Monday, August 30, 2010

The zombie within me

In my blog last week I attacked the argumentations by Nagel and Chalmers that there must be something subjective or conscious in us. I argued that we can at least know what it is like to be a zombie, since we often behave like a zombie and we know that we do. Of course, my reasoning was not serious. What is serious, however, is that we often do behave like a zombie. And this raises substantial questions about who and what we are and why we do what we do. Is it an exception that I sometimes behave like a zombie, for example when I am riding my bike? Maybe we think so, because we can come back to ourselves, by way of speaking, and become conscious of and reflect on that we were behaving like a zombie for a while. But this may be mere illusion.
On July 20, 2009, I published here a blog about free will and a cup of coffee. There I mentioned that Lawrence Williams and John A. Bargh had shown that holding a warm cup of coffee makes you have more positive attitudes towards a stranger than when you hold a cup of ice coffee. We think that the stranger is “really” sympathetic, while actually it is the temperature of our hands that makes us think so. Our consciousness of the fact (if it is a fact) that the stranger is sympathetic is apparently merely an epiphenomenon and has no influence on our feelings towards the stranger, at least not in this case. It is as if we first feel a person sympathetic because of an objective cause (the warm cup of coffee) and that only then we think that we feel that the person is sympathetic, namely because of this objectively caused feeling. It is as if our consciousness, our thinking, does not count.
This idea is supported by a case that I just read in a book about the free will by Victor Lamme. Here he describes the case of a woman who was blind because of a brain damage and who could grasp objects on a table just as a person with normal visibility does and not as someone does who is blind because of eye damages. When a person with normal visibility takes an object like a cup or an object with an irregular form like a piece of art, s/he grasps it immediately in the right way, unhesitatingly. A person with eye damage or a person with a blindfold must first feel what the shape of the object is before s/he can get a good grip on it. It was as if the woman concerned could see the object, although she was blind. This and other research brough Goodale to the conclusion that we have two systems in our brain that guide our actions. In addition to the system that makes us consciously do what we do there is one that determines our actions unconsciously. (cf Victor Lamme, De vrije wil bestaat niet, 2010, ch. 2). Or does the former system merely accompany our actions like an epiphenomenon? For what should the function of consciousness be for us if we can act also without being conscious of it? It looks as if there is something in us that is like a zombie. The question remains then, of course: who writes this blog? Do I write it or does my zombie write it?


Simon said...

Henk this is another reason why I think the personhood account is so seriously flawed. I would have thought it obvious that much of behavior and even cognition doesn't stem from the conscious mind but from the unconscious and larger 'body' system.

So when people say I the person that is just so archaic when framing the individual around the conscious self/will. The studies that show mental activity preceding conscious thought, I think have stood up to scrutiny; combine that with all the latest neuroscience of embodied cognition and it baffles me with this obsession with conscious selves.

It could be argued it is just another dimension of the Thinking Animal problem in that not only do you have two thinking but different entities but you also have two distinct entities directing the behavior of that individual. Or in regard to the Fission and multiple occupancy arguments, we can add another occupant, the rest of the body as well. I think I might expand this into an another article ;)

BTW in regard to zombies I wonder would they be considered on par with simple robot thathave limited behavioral repertoires? If so they could be considered relatively sophisticated systems.

HbdW said...

One of the problems is: Can this zombie exist without consciousness: Yes, then they are probably not more than complicated machines. In the sense of Descartes, who saw animals as complicated machines. Maybe they (and we) are not more than that: machines produced by nature. Wat remaines then, of course, is the intriguing question: why consciousness?
As for the personhood issue, I can only agree with you, Simon.