Zombie Mary versus God and Jesus: Against Lawrence Bonjour’s “Against Materialism”

by rsbakker


I should begin with a tip of my hat to Dirk Fellman, since this post is a direct consequence of the damn interesting links he sends. In this case, it was a link to The Waning of Materialism, a collection of articles inveighing against materialism under a number of different banners. For me, ‘material’ is simply a pole on a continuum, that which provides the most data. It’s whatever scientists seem to be able to endlessly mine for information, and to thus endlessly reconfigure into boggling demonstrations of power. Insofar as this is what scientists indeed do, mine and enable, I’m only interested in materialism in terms falling out of Blind Brain Theory, which is to say, in terms of dimensionality. Science is the premier data-mining institution on the planet. The question of what ‘matter’ might be apart from all the differences it makes does not strike me as a promising one. Nor does the question of whether matter monopolizes existence. BBT lets me sidestep these questions, since it sees the interminable controversies spinning out of the material and the ideal as a paradigmatic example of a heuristic run amok, and so elects to talk of high and low dimensionality instead.

For information to be (nonsemantic) information, some difference must be made: even the dualist is pinned to the information continuum in this sense. Since information generally enables cognition, the high-dimensional view generally trumps the low-dimensional, and it seems fair to say that BBT, in this respect, counts as a kind of materialism, albeit a peculiar one. I’ve already sketched what it makes of the Knowledge Argument in THE Something About Mary. What follows is an attempt to show how it fares against Lawrence Bonjour’s retooling of Frank Jackson’s famous thought experiment in his “Against Materialism,” the piece that the editors of Waning take as “an overview of the entire volume.”

Bonjour is a property dualist. He holds that mental properties form a special class of nonphysical or nonmaterial properties distinct from those studied in the natural sciences more generally. He makes no secret of how weak he thinks materialism is–and indeed his whole paper is permeated with the sense that he can scarce believe he needs to make his argument at all. “I have always found this situation extremely puzzling,” he writes. “As far as I can see, materialism is a view that has no very compelling argument in its favor and that is confronted with very powerful objections to which nothing even approaching an adequate response has been offered” (5). Since the case is all but closed for Bonjour, he proposes to simply review the ‘very powerful objections’–as a matter of historical record, perhaps–to show the gentle reader why they need not worry about materialist bogeymen. The problem, he claims, is that materialism “offers no account at all of consciousness and seems incapable in principle of doing so” (5).

In a sense, I actually agree with Bonjour on this point: traditional materialism cannot explain consciousness as it appears to reflection. Every attempt it makes leaves this ‘consciousness-as-metacognized’ untouched, and thus remains vulnerable to those, like Bonjour, who find themselves compelled by what they think they so plainly intuit. But as the above should make clear, my own position–Blind Brain Theory–is no ordinary materialism. Where others work their way toward consciousness-as-metacognized only to find themselves stranded on the stoop, BBT actually possesses the resources to kick down the door. The key to untangling all the knots of phenomenality and intentionality, I hope to show, lies in understanding the kinds of illusions metacognitive neglect has foisted on all our historical attempts to understand them thus far, illusions that Bonjour has been kind enough to illustrate in rather dramatic fashion.

In the argument I would like to focus on, Bonjour proposes an extension of Frank Jackson’s original Knowledge Argument to the issue of the intentionality of consciousness, and to the question of internal content more specifically. As he writes:

The issue I want to raise here is whether a materialist view can account for sort of conscious intentional content just characterized. Can it account for conscious thoughts being about various things in a way that can be grasped or understood by the person in question? In a way the answer has already been given. Since materialist views really take no account at all of consciousness, they obviously offer no account of this particular aspect of it. But investigating this narrower aspect of the issue can still help to deepen the basic objection to materialism. 17

To illustrate this incapacity, Bonjour bids us imagine a different Mary, one possessing complete physical knowledge of Bonjour as he entertains various thoughts. Given complete physical information, can she know “what I am consciously thinking about at a particular moment?” (17).

It seems clear that knowing all the physical facts regarding Bonjour’s brain is insufficient, given the relationality of Bonjour’s thoughts, the fact they are about things in the world. Bonjour continues:

A functionalist would no doubt say that it is no surprise that Mary could not do this. In order to know the complete causal or functional role of my internal states, Mary also needs to know about their about their external causal relations to various things. And it might be suggested that, if Mary knows all of the external causal relations in which my various states stand, she will in fact be able to figure out what I am consciously thinking about at a particular time. No doubt the details that pick out any particular object of thought will be very complicated, but there is, it might be claimed, no reason to doubt in principle she could do this.” 18

Now Bonjour thinks that this is “another piece of materialist doctrine that again has the status very similar to that of a claim of theology” (18). One might respond that this is essentially the same assumption that informs skepticism regarding paranormal phenomena—that given enough information, some natural explanation can be found for apparently supernatural phenomena—but that would be beside the point since Bonjour thinks the materialist is in serious trouble even if we grant this particular conceit.

