousness of Zombics,’ J. Consc. Studies, 2, pp. 322–36.

17 Nagel, 1998, op. cit., p. 342.

18 It is visceral in the sense of being almost entirely a-rational, insensitive to argument or the lack thereof. Probably the first to comment explicitly on this strange lapse from reason among philosophers was Lycan, in a footnote at the end of his 1987 book, Consciousness (MIT Press) that deserves quoting in full:

On a number of occasions when I have delivered bits of this book as talks or lectures, one or another member of the audience has kindly praised my argumentative adroitness, dialectical skill, etc., but added that cleverness–and my arguments themselves–are quite beside the point, a mere exercise and/or display. Nagel (1979 [Preface to Mortal Questions Cambridge University Press]) may perhaps be read more charitably, but not much more charitably:

I believe one should trust problems over solutions, intuition over arguments ⃜ [Well, excuuuuuse me!—WGL’ If arguments or systematic theoretical considerations lead to results that seem intuitively not to make sense … then something is wrong with the argument and more work needs to be done. Often the problem has to be reformulated, because an adequate answer to the original formulation fails to make the sense of the problem disappear (pp. x–xi).

If by this Nagel means only that intuitions contrary to ostensibly sound argument need at least to be explained away, no one would disagree (but the clause ‘something is wrong with the argument’ discourages that interpretation). The task of explaining away ‘qualia’-based intuitive objections to materialism is what in large part I have undertaken in this book. If I have failed, I would like to be shown why (or, of course, presented with some new anti-materialist argument). To engage in further muttering and posturing would be idle. (pp. 147–8)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed