As I see it, the “philosophical zombie”, a hypothetical creature that can pass as a normal human being in every way but is actually just a “brilliant robot”, entirely automatic, is simply a person with whom you do not empathise. But of course there’s more that can be said about it than that.
Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isnâ€™t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesnâ€™t actually give rise to something called consciousness.. Common sense may tell us thereâ€™s a subjective world of inner experience â€“ but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat.
This is wrong—at least as I read it, because this point is quite subtle. Dennett does not deny “there’s a subjective world of inner experience”, he says something like “of course we genuinely do have these experiences” (I can’t look it up just now but I think it’s in the introduction to The Mind’s I). The mistake that some make is to objectify that experience. And in this I’m with Dennett, though his theories do lack certain vital elements (see my dissertation).
What Dennett would not say, but I do, is that subjectivity, and especially intersubjectivity, have for many decades been sadly undervalued in English language academic philosophy. Some philosophers, like Dennett, just “go with the flow”, others react against it by insisting that consciousness is so important it must be objectively real, but both are wrong. Consciousness is extremely important, absolutely central to us as humans, and at the same time not at all objective. Its “reality status” is inter/subjective (subjective and intersubjective).
Many people, reading Dennett, think he’s somehow denying consciousness. Both David Chalmers (see the article and the previous post) and Jaron Lanier (@Wikipedia) have suggested, only half-jokingly, that maybe Dennett is a zombie. But though they don’t realise it, what that really means is that they find themselves tending not to empathise with him, and suspect him of failing properly to empathise with others.
If we properly valued subjectivity and intersubjectivity we’d feel no need to insist that there must be an objective difference between ourselves and the philosophical zombie. If we recognised the fundamental importance of empathy we’d see that’s all it takes to make the difference.
And the answer is: the zombie is simply any person with whom you do not empathise.
The UK newspaper The Guardian recently published what I guess is quite a good account of the state of the art in consciousness studies, which asks Why canâ€™t the worldâ€™s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? Philosopher David Chalmers gave a conference speech in 1994.
The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all â€śeasy problemsâ€ť, in the scheme of things: given enough time and money, experts would figure them out. There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers said. It was a puzzle so bewildering that, in the months after his talk, people started dignifying it with capital letters â€“ the Hard Problem of Consciousness â€“ and itâ€™s this: why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why arenâ€™t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?
These hypothetical brilliant robots, or zombies, are sufficiently “aware”, or whatever you want to call it, that they can do everything that you or I can do, but they lack an “inner life”, it’s all “dark inside”. What does that mean? It means very simply, quite precisely, that Chalmers chooses not to empathise with them. That’s all. People in the future are going to be very puzzled by the fact that so many of “the world’s greatest minds”, as this article calls them, fail to see that.
As to the question in the last sentence, how the brain generates a sense of self, the answer is very far from simple, but it’s not an ineffable mystery. Like many mysteries, it just requires some hard work to get your head around. You might like to start with my dissertation (it got some quite nice (and some not so nice) comments).
To whom it may concern—probably nobody besides myself but having written about my previous position I should probably record this—I’ve changed my mind about the Scottish independence referendum.
When I last wrote about this issue I was quite committed to abstention, or at least to not taking part in the arguments, and I was genuinely undecided anyway. What has remained the case is that my head is pulling in one direction and my heart in the other. But I’ve now become convinced that in this I should follow my heart (hearing some relevant Burns quotations helped), so I’m voting YES. I’m still quite keen on avoiding argy-bargy though, and I’ll leave it at that. Well, apart from this:
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
Robert Burns, A Man’s A Man For A’ That
So this evening, with all the windows flung wide to catch what little breeze there was, I took Katy Rodgers’ mango frozen yogurt from the freezer and Fallen Brewery’s Just the Ticket hoppy extra pale from the fridge, noting that the latter incorporates lemon, lime and orange zest, alongside the more traditional ingredients. That was when it happened: a genuine memory of childhood and warm summer evenings, the ice cream van coming round, and mixing vanilla ice cream with Barr’s American Cream Soda (apparently no longer available) for a fizzy sort-of milk shake. I thought, if beer can have citrus flavours, why not go just a little further and mix it with mango frozen yogurt? So I did, and for a while experienced food-and-drink heaven. As they say, to die for…
…it’s only a commercial. Michael Winner, whose catchphrase that was in a series of television adverts, used to make me really quite angry. It wasn’t just the adverts, he struck me as a genuinely obnoxious character in himself, one of those people you love to hate.
