Consciousness 1 – Zombies

Commuting days until retirement: 451

Commuting at this time of year, with the lengthening mornings and evenings, gives me a chance to lose myself in the sight of tracts of England sliding across my field of vision – I think of Philip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings:  ‘An Odeon went past, a cooling tower, and someone running up to bowl…’  (His lines tend to jump into my mind like this). It’s tempting to enlarge a scene like this into a simile for life, like the one that Larkin’s poem leads into. Of course we are not just passive observers, but the notion of life as a film show – a series of scenes progressing past your eyes – has a certain curious attractiveness.

A rather more specatcular view than any I get on my train journey. Photo: Yamaguchi Yoshiaki. Wikimedia Commons

A rather more specatcular view than any I get on my train journey.
Photo: Yamaguchi Yoshiaki. Wikimedia Commons

Now imagine that, as I sit in the train, I am not quite a human being as you think of one. Instead I’m a cleverly constructed robot who appears in every way like a human but, being a robot, has something important missing. The objects outside the train form images on some sensor in each of my pseudo-eyes, and the results may then be processed by successive layers of digital circuitry which perform ever more sophisticated interpretative functions. Perhaps these resolve the light patterns that entered my ‘eyes’ into discrete objects, and and trigger motor functions which cause my head and eyes to swivel and follow them as they pass. Much, in fact, like the real me, idly watching the scenes sliding by.

Now let’s elaborate our robot to have capabilities beyond sitting on a train and following the objects outside; now it can produce all the behaviour that any human being can.This curious offspring of a thought-experiment is what philosophers refer to as a zombie – not the sort in horror films with the disintegrating face and staring eyeballs, but a creature who may be as well behaved and courteous as any decent human being. The only difference is that, despite (we presume) the brain churning away as busily as anyone else’s, there are no actual sensations in there – none of those primary, immediate experiences with a subjective quality: the fresh green of a spring day, or the inner rapture of an orgasm. So what’s different? There are a number of possibilities, but, as you will have guessed, the one I am thinking of is that inner, subjective world of experience we all have, but assume that machines do not. This is well expressed by saying that there’s something that it is like to be me, but not something that it’s like to be a machine.(1)  The behaviour is there all right, but that’s all. In the phrase I rather like, the lights are on but nobody’s at home.

Many people who think about the question nowadays, especially those of a scientific bent, tend to conclude that, of course, we must ultimately be nothing but machines of one sort or another. We have discovered many – perhaps most – of the physical principles upon which our brains and bodies work, and we have traced their evolution over time from simple molecular entities. So there we are – machines. But conscious machines – machines that there is something it is like to be? It has frequently been debated whether or not such a machine with all these capabilities would ipso facto be conscious – whether it would have a mind. Or, in other words, whether we could in principle build a conscious machine. (There are some who speculate that we may already have done so.)

One philosophical response to this problem is that of behaviourism, a now justly neglected philosophical position.(2) If you are a behaviourist you believe that your mind, and your mental activity – your thoughts – are defined in terms of your behaviour. The well-known Turing Test constitutes a behaviourist criterion, since it is based on the principle that a computer system whose responses are indistinguishable from those of a human is taken for all practical purposes to have a mind. (I wrote about Turing a little while ago – but here I part company with him.) And for a behaviourist, the phrase ‘What it is like to be…’ can have no meaning, or at best a rather convoluted one based on what we say or do; but its meaning is plain and obvious to you or me. It’s difficult to resist repeating the old joke about behaviourism: two post-coital behaviourists lie in bed together, and one says ‘That was great for you – how was it for me?’ But I take the view of behaviourism that the joke implies – it’s absurd.

Behaviourists, however, can’t be put down as burglars or voyeurs: they don’t peer into the lighted windows to see what’s going on inside. It’s enough for them that the lights are on. For them the concept of a zombie is either meaningless or a logical impossibility.  But there is another position on the nature of the mind which is much more popular in contemporary thought, but which has a different sort of problem with the notion of a zombie. I’m thinking of eliminative materialism.

Well, as I write this post, I feel it extending indefinitely as more ideas churn through that machine I refer to as my brain. So to avoid it becoming impossibly long, and taking another three weeks to write it, I’ll stop there, and just entitle this piece as Part 1. Part 2 will take up the topic of eliminative materialism.

In the meantime I’d just like to leave one thought: I started with a snatch of Philip Larkin, and I’ve always felt that poetry is in essence a celebration of conscious experience; without consciousness I don’t believe that poetry would be possible.


(1) The phrase is mainly associated with Thomas Nagel, and his influential 1974 paper What is it Like to be a Bat? But he in turn attributes it to the English philosopher Timothy Sprigge.

(2) I’m referring to the philosophical doctrine of behaviourism – distinct from, but related to the psychological one – J B Watson, B F Skinner et al.

6 thoughts on “Consciousness 1 – Zombies

  1. Pingback: Forget about the mind and the brain. What is behaviourism? | Clear philosophy - Philosophy made easy

  2. I think Behaviorism gets a bad rap. From what I understood of it, Behaviorists didn’t deny that conscious processes, etc. existed, but focused their studies on outward signs of behavior. That is, the meaningful study of any phenomena was in the outward manifestations it produced, and not in reports of subjective inner states.

    I think such a view does not deny the inner states, nor do I think such a view necessarily even denigrates their importance in certain respects. If I am happy, that may be a subjective inner state that’s opaque to the behaviorist, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant to me. I mean, what makes life worth or not worth living is this subjective inner state.

    Yet in some cases, there is way too much focus on subjective sensations, at the expense of coherence. Look at something like knowledge and belief. I think behaviorist accounts of knowledge and belief have much to recommend them, and anti-behaviorist views lead us to incoherent situations like The Chinese Room or people believing one thing while acting inconsistently towards it.

    I wonder if Behaviorists overstated their case and led to this backlash…

    • Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments.
      I guess I was focusing on the more extreme end of a spectrum of behaviourist views, and the more extreme ones are certainly thin on the ground now. The other end shades into functionalism, which is much more widely held these days. I’m also in these posts deliberately restricting myself to the primary, immediate qualities of consciousness and not attempting to grapple with knowledge, belief or volition. I agree that views such as behaviourism are on firmer ground there.
      I’ve always been a fan of Searle’s Chinese room. It’s not so much that I agree with all of his views, but that it’s a very provocative and fertile source of ideas and debate. And it leads us into the murky waters of intentionality, which I might dip my toe into in a future post.

      • You are right, I’m getting more into functionalism, which is another philosophy/system I think has much to recommend it :).

        Searle’s Chinese room is a good thought experiment in that it inspires thought. While I may disagree with it, the fact that it gets me to think hard enough about my position to articulate it, is a huge point in its favor.

        I’d love to read your views on intentionality 😀

  3. Pingback: Consciousness 3 – The Adventures of a Naive Dualist | Duncommutin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s