By J.L. Pendall
A philosophical zombie is someone who seems conscious on the outside, but the lights are off inside.
They don’t see, hear, touch, think, or feel—they only appear to. Most of us are kind of romantic when it comes to consciousness. We feel like we can see the essence or being in other people, like there’s a light in them. The fact is, there’s no reason to think that that’s anything but our own perception of them.
If you’re imaginative enough, you can project a personality onto a pet rock. You could intuit, based on how that rock looks, how it would act if it were alive. You could even get attached to it, and feel hurt if someone stole it or threw it away.
Perception is untrustworthy.
Since we don’t even know what consciousness is yet, we can’t even use technology to see if someone’s having an inner experience or not. The brain isn’t the mind. Everyone probably has a brain, but there’s no hard evidence that everyone has a mind.
The only thing we know about others is what they show us through their words, actions and other weird stuff like pheromones.
We’re getting to a point where some AIs are pretty convincing communicators, almost indistinguishable from people.
There’s no evidence that AI is conscious, and there’s no evidence that your neighbor is either. I mean, take a gander, we’ve all got the same neighbor. That one middle-aged guy who mows his lawn on the same day each week, makes the same casual small talk about the weather and his erectile dysfunction. Sometimes he stands in his yard for a long time looking at a tree to see if some limbs need to be trimmed.
At work, he tells the same jokes year after year, getting a laugh from new hires and a silent, “Yeah, we’ve heard that one a thousand times,” from people who’ve been there for awhile. He votes red or blue each election, and he’s had the same religious and social views since he was in his 20’s.
When someone he know dies, he puts his hands in his pockets and says, “Yeah, she had a stroke,” while staring at the ground between you. Then he changes the conversation to how unseasonably warm it is before taking the mail inside.
Is he conscious? Is he self-aware? Has he ever felt the crushing weight of the Absurd while realizing that, no matter how often he mows his lawn, he’s just gonna have to keep mowing it? Has he ever wept while listening to a song or felt sublime awe while gazing at the starlit sky?
We don’t know. We can’t know. Whether he says yes or no, it could just be him mindlessly responding to stimuli, just like a Siri.
To me, predictability is a strong indicator of non-consciousness.
If someone always does Y when you do X, then that’s just them following some kind of conditioning—programming. Even if everyone is conscious (which, we probably are), how often are we conscious of being conscious? How often do we go off of autopilot and embody our own existence? How often are we conscious of the situation we’re in?
This is the magic of consciousness. We don’t need consciousness for most of the things we think, say and do. We can survive just on reflex alone. Have you ever reflexively caught a ball that was coming at your face before you were even aware that it was about to hit you? Have you ever cleaned the house without paying any attention to what you were doing?
On the surface, consciousness doesn’t seem to have any purpose. It’s just a passenger, a pointless reflection of a universe that’s unfolding without any intention at all.
That is, until we start thinking about consciousness. Being aware of being aware changes the whole game. It opens us up to thoughts, feelings, actions and experiences that we could never have if we weren’t conscious of consciousness.
We can live on autopilot, but living meaningfully requires consciousness.
A philosophical zombie wouldn’t be able to think, “What does the smell of freshly brewed coffee sound like?” and then make a song that communicates that experience.
Consciousness introduces chaos into world. It allows us to go off script and do wonderful and horrible things that mechanical cause and effect could never account for.
The function of consciousness is freedom and creativity. The more conscious of existing we are, the more aware of being and our place in the universe we are, the freer we’ll be.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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