If you don’t know the name, he was a British film director, restaurant critic and C list celeb who died in 2013. I’ve since learned that he could be very generous—in fact I knew very little about him back then—I’m thinking of a few years ago—but his manner rubbed me up the wrong way.
I wouldn’t let that happen these days. Why not? Because I’ve calmed down.
People with clinical depression don’t give the impression of being in turmoil, but deep down they are. I certainly was. Somebody once asked me what I got out of the many courses I used to attend at Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre and was obviously deeply unimpressed when I said I’d learned to relax, but that’s really quite profound. In the late eighties I spent three years in weekly sessions of psychodynamic psychotherapy (I also studied it) and I’ve always felt that did me quite a lot of good, but now I believe that mindfulness is probably the best remedy for most neurotics, and certainly for me. What that mainly means in practice is regular meditation.
But what prompted me to write this was two or three things coming together in my mind this morning. One was a renewed realisation of just how central “mere” relaxation is to the healing process, in such cases as chronic anxiety and depression. Another was the idea that it might be good to publicly acknowledge that I no longer see myself as a victim of clinical depression. I’m not saying I’ll never be depressed again, but I now feel well enough that I can and should stop using depression as an excuse, for the state of my house, for instance! And I believe that’s quite an important development. Not for anyone other than myself of course, but the point is my commitment never again to make such excuses, whether to myself or to others.
I was speaking recently with a friend who has experience of depression, telling her how good I felt after doing some housework, and she said she viewed cleaning and such activities as great anti-depressants. I almost felt like maybe if I’d just always done the housework properly I’d never have had any problem! But I’m sure she didn’t mean it that way. Prescribing housework is never going to be appropriate for any but the mildest cases, ones that probably wouldn’t count as clinical depression anyway. But everybody should learn to meditate!
Much of my writing has been concerned with my self, what am I like?
Today I decided that, basically, the true nature of my self is identical with your’s, which is a red herring.
This is about a real turning point: at the age of 60, I’ve finally decided what I want to do with my life. Better late than never, you might say.
At school I had no idea what I should or might like to do after leaving. But here’s a thing: I clearly remember deciding, at some point in my early-to-mid teens, that I wasn’t going to get sucked in to classifying myself as either an arty-crafty or a sciency-techy person. I was a real bookworm and spent many happy hours in the town’s library, particularly at the low end of the Dewey classification system, among the books on religion, philosophy and psychology, and I guess it was some of that reading that inclined me in that direction. Or that lack of direction. But I also took out quite a lot of books on electronics and related subjects, belonged to the school “radio club”, and modified and built a number of electronic devices, mainly radios and audio amplifiers.
On the basis of what were considered not great higher results (B in English and C in physics) my parents decided a sixth year, with a view to getting into university, would be a waste of time. My father had heard that Post Office Telephones gave a good grounding in electronics so that’s where I went, but my interest was waning. While still at school I’d been suspended for a few weeks, along with friends, for possession of cannabis, and now some of my colleagues turned out to turn on, so I got back into that, and then into the hippy-ish drug culture of the time (early seventies). None of my friends then had any scientific or technical interests whatsoever (or none they shared), but here’s an interesting thing: though at school one of my worse subjects had been mathematics, on a one-day-a-week telecoms course at college, on a Monday following a tripped-out weekend (LSD), I suddenly found the maths quite easy. My problem must have been some sort of mental block, that the acid ate away.
I left the Post Office after about four years, then for another three worked at various jobs and spent some time unemployed, eventually getting into university as a mature student (which meant a lower qualification threshold). I chose to study subjects that interested me, regardless of job prospects, being very far from career-minded. During the first term I went to a talk on Transcendental Meditation (TM) and took it up, becoming a regular meditator. But I remained a cruiser, generally doing the least work I could get away with. The resulting qualification was quite good considering, an honours degree in philosophy and psychology, but it wasn’t good enough to get into any postgraduate programme. Not that I was specially keen on doing that, but I would have if I could, being fairly fascinated by one or two particular philosophical problems, and having absolutely no idea what else I might like to do. Anyway, for another spell of several years after graduating I worked at a variety of jobs, none of them using my degree, and spent some time unemployed. But this was when I got into both computers and photography.