For, as already emphasized, it is an undeniable fact about conscious intentional content that I am able for the most part to consciously understand or be aware of what I am thinking about ‘from the inside.’ Clearly I do not in general do this on the basis of external causal knowledge: I do not have such knowledge and would not know what to do about it if I did. All that I normally have any sort of direct access to, if materialism is true, is my own internal physical and physiological states, and thus my conscious understanding of what I am thinking about at a particular moment must be somehow a feature or result of those internal states alone. 18

Bonjour is simply pointing out that even though he himself lacks access to any such information regarding his brain function and its causal environmental history, he nevertheless knows what he’s thinking about. Any metacognitive understanding he has of his thoughts, therefore, is proximally grounded, the product of his internal states. He continues:

Causal relations to external things may help to produce the relevant features of the internal states in question, but there is no apparent way in which such external relations can somehow be partly constitutive of the fact that my conscious thoughts are about various things in a way of which I can be immediately aware. But if these internal states are sufficient to fix the object of my thought in a way that is accessible to my understanding or awareness, then knowing about those internal states should be sufficient for Mary as well, without any knowledge of the external causal relations. And yet, as we have already seen, it is obvious that this is not the case. 18

If he can know what he’s thinking simply given his internal states, then why is it the case that Mary cannot? The argument grants her knowledge of those states: so why is it that she needs to know so much more to be able to determine what he’s thinking?

Thus we have the basis for an argument parallel to Jackson’s original argument against qualia: Mary knows all the relevant physical facts; she is not able on the basis of this knowledge to know what I am consciously thinking about at a particular moment; but what I am thinking about at that moment is as surely a fact about the world as anything else; therefore complete physical knowledge is not complete knowledge, and so materialism is false.  18-19.

This is about as clear an example of the way metacognitive neglect plays havoc with philosophical reflection as any I’ve encountered. What Bonjour is giving us here is a tale of two perspectives, one external and omniscient, another internal and sufficient. Since material omniscience isn’t sufficient, we can infer that there’s more to nature than meets the material eye, that some kind of supernaturalism is true.

Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that all Mary type arguments boil down to versions of what might be called the ‘God-and-Jesus’ strategy. The marketing genius of Jesus, as Nietzsche so wryly observed, is the way his mortality transforms a fact-omniscient God into a God who also knows what it’s like. To be human is to be ignorant, to neglect everything save what enters this rare sliver we call life. God can only truly know humanity by becoming human as a result. He needs to exist within our ‘neglect structure,’ you could say.

So in Mary-type arguments Mary plays the third-person God, and some first-person experience plays Jesus. The upshot is always the same: We need Jesus because some knowledge necessarily lies outside God’s omniscience: knowledge of what it is like being blinkered and benighted—merely ‘human.’

The ease with which this argumentative form slips between theological and (allegedly) nontheological domains is worth keeping in mind, here. But the real takeaway is found in how God and Jesus highlight the pivotal role neglect plays in all its incarnations. With Jesus, God has to systematically divest Himself of cognitive capacities, consign more and more to neglect, the ‘unknown unknown,’ in order to know ‘what it’s like’ to be human. Jesus thus poses a limit, a kind of neglect structure, on the omniscience of God, and in this way becomes the skyhook exception to the infinite that links humanity and God via shared experience. (Thus the ‘horrible secret’ of ‘God on the cross,’ as Nietzsche calls it, the fact that “[all] of us are nailed to the cross, consequently we are divine” (Anti-Christ, 51)).

Now consider Bonjour’s version of this argument: What distinguishes his facts from natural or physical facts is that he need only access his internal states to know the content of his thought, whereas Mary needs to access both those internal states and their external causal relations. Where neglecting external causal relations precludes Mary knowing the content of Bonjour’s thoughts, it has no bearing whatsoever on his knowledge of his thoughts. The fact that he knows he’s thinking this or that is an environment independent fact. This disqualifies Mary’s claim to omniscience because, for her, all such facts can only be environmentally cognized. Since Mary requires added information regarding external systems to determine what he’s thinking about means that there’s something, environment independent fact, that not even God can know, and that Bonjour and everyone living possesses.

So to repeat his question: “Can [materialism] account for conscious thoughts being about various things in a way that can be grasped or understood by the person in question?” Not even if it were God, he is saying. You have to have Jesus.

Bonjour not only openly acknowledges that metacognition systematically neglects external causal information, he makes it a centrepiece of his argument. Neglect of external causal relations is what sets his facts apart from Mary’s natural facts, what makes him Jesus, in effect. God can know our thoughts, but He cannot know our thoughts the way Jesus knows our thoughts. He cannot know what it’s like to be me, or Bonjour, as the case might be.

