Are we zombies?

What is the difference between thinking and appearing to be thinking? How can one tell them apart? An interesting answer comes from philosophy of mind in the shape and form of zombies.

philosophical zombie (or “p-zombie”) is a hypothetical being indistinguishable from a human but without conscious experience, or “qualia”. When pinched, a p-zombie will feel nothing but will nevertheless cry “ouch!” convincingly enough, so that we will be unable to tell the difference.

P-zombies have been used by dualist philosophers in their attacks of physicalism. Dualists believe there are two essences in the natural world, matter and something else beyond the scope of science. Physicalists hold the view that everything is matter and nothing else exists but matter. In the case of consciousness physicalists believe that our thoughts and feelings can be reduced to neurobiological interactions. Au contraire, dualists claim that consciousness is much more that the sum of biological pathways and brain states.

So let us imagine a hypothetical world of synthetic beings with artificial intelligence looking and behaving identically to us; a mirror world of artificial p-zombies on another planet or another dimension. Now say that something happens and while you were asleep you were transposed in that mirror world, whilst your double p-zombie was zapped over here, to our “real” world. When you wake up, how will you tell which world you inhabit now? And how will your friends and family tell that the “you” who walks down the stairs for breakfast is in fact a p-zombie from a mirror universe?

The answer to both these questions is the same: neither you, nor your family will know the difference.

In fact, both physicalists and dualists are at a loss in suggesting a way to distinguish the two world experiences. The former because for physicalists a p-zombie is impossible: as said, a physicalist believes that consciousness is the result of physical processes. If a zombie is the physical equivalent of a non-zombie, if every cell and function has been precisely copied in the zombie as is in the non-zombie, then there can be no distinction between the two.

A dualist will also be unable to resolve your conundrum but for a different reason. She will not have any test to offer that may tell which world is the real one and which one is the zombie-world. Such “test” would require third-person verification, i.e. some objective measurement of “something”, in other words it must be a scientific test. But dualists believe that the extra essence that separates real beings from zombies is non-physical and therefore impossible to measure by scientific methods.

Whichever you look at it you may never know if you now inhabit a zombie world or a world of “truly” conscious beings.

This rather unnerving realization leaves you with the only question that you can seemingly answer in the positive: are you a zombie? Of course not, you may hasten to answer.

But let’s look at your answer somewhat deeper . In answering “of course not” you are in fact asserting your inner experience of “being somebody”, your so-called “self-awareness”.  Of course, as far as we, your listeners, are concerned we must remain unimpressed by your answer. We can neither trust your answer, nor the way you look or behave, because for all the reasons I explained you could be a zombie pretending to be a real human being.

Maybe, for exactly the same reasons, you should be skeptical of your answer too!

For, how do you know that your so-called “self-awareness” is not an artificially programmed agent which when triggered by the question “are you a zombie?” returns the answer “no”? What if this agent while answering places a memory in your artificial memory banks of having just answered the question, thus creating a feedback loop which you, rather arbitrarily, call “self awareness”? What if “you”, your “inner experience”, your “memories”, are programs? What if “you” are the multi-agent, artificial being from the mirror world of p-zombies, which slipped into our “real” world?

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Metaphysics explained

The term “metaphysics” owes its origin to one Andronicus of Rhodes who lived at around 100 BCE and was an editor of Aristotle’s corpus. Aristotle had something to say about everything and Andronicus was soon confounded with an editorial problem: how to discern the great philosopher’s early works entitled “Physica” (physics) from the ones following it.  Unpretentiously, he used the term “Metaphysica” which simply means “the ones that come after physics”. And thus “metaphysics” was born.

In Physica Aristotle enquired upon the nature of things, for instance why some things fall (e.g. rocks) while others rise (e.g. smoke). In Metaphysica he addressed more general questions like what are the basic elements, he critiqued Democritus’ atomic theory as well as Pythagoras’ core idea that everything is ultimately made of numbers, and he discussed – but mostly rejected – Plato’s views which were in many ways similar to Pythagoras. He also theorized about the nature of causes (causality) and pondered upon ontological semantics – what it means to say that something actually exists. Aristotle considered his entire corpus as a concise study of nature and never differentiated between “specific” and “general” questions. For him nature was a seamless continuum.

