Zombie Interpretation: Eliminating Kriegel’s Asymmetry Argument

by rsbakker

Could zombie versions of philosophical problems, versions that eliminate all intentionality from the phenomena at issue, shed any light on those problems?

The only way to find out is to try.

Since I’ve been railing so much about the failure of normativism to account for its evidential basis, I thought it worthwhile to consider the work of a very interesting intentionalist philosopher, Uriah Kriegel, who sees the need quite clearly. The question could not be more simple: What justifies philosophical claims regarding the existence and nature of intentional phenomena? For Kriegel the most ‘natural’ and explanatorily powerful answer is observational contact with experiential intentional states. How else, he asks, can we come to know our intentional states short of experiencing them? In what follows I propose to consider two of Kriegel’s central arguments against the backdrop of ‘zombie interpretations’ of the very activities he considers, and in doing so, I hope to undermine not only his argument, but the general abductive strategy one finds intentionalists taking throughout philosophy more generally, the presumption that only theoretical accounts somehow involving intentionality can account for intentional phenomena.

In his 2011 book, The Sources of Intentionality, Kriegel attempts to remedy semantic externalism’s failure to naturalize intentionality via a carefully specified return to phenomenology, an account of how intentional concepts arise from our introspective ‘observational contact’ with mental states possessing intentional content. Experience, he claims, is intrinsically intentional. Introspective contact with this intrinsic intentionality is what grounds our understanding of intentionality, providing ‘anchoring instances’ for our various intentional concepts.

As Kriegel is quick to point out, such a thesis implies a crucial distinction between experiential intentionality, the kind of intentionality we experience, and nonexperiential intentionality, the kind of intentionality we ascribe without experiencing. This leads him to Davidson’s account of radical interpretation, and to what he calls the “remarkable asymmetry” between various ascriptions of intentionality. On radical interpretation as Davidson theorizes it, our attempts to interpret one another are so evidentially impoverished that interpretative success fundamentally requires assuming the rationality of our interlocutor—what he terms ‘charity.’ The ascription of some intentional state to another turns on the prior assumption that he or she believes, desires, fears and so on as they should, otherwise we would have no way of deciding among the myriad interpretations consistent with the meagre behavioural data available. Kriegel argues “that while the Davidsonian insight is cogent, it applies only to the ascription of non-experiential intentionality, as well as the ascription of experiential intentionality to others, but not to the ascription of experiential intentionality to oneself” (29). We require charity when it comes to ascribing varieties of intentionality to signs, others, and even our nonconscious selves, but not when it comes to ascribing intentionality to our own experiences. So why this basic asymmetry? Why do we have to attribute true beliefs and rational desires—take the ‘intentional stance’—with regards to others and our nonconscious selves, and not our consciously experienced selves? Why do we seem to be the one self-interpreting entity?

Kriegel thinks observational contact with our actual intentionality provides the most plausible answer, that “[i]nsofar as it is appropriate to speak of data for ascription here, the only relevant datum seems to be a certain deliverance of introspection” (33). He continues:

There is thus a contrast between the mechanics of first-person [experiential]-intentional ascription and third-person … intentional ascription. The former is based on endorsement of introspective seemings, the latter on causal inference from behavior. This is hardly deniable: as noted, when you ascribe to yourself a perceptual experience as of a table, you do not observe putative causal effects of your experience and infer on their basis the existence of a hidden experiential cause. Rather, you seem to make the ascription on the basis of observing, in some (not unproblematic) sense, the experience itself—observing, that is, the very state which you ascribe. The Sources of Intentionality, 33

The mechanics of first-person and third-person intentional cognition differ in that the latter requires explanatory posits like ‘hidden mental causes.’ Since self-ascription involves nothing hidden, no interpretation is required. And it is this elegant and intuitive explanation of first-person interpretative asymmetry that provides abductive warrant for the foundational argument of the text:

1. All the anchoring instances of intentionality are such that we have observational contact with them;

2. The only instances of intentionality with which we have observational contact are experiential-intentional states; therefore,

3. All anchoring instances of intentionality are experiential-intentional states. 38

Given the abductive structure of Kriegel’s argument, those who dissent with either (1) or (2) need a better explanation of asymmetry. Those who deny the anchoring instance model of concept acquisition will target (1), arguing, say, that concept acquisition is an empirical process requiring empirical research. Kriegal simply punts on this issue, claiming we have no reason to think that concept acquisition, no matter how empirically detailed the story turns out to be, is insoluble at this (armchair) level of generality. Either way, his position still enjoys the abductive warrant of explaining asymmetry.