Of course, any such argument should give us pause. As keen as Bonjour is to leverage the distinction neglect affords him—the way it allows him to distinguish between modes of knowing, and thereby argue a distinction in modes of being (material versus nonmaterial)—calling attention to the neglect, as opposed to the distinction, raises the possibility that he’s simply spinning ignorance into an ontological virtue.

In strict causal terms, on a ‘zombie Mary’ account, say, the argument simply unravels. Here the question is one of one biomechanism attempting to systematically engage a second biomechanism that is systematically engaging some other kind of system, perhaps itself. What we want to know is how biomechanism 1 might come to occupy a relation with biomechanism 2 such that the behavioural possibilities of 1 are the same behavioural possibilities possessed by Mary coming to know what Bonjour is thinking about. So biomechanism 1, ‘zombie-Mary’ would be able to do all the things, make all the sounds that Mary could do knowing what Bonjour thought, only with biomechanism 2, or ‘zombie-Bonjour.’ And the same goes for zombie-Bonjour: it would be able to occupy a relation with itself that allowed it to do all the things Bonjour could do on the basis of knowing what he’s thinking.

One only need suppose this is possible (even though no one doubts that our brains possess very real, very physical, cognitive and metacognitive systems), since the point of this zombie analogue is to simply draw out a striking feature of the physical picture of Bonjour’s argument, the very picture he agrees with only up to a point.

Physically speaking, zombie Mary is comporting itself to a functionally independent, environmentally external system: cognizing zombie Bonjour’s brain processes. Zombie Bonjour, on the other hand, is comporting itself to a functionally entangled, environmentally internal system: metacognizing its own brain processes. It’s hard to imagine any two more radically different ‘biocognitive perspectives,’ the one solving a functionally distinct, distal system using all the ancient machinery of environmental cognition, the other solving a functionally entangled, proximal system using far more youthful metacognitive machinery, the former possessing high-dimensional, variable access to the processes involved, the latter possessing low-dimensional, fixed access to those self-same processes.

On zombie Mary, then, I think it’s pretty plain that no matter how one finesses zombie Mary’s physical comportment to zombie Bonjour, the radically different nature of their respective cognitive and metacognitive relationships means there is simply no way zombie Mary can possess the same comportment to zombie Bonjour that zombie Bonjour possesses to itself short of becoming zombie Bonjour.

Even on a zombie account, then, we find ourselves confronted with a version of the God and Jesus dilemma!

But now the upshot, which seems almost miraculous in theological and philosophical contexts (providing for the possibility of a special, human reality apart from nature or God) has become rather mundane. On zombie Mary, the difference is merely a matter of different systems possessing different resources and modes of access. The idea that zombie Mary’s mode is the only mode, that there could be an ‘omniscient’ zombie Mary simply makes no sense, insofar as she’s simply another biomechanism stranded in its environment the same as any other zombie, capable of occupying only a finite number of comportments. The very notion that she could be ‘fact omniscient,’ in other words, attributes something supernatural to her, a hint of God, if you will. The notion that zombie Bonjour’s quite different biocognitive capacity evidences something supernatural, a little bit of Jesus, likewise has no place in this scenario. It’s natural all the way down.

Now of course Bonjour would balk at the very notion of zombie Mary and adduce any number of arguments against the very idea, I’m sure. Hints of God and bits of Jesus have a very real role to play in his metaphysical view, albeit dressed in a more respectable nomenclature. But what he can’t do is run away from all the questions that it raises. So now when he writes, for instance, “if these internal states are sufficient to fix the object of my thought in a way that is accessible to my understanding or awareness, then knowing about those internal states should be sufficient for Mary as well, without any knowledge of the external causal relations” (18), we can ask him whether he’s equivocating cognition with metacognition, the drastically different challenges of solving other people with solving oneself. Bonjour agrees that cognition and biology are intimately related somehow, that aphasiology* is a very real branch of medical science. He accepts that we’re machines in some sense; he just wants, like so very many others, to think that we are something more as well. Nevertheless he agrees that the meat has a say. Likewise, he has to admit to the drastic biocognitive difference between Mary cognizing his thought and him metacognizing his own thought. So he has no way of avoiding the question of whether his argument is simply mixing cognitive apples with metacognitive oranges, why we should assume that his ability to know what he’s thinking without knowing external causal relations is indicative of anything other than the fact that very different systems are involved. Surely, given the rather obvious fact of that difference, we should be hesitant to accept supernatural conclusions that it could very well obviate.

