A completely new idea in the field of consciousness doesn’t come along all that often, but I think Professor Joel Marks of the University of New Haven may just have come up with one. In the latest issue of Philosophy Now he asks whether consciousness might not actually be a disadvantage, just as (in his eyes) having colour in the comic strips every day instead of black and white represents a backward step.
He’s talking about phenomenal consciousness, of course; qualia, the real redness of red or blueness of blue. We often do things best, he points out, when we do them automatically: when we stop to become really conscious of how things look or sound, we make mistakes. Perhaps when Mary finally emerged from her black-and-white room, seeing colour for the first time would merely make her trip over the carpet.
But if that’s true, then zombies (hypothetical people who function normally but have no conscious experience, just colourless registration of data) would have a consistent edge over the rest of us. They would be bound to take over the world. Just a minute, now – you don’t think that they could already…
Marks is just indulging his penchant for fabulation, but there is a serious point lurking here somewhere, and once again it is clearly that qualia are a load of rubbish. The orthodox theory of qualia requires that they make no difference to the practical functioning of a human being, so that zombies without them are perfectly imaginable. But there are two reasons why that can’t be so.
First, everything requires energy, however small an amount. Qualia have been likened to the humming noise that the computer makes when you switch it on, or the whistle on a steam engine. Neither, it is claimed, affect the operation of the machine. In the case of the computer, it looks as if this might be true, but if you try to make one which is otherwise identical but doesn’t make the noise, you’ll soon find out it isn’t so. The whistle is an even worse example, because it does have a small direct effect on the operation of the engine. If you blow the whistle long enough and hard enough, the locomotive will actually begin to lose power. It follows that zombies couldn’t be exactly like normal people.
Second, everything has consequences. If there could be people with qualia and people without qualia, one sort would have an advantage. Either the qualia would help you spot food and predators, or, as Marks suggests, they would be an unwelcome distraction. Either way, one sort of person would have died out long ago.
Oh, that doesn’t follow at all! Think of sickle-cell anaemia and malaria. The anaemia is a bad thing, but worth having where malaria is rife and untreatable, because it gives some immunity. But that doesn’t mean everyone in the relevant areas has anaemia. A balance is reached. The same might be true of zombies. Maybe they’re good at say, being accountants and running large corporations, but rubbish at thinking of new ideas and telling jokes (or vice versa). If there are too many accountants, the jokers will breed more successfully, but if everyone is laughing and can’t add up, the numerate people will start to do better. A balance is struck and we end up with some zombies and some ‘normal’ people in the population.
Nice to hear you argue that qualia must be significant, though…
If there were such things they would have to be: in fact, however, we are all zombies in the sense of not having real qualia, and always were zombies; or if you don’t like looking at it that way, you can say we’ve all got qualia, but that qualia are just a normal psychological phenomenon with causes and effects just like everything else. Take your pick – basically we’re better off just forgetting the whole mess.