For Kriegal, (2) is the most philosophically controversial premise, with critics either denying we have any ‘observational contact’ with experiential-intentional states, or that we have observational contact with only such experiential-intentional states. The problem faced by both angles, Kriegal points out, is that asymmetry still holds whether one denies (2) or not: we can ascribe intentional experiences to ourselves without requiring charity. If observational contact—the ‘natural explanation’ Kriegal calls it—doesn’t lie at the root of this capacity, then what does?

For an eliminativist such as myself, however, the problem is more a matter of definition. I actually agree that suffering a certain kind of observational contact–namely, one that systematically neglects tremendous amounts of information–can anchor our philosophical concept of intentionality. Kriegel is fairly dismissive of eliminativism in The Sources of Intentionality, and even then the eliminativism he dismisses acknowledges the existence of intentional experiences! As he writes, “if eliminativism cannot be acceptable unless a relatively radical interpretation of cognitive science is adopted, then eliminativism is not in good shape” (199). The problem is that this assumes cognitive science is itself in fine shape, when Kriegel himself emphatically asserts “that it is not doing fine” (A Hesitant Defence of Introspection, 3). Cognitive science is fraught with theoretical dispute, certainly more than enough (and for long enough!) to seriously entertain the possibility that something radical has been overlooked.

So the radicality of eliminativism is neither here nor there regarding its ‘shape.’ The real problem faced by eliminativism, which Kriegel glosses, is abductive. Eliminativism simply cannot account for what seem to be obvious intentional phenomena.

Which brings me to zombies and what these kinds of issues might look like in their soulless, shuffling world…

In the zombie world I’m imagining, what Sellars called the ‘scientific image of man’ is the only true image. There quite simply is no experience or meaning or normativity as we intentionally characterize these things in our world. So zombies, in their world, possess only systematic causal relations to their environments. No transcendental rules or spooky functions haunt their brains. No virtual norms slumber in their community’s tacit gut. ‘Zombie knowledge’ is simply a matter of biomechanistic systematicity, having the right stochastic machinery to solve various problem ecologies. So although they use sounds to coordinate their behaviours, the efficacies involved are purely causal, a matter of brains conditioning brains. ‘Zombie language,’ then, can be understood as a means of resolving discrepancies via strings of mechanical code. Given only a narrow band of acoustic sensitivity, zombies constantly update their covariational schema relative to one another and their environments. They are ‘communicatively attuned.’

So imagine a version of radical zombie interpretation, where a zombie possessing one code—Blue—is confronted by another zombie possessing another code—Red. And now let’s ask the zombie version of Davidson’s question: What would it take for these zombies to become communicatively attuned?

Since the question is one of overcoming difference, it serves to recall what our zombies share: a common cognitive biology and environment. An enormous amount of evolutionary stage-setting underwrites the encounter. They come upon one another, in other words, differing only in code. And this is just to say that radical zombie interpretation occurs within a common attunement to each other and the world. They share both a natural environment and the sensorimotor systems required to exploit it. They also share powerful ‘brain-reading’ systems, a heuristic toolbox that allows them to systematically coordinate their behaviour with that of their zombie fellows without any common code. Even more, they share a common code apparatus, which is to say, the same system adapted to coordinate behaviours via acoustic utterances.

Given this ‘pre-established harmony’—common environment, common brain-reading and code-using biology—how might a code Blue zombie come to interpret (be systematically coordinated with) the utterances of a code Red zombie?

