Saturday, May 30, 2009

What it is like to be a zombie?

I am sure many of you are already familiar with Nagel's perennial question 'what it is like to be a bat?'  (see this one with some added commentary too). Today I propose to ask a slightly different question 'what it is like to be a zombie'? That may seem absurd at the outset, as in many people's mind Zombies are synonymous with no consciousness. I beg to differ. As I have already indicated in my last post on major conscious and unconscious processes in the brain, there is an easy problem of A-consciousness and there is a hard problem of P-consciousness. I have already tried to breakup A-consciousness in its parts and  I similarly think that P-consciousness is much more that qualia (qualia I envisage as more grounded in sensory or perceptive systems). So given the fact that most zombies are behaviorurally indistinguishable from normal humans, and given the fact that most people who argue for zombie models of humans (that 'there is no one home to watch/direct the picture') do still endow the zombie and themselves with the A-consciousness aspects - they do not deny that a representation is made and is consciously available for processing (the theater of consciousness) , it is reasonable to speculate that although lacking full P-consciousness, it would still be something like to feel like a zombie. Let me draw an analogy, in some dissociative disorders, one starts seeing the world as unreal (derealization)  and the self as unreal (depersonalization) ; yet even though one believes oneself to be unreal there is still something it is like to exist in that 'unreal' state.

Similarly, though one may model oneself and others as zombies, still it would be something like it is to be in a state that thinks and believes that one is a zombie and also acts accordingly. I am making a leap here. I am assuming that awareness or modeling of ones A-conscious experiences leads to or affects one's phenomenal consciousness. Thus, in my view , someone who models oneself and others as a zombie, would have a different sort of P-consciousness or what it feels-to-be-like, than a person who models oneself and others as sentient agents  and his P-cosnsciousness would be of a different nature.

Now consider the problem we face when confronted with a world which is deterministic and chaotic at the same time, and which is inhabited by agents which seem to be unpredicatable and constrained at the same time. I have already indicated elsewhere, that people may form tow types of model- one is a statistical/ deterministic model that they may apply to the world; another is a probabilisitic/agentic model that they may apply to the self (as well as other sentient beings).  If one keeps these domains of folk-physics and folk-psychology separate, all is hunky dory; all hell breaks lose (pun intended; zombies are correlated with dead apocalypse scenarios in popular culture) when one applies a deterministic  model (that fits the world) to the self/others. Similarly all hell breaks loose, when one applies an agentic/indetrminsitc model (that fits the sefl/others) to the world.

For today, we will focus on the problem of modeling self, and leave the problem of modeling world for a later day. A self may act differently in many similar/same situations. If it acts the same on each occasion, given the same situation; we can easily say that the situation causes the action. This poses no problem for the zombie (I will refer to a zombie as a person whose self/other conceptualization is as that of oneself/others as machines), as one has a deterministic rule that defines the self- (given situation A-> action B), and thus one can keep one's model of self as-a-deterministic-being consistent. On the other hand, if the situation A sometimes leads to action B, but at other times to action C, then one has to explain the variance in the behavioral output. Consider first the problem of explaining the variance between-subjects. Given the same situation A, subject Z acts in way B while the subject Y acts in way C.   There is considerable variance. If one assumes all selves as created equal, then all should have behaved similarly. Either one has to grant an extraordinariness and uniqueness to all selves, or if one has a statistical  and ordinary nature of human beings, one has to grant that the subject given the same situation, should have behaved identically. But we all see that there is considerable variance.  This variance is individualistc and one may try to explain this between-subjects variance using subject's personal history (prior conditioning: a behavioristic model; or repressed emotional experiences/memories: psychoanalytical theory), one may also look at subject's common ancestral history and use that to explain behavior (genetic differences: evolutionary biology; cultural differences : anthropology ) or one may even look at his holistic experiences and use that individualistic experiential history as a basis for explaining behavior ( consider two identical twins that because of their different sampling of environment may end up as differently conditioned etc). Phew that covers all the major psychological theories that I could remember.

