Peter Watts and p-zombies

John Ohno
5 min readAug 20, 2015

I was surprised, upon listening to a two part interview with Peter Watts, to find him tentatively supporting Chalmer’s positions on qualia and the hard problem. Part of the reason is that Watts is a(n ex-) scientist with a background in biology and neuroscience, and also both very intelligent and spectacularly good at not avoiding unpleasant trains of thought. The other reason I was surprised is that I read Blindsight, and interpreted it as an amazingly good takedown of the Chalmers philosophical zombie idea along the same lines as Dennett’s.

This essay will contain spoilers for Blindsight, probably. Also, spoilers for the epistemology of Chalmers and Dennett. If you don’t like to learn things in orders not officially sanctioned by the establishment, I recommend you at least read Blindsight — it’s a great read, and Watts has been nice enough to put it online for free.

Chalmers presents the idea of consciousness as indicated by qualia — a representation of the subjective feeling of the outside world. His position, in my understanding, is that subjective feeling is a more difficult thing to model than other properties of the world. While I’m not sure about Chalmers himself, other people have used this idea that qualia is a “hard problem” as an excuse for reintroducing cartesian dualism into the world of epistemology — by claiming that qualia is so difficult to model that not even straight-up neurons can model it, and thus we need to bring in quantum nanotubules or some other structure as a stand-in for the soul.

A lot of people have been suspicious of the idea of qualia. After all, isn’t a representation a representation? Isn’t a subjective representation just a second-order representation? I agree with Dennett when he argues that it’s an unnecessary complication, with no evidence for it. I would furthermore argue that it’s a matter of preferring a mysterious answer to a mysterious question: complex behavior can be difficult to predict not because it’s irreducible — not because each piece is complex — but because lots of simple pieces combine in a complex way, but there’s a general tendency among people to try to keep emotional parity with explanations (mysterious things need to be explained in a way that retains the mystery or else you’ve lost the mystery; negative events can’t be explained as an interaction between purely positive intentions, or else where did the negative essence come from?) but ultimately reality doesn’t deal in emotional valences and so feelings of mystery do not need to be…

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John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net