Are you a Philosophical Zombie?

How do you know that you exist? OK, I’m not going down the hackneyed “are you a brain in a box?” or “are we in a simulation?”. Better thinkers than myself have addressed these (actually serious) questions better than I ever could. What I’m talking about is your ability to determine whether you, as a conscious being, actually exist, or whether you’re a series of impulses with an assumption of consciousness. 

A philosophical zombie or “p-zombie” is a thought experiment (or is it?) in which, from the outside, a person would be indistinguishable from a normal human. He or she would be able to perform his or her work, have relationships, carry out conversations, and even tell you about his or her thoughts, beliefs, memories, and feelings – but internally he or she would have no subjective experience or “qualia”. Effectively, there would be no consciousness – the p-zombie would be a reactive product of impulses or automatic systems, without the ability to perceive that these drives were indeed unconscious. The p-zombie wouldn’t be able to choose actions independently of these automatic systems, but would be able to provide made up (and possibly convincing to both the p-zombie and an observer) explanations for behaviours post-hoc.

Most worryingly, the p-zombie would assume it was human, but neither you nor it would be able to determine whether it was.

Now for the fun bit. The human brain is mostly automatic survival systems, very little of which is consciously accessible to or controllable by us. Perhaps 80% or more is the domain of unconscious process (largely survival-based systems), with probably less than 10% made up of the parts that we “live in” such as the medial prefrontal cortex. I’ve written a fair bit about this before (see here, here, and here). What this means for modern humans, is that most of the stuff that goes on in the brain is both automatic and opaque to us. Systems engage to keep other systems running (e.g., digestion, homeostasis) without any conscious oversight, control, or even recognition, and our actual awareness is just a small fraction of what’s actually going on. This doesn’t stop of from assuming that we’re in charge – we’re quick to make causal judgements about the origins of our behaviours (e.g., “she upset me”), and overestimate the choice we had in evaluating and acting on those origins. It makes me think of those pretend steering wheels for toddlers, in which the toddler genuinely thinks she is driving but, in reality, is just playing with a lump of plastic.

In other words, most of what we assume is our behaviour is the result of the automatic systems that keep everything ticking along. There’s not a lot that we can genuinely claim as our own. Most of what we assume is conscious thought and behaviour are really echoes from inaccessible operations. Real consciousness would need to involve a high level of awareness of these processes, understanding that they are, in fact, inaccessible. We would need to be able to make independent, deliberate choices, in the presence of that information.

Interestingly, the main aim of modern psychological therapy is to bring awareness to and acceptance of the automatic systems that make up most of our brain. In doing so we develop the ability to understand what is within and without our control, and make conscious choices based on a set of values, rather than a set of rules. I suppose, what we’re actually trying to do, is to increase conscious awareness and oversight, and the ability to act independently of our internal automatons.

So are we p-zombies by default? Do we need to be taught to observe our own processes to develop consciousness? Observing children under the age of four or five suggests that, until we get a certain level of prefrontal cerebral development, there is no capacity for conscious awareness of internal process, or an ability to override it. Young children aren’t usually capable of directing their behaviour separately from their desires or drives. Nor are they capable of modelling the likely reactions of other human beings and inferring their intent (see “Theory of Mind“), or intuiting how they feel (i.e., empathy). Which makes most toddlers real-life p-zombies.

Sociopathy is another good example of this inability to imagine another person’s distress based on your actions, or to act in a way that is separate from your thoughts and feelings. Sociopaths prey on others without regard for the effects of their actions, and with little ability to question the validity of their world view (a pretty convincing example of real-life p-zombies). But let’s face it, many adults don’t appear to be able to regulate or understand the consequences of their behaviour, take ownership of their actions, or learn from their experiences. (If you’re interested in the question of sociopathy and consciousness, I highly recommend “Blindsight”, a superb science-fiction work by Peter Watts.)

The potential widespread p-zombie “epidemic” raises the question of what it takes to become genuinely conscious. I don’t think it’s an automatic transition in early childhood, once our prefrontal lobes are adequately formed. There are, undoubtedly, many situations that can delay or interrupt our ability to learn to be aware of and accountable for our actions: traumas, inadequate or abusive parenting, and other negative life experiences can seriously damage our ability to observe and override. And what about the effect of internal systems (e.g., reproduction and testosterone), evolutionary influences, societal influences, social drives, etc.?

In my opinion, consciousness is a tricky beast. It’s possible that humans just don’t have the raw processing power to be genuinely conscious: we’re sort of conscious, but are often muddled by the automatic systems that crowd out our ability to attend. Perhaps AIs will be the first beings to be fully conscious (in a way that gives them total awareness and understanding of all of their systems, and the ability to direct their behaviour will full oversight). In the meantime, being a better, more conscious human, requires a lot of work in learning to pay attention to the various internal systems attempting to influence our behaviour, and in choosing actions based on an independent, thought out set of values, rather than an internally guided, rigid set of automatic rules.

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