Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

The Boring Zombies

Among philosophers of the mind, there seems to be no consensus about what precisely consciousness means. What does it mean for a human brain to perceive itself perceiving other things? How do we do it? What about our brain creates this phenomenon? Why does it apparently only happen to us? For decades, scientists have worked to create artificial intelligence – a machine that is aware and that thinks – and we’re not even sure what the “organic” version means. (Also, science has made just about zero progress in the last 50 years, so these philosophers have plenty of time.)

Oliver Burkeman has a great article describing what some call The Hard Problem: “why are we awake?” We talk, we listen, we run, we laugh, etc. We can program machines to do all of these things, and the machine isn’t conscious. Why do we feel something? Why does listening to someone you love call your name make you feel? Why aren’t we just squishy pink robots?

This is The Hard Problem in a nutshell, and philosophers answer it in a typically philosophical way; by dividing into schools:

Not everybody agrees there is a Hard Problem to begin with – making the whole debate kickstarted by [David] Chalmers an exercise in pointlessness. 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 isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness. Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat.

Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on. To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with. […]

Meanwhile, in the “no but seriously come on, consciousness is a thing and it’s not just a trick your mind plays on itself – if there’s no consciousness, then who is there to play a trick upon” crowd:

To Dennett’s opponents, he is simply denying the existence of something everyone knows for certain: their inner experience of sights, smells, emotions and the rest. […] It’s like asserting that cancer doesn’t exist, then claiming you’ve cured cancer; more than one critic of Dennett’s most famous book, Consciousness Explained, has joked that its title ought to be Consciousness Explained Away. Dennett’s reply is characteristically breezy: explaining things away, he insists, is exactly what scientists do.

When physicists first concluded that the only difference between gold and silver was the number of subatomic particles in their atoms, he writes, people could have felt cheated, complaining that their special “goldness” and “silveriness” had been explained away. But everybody now accepts that goldness and silveriness are really just differences in atoms. However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the physical brain, doing what brains do.”

Well, that started as “the other camp,” but then Dennett gets some more shots in, because he’s Dennett and he’s good at that.

The whole article is worth a read. You can program a robot to jerk its hand away from scalding water, just like humans learn to do. We feel fear, or panic, or a rush, or something when we get that close to scalding water. Does the robot feel anything? Is that why its program works? Is that why our program works?

Consider the following, from Burkeman’s article:

…occasionally, science has dropped tantalising hints that this spooky extra ingredient might be real. In the 1970s, at what was then the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London, the neurologist Lawrence Weiskrantz encountered a patient, known as “DB”, with a blind spot in his left visual field, caused by brain damage. Weiskrantz showed him patterns of striped lines, positioned so that they fell on his area of blindness, then asked him to say whether the stripes were vertical or horizontal.

Naturally, DB protested that he could see no stripes at all. But Weiskrantz insisted that he guess the answers anyway – and DB got them right almost 90% of the time. Apparently, his brain was perceiving the stripes without his mind being conscious of them. One interpretation is that DB was a semi-zombie, with a brain like any other brain, but partially lacking the magical add-on of consciousness.

Clearly, like DB, we’re not seeing the whole picture here.

Are these emotions and feelings and the general experience of consciousness simply the way an operating system calls functions on a squishy pink robot? One of the world’s leading neuroscientists says that it’s not impossible that his iPhone has feelings. It depends what we mean by feelings, isn’t it?

This stuff is so absolutely fascinating. I wonder if we won’t have a good answer until we just build a brain ourselves and figure out what pieces we left out.

Bonus: once you’ve clicked the two links in the intro paragraph about what it is to be a human brain, and why scientists haven’t made any progress in building one, learn what happens when you short-circuit the brain with weird drugs.