The Spirit is a Bone: A Fable with Three Footnotes

Once upon a time, pious dualist intuitions went very deep, and a child’s mini-me was a mini-Descartes, and humans all over the Lost World were natural animists, quantifying over spirits and anima in trees and streams as the fancy took them. There was also a quaint philosophical intuition, that zombies, qua conscious human beings’ atom for atom Doppelgängers, but lacking their supposed accompanying rich and resplendent inner life, were thinkable at all.  One may today (Anno Posthumanii 3559) ask about the theoretical commitments of such thought-experiments; that is, it is not obvious that the intuition that zombies were conceivable was innocent of theory, then as now.  While there was something it was like1 to be a bat (now extinct except in the Data), there is nothing it is like to be a zombie. In its basic form, the zombie argument looked as follows: (1) Zombies are conceivable; (2) Whatever is conceivable is possible; (3) Zombies are possible; (4) Physicalism is false. There was an inference from conceivability to metaphysical possibility. The then actual world, to these dull and earnest fundamentalists, was not a zombie-world as it contained an additional kind of property not in the supposed zombie-world, it contained phenomenal properties. To conceive of a zombie was to imagine this absence, not an easy task, then as now.   But if dualist intuitions were legitimate as a basis for the zombie argument, so must physicalist intuitions be for the construction of an anti-zombie argument – molecule for molecule duplicates of human beings who were made conscious by the physical facts alone. Otherwise an ontological divide opened up within their then bony brains.3 It’s like being told that the speed of light will never be exceeded…ha-ha, or that trans-Humans are not the Simulation, selah.


  1. The locution was used in two ways in their philosophical discussions: (i) that it is like something to be an X, as in the bat case; (ii) that there is something it is like to have a specific experience, a quale, like tasting vanilla essence (extinct except in the Data). In their then ordinary language, the standard form was ‘what it is like for an X to be a Y’, for a woman to be a soldier; never what it’s like for a soldier to be a soldier. A dualistic stacking of the deck? The insidiousness of their conception of quale (ineffable, intrinsic, private, unmediated and causally inert epiphenomena,: – a solipsistic bubble isolated from all else…se non è vero, è ben trovato, as that musical language had it) as the individual units of subjective experience, was that it encouraged them to think of experiences and  ‘selves’ as separate and separable from their evolutionary, cultural and linguistic histories, as if occurring in abstract pristine contexts. The entangling of experience and outside context was also evident in the reported results of the meditative practices of their ascetic virtuosi. These descriptions, if supposedly incommunicable except by replicating the relevant experience, nevertheless conformed to how the experiential result had previously been conceptualised within a specific religious tradition’s soteriology (only their Catholics ever saw their Virgin Mary).
  2. Conceivability was always bad methodology in matters metaphysical, and their Franz Kafka’s fable in Die Verwandlung does not alert one to the possibility that some of their bug-squashing were homicides. Talking about art, to imply that our All-theory of Eliminative Materialism, – all hail! -, implies that subjective experience does not exist, and therefore that aesthetics would be impossible, is Limited Carbon-View. The great organic guru Churchland himself said that he relished qualia and actively sought them out, including those associated with the now forever lost works of the poet Cellan(e?), the singer Luried Anderson & the painter Sicasso. It was always about ways of talking, and their folk-psychologicalese was rather funny, it must be said.
  3. Their stance of neutral phenomenological description, when it came to private qualia, also had ideological implications. For the bourgeois intérieur of the then standard, tenured academic qualiaphile was conditioned by the following primitive embodied stance: eyes fixated a few centimetres from a sordid flickering screen, connected, yet disconnected from what made it all possible. In general, it would seem that their philosopher Jiles Deleezi was right when he contended that “Arguments from one’s own privileged experience are bad and reactionary arguments.”

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2 Comments on "The Spirit is a Bone: A Fable with Three Footnotes"

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Alexander Wilson
Alexander Wilson
I really like this very creative exploration of the concepts and ideas through this sci-fi fable. Though ambiguous and ominous, the text clearly demonstrates working knowledge of the ideas. Kudos for explicating them in such an evocative manner. I’d like to just comment on one thing. Though I focussed on the more radical or provocative implications eliminative materialism, it is true that some of its main proponents, like Churchland, will accept that experience does exist, at least in some minimal sense. He argues against Nagel that the experience of being a bat is simply equivalent to a perfect extrinsic account… Read more »