Monday, September 27, 2010

Am I responsible for my actions or is my zombie? (2)

The bridge of Breukelen
(photo taken with pinhole camera)

When I wrote my blog last week, where I asked who is responsible for my actions, I did not expect that a few days later this question would become reality for me. Last Saturday, I was cycling along the Vecht, once a former branch of the Rhine, now a quiet river with villas from the 18th century and mediaeval castles left and right. On the other side of the Vecht, Nijenrode Castle loomed up from behind the trees. A bell told me that it was seven o’clock. One or two kilometres further on I saw the characteristic bridge of Breukelen. I am about halfway my trip, I thought, and smiled. I was going easy with a steady speed. Then, suddenly, a blue colossus in front of me. A car! I made a swing to the right. Too late. The car stops me with its side. Happily a bleeding hand and a few bruises were my only injuries. Nothing serious. My bike had no damage at all. The car had more damage than I and my bike together. The chauffeur and his wife were very nice and helpful. They were even prepared to bring me home. But after having returned to myself, some talking and exchanging addresses, I decided to continue my ride, albeit with a lower speed. With still an hour to ride home, I had time enough for thinking over what had happened. I realized that it was a typical instance of the responsibility case in my last week’s blog. One thing seemed certain: As a person I was responsible for the accident, for I hadn’t given priority to the car. But my I as brain interpreter and my zombie started quarrelling about their shares in it. Okay, my I (brain interpreter) is prepared to take the responsibility for the trip and the route, but it reproaches the zombie that it really behaved like a zombie when cycling there. My speed was easy and steady which made that I was almost in trance. However, my zombie reproaches my I that it looked too much to the landscape, the Nijenrode Castle and the beautiful bridge and that it had to be attentive on the crossing. I knew the situation and, although it is a quiet crossing, I knew that cars could come from the right. I should have noticed the car, according to my zombie, and I had had to warn him in time. But is it not so that I was there for enjoying the trip? Can’t I trust my zombie that he does what he is supposed to do: leading me automatically and with flexible reactions along the roads? He had to know that crossings can be dangerous, so it is my zombie that had had to be more attentive, so I said. I am a simple brain interpreter, just reporting afterwards to other people what my zombie has decided. According to some philosophers, like Paul Churchland, I am even not more than an epiphenomenon of my zombie. How can I be held responsible for the collision then? Even if I can be held responsible for the main lines of the trip, it is my zombie who is responsible for filling in the details, I maintained. Only that in the end my person was responsible for the collision was no point of discussion.
When I called my insurance company, the lady on the line made me doubt whether even this was correct. She told me that according to Dutch law cyclists and pedestrians are protected “traffic participants” and that in case of a collision with a car they are not be liable for the damage. She advised me to recover my damage from (the insurance company of) the chauffeur and it was even not yet sure whether my insurance company needed to pay the damage of the car. The reason is that in a collision between a car and a pedestrian or cyclist the chances to get damage are very unequal. But if this is so, it might imply that my person and my brain interpreter and/or my zombie are responsible for the accident but nor for the damage of the accident.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Am I responsible for my actions or is my zombie?

As we have seen, there are two entities within me that may determine my actions, my zombie and I. Then we can ask: Who is responsible for these actions? Am I, my brain interpreter, responsible for what I do, or is it my zombie, who steers my actions? Here I do not want to discuss the situation that we do things really unconsciously, for example when sleepwalking or in a black out, but I mean the cases that I am completely aware of what I am doing.
We have to consider several possibilities here. The first one is the case that my chauffeur example is a good analogy for: It is I – my brain interpreter – who determines the main lines of what I am doing and it is my zombie who executes them. This sounds quite Cartesian (like all the cases here), but I think that further insight will show that actually I and my zombie are deeply integrated. Anyhow, I think this case is a variant of the assumption that man has a free will and as such is responsible for what s/he is doing.
A second possibility seems more interesting: That it is not I – my brain interpreter – who determines the main lines of my actions, but that my zombie does. My I is really a brain
interpreter and it is my zombie who takes the decisions, which are then explained by my brain interpreter, who puts them into words. But does this mean that I (now in the sense of me as a person) am not responsible for what I am doing? However, it can still be so that my actions and the decisions that ground them are my actions and decisions, albeit that my actions are based on my rational unconscious decisions. My brain interpreter is then like the government speaker who tells the press afterwards what the government has decided, informed about what has been decided by the prime minister, because the government speaker herself wasn’t present at the cabinet meeting. But then the cabinet decisions as such are still rational decisions, although the speaker learned about them only afterwards. So, it can be with my zombie, too: my zombie takes his decisions hidden for the brain interpreter but they are based on relevant facts, experiences, feelings and what more it needs for a rational weighing. Basically, this situation is not really different from the first situation described here: I am still a person with a free will.
But what if my zombie is merely a kind of automaton? A kind of machine or computer that processes input and output according to certain rules programmed by nature and past experiences, without any kind of deliberate rational weighing (whatever that might mean)? And that I, in the sense of my brain interpreter, do not more than giving a kind of description of the output? And that I as a person am not more than a sort of executer of these decisions when acting? Then I am really a zombie although a zombie with the appearance of a conscious being.
That I am in fact not more than a zombie in disguise is quite well possible, of course. But does this make any difference with the free will situation? Should we say then: well, because I am actually a zombie who behaves automatically, I cannot help what I do, and it is the same for my fellow men? We are all automatons and we do not know what we do? Should we have to conclude then that we have to skip the idea of responsibility for what we are doing from our vocabulary? Or are we still responsible in some sense? Maybe it is irrational, but I guess that nobody would accept our not being responsible in some sense.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Who steers the body?