We’re now in the early-to-mid eighties. While working as a taxi driver I bought quite a good SLR camera (Pentax ME Super (Wikipedia)) and took it with me to work. I remember the owner of the place where I got my processing done being quite complementary about some of the earliest efforts, black and white street scenes at night. I graduated to doing my own black and white processing and printing—my flat though quite small had a large walk-in cupboard that became a darkroom. I did a lot of experimenting, enjoying technical challenges such as low light, and learned a great deal. I must have had plenty of spare time, because I also acquired one of the early “home computers” (Oric Atmos (Wikipedia)) and taught myself to program it.
I was not awfully happy in my work, though, and my father was even less happy with what I was doing, or not doing. On his very strong suggestion I applied for and got onto a “conversion course”, MSc in information technology for people with first degrees in other disciplines. As a way of capitalising on my technical interests and experience to greatly improve my job prospects, it was very definitely the right move to make. But it meant moving away, losing my flat and therefore my darkroom. And here’s where we come to a somewhat strange part of the story: I wasn’t really conscious of that as a great loss at the time, but my enthusiasm for photography waned greatly, and I was generally quite far from happy. What seems most strange to me now is that only very recently have I come to realise that the drop-off in photographic enthusiasm must have been a direct consequence of the loss of the darkroom. And due to that blindness, even when I did get another place of my own, I never tried to set up another darkroom, it never occurred to me to do so, until just a few weeks ago. But over all that time, I’ve been struggling with depression.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the depression was caused by the lack of a darkroom! But they’re not unconnected either. I blame my depressive tendencies for the failure to understand why I’d lost the photographic drive—I just assumed it was part and parcel of my rotten life.
Now we jump back to the present, or almost. Maybe a couple of months ago I began, often while meditating,* to experience creative visions and impulses. I’ve had these before, but to nothing like the same extent, they were both many and varied. Since taking up fine art printing I’ve been watching a lot of arts documentaries, and sometimes these ideas would be linked with them, but other times they could be sparked by almost anything. I considered taking up painting and drawing, wood turning and carving, cold casting and acrylic moulding, and probably other things I don’t remember now. But how to choose? Eventually, due to the range of impulses and possibilities, it occurred to me that maybe it didn’t matter too much exactly what I did, as long as it was something creative. Then I remembered that many of my creative visions over the years have been monochrome, concerning form, texture and tonality rather than colour. Strangely, again, it is only now that I link that back to my darkroom experience of the early eighties—I’m sure that must have been another mental block. I’ve even thought about painting using only black and white paint! But anyway, the point is that now, with the idea of focussing largely or entirely on monochrome, I find some of my old photographic enthusiasm returning. And since I discovered what’s now possible with hybrid photography (digital taking with old-style printing), it’s becoming really quite strong.
*Nowadays I do Buddhist meditation rather than TM, which is recognised not to be particularly good for depressives.
A while back, maybe a year or two after getting the MSc in philosophy, and despite finding that many of my own ideas survived that trial, I decided to give up on academic philosophy. But now, I think, I’m perhaps giving up on philosophy altogether. Or maybe not in absolute terms—I might think a little, maybe even write a little, about it from time to time, but the thing is, I no longer consider myself primarily a philosopher. What I am now—and have been all along, in fact—is an artist, even if a dismally unsuccessful one. Success in a way is beside the point, because this is what I want to do. I’m not sure how I’ll find the time but I’m hoping enthusiasm will generate energy. It might have been good if I hadn’t gotten side-tracked in the mid-eighties and lost almost thirty years of artistic experience, but all is grist to the mill, and suffering is good for the soul!
Artist versus philosopher in fact is a false dichotomy, just like arty-crafty versus sciency-techy. Photography has always combined these, and hybrid photography in particular seems like the best of both worlds. It will take a while to get fully operational, but I can hardly wait!
