What it is like to be a zombie?
I am sure many of you are already familiar with Nagel’s perennial question ‘what it is like to be a bat?‘ (see this one with some added commentary too). Today I propose to ask a slightly different question ‘what it is like to be a zombie‘? That may seem absurd at the outset, as in many people’s mind Zombies are synonymous with no consciousness. I beg to differ. As I have already indicated in my last post on major conscious and unconscious processes in the brain, there is an easy problem of A-consciousness and there is a hard problem of P-consciousness. I have already tried to breakup A-consciousness in its parts and I similarly think that P-consciousness is much more that qualia (qualia I envisage as more grounded in sensory or perceptive systems). So given the fact that most zombies are behaviorurally indistinguishable from normal humans, and given the fact that most people who argue for zombie models of humans (that ‘there is no one home to watch/direct the picture’) do still endow the zombie and themselves with the A-consciousness aspects – they do not deny that a representation is made and is consciously available for processing (the theater of consciousness) , it is reasonable to speculate that although lacking full P-consciousness, it would still be something like to feel like a zombie. Let me draw an analogy, in some dissociative disorders, one starts seeing the world as unreal (derealization) and the self as unreal (depersonalization) ; yet even though one believes oneself to be unreal there is still something it is like to exist in that ‘unreal’ state.
Similarly, though one may model oneself and others as zombies, still it would be something like it is to be in a state that thinks and believes that one is a zombie and also acts accordingly. I am making a leap here. I am assuming that awareness or modeling of ones A-conscious experiences leads to or affects one’s phenomenal consciousness. Thus, in my view , someone who models oneself and others as a zombie, would have a different sort of P-consciousness or what it feels-to-be-like, than a person who models oneself and others as sentient agents and his P-cosnsciousness would be of a different nature.
Now consider the problem we face when confronted with a world which is deterministic and chaotic at the same time, and which is inhabited by agents which seem to be unpredicatable and constrained at the same time. I have already indicated elsewhere, that people may form tow types of model- one is a statistical/ deterministic model that they may apply to the world; another is a probabilisitic/agentic model that they may apply to the self (as well as other sentient beings). If one keeps these domains of folk-physics and folk-psychology separate, all is hunky dory; all hell breaks lose (pun intended; zombies are correlated with dead apocalypse scenarios in popular culture) when one applies a deterministic model (that fits the world) to the self/others. Similarly all hell breaks loose, when one applies an agentic/indetrminsitc model (that fits the sefl/others) to the world.
For today, we will focus on the problem of modeling self, and leave the problem of modeling world for a later day. A self may act differently in many similar/same situations. If it acts the same on each occasion, given the same situation; we can easily say that the situation causes the action. This poses no problem for the zombie (I will refer to a zombie as a person whose self/other conceptualization is as that of oneself/others as machines), as one has a deterministic rule that defines the self- (given situation A-> action B), and thus one can keep one’s model of self as-a-deterministic-being consistent. On the other hand, if the situation A sometimes leads to action B, but at other times to action C, then one has to explain the variance in the behavioral output. Consider first the problem of explaining the variance between-subjects. Given the same situation A, subject Z acts in way B while the subject Y acts in way C. There is considerable variance. If one assumes all selves as created equal, then all should have behaved similarly. Either one has to grant an extraordinariness and uniqueness to all selves, or if one has a statistical and ordinary nature of human beings, one has to grant that the subject given the same situation, should have behaved identically. But we all see that there is considerable variance. This variance is individualistc and one may try to explain this between-subjects variance using subject’s personal history (prior conditioning: a behavioristic model; or repressed emotional experiences/memories: psychoanalytical theory), one may also look at subject’s common ancestral history and use that to explain behavior (genetic differences: evolutionary biology; cultural differences : anthropology ) or one may even look at his holistic experiences and use that individualistic experiential history as a basis for explaining behavior ( consider two identical twins that because of their different sampling of environment may end up as differently conditioned etc). Phew that covers all the major psychological theories that I could remember.