Last week I wondered whether the fact (if it is a fact) that the zombie within me takes his decisions while I am not conscious of them really implies that it is not actually I who steers my body but that it is the zombie who does. “Even when the decisions are taken unconsciously by my zombie … , it is quite well possible that they are ‘my’ rational decisions, albeit that they are my rational unconscious decisions”, so I wrote. I think that this remark needs some further explanation.
Let’s say a manager has a car with chauffeur and orders the chauffeur to drive to 3 Mind Square where he has a meeting. The chauffeur carries out the order and brings the manager to the right address. Who then causes the ride being made: The manager or the chauffeur? For isn’t it so that the chauffeur starts the engine, steers the car, chooses the route, etc.? But in the end it is the manager who decides and determines what is to be done: Going to 3 Mind Square. Isn’t it the same with the zombie within me and my brain interpreter (=I) ? My zombie does a lot which I have no knowledge of and takes many decisions for me and starts to execute them before I know them. Might it not be so that my “mindbrain” functions like a manager with a car with chauffeur? That I am the manager and that the zombie within me is my chauffeur (and that my body is the car)? Then we can explain, for instance, why most I do is not conscious for me (the chauffeur drives the car, while the manager is reading his papers and takes no notice of what the chauffeur does) and why I can explain only afterwards why certain decisions have been taken (why I went through the Brain Street and not though the Zombie Street: because the chauffeur preferred this route, although I did not know that beforehand ), albeit I (the manager) who determines the main lines and plans for the future (going to 3 Mind Square).

Monday, September 06, 2010

Me and my zombie

The idea that there is both a zombie and an I in me, as I suggested in my last blog, sounds rather weird. However, this is a bit the picture one gets from the insights of neuroscience. On the one hand we have our brain, the “grey matter” in our head (actually it is not grey), which functions like a computer. It gathers and processes the information it receives from the world outside. And if necessary it takes the decisions. All this happens unconsciously. Let me call this part my zombie. On the other hand we have our conscious me, what is often called our brain interpreter. It is the “thing” in me that thinks that I am who I am and that consciously deliberates what I must do. At least, that’s what it seems to me that the brain interpreter does, for according to present insights the decisions are in fact taken by my zombie and not by my brain interpreter. The brain interpreter, so the idea is, comes into action only after a decision has been taken. It only words the decision and gives a motivation for it. However, because my zombie works unconsciously, we think that it is my brain interpreter, or “I”, who takes the decision and who gives the motivation for the decision, although actually it is my zombie who weighs the reasons for the decision and who decides, on the ground of past experiences, its education, its genetic constitution etc. We can see it a bit like this: Let’s say, every week a government has a closed meeting where it discusses the relevant issues and where it takes decisions. After the meeting, the government speaker tells the press what the ministers talked about, what they have decided and what the motivations for the decisions were. Then one can compare the cabinet in session with my zombie and the speaker with my brain interpreter. But it need not be so, of course, that the speaker tells the press what really took place in the meeting and what the real decisions and the real grounds for these decisions were. It is the same with my brain interpreter. I (my brain interpreter) can say that I want to do A for certain reasons, but when the moment is there my zombie makes that I do B (and then, afterwards, it is quite likely that my brain interpreter succeeds to put forward “good reasons” why I did B).
All this sounds quite Cartesian. It is as if I have a homunculus, a little man in my head, that accompanies my decisions and my actions. The difference is, of course, that the Cartesian homunculus is the one who takes the decisions and guides the zombie and then my body, while my brain interpreter follows the decisions taken by my zombie and what my body does because of these decisions. It is as if my consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon that plays no part in what I actually do.
I am not going to undermine this conception. I am not in the position to do that. Moreover, I think it is not unfounded. But in certain respects it is problematical. It looks, as said, as if our consciousness is a kind of epiphenomenon that has no real function in what we do, so why should we have it? Of course, it is possible that our consciousness has really no function, but it is quite exceptional in nature that organisms develop epiphenomenal entities. A second point is that when my zombie processes unconsciously the information it gets and when it decides unconsciously, this does not need to imply that it takes these decisions behind my back in some way as if another person has taken them; i.e. that these decisions are not mine. Even when the decisions are taken unconsciously by my zombie (and there are good reasons to think they are), it is quite well possible that they are “my” rational decisions, albeit that they are my rational unconscious decisions. They could be the same and be rational, just as when they wouldn’t be interpreted afterwards by my brain interpreter, but instead would be conscious at the moment of decision itself. Then my zombie is actually me minus consciousness.
This is just one possibility. And besides that, Victor Lamme, whose book inspired most of what I have written here (see my blog last week), doesn’t say in the end that we have a dualist structure. “Brain and mind are identical”, so Lamme (De vrije wil bestaat niet, 2010, p. 280). What all this shows is how difficult it is to solve Chalmers’s “hard problem”. For even if we know how the brain functions with all its psychological consequences (Chalmers’s “soft problem”), there is a good chance that we still do not know what consciousness and its relation with the brain are.