Nevertheless, his successors many centuries later made the distinction between “physics” and “metaphysics”, the former being the experimental study of nature while the latter the probing of what was beyond the scope of science. So what is the study of metaphysics now? Its domain shrinking as the various scientific disciplines mature, metaphysics is very much in doubt. Most scientists do not think that there can be something in nature resisting the application of the scientific method. Unexplored areas such as dark matter, string theory, quantum gravity etc., although still beyond experimental scrutiny, are not considered metaphysics; they are falsifiable scientific hypotheses, and as such fall well inside the “Physica” of the 21st century.

Nevertheless, there seems to be one last bastion of metaphysics that still holds: consciousness. The epistemological problem with consciousness is that it cannot be measured objectively. Measuring instruments currently available, such as PET or fMRI scans, can really “see” inside a thinking brain and produce bundles of amazing images. Those images however must be corroborated with what the person in the scanner felt or thought at the time of study. In other words the experimenter needs the subjective report (the person describing their experience) of the experimental object (the brain inside the person) in order to validate her results. There seems to be a disturbing gap between the object (brain – third person reporting) and the person (consciousness – first person reporting), that is apparently unbridgeable.

As a last bastion of metaphysics consciousness is a serious one. Consciousness underpins all measurements and, therefore, all of our science and all of our knowledge. We know what we know because we think that we do. If science proves unable to incorporate consciousness in its corpus then we must remain forever skeptical about the nature of our universe and of ourselves. This amounts to a bomb ticking at the foundations of all natural sciences.

In this light, Artificial Intelligence aiming to reproduce consciousness in a medium other than a biologically evolved brain is a heroic attempt to save science. A thinking robot will not be a simple curiosity but indisputable proof that consciousness belongs to the material world.

The archeology of ideas

There is a curious phenomenon in the academic world of peer reviews and science journals. Pick up any scientific journal you like and look at the dates of any paper’s references at the end. Most will be from the 2000s. You may find a couple from the 1990s. If you look hard you may also get the odd and rare reference from the 1980s. And that will probably be it. So what has happened to scientific ideas dated before the 1980s? How come they are virtually extinct from the present?

One might suggest that as science progresses ideas are in constant review. Most fail in the light of new evidence. New ideas replace old ones in an evolutionary way. Or one may take a sociological perspective of science and, adopting Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the generational aspect of scientific progress, suggest that science runs in approximate 25-year cycles; old professors need to die or retire in order to be replaced by new ones; old professors’ ideas die with them and new professors’ ideas become the latest fad. Hence the 20-25 year reference time window at the end of academic papers.

Whatever the explanation might be the fact remains that there is no such thing as a de novo idea. All ideas, scientific or artistic, have roots that may travel a long way in the past, certainly beyond the time frame of an academic generation. Artificial Intelligence, for example, is not something that just happened to occur in some people’s heads when computers came about. Ideas about mechanical intelligence and artificial life circulate for thousands of years. The body-mind problem, so central to AI, has kept Plato awake at nights, and many a philosopher since.

The deeper one digs the more revealing discoveries one makes. It is a truism to say that ideas link to our cognitive systems, but the repercussions of this statement are immense. It means that there may be ideas beyond our ability to conceive them. Human consciousness, individual and collective, is a cognitive and cultural time continuum. Therefore, we cannot hope to adequately inform ourselves about the quality and value of what we think unless we can associate our thinking with facts about our nature and history.

Apparently, the archeology of ideas is something that is  missing from modern scientific and artistic production. I am often bemused when eminent physicists “discover deeper questions” that arise, say, from particle-wave duality; ignorant of the fact that such questions have been posed before, and they only needed to have asked their classics colleagues  in order to know. Not to mention prominent artists who seem to display the mindset of persons living in the Middle Ages.

The “two cultures” problem is evident here. Humanistic studies, arts and sciences all speak  different tongues, exist in a state of mutual suspicion and frequently hold each other in contempt. As a result many scientists are disconnected from humanity and a great number of humanists and artists live in a magical, pre-scientific world.

There are of course exceptions, and these exceptions have inspire me to cross a few lines and dig into the archeology of ideas. I was trained as an engineer but I am also a novelist. What fascinates me in Artificial Intelligence is not only the technologies but also its vision and its deep roots in our collective past. Turing Dreams will  try to wade along a lonely – and academically deserted – “third culture” path of linking science to humanities, in the hopeful attempt of discovering, and describing, a heroic narrative of scientific endeavor in the making.