Facing one’s zombie

Facing ZombieI started iZombi as a place to jot down and share my thoughts on the topic of consciousness and the philosophy of mind. I would hope it would someday become a popular forum of discussion for this rather exciting branch of science that is fundamental to our existence. Be warned – I’m no recognized scientist or philosopher, I’m only a laymen with a keen interest in this topic.

Here’s a thought experiment which has been nagging me for sometime.

We’ve often heard of consciousness described as being like a candle flame; a dynamic macro-level meta-structure or “dance” that is created by a running collection of mutually interacting programs. Programs that are similar, or at least analogous, to computer programs. These programs are stored and invoked in a material brain, supposedly a sort of vast parallel computing mechanism, and fed by ever-changing data that is also stored “in memory” within the brain. In a perversely oversimplified sense, one could suppose a given “brain program” determines a certain disposition towards an experience, like the disposition towards experiencing emotions. The data – e.g. sensory data like hearing offensive remarks – represent the exact present internal experience of a given disposition (e.g. emotion = anger). And to add to the bargain, memory serves to call up and re-live these experiences and “play around” with them; interacting with other programs and other experiences (data). Like the ultimate virtual reality show. Neuroscientists must momentarily forgive me for the crudeness of this analogy for the purposes of the ensuing argument.

We know almost for certain that consciousness is a macroscopic phenomena and that there is no special “life-force” infused by the material that makes up our brains; every atom in the human body would get replaced after about 15-20 years. You are not what you were 20 years ago, from a particulate perspective. But certainly the hardware structure – the machine, your brain – remains more-or-less intact. Like a computer that gets upgraded or repaired from time to time, and yet runs the same set of programs. Likely they are self-learning programs, by the way.

Now, if consciousness, and particularly self-awareness, is an epiphenomena of the complexity in the programs that are running and the vastness of the data they feed on, then here is my question; should the sense of “Me” always be a physically localized experience? Or can it (under certain special conditions) break the barrier of distance and move outside ones physical brain? At least, can it span two brains, or a brain and a machine? This brings me to the actual thought experiment that is the title of this philosophical cameo.

Given time, it is foreseeable that we humans may develop the right tools to transfer the total essence of a human brain (program + data), into another human brain or suitable piece of hardware. Why not? After all, at the present rate of advancement in computing and our research into the workings of the brain and consciousness, it might be reasonable to assume that in a 100 000 years time (or perhaps even much sooner, assuming of course that we don’t destroy ourselves in a few years hence) we would have mapped all the “programs” in the brain, and even figured out how to grab the salient data that constitutes the sum-total of a particular person’s consciousness. From the present vantage point of science, this might be compared to a 5 year old who has learned to play chess, and having just been beaten by Deep Blue, then aspiring to “figure out” the whole damn machine.

So now, what happens when a person faces her own cloned mind or, more likely, her “zombie” running on hardware? This is where things get rather interesting! This zombie-human interaction is not going to be anything like interacting with ‘old Turing’s zombie. Because as soon as the “mind transfer” takes place, the two chaps (man and zombie) will be immediately challenged with the notion of having two physically independent bodies (or “thought locations”), and yet one mind and a unified sense of self. At lease to start off with, at the moment of cloning and before individual data changes. What would this experience be like?

One possible outcome is that your zombie and yourself feel as one; in the sense that now you feel yourself “in” two bodies (or the notion of two bodies in the case of a machine zombie) under your conscious control, but in every other way you are sentient and simply “one” with your zombie. You would be startled. Your thoughts kind of encompass the sensory encounters of both bodies, and your mental processes kind of “flow along” and switch perspective in a seamless fashion analogous to the way your left and right brains get along within your own skull. You and your zombie can give the same answers to questions asked simultaneously in separate isolated rooms, when instructed to do so. And yet you both will experience separate physical interactions, and over time might “drift apart” into two independent entities, retaining perhaps a strong sense of what the other is thinking.

A second possible outcome is that your zombie is simply not you, and instead there springs up a “separate” person within the zombie hardware. She can think and seems to have a strong sense of self, and is very much like you in her thought processes, but is no more like you than your biological identical twin is. You and your zombie can’t give the same answers to questions asked simultaneously in separate isolated rooms, even when instructed to do so.

A third possibility is that, try as we might, we cannot create a sentient zombie. We fail always. The program runs, the data is right, but no conscious (or pseudo-conscious) being arises to confront its “parent mind”.

Now we come to the crux of the point, the philosophical value in this rather bizarre thought experiment. If the day does come (Zombie God forbid), it is the perfect experiment to rationally convince yourself that an “inner life” exists outside your own body, in other physical bodies. For both you and your zombie, as well as for other external observers. Think about it…

As a endnote, the study of (anecdotal) ESP or telepathy between identical twins or folks who have been brought up very close together may shed some early light on this problem. It is said that two identical twins who are brought up under very similar external conditions are reported to be aware of each other at great physical distances, especially when it comes to pain or suffering. Perhaps they share a (albeit very weak) “common consciousness”. A more stringent scientific research into the “mental closeness” of identical twins is perhaps justified. Moreover, the scientific vindication of ESP might no longer be a boon for spiritualists or pseudo-scientists. It just might be the strongest evidence for the view that life and consciousness are nothing more than epiphenomena of mundane material interactions of great complexity. Complexity that evolved over millions of years by the cranes of evolution.


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