Since both zombies were once infant zombies, each has already undergone ‘code conditioning’; they have already tested innumerable utterances against innumerable environments, isolating and preserving robust covariances (and structural operators) on the way to acquiring their respective codes. At the same time, their brain-reading systems allow them to systematically coordinate their behaviours to some extent, to find a kind of basic attunement. All that remains is a matter of covariant sound substitution, of swapping the sounds belonging to code Blue for the sounds belonging to code Red, a process requiring little more than testing code-specific covariations against real-time environments. Perhaps radical zombie interpretation is not so radical after all!

The first thing to note is how the reliable coordination of behaviours is all that matters in this process: idiosyncrasies in their respective implementations of Red or Blue matter only insofar as they impact this coordination. The ‘synonymy’ involved is entirely coincident because it is entirely physical.

The second thing to note is how pre-established harmony is simply a structural feature of the encounter. These are just the problems that nature has already solved for our two intrepid zombies, what has to be the case for the problem of radical zombie interpretation to even arise. At no point do our zombies ‘attribute’ or ‘ascribe’ anything to their counterpart. Sensing another zombie simply triggers their zombie-brain-reading machinery, which modifies their behaviour and so on. There’s no ‘charity’ involved, no ‘attribution of rationality,’ just the environmental cuing of heuristic systems adapted to solve certain zombie-social environments.

Of course each zombie resorts to their brain-reading systems to behaviourally coordinate with its counterpart, but this is an automatic feature of the encounter, what happens whenever zombies detect zombies. Each engages in communicative troubleshooting behaviour in the course of executing some superordinate disposition to communicatively coordinate. Brains are astronomically complicated mechanisms—far too complicated for brains to intuit them as such. Thus the radically heuristic nature of zombie brain-reading. Thus the perpetual problem of covariational discrepancies. Thus the perpetual expenditure of zombie neural resources on the issue of other zombies.

Leading us to a third thing of note: how the point of radical zombie interpretation is to increase behavioural possibilities by rendering behavioural interactions more systematic. What makes this last point so interesting lies in the explanation it provides regarding why zombies need not first decode themselves to decode others. As a robust biomechanical system, ‘self-systematicity’ is simply a given. The whole problem of zombie interpretation resides in one zombie gaining some systematic purchase on other zombies in an effort to create some superordinate system—a zombie community. Asymmetry, in other words, is a structural given.

In radical zombie interpretation, then, not only do we have no need for ‘charity,’ we somehow manage to circumvent all the controversies pertaining to radical human interpretation.

Now of course the great zombie/human irony is that humans are everything that zombies are and more. So the question immediately becomes one of why radical human interpretation should prove to be so problematic when the radical zombie interpretation of the same problem is not. Where the zombie story certainly entails a vast number of technical details, it does not involve anything conceptually occult or naturalistically inexplicable. If mere zombies could avoid these problems using nothing more than zombie resources, why should humans find themselves perennially confounded?

This really is an extraordinary question. The intentionalist will cry foul, of course, reference all the obvious intentional phenomena pertaining to the communicative coordination of humans, things like rules and reasons and references and so on, and ask how this zombie fairy tale could possibly explain any of them. So even though this story of zombie interpretation provides, in outline at least, the very kind of explanation that Kriegel demands, it quite obviously throws out the baby with the bathwater in the course of doing so. Asymmetry becomes perspicuous, but now the whole of human intentional activity becomes impossible to explain (assuming that anything at this level has ever been genuinely explained). Zombie interpretation, in other words, wins the battle by losing the war.

It’s worth noting here the curious structure of the intentionalist’s abductive case. The idea is that we need a theoretical intentional account to explain human intentional activity. What warrants theoretical supernaturalism (or philosophy traditionally construed) is the matter-of-fact existence of everyday intentional phenomena (an existence that Kriegel thinks so obvious that on a couple of occasions he adduces arguments he claims he doesn’t need simply to bolster his case against skeptics such as myself). The curiosity, however, is that the ‘matter-of-fact existence of everyday intentional phenomena’ that at once “underscores the depth of eliminativism’s (quasi-) empirical inadequacy” (199) and motivates theoretical intentional accounts is itself a matter of theoretical controversy—just not for intentionalists! The problem with abductive appeals like Kriegel’s, in other words, is the way they rely on a prior theory of intentionality to anchor the need for theories of intentionality more generally.