Zombie Bonjour, for instance, need not have any secondary comportment to its environmental comportments to effectively intervene in those environments. This is a good thing, given the cognitive challenges the astronomical biomechanical complexity of zombie Bonjour poses any cognitive system, let alone one packed into the same skull (imagine a primatologist sewn into a sack with a chimpanzee troop). Systematic metacognitive neglect is a given when one considers the problem in biomechanical terms.

Is it merely a coincidence that the same goes for Bonjour proper? He too is astronomically complex. He also doesn’t need to metacognize his thoughts to think them. And he too suffers from massive metacognitive neglect. The high-dimensional picture of the brain that’s now emerging from the cognitive sciences is a picture of what we are almost entirely blind to. Whatever metacognitive capacity we possess is obviously both low-dimensional and specialized, consisting of heuristic systems adapted to troubleshoot specific first-order problem-ecologies. Since Bonjour is already physically comported to his environment in various cognitive and noncognitive ways, any capacity to metacognize this relation, to ‘know what he’s thinking about,’ say, need only build on this pre-existing comportment. Like so many other ‘quick and dirty’ cognitive systems, Bonjour’s capacity to metacognize has evolved to make due without, to solve problems using as little potentially relevant information as possible. This is arguably why he can know what he’s ‘thinking,’ ‘experiencing,’ ‘desiring,’ and so on without knowing anything about the astronomically complicated mechanical relations that make it possible. Metacognition is a ‘need-to-know’ capacity, a system or set of systems accessing only the information required to tackle certain problem-ecologies.

The problem, however, is that metacognition is not itself among those things that metacognition needs to know.’ Metacognition accesses low-dimensional, specialized information blind to the fact that it is such. This is no problem so long as we restrict its application to adaptive problem-ecologies. The capacity to ‘report our thoughts’ doubtlessly solved any number of problems for our ancestors. As soon as the philosopher repurposes this capacity to solve, say, the ‘problem of materialism,’ however, we should expect things will go awry—and here’s the thing, exactly the way they do. Why? Because philosophical reflection requires using information adapted to heuristically solve ‘What am I thinking?’ problems to solve the considerably more demanding question, ‘What is thinking?’ without any inkling whatsoever of the adequacy of that information. We should expect such attempts to endlessly run aground controversy the way they do. Given that the adequacy of our intuitions is the assumptive default (as with what Kahneman and Tversky call ‘availability heuristics,’ for instance*) one might expect that philosophers would systematically confuse their darkly glimpsed special-purpose metacognitive access for something whole and general-purpose, for an order of reality somehow beyond the high-dimensional physical reality revealed by natural science—for something supernatural.

Neglect, then, plays a crucial role at three distinct junctures in Bonjour’s argument, at least. Neglect of the physical differences between environmental cognition and metacognition licenses his equivocation of Mary’s access and Bonjour’s own access to the content of his thoughts. Lacking access to any information regarding cognitive activity strands deliberative metacognition (reflection) with what is being cognized, which becomes a kind of ‘availability heuristic.’ Blind to our knowing (the machinery is indisposed, after-all), we attribute the distinction to the known. Epistemic blindness generates the cognitive illusion of ontological distinction.

Neglect of the physical implementation of Mary’s environmental cognition licenses the plausibility of Mary’s omniscience, and thus renders her inability to cognize Bonjour’s thought fraught with ontological significance. The ‘view from nowhere,’ as it is sometimes called, is as clear-cut an example of metacognitive neglect as you can hope to find. Absence admits no distinctions, so knowledge seems (descending the ladder of ontological commitment) disembodied, transcendent, emergent, or virtual; ‘nowhere’ becomes indistinguishable to ‘everywhere,’ and the in principle possibility of omniscience simply seems to follow. There’s no limit to the number of ghosts you can pack into a room—or skull.

Neglect of the low-dimensional, domain-specific nature of metacognition generates the illusion that “what I am thinking about at that moment is as surely a fact about the world as anything else” (19), rather than what it almost certainly is: a special-purpose posit adapted to solving a specific problem-ecology. As a matter of empirical fact, Bonjour’s cognitive relationship to his own cognitive activity is radically different than his cognitive relationship to his environment. To think that this radical difference is irrelevant to the radical differences between first-person and third-person knowledge (not to mention the knots they have us twisted in!) is wildly implausible, to say the least. Far from a fact like any other, ‘What he is thinking’—the information Bonjour has available to report—is an incredibly low-dimensional communicative shorthand, one specifically tailored to solve the kinds of problems our preliterate—prephilosophical— ancestors faced. Blind to the heuristic nature of metacognition, Bonjour confuses special-purpose information with all purpose information.

Why is Bonjour so convinced? For the same reason anyone suffering Anton’s Syndrome is convinced they can see: he is blind to his blindness, and so thinks he sees everything he needs to see.