My hard copy of Commentary came in the mail today, and I am reading David Gelernter’s fabulous The Closing of the Scientific Mind (already noticed here by the News Desk).
As I was reading Gelernter’s discussion of the zombie thought experiment among philosophers of mind, I thought about a possible new response to one of the classic objections to ID theory – the God Would Not Have Done it That Way objection. Let me explain.
In the zombie thought experiment we are supposed to imagine a person (let’s call him Fred) who looks and acts exactly like a fully conscious human being. Fred eats, drinks, converses, laughs, cries, etc. exactly like a human being, but he is in fact a biological robot with no subjective consciousness at all. The point of the thought experiment is that I can experience only my own consciousness. Therefore, I can be certain only of my own consciousness. I have to take
Fred’s word for his consciousness, and if Fred is in fact a robot programed to lie to me and tell me he is conscious, there is no way I could know he is lying. Here’s the kicker. With respect to any particular person, everyone else in the world may in fact be a zombie Fred, and if they were that person would never be able to know. I may assume that everyone else is conscious, but I cannot know it. I can experience my own consciousness but no other person’s.
Gelernter points out that from an outside observer’s perspective, a fully conscious, self-aware person cannot be distinguished from a zombie Fred. They behave exactly alike. Here is where it gets interesting. If a conscious person and a zombie behave exactly alike, consciousness does not confer a survival advantage on the conscious person. It follows that consciousness is invisible to natural selection, which selects for only those traits that provide a survival advantage. And from this it follows that consciousness cannot be accounted for as the product of natural selection. Nature would not have done it that way.
Where does this get us? It is hard to say. At the very least, it seems to me that the next time an anti-ID person employs the “God would not have done it that way” argument, I can respond with “And nature wouldn’t have either so where does that leave us?” response.