This is what makes radical zombie interpretation out and out eerie. Because it does seem to be the case that zombies could achieve at least the same degree of communicative coordination absent any intentional phenomena at all. When you strip away the intentional glamour, when you simply look at the biology and the behaviour, it becomes hard to understand just what it is that humans do that requires anything over and above zombie biology and behaviour. Since some kind of gain in systematicity is the point of communicative coordination, it makes sense that zombies need not troubleshoot themselves in the course of troubleshooting other zombies. So it remains the case that radical zombie interpretation, analyzed at the same level of generality, seems to have a much easier time explaining the same degree of human communicative coordination sans bebe, than does radical human interpretation, which, quite frankly, strands us with a host of further, intractable mysteries regarding things like ‘ascription’ and ‘emergence’ and ‘anomalous causation.’

What could be going on? When it comes to Kriegel’s ‘remarkable asymmetry’ should we simply put our ‘zombie glasses’ on, or should we tough it out in the morass of intractable second-order accounts of intentionality on the basis of some ineliminable intentional remainder?

As Three Pound Brain regulars know, the eliminativism I’m espousing here is quite unique in that it arises, not out of concerns regarding the naturalistic inscrutability of intentional phenomena, but out of a prior, empirically grounded account of intentionality, what I’ve been calling Blind Brain Theory. On Blind Brain Theory the impasse described above is precisely the kind of situation we should expect given the kind of metacognitive capacities we possess. By its lights, zombies just are humans, and so-called intentional phenomena are simply artifacts of metacognitive neglect, what high-dimensional zombie brain functions ‘look like’ when low-dimensionally sampled for deliberative metacognition. Brains are simply too complicated to be effectively solved by causal cognition, so we evolved specialized fixes, ways to manage our brain and others in the absence of causal cognition. Since the high-dimensional actuality of those specialized fixes outruns our metacognitive capacity, philosophical reflection confuses what little it can access with everything required, and so is duped into the entirely natural (but nonetheless extraordinary) belief that it possesses ‘observational contact’ with a special, irreducible order of reality. Given this, we should expect that attempts to theoretically solve radical interpretation via our ‘mind’ reading systems would generate more mystery than it would dispel.

Blind Brain Theory, in other words, short circuits the abductive strategy of intentionalism. It doesn’t simply offer a parsimonious explanation of asymmetry; it proposes to explain all so-called intentional phenomena. It tells us what they are, why we’re prone to conceive them the naturalistically incompatible ways we do, and why these conceptions generate the perplexities they do.

To understand how it does so, it’s worth considering what Kriegel himself thinks is the ‘weak link’ in his attempt to source intentionality: the problem of introspective access. In The Sources of Intentionality, Kriegel is at pains to point out that “one need not be indulging in any mystery-mongering about first-person access” to provide the kind of experiential observational contact that he needs. No version of introspective incorrigibility follows “from the assertion that we have introspective observational contact with our intentional experiences” (34). Even still, the question of just what kind of observational contact is required is one that he leaves hanging.

In his 2013 paper, ‘A Hesitant Defence of Introspection,’ Kriegel attempts to tie down this crucial loose thread by arguing what he calls ‘introspective minimalism,’ an account of human introspective capacity that can weather what he terms ‘Schwitzgebel’s Challenge,’ essentially, the question (arising out of Eric’s watershed, Perplexities of Consciousness) of whether our introspective capacity, whatever it consists in, possesses any cognitive scientific value. He begins by arguing the pervasive, informal role that introspection plays in the ‘context of discovery’ of cognitive sciences. The question, however, is how introspection fits into the ‘context of justification’—the degree to which it counts as evidence as opposed to mere ‘inspiration.’ Given the obvious falsehood of what he terms ‘introspective maximalism,’ he sets out to save some minimalist version of introspection that can serve some kind of evidential role. He turns to olfaction to provide an analogy to the kind of minimal justification that introspection is capable of providing:

Suppose, for instance, that introspection turns out to be as trustworthy as our sense of smell, that is, as reliable and as potent as a normal adult human’s olfactory system. Then Introspective minimalism would be vindicated. Normally, when we have an olfactory experience as of raspberries, it is more likely that there are raspberries in our immediate environment (than if we do not have such an experience). Conversely, when there are raspberries in our immediate environment, it is more likely that we would have an olfactory experience as of raspberries (than if there are none). So the ‘equireliability’ of olfaction and introspection would support introspective minimalism. Such equireliability is highly plausible. 8

Kriegel’s argument is simply that introspecting some phenomenology reliably indicates the presence of that phenomenology the same way smelling raspberries reliably indicates the presence of raspberries. This is all that’s required, he thinks, to assert “that introspection affords us observational contact with our mental life” (13), and is thus “epistemically indispensable for any mature understanding of the mind” (13). It’s worth noting that Schwitzgebel is actually inclined to concede the analogy, suggesting that his own “dark pessimism about some of the absolutely most basic and pervasive features of consciousness, and about the future of any general theory of consciousness, seems to be entirely consistent with Uriah’s hesitant defense of introspection” (“Reply to Kriegel, Smithies, and Spener,” 4). He agrees then, that introspection reliably tells us that we possess a phenomenology, he just doubts it reliably tells us what it consists in. Kriegel, on the hand, thinks his introspective minimalism gives him the kind of ‘observational contact’ he needs to get his abductive asymmetry argument off the ground.

But does it?

Once again, it pays to flip to the zombie perspective. Given that the zombie olfactory system is a specialized system adapted to the detection of chemical residues in the immediate environment, one might expect the zombie olfactory system would reliably detect the chemical residue left by raspberries. Given that the zombie introspective system is a specialized system adapted to the detection of brain events, one might expect the zombie introspective system would reliably detect those brain events. The first system reliably allows zombies to detect raspberries, and the second system reliably allows zombies to detect activity in various parts of its zombie brain.

On this way of posing the problem, however, the disanalogy between the two systems all but leaps out at us. In fact, it’s hard to imagine two more disparate cognitive tasks than detecting something as simple as the chemical signature of raspberries versus something as complex as the machinations of the zombie brain. In point of fact, the brain is so astronomically complicated, it seems all but assured that zombie introspective capacity would be both fractionate and heuristic in the extreme, that it would consist of numerous fixes geared to a variety of problem-ecologies.

One way to possibly repair the analogy would be to scale up the complexity of the problem faced by olfaction. So it’s obvious, to give an example, that the information available for olfaction is far too low-dimensional, far too problem specific, to anchor theoretical accounts of the biosphere. Then, on this repaired analogy, we can say that just as zombie olfaction isn’t geared to the theoretical solution of the zombie biosphere, but rather to the detection of certain environmental obstacles and opportunities, it is almost certainly the case that zombie introspection isn’t geared to the theoretical solution of the zombie brain, but rather to more specific, environmentally germane tasks. Given this, we have no reason whatsoever to presume that what zombies metacognize and report possesses any ‘reliability and potency’ beyond very specific problem-ecologies—the same as with olfaction. On zombie introspection, then, we have no more reason to think that zombies could possibly accurately metacognize the structure of their brain than they could accurately smell the structure of the world.

And this returns us back to the whole question of Kriegel’s notion of ‘observational contact.’ Kriegel realizes that ‘introspection’ isn’t simply an all or nothing affair, that it isn’t magically ‘self-intimating’ and therefore admits of degrees of reliability—this is why he sets out to defend his minimalist brand. But he never pauses to seriously consider the empirical requirements of even such minimal introspective capacity.

In essence, what he’s claiming is that the kind of ‘observational contact’ available to philosophical introspection warrants complicating our ontology with a wide variety of (supernatural) intentional phenomena. Introspective minimalism, as he terms it, argues that we can metacognize some restricted set of intentional entities/relations with the same reliability that we cognize natural phenomena. We can sniff these things out, so it stands to reason that such things exist to be sniffed, that introspecting a phenomenology increases the chances that such phenomenology exists (as introspected). With zombie introspection, however, the analogy between olfaction and metacognition strained credulity given the vast disproportion in complexity between olfactory and metacognitive phenomena. It’s difficult to imagine how any natural system could possibly even begin to accurately metacognize the brain.

