Monday, July 30, 2012

How Do You Solve A Problem Like A Zombie?

Even before The Walking Dead and Jersey Shore became popular, the world had been introduced to the notion of philosophical zombies, theoretical creatures identical to human beings with one tiny distinction - they have no consciousness, qualia, or sentience. Imagine a twin who is identical to you in every possible material way but lacks any type of inner subjective experience.  Clearly something is different between the two of you, but how and why?   

Many would simply cite the existence of rationality and self-awareness - things we associate with the mind.  But what exactly is the mind, and how is it distinct from or similar to the brain?  For that matter, how important to our humanity are the immaterial aspects of our nature - our consciousness, our mind, our thoughts, ideas, and emotions? And is there a philosophical system sufficient to explain them?

In The Walking Dead and Philosophy, two introductory essays (“Are You Brains or Something More?” by Gordon Hawkes, and “Can You Survive a Walker Bite? “ by Greg Littmann) attempt to tackle these important questions.

Mr. Hawkes asks, “Is there something in a human being that isn’t physical? Is there some immaterial essence or soul that humans possess, or are they just solid, edible matter all the way through?”If we are only our material bodies (or, as Bruce Willis so eloquently described us in The Fifth Element, "meat popsicles"), we would obviously continue as humans after we become zombies. If our physical bodies march on with all the key components in place, so do we.

If the P-zombie scenario is possible (as claims David Chalmers in The Conscious Mind) then consciousness is not reducible to the presence of physical components, and would mitigate against at least one worldview: materialism. If materialism is true, there is no sense of consciousness in the way it's been classically understood, and we are simply “tasty meat all the way down.”

Hawkes and Chalmers are adherents to dualism, which claims that humans are both physical and non-physical, an intuitive view that most people have held throughout history.  Though Plato argued for this, Descartes mainstreamed a modern form of the argument for dualism in Meditations on First Philosohy, noting his belief that the mind and the body are distinct, since it's plausible to believe that the mind can exist independently of the body.  He built this from Leibniz's Principle of the Indiscernability of Identicals, which is a fancy way of saying that  if two things are identical, then it will be impossible to discern differences between them.  Since we can see differences between the material brain and the immaterial mind (consciousness, qualia, sentience), they cannot be the same. 

Descartes may have arrived before the zombie horse, however.  Since he wrote Meditations, plenty of philosophers have questioned that view. Daniel Dennet, for example, counters dualism by arguing that if something talks, behaves, and thinks like it’s conscious, it’s obviously conscious. Gilbert Ryle mockingly labeled Descarte’s idea “the ghost in the machine.” Steven Pinker asked, “How does the spook interact with solid matter?”  (Which was one of the dilemmas raised in Ghost, along with the question of how I find room in my house for a a pottery wheel).

In opposition to dualism, there are theories concerning the mind/brain identity problem grounded entirely in physicalism. Philosophical behaviorism is a materialist view that claims mental states are simply the behaviors that accompany them. If that sounds too basic, functionalism goes further and says that a mental state is a more holistic function that connects stimuli, other mental states, and behavior.  If the behaviorist or functionalist models are true, one cannot act conscious without being conscious. Since the Walkers in The Walking Dead function at least at the level of animals with consciousness, they are at least the equivalent.

That these models fulfill their goal of explaining consciousness is not clear.  For example, if the human brain is machine – a computer built out of organic tissue – than it could theoretically be replicated with circuit boards and wires.  Mr. Littman shows that it is at least conceivable that we can build systems from non-living things that function in a way that is indistinguishable from living things. In other words, we can replicate an organic brain by creating an inorganic brain, and we can create mechanical causal systems that act like humans act.

But does that mean this system has a mind? Does that truly make it like us?  Can wires, electricity, metal and silicon become just like us?  If so, we are simply a different kind of machine, a meat machine, and every non-physical claim (consciousness, emotional states, imagination) reduces to a material explanation.    

These dilemmas have led other contemporary philosophers, not just Mr. Hawkes and Mr. Littman, to embrace at least a form of dualism once again. As Mr. Littman concludes, “We know that we aren’t our bodies, and we know that we aren’t a collection of behaviors or functions…”

Perhaps there is a ghost after all.

And perhaps bacon is the only meat that is tasty all the way down.

No comments:

Post a Comment