Monday, August 23, 2010

What it is like to be a zombie

Me philosophizing

(Background music: David Chalmers sings “The Zombie Blues”: )
In a famous article, “What is it like to be a bat?”, Thomas Nagel argues that it is impossible to “catch” the inner experiences of a bat, a human being, a Martian or whatever being with an inner subjective life in the objective description of an outsider. What it is like to be or to experience for a bat, for a human being, for a Martian or for any other being with inner experiences is inherently different from how an outsider, for instance an investigator, observes these same inner experiences. Inner experiences as they are for the holder and as they are for an outsider looking at them are fundamentally of a different type. Therefore we have to distinguish between the perspective of the first person and the perspective of the third person when describing them (see ).
Some twenty years later, David Chalmers argued in a similar way that we must make a distinction between the mental and the physical and that a physical reduction of our inner experiences is not possible. In his reasoning he used the so-called Zombie argument. A philosophical zombie is not the terrifying figure we know from films and the like but, in the words of Chalmers, “someone or something physically identical to me (or to any other conscious being), but lacking conscious experiences altogether” (The conscious mind, 1996, 94). However, if we try to describe a zombie, we must conclude that “There is nothing it is like to be a zombie” (id., 95). Arguing from here, Chalmers concludes that consciousness does exist, which makes that reducing conscious inner experiences to physical experiences is not possible. I know that my summary is too oversimplified, and maybe Chalmers will protest, but what I want to discuss is: Is there really nothing it is like to be a zombie?
Once upon a day I made a bike tour on my race bike, as I do so often. I had a strong wind against me and my legs were wheeling round like mad to fight the natural counter forces. The evening sun was dazzling me and I couldn’t see anything. My head had become empty and I felt like in trance. Suddenly I came back to myself and at once I knew it: So it is to feel like a zombie. Zombies do exist! And there is something it is like to be a zombie, for I experienced being a zombie! And we can experience how it is like to be a different creature! How sad for Chalmers and Nagel that such a simple bike ride can topple their theories. The upshot is: Take a bike and philosophize!


Simon said...

Henk are you saying you had a Zen moment?

HbdW said...

Maybe it is, may it is not. I have no idea, how a Zen moment is like. I see it more as a kind of restricted awareness. You are completely concentrated on the cycling (or running, especially when the circumstances are a bit difficult. There is only one thing in the world at that moment: moving forward. And then suddenly you realize what you are doing and you return to reality by way of speaking. But all this is what makes sport so relaxing.

Simon said...

I think Zen moments are were you do things without any sense of self, that you are so caught up in the action -usually with no verbal/mental monologue- that you just 'are'. So to me it sounds like you did but to me that isn't a zombie as there wouldn't even be any experience at all.

The thing that has always interested me is thinkng about what forms of complex physical interaction are capable of creating qualia filled subjective experieces and how the hell could they be created in the first place. Afterall on a very basic level our brainwaves are just patterns of ions jumping small gaps.

If that is so why couldn't a sophisticated clockwork machine that creates patters of information not have subjective experiences let alone synthetic digital machines? I'm not sure it would go down to the level of a rock but it could be any reasonably sophisticated information pattern generator/processor could have an internal 'life'.

Maybe the who idea of zombies is misplaced, as it by its very nature of being able to respond to the environment in relatively sophisticated ways, would actually require subjective states.

HbdW said...

When I am making a ride on my race bike or when I am making a run, often, especially when there is no traffic on the road or something else that distracts me from my activity, I am caught in my action, indeed. It is as if I am one with my action. Maybe a zombie “feeling” is then a kind of extreme case of this. When you suddenly realizes that you do not know what you did a few moments ago. I do not want to say whether what I described in my blog was such a “feeling”, but anyway, I realized it afterwards, and then the moment is already gone, of course.

That’s also a thing that has intrigued me and still intrigues me: How can self-consciousness be there, how can it emerge from material structures, and not only be there, but so that there is an I that feels “that’s me” and that feels itself the centre of the world, the centre of a certain perspective. It is not simply there, but it is there for itself.

Simon said...

I just putting it down to a insight that you the conscious mind wasn't directing the show.

I think it could be a combination of body maps and strange loop/feedback or that in a way you are modelling yourself not just things around you.

Don't forget that what you see isn't actually a direct representation of what is out there but the brain/body system modelling what it is interpreting is out there or expects to be out there.

BTW why we have subjective experiences I think it will probably always be a mystery not unlike why there is a universe at all.

OT and personally I don't really put much stock in what Hawking has just said and think that it in no way explains why we have something compared to absolutely nothing. I would ahve thought that even to spontaneously spring into existence requires some background law to exist beforehand. But that says that there was something there not an absolute nothing.

HbdW said...

Okay, Simon, thanks again for your reaction. As for the first part, I have nothing to add. As for the mystery of subjective experiences, it is just for this reason that Chalmers calls it the hard problem to solve, distinguishing it from the easy problem, the “normal” scientific questions about the functioning of the brain.
Yes, I, too, think there must have been something before our present world came into being. For what could come from absolutely nothing? But this, where we come from, is also one of our mysteries.