The difference Kriegel would likely press, however, is that we aren’t mindless zombies. Human metacognition, in other words, isn’t concerned with the empirical particulars of the brain as it is the functional particulars of the conscious mind. Even though the notion of accurate zombie introspection is obviously preposterous, the notion of accurate human metacognition would seem to be a different question altogether, the question of what a human introspective capacity requires to accurately metacognize human ‘phenomenology’ or ‘mind.’

The difficulty here, famously, is that there seems to be no noncircular way to answer this question. Because we can’t find intentional phenomena anywhere in the natural world, theoretical metacognition monopolizes our every attempt to specify their nature. This effectively renders assessing the reliability of such metacognitive exercises impossible apart from their ability to solve various kinds of problems. And the difficulty here is that the long history of introspectively motivated philosophical theorization (as opposed to other varieties of metacognition) regarding the nature of the intentional has only generated more problems. For some reason, the kind of metacognition involved in ‘philosophical reflection’ only seems to make matters worse when it comes to questions of intentional phenomena.

The zombie account of this second impasse is at once parsimonious and straightforward: phenomenology (or mind or what have you) is the smell, not the raspberry—that would be some systematic activity in the brain. It is absurd to think any evolved brain, zombie or human, could accurately cognize its own biomechanical operations the way it cognizes causal events in its environment. Kriegel himself agrees to this:

In fact cognitive science can partly illuminate why our introspective grasp of our inner world can be expected to be considerably weaker than our perceptual grasp of the external world. It is well-established that much of our perceptual grasp of the external world relies on calibration of information from different perceptual modalities. Our observation of our internal world, however, is restricted to a single source of information, and not the most powerful to begin with. (13)

And this is but one reason why the dimensionality of the mental is so low compared to the environmental. Given the evolutionary youth of human metacognition, the astronomical complexity of the human nervous system, and not to mention the problems posed by structural complicity, we should suppose that our metacognitive capacity evolved opportunistically, that it amounts to a metacognitive version of what Todd and Gigerenzer (2012) would call a ‘heuristic toolbox,’ a collection of systems geared to solve specific problem-ecologies. Since we neglect this heuristic toolbox, we remain oblivious to the fact we’re using a given cognitive tool at all, let alone the limits of its effectiveness. Given that systematic theoretical reflection of the kind philosophers practice is an exaptation from cognitive capacities that predate recorded history, the adequacy of Kriegel’s ‘deliverances’ assumes that our evolved introspective capacity can solve unprecedented questions. This is a very real empirical question. For if it turns out that the problems posed by theoretical reflection are not the problems that intentional cognition can solve, neglect means we would have no way of knowing short of actual problem solving, the solution of problems that plainly can be solved. The inability to plainly solve a problem—like the mind-body problem, say—might then be used as a way to identify where we have been systematically misapplying certain tools, asking information adapted to the solution of some specific problem to contribute to the solution of a very different kind of problem.

Kriegel agrees that self-ascriptions involve seemings, that we are blind to the causes of the mental, and that introspection is likely as low-dimensional as a smell, yet he nevertheless maintains on abductive grounds that observational contact with experiential intentionality sources our concepts of intentionality. But it is becoming difficult to understand what it is that’s being explained, or how simply adding inexplicable entities in explanations that bear all the hallmarks of heuristic missapplication is supposed to provide any real abductive warrant at all. Certainly it’s intuitive, powerfully so given we neglect certain information, but then so is geocentrism. The naturalist project, after all, is to understand how we are our brain and environment, not how we are more than our brain and environment. That is a project belonging to a more blinkered age.

And as it turns out, certain zombies in the zombie world hold parallel positions. Because zombie metacognition has no access to the impoverished and circumstantially specialized nature of the information it accesses, many zombies process the information they receive the way they would other information, and verbally report the existence of queerly structured entities somehow coinciding with the function of their brain. Since the solving systems involved possess no access to the high-dimensional, empirical structure of the neural systems they actually track, these entities are typically characterized by missing dimensions, be it causality, temporality, materiality. The fact that these dimensions are neglected disposes these particular zombies to function as if nothing were missing at all—as if certain ghosts, at least, were real.

Yes. You guessed it. The zombies have philosophy too.