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.


Simon said...

Henk I'd like to get a hold of the book 'I'm A Strange Loop' as it -at least the Title- gels with a intuition I had that in some repects conscious is the mental simulation, including the higher level results/answers of the mind process; which is then feedback into mind.

In a way its its own 'Matrix'/internal world, like the end result/answers of the programming code which is then feedback into the programme.

HbdW said...

I think that the hard problem is not so much to explain that we are CONSCIOUS but that WE are conscious. I mean, even if the penomenon of consciousness has been explained, how does it come that there is a self that feels SELF that it is conscious and that it sees itself as the centre of the world? That's the real enigma, I think. Or is it a false enigma?