Date of Award

Summer 2004

Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Peressini, Anthony

Second Advisor

Prendergast, Thomas

Third Advisor

Wreen, Michael


Conceivability arguments play an important role in philosophy and especially in the mind/body debate. Although Descartes provides us with one of the best known conceivability arguments for dualism, conceivability arguments are in no way limited to historical positions. Conceivability has had a prominent role in contemporary philosophy of mind, primarily as evidence against materialism. In this dissertation I analyze these arguments and argue they are ultimately unsuccessful. My dissertation is divided into four main sections. In the first, I look at Descartes' historical version of the conceivability argument. In the second, I analyze a contemporary version of the conceivability argument, namely Frank Jackson's knowledge argument and Thomas Nagel's discussion of the subjective nature of our experience of mind. I argue that these are unable to legitimize a move between conceivability to possibility. In the third section, I focus on David Chalmers' version of the conceivability argument, the zombie argument. Here I suggest that Chalmers' argument also depends on a supposed but unsupported link between our epistemological ability and a thing's ontological status. In the final section, I consider possible reasons for drawing a connection between conceivability and possibility and conclude that none of these are sufficient. Although Descartes attempts to fill in the steps between a person's ability to conceive of something and that something's possibility, he is unable to show that the connection between conceivability and possibility is strong enough to support his conclusion. Descartes, however, at least understands that he cannot simply assume the truth of this connection without first attempting to provide support for it. Because the contemporary philosophers in question do not attempt to legitimize their claim to a connection between conceivability and possibility, their versions of the conceivability argument are even more problematic. And, as I show in the fourth chapter, a general proof of the legitimacy of drawing metaphysical conclusions from something's epistemological status has yet to be given. Consequently, I conclude that the attempt to reject materialist accounts of consciousness on the basis of conceivability arguments is unsuccessful and ought to be abandoned.



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