Now lets focus on the problem of explaining within-subjects variance ; given the fact that the Situation is the same (situation A)  and the subject is the same (subject Z), why does the same subject react differently to the same situation (acts in ways B and C). This is a relatively hard problem. One could deny the problem itself and claim that no situation is identical, but hey we are doing armchair philosophy right now, and we have already agreed to the premise of existence of a same situation A when we discussed between-subjects variance above, so it doesn't hurt to concede that the situation A can be same for subject Z, but he may still react differently in ways B and C. None of the above psychological approaches, if applied in a strict, causal deterministic sense can explain the same subject Z reacting differently to situation A , as the subject Z's personal history (conditioning, repressed memories) or ancestral history (genes, cultural influences) or even previous experiences and choices remain the same and thus should ideally have led to the same behavior. I am making an assumption here that situation A is repeated twice or more in succession (closely in time) so that one cannot counter and say that conditioning (to take an example) has changed in meanwhile due to situation A itself and thus, as the subject Z (at time t=1) has changed to an extent (by delta effect of situation A on the 'earlier' subject Z at time t=0) , so he may react differently at tome t=1 from how he reacted at time t=0.   What we are really doing is doing away with a term of the equation; we are saying subject Z is not constant (it  keep changing- self as constantly changing- a Buddhist philosophical premise and also favored by many in psychology) , but in the spirit of Camus's Absurdity argument in Myth of Sisyphus, I am not satisfied with doing away one of the variables of the equation itself, so let us see, where this model of self-as-a-deterministic-being leads us to. Now that subject Z remains the same for two iterations of situation A, how can one explain the variance that results in action B at one time and action C at the other. One can again try to dissolve the equation by claiming that there is no unified self in space (earlier argument was that there is no unified self in time- it is a constantly changing in time self) - that is we are not a single self , but made up of many different selves- some conscious, some unconscious etc. Different selves may compete with each other and whoever wins at the moment, directs the show. Again assuming different selves cohabiting the same person doesn't really feel what-it-is like to-be-oneself , and apart from some multiple-personality disorder (DID) this has not been frequently reported; but more importantly . Granting multiple selves to subject Z  again vanishes one of the terms of the equation, and I am not interested, I want to stay and see where my inquiry takes me to.

If the situation is same, the subject is same and a single one, than what explains the within-subject variance? One has to grant unpredictability to a self that was assumed to be deterministic to begin with. One can now take two routes, either resort to the magical mumbo-jumbo of quantum world and indeterminacy and uncertainty; or  stay in the deterministic world but look at complex systems/ chaos theory etc to explain the apparent indeterminacy.  I believe a zombie will prefer the second route and model the self as a complex-system/chaotic self. One could say that the self/ others are still completely determined, but due to an initial 'butterfly flapping wings effect' the self seems or appears to be unpredictable and will continue to remain unpredicatble because of that 'original sin'. The original sin may be how the infant took the first breath, whether he cried or laughed when born; what the time of conception was etc etc. Whatever may be the initial condition that escaped measuring, it leads to an unperdicatble self, a chaotic self that one cannot measure in the present and thus cannot predict in the long term- a self that is as fickle and as perdicatble as the waether.

There are important implications to seeing / modeling the self as a chaotic system. That leads to a diminished sense of agency / responsibility as perhaps there is not much one can do to correct the original sin and thus modify/ change ones long term behavior. This diminished p-consciousness of agency and the consequent differential experiences of sensations/ perceptions should also lead to diminished qualia or what-it-feels-to be-like feeling.  Maybe the zombies do feel really like zombies- mechanical and chaotic- going along the life stream in a mechanical , predetermined manner- seeing all and understanding all, even acting and reacting, but feeling impotent and lifeless, perhaps just fulfilling a role which has been scripted by someone else (the initial butterfly flapping its wings or the original sin).

This is a good point to stop, but I would like to thank Melbren, a reader of this blog, who commented on my last post and asked me if I would re-define , give a new name to Autism spectrum disorders. Thta made me think and somehow led to this post. But first his comment:

Very cool post. And I love your blog. I am trying to think about this particular post in terms of your psychotic spectrum--most specifically as it relates to autism. But I am impeded by an overwhelming feeling that if we have a new spectrum--we'll need new terms. The term "autism" has outgrown its usefulness, don't you think?
For one thing--if we are to use the framework of a psychosis spectrum--I think there will be a lot of people currently diagnosed with autism who are, in fact, organically more biased toward the opposite end of the spectrum. However, such individuals may still have "stereotypies" that we have come to associate with the term "autism."
That being said--if you were appointed "word czar of the day," and, as such, had the authority to scrap all of our conventional terminology and come up with "new and improved" terms that are more in alignment with a psychosis spectrum--what new terms would you choose?

I conceptualize autism as defect whereby people falsely apply a deterministic model (relevant for the world/ non-living things) to the self/others (living things) ; I consider of psychosis as the reverse, whereby one applies an agentic model to the world, thus exhibiting magical thinking etc. Because psychotic spectrum is consptualised in terms of a disability (loss of contact with reality), I would rechristen autism spectrum as the zombie spectrum (loss of contact with agency); of course, If I indeed am the 'word czar of the day' I'll probably rename both as consciousness-orientation (psychotic spectrum)  and reality-orientation (autistic spectrum) and highlight the good aspects of both- shaministic Altered states of consciousness and creativity of schizotypals and the scientific and savantic abilities of the Aspergers. Of course, in a lighter vein, perhaps the autistic spectrum people are 'muggles'  (believers in ordinariness ) who still have to come to terms with the 'magic' (believers in extraordinariness)  of consciousness.
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Abysmal Musings said...

Have you ever tried quetiapine? :-)

Sandy G said...

not exactly; I don't want to be zombified:-)

Melbren said...

I like it! So, now we have a reality-orientation spectrum and a consciousness-orientation spectrum. Can we combine them into one spectrum? Perhaps a consciousness orientation salience spectrum? The Sandy G Consciousness Orientation Salience Spectrum -- the “SGCOSS”? You are still the word czar--I’ve extended your term--so you can get back to me on this!

But I like the SGCOSS framework--particularly because it addresses a nagging question that I've had ever since I stumbled upon The Mouse Trap.

I routinely hang out with quite a few children who are diagnosed with varying degrees of autism--and I think I would now want to reclassify several of them on to the magical thinking side of your spectrum. (Which is, in pre-Sandynese, on the schizophrenia-biased end of your spectrum.)

The Aspies--I agree--should stay put. That's the "real" autism. But some of my little guys who are nonverbal and highly scripted--the ones everyone thinks of as "the most" autistic, I wonder if may actually be biased toward "consciousness orientation."

I would assign savant skills into two different sides of the spectrum; reality-oriented savant skills resulting from repetition, and consciousness-oriented savant skills resulting from...well, magic. (like the nonverbal child who sits at the piano for the first time and plays Mozart.)

And, being neither scientist nor statistician, I need help visualizing all of this information. I can visualize a spectrum with a dot at one end that demarks autism (reality-orientation) and a dot on the other end that demarks schizophrenia (consciousness-orientation), and a dot in the middle of those two dots that demarks typical/normal. (Btw, no one is ever plotted on this dot --because I want the saying “normal is a myth” to be true! Everyone is plotted either to the left or the right of “normal!”)

But is there a way to visually express or plot on the SGCOSS related biases/traits/tendencies such as: depression/bi-polar, mechanical/creative, methodical/novel, ADD/ADHD, negative affect/positive affect/, low arousal/high arousal, repetitive thought/novel thought, inhibition/disinhibition, obsessions/compulsions, addiction, religiosity, speed of thought, theory of mind, etc.? I am seeking a visually efficient yet more encompassing and flexible construct than “spectrum“ for the filing of such information into my non-scientist brain. Any ideas?

How about a two-sided buffet line in an all-you-can-eat restaurant? All people are either on the consciousness orientation side of the buffet line or the reality side. What will be served in abundance on each side of the buffet line?

I know, I know. The buffet line construct is unconventional. But you “went all zombie” on us, and that worked!

Sandy G said...

Hi Melbren,

I am glad you liked the post and took the 'zombie' metaphor in the right spirit. The SGCOSS sounds quite a mouthful, but the buffet metaphor is right on target. I would presume that bipolar, creative, novel, ADD, obsessions would be served on the consciousness side while depression (anhedonia type), mechanical , repetitive, ADHD, and compulsions would be served on the reality-orientation side, but I may be wrong and these are empirical matters to be settled. Anyway, the SGCOSS need not be an all-encompassing framework that has diagnostic or treatment implications for all sorts of mental phenomenon. I am sure there are constructs other than the SGCOSS that affect human behavior and phenomenology.

papierwhale said...
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papierwhale said...

I think a zombie has a consciousness that can watch the picture but has no feedback to direct itself in relation to the picture(no qualia or memories or spontaneous internal reaction). I think a zombie can have consciousness of its own way of 'being'..the mechanical chaos, the following a script to seem human (the trap).

But there is no individual new recipe that is being added and no feedback to do anything but mechanics until something else is suggested. Then that something else is copied. The chaos comes from misapplying the copying which is going to feel chaotic to humans as there is no feeling and being and qualia 'sense' or context.

from a p-zombie (without an individial recipe ;-(

BTW How can a zombie be detected other than frustration and uncomfortableness felt by those with 'sense'? Can this difference way of responding to stimulation around be seen in science eg. a functional MRI do you think?