Less than Meets the I: Zombies, Robots, and Philosophies of Mind

Craig Chalquist, PhD

We should not pretend to understand the world only by the intellect; we apprehend it
just as much by feeling. Therefore the judgment of the intellect is, at best, only a half-
truth, and must, if it be honest, also admit its inadequacy.
–C.G. Jung, Psychological Types, p. 856.

Scientists animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless constitute an
interesting subject for study.
–A.N. Whitehead, The Function of Reason, p. 16.

Science and philosophy exist only because of consciousness, yet consciousness is precisely what
cannot be found anywhere within modern science or philosophy. We have a story without a storyteller.
–Christian de Quincey, Radical Nature, p. 8.

Whenever possible I suggest books rather than require them for graduate students who take my courses. I was reading through Susan Blackmore’s useful little introduction to consciousness to prepare for the summer quarter when I found myself struck by an odd fact I had noticed in other such books: a preference for banal, lifeless, or mutilated examples despite a clear and lively writing style. Most of hers came from other theorists.

Western philosophy is riddled with mundane explanatory scenarios: how we look at a chair, why glass is transparent but wood is not. Overused optical illusions benumb us: how many more Necker cubes must we consider? Can’t we retire the bipolar old lady / young woman and her feather-sporting hat? When leading thinkers write about Philosophy of Mind, the sort intended to explain how minds work, they occasionally go beyond banality, but only to illustrate their points with zombies, robots, evil spirits of the kind summoned forth by Descartes, and mad neurosurgeons who place your brain in a vat. They evoke China-Head automatons, neurologists named Mary who cannot see certain colors, comas, blindsight, victims of stroke. And proof after proof of why we can’t trust ourselves.

The result of all these demonstrations of despair? Colin McGinn has given up on solving the “problem” of consciousness; the Churchlands relegate it to “folk psychology”; the physicalists put it down to firing neurons; and Blackmore ends her book on this happy note: “The confusion we have reached is deep and serious, and I suspect it reveals fundamental flaws in the way we normally think about consciousness.” She suggests we start over.

Very well. Let us begin with a few psychological questions:

If so many of our thought experiments derive from robots, zombies, and devastated brains, why would we expect any progress? If the assumption at the outset is that consciousness is a thing severed from the rest of the world, including the body, how could we reconnect this anorexic skeleton to living flesh? Isn’t it time to wonder why our examples don’t include fuller, more joyful, and more comprehensive studies of what healthy consciousness can do? Exemplary human beings fully alive instead of test subjects strapped to laboratory chairs and fooled by cunning illusions? Isn’t it time to reflect that zombies and robots are numinous for certain philosophers precisely because these automatons reflect the level of mutilation brought to the problem?

We should have learned by now–from Whyte and Lakoff and Mary Shelley if not from the outcast Jung–that metaphors have a way of taking possession of the theories they are ratcheted up to illustrate. When Francis Bacon called upon researchers to rape and torture Nature for her secrets, he was not simply recommending a method of inquiry, but offering both blueprint and blessing for centuries of state-sponsored misogyny as heavy industry devastated entire ecosystems.

To take another example: the idea that everything is made of one substance goes back at least to the ancient Greeks. This persistent image of an all-encompassing totality was immensely strengthened and reified by the religions of monotheism. Historically, theologically, and metaphorically speaking, the scientific quest for the ultimate founding substance unfolds deep inside the shadow of the One True God: shadow because unacknowledged by thinkers bedazzled by Reason and allergic to what they consider superstition.

The fantasy, therefore, that human activity is controlled by a Selfish Gene is less an example of objective inquiry than an echo of the Selfish God before Whom we shall have no other gods: YHWH yesterday, DNA today. In the pious hands of Dawkins and Blackmore, this brand of genotheism has evolved into a memotheism backed by descriptions of minds as nothing more than (“nothing but” William James would have snorted) “meme machines” for ferrying around collective ideas that become fruitful and multiply. In all such cases of possession by the metaphor of totality, the holistic integrity of lived experience is shrunk down to mere components whirled without end, amen. Banished from the well-lit laboratory, the shadow of the sacred returns as relentless reduction fueled by concealed will to power.

Metaphors and images gain control of our thinking precisely to the extent we underestimate their influence. To devalue the subjective dimension of human experience, a dimension that rests on a vitalizing base of fantasy and myth, is to hand what remains of our objectivity over to unconscious forces not much different in enchantment or persistence from the zombies and demons haunting legends and dreams. Today they are perfectly at home infesting reductionist theories of mind even as their ghastly colleagues improve atomic bombs, accumulate “toxic assets” from speculative loans, or blow the tops from mountains in search of coal.

I would like to suggest that we analyze a philosophy not just for its correctness or consistency, but for its underlying metaphors, the degree of consciousness in their employment, the psychological needs met by the philosophy, its psychological distance from body, place, and world, and its consequences for how we live on this planet.

For instance, when Daniel Dennett suggests that Mary’s expert, third-person, from-the-outside knowledge of the brain states of “redness” is equivalent to seeing a red apple for the first time, a conclusion refuted by every new encounter with a novelty* (and with every soul-dead specialist), what is gained by such an alienated view of experience? What is the intent behind turning us against our perceptions, or by putting more emphasis on how easily we are fooled than on how often we perceive accurately, richly, and deeply? Why might physicalists and eliminativists emotionally need to replace living from the inside with existing from the outside, as when evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker reduces the poetic language of Romeo and Juliet to neurobabble? Is it a terror of subjectivity, as Searle suggests? What sort of intellectualizing and self-numbing does this produce in people who favor such a second-hand outlook, perhaps because the messy complexity of life not nailed down or jarred like a dead specimen is too much for them? (I am reminded of a former therapy client, an engineer who defended against the emotional intensity of his marriage by asking his wife to “generate” a supposedly romantic dinner for two. I will spare you his choice of words for the intended after-dinner encounter.)

Does a philosophy liberate us or hand us over to dehumanization? Wake us up or deaden us? Does it make us feel like we’re part of the world, or like isolated strangers authorized to survive by selfless exploitation? Such questions will not tell us whether a philosophy is accurate or not, but they will alert us to its premises, promises, and effects. Perhaps they can also diagnose its health and viability. In the case of Philosophy of Mind, it does not suffer from any lack of effort or thought. It suffers rather from states of robotic possession brought on by a scientistically impoverished imagination. It is worth remembering that “philosopher” once meant “lover of wisdom”: namely, a devotee of Sophia, not a slave of methodology.

There are exceptions, however. Whatever their accuracies or inaccuracies, alternatives like neutral monism, microgenesis, embodied realism