Now lets focus on the problem of explaining within-subjects variance ; given the fact that the Situation is the same (situation A) and the subject is the same (subject Z), why does the same subject react differently to the same situation (acts in ways B and C). This is a relatively hard problem. One could deny the problem itself and claim that no situation is identical, but hey we are doing armchair philosophy right now, and we have already agreed to the premise of existence of a same situation A when we discussed between-subjects variance above, so it doesn’t hurt to concede that the situation A can be same for subject Z, but he may still react differently in ways B and C. None of the above psychological approaches, if applied in a strict, causal deterministic sense can explain the same subject Z reacting differently to situation A , as the subject Z’s personal history (conditioning, repressed memories) or ancestral history (genes, cultural influences) or even previous experiences and choices remain the same and thus should ideally have led to the same behavior. I am making an assumption here that situation A is repeated twice or more in succession (closely in time) so that one cannot counter and say that conditioning (to take an example) has changed in meanwhile due to situation A itself and thus, as the subject Z (at time t=1) has changed to an extent (by delta effect of situation A on the ‘earlier’ subject Z at time t=0) , so he may react differently at tome t=1 from how he reacted at time t=0. What we are really doing is doing away with a term of the equation; we are saying subject Z is not constant (it keep changing- self as constantly changing- a Buddhist philosophical premise and also favored by many in psychology) , but in the spirit of Camus’s Absurdity argument in Myth of Sisyphus, I am not satisfied with doing away one of the variables of the equation itself, so let us see, where this model of self-as-a-deterministic-being leads us to. Now that subject Z remains the same for two iterations of situation A, how can one explain the variance that results in action B at one time and action C at the other. One can again try to dissolve the equation by claiming that there is no unified self in space (earlier argument was that there is no unified self in time- it is a constantly changing in time self) – that is we are not a single self , but made up of many different selves- some conscious, some unconscious etc. Different selves may compete with each other and whoever wins at the moment, directs the show. Again assuming different selves cohabiting the same person doesn’t really feel what-it-is like to-be-oneself , and apart from some multiple-personality disorder (DID) this has not been frequently reported; but more importantly . Granting multiple selves to subject Z again vanishes one of the terms of the equation, and I am not interested, I want to stay and see where my inquiry takes me to.
If the situation is same, the subject is same and a single one, than what explains the within-subject variance? One has to grant unpredictability to a self that was assumed to be deterministic to begin with. One can now take two routes, either resort to the magical mumbo-jumbo of quantum world and indeterminacy and uncertainty; or stay in the deterministic world but look at complex systems/ chaos theory etc to explain the apparent indeterminacy. I believe a zombie will prefer the second route and model the self as a complex-system/chaotic self. One could say that the self/ others are still completely determined, but due to an initial ‘butterfly flapping wings effect‘ the self seems or appears to be unpredictable and will continue to remain unpredicatble because of that ‘original sin’. The original sin may be how the infant took the first breath, whether he cried or laughed when born; what the time of conception was etc etc. Whatever may be the initial condition that escaped measuring, it leads to an unperdicatble self, a chaotic self that one cannot measure in the present and thus cannot predict in the long term- a self that is as fickle and as perdicatble as the waether.
There are important implications to seeing / modeling the self as a chaotic system. That leads to a diminished sense of agency / responsibility as perhaps there is not much one can do to correct the original sin and thus modify/ change ones long term behavior. This diminished p-consciousness of agency and the consequent differential experiences of sensations/ perceptions should also lead to diminished qualia or what-it-feels-to be-like feeling. Maybe the zombies do feel really like zombies- mechanical and chaotic- going along the life stream in a mechanical , predetermined manner- seeing all and understanding all, even acting and reacting, but feeling impotent and lifeless, perhaps just fulfilling a role which has been scripted by someone else (the initial butterfly flapping its wings or the original sin).
This is a good point to stop, but I would like to thank Melbren, a reader of this blog, who commented on my last post and asked me if I would re-define , give a new name to Autism spectrum disorders. Thta made me think and somehow led to this post. But first his comment:
Very cool post. And I love your blog. I am trying to think about this particular post in terms of your psychotic spectrum–most specifically as it relates to autism. But I am impeded by an overwhelming feeling that if we have a new spectrum–we’ll need new terms. The term “autism” has outgrown its usefulness, don’t you think?
For one thing–if we are to use the framework of a psychosis spectrum–I think there will be a lot of people currently diagnosed with autism who are, in fact, organically more biased toward the opposite end of the spectrum. However, such individuals may still have “stereotypies” that we have come to associate with the term “autism.”
That being said–if you were appointed “word czar of the day,” and, as such, had the authority to scrap all of our conventional terminology and come up with “new and improved” terms that are more in alignment with a psychosis spectrum–what new terms would you choose?
I conceptualize autism as defect whereby people falsely apply a deterministic model (relevant for the world/ non-living things) to the self/others (living things) ; I consider of psychosis as the reverse, whereby one applies an agentic model to the world, thus exhibiting magical thinking etc. Because psychotic spectrum is consptualised in terms of a disability (loss of contact with reality), I would rechristen autism spectrum as the zombie spectrum (loss of contact with agency); of course, If I indeed am the ‘word czar of the day’ I’ll probably rename both as consciousness-orientation (psychotic spectrum) and reality-orientation (autistic spectrum) and highlight the good aspects of both- shaministic Altered states of consciousness and creativity of schizotypals and the scientific and savantic abilities of the Aspergers. Of course, in a lighter vein, perhaps the autistic spectrum people are ‘muggles’ (believers in ordinariness ) who still have to come to terms with the ‘magic’ (believers in extraordinariness) of consciousness.
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