Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Philosophical Zombies

I think the idea of a philosophical zombie is incoherent, and therefore wrong. Allow me to explain.
A "philosophical zombie" is the idea of a person who, while indistinguishable from everyone else, is not conscious. They experience no qualia, and have no internal mind, but still act like people hat do. Philosophers and cognitive scientists often debate the implication of such a thing happening. So this is a person who, when poked with a needle, automatically recoils, makes a noise like "Ouch," and takes actions to protect themselves from further poking, but does not actually experience pain. Because they're not really a thinking person, but more like an automatic device.
Consciousness is a strange thing. We can only really be sure of our own, because we experience it. A philosopher once compared it to if we all had boxes, and the only way to know what a "beetle" was, was to look into your box. You couldn't look into other people's boxes, somehow. In fact, people might have completely different things in their boxes, and some people's boxes might even be empty. Hence ideas like solipsism where you only know that your mind exists, other people are illusionary, and even the whole physical world might be an elaborate fraud that you dreamed up because you got bored.
So like most people, I reason by analogy that most people do have minds like my own. They experience certain sensations when exposed to certain stimulation. Not always the same sensation for the same stimulation! (Take color blind people. Shown a "red" brick and a "green" brick, I'll see them as having different colors, but the color blind person will see them as being the same color.) They like pleasurable sensations and dislike painful ones. They have preferences that they seek out. They have abhorred things that they avoid.
However, at the beginning, I said that the very idea was incoherent. Let me get more into that. Human behavior, as psychologists and sociologists are aware, is extremely complex. People have myriad responses to things that come up in their lives, and many of these responses are unusual. Even irrational. While I suppose it is technically possible to have an automated system doing these kinds of responses, such a program would be unmanageably large. It would have to have trillions of responses ready to any given stimulation, and chose kind of consistently among them according to past behavior. This is beyond the capability of supercomputers whose parts fill an entire skyscraper, and you expect me to believe that somehow this is all done in our 3-pound, wet and squishy brain?
More likely, the complex behavior of human beings is because they have minds, which model past events and future expectations, and try to bring their human being to the best possible options. Minds give people personal preferences, like favorite foods, and favorite colors, and also fears of things that they suspect will harm them.
William of Occam was a scholarly monk in the middle ages, who came up with the famous "Occam's Razor." Basically, the model that requires the least number of assumptions to back it is probably the correct one. "Everyone has minds" proves less assumption riddled than "Some people have no minds, only the appearence of having one." Having the appearance of a mind without a real mind is more complex than everyone just having minds in the first place, so almost assuredly every person has a mind.

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