(In case you’re wondering, I don’t now smoke, haven’t done any illegal drugs in years, and have just successfully completed Dry January. But I do have a bit of a caffeine habit.)
Later: as a Buddhist, I believe that self-identifications such as artist and philosopher (and even Buddhist) are relatively superficial. And I’m quite aware that to many people the idea of thinking of themselves as a philosopher or an artist is ridiculous, and people like me are pretentious self-obsessed arseholes—and there’s probably something in that! Ideally, I wouldn’t think of myself at all—but I haven’t quite licked that habit yet. The important (to me) point that remains from the foregoing is that now I know what I mainly want to do. I say “mainly” because there are many things I like to do, none of which I’m particularly planning to give up. But I expect some of them will fall by the wayside, when there’s something even better to take their place.
I need to move more slowly, the previous version had no time to mature. (This paragraph is not part of the poem.)
|through an empty building|
Not formally a haiku but I like to think it has something of that spirit.
|through an empty temple|
…or mainstream belief system or lifestyle choice, for me, these days.
This post continues a recent theme, starting with Political and personal independence. There I explain why I’m not taking a position on the issue of Scottish independence. In More on my minimalist commitments, which generalised that to cover not just political positions but beliefs generally, and Reasons to be cheerful, I wrote more about negativity in expressions of personal commitment, which is what sparked all this thinking off for me.
For quite a while now I’ve been feeling really quite uneasy when people said things that seemed to imply that the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, and despite all the cogitation that went into these previous posts this remained the case, at least until yesterday, when I believe I finally got to the root of the problem. Which is this: the subtext of these statements, I think, is “I’m an alternativist, I want you to know it, I hope you share my views but if you don’t that’s tough because this is me, so there.” There’s an implicit challenge to take sides, to come out either as a fellow alternativist (leftist, environmentalist, caring person, etc) or as an unthinking, uncaring mainstreamer or rightwinger, but to come out anyway, nail my colours to the mast, say where I stand, which has to be on one side or the other because there is no other alternative.
It reminds me of childhood, when I was more than once cornered by two or three other boys who’d then aggressively ask me whether I supported Rangers or Celtic. (These being Glasgow football teams associated with the Protestant and Catholic communities.) The implication being that, if I said the wrong thing, I’d get beaten up. I somehow always managed to avoid the beatings, maybe in part because I genuinely, if unusually, had no interest in football. Also, at the time, I didn’t realise that I was really being asked whether I was Protestant or Catholic. I was an innocent abroad.
I was actually Protestant, not that I’d given it any thought or had strong feelings about it. My parents were occasional church-goers at best and never talked about such things. When I was a bit older, I imbibed left wing/alternative ideas from the people around me. Which is not to imply that I reject all such views now. Far from it. But what I did then and don’t do now is to identify myself as a leftwinger/alternativist. Now I’m also open to any positive contributions that might come from rightwingers and others too. The identification and the prejudice that went with it—to say I’m this is also to say I’m not that—have dropped away. That’s the difference, between my former and present selves, and more to the present point, between myself and those people whose position statements have been bothering me recently.
So for me now, in Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase, there is no alternative. But that’s not because there is only one option. Quite the opposite: there are many, many options, and to herd them all into two big corrals is not only not useful, it is positively divisive. Like the issue of Scottish independence. Whichever side wins, the personal and political rifts engendered by the debate will take a long time to heal. Is it worth it? Maybe in this case it is. But in general, if I side with anyone, it is the peacemakers. Love your enemy, for he is you.
Further reading: How To Listen When Someone is Venting
Later: I really should know better than to make such statements about what (I think) others are “really” doing. Having given this quite a bit more thought I now see the link at the end as even more apposite than I supposed when I put it there. As I now see it, what this is “really” all about is my difficulties in dealing with expressions of negative emotion. That’s what makes me so uneasy. But this realism, like most, is relative. What I mean is that my issues with negative emotion are currently personally more important. But subtract that, and qualify my interpretations of others’ motivations appropriately, and what remains of this post is entirely valid, I think. The vast majority, if not all, of the issues on which we take sides, are less important than the need to keep to the forefront of our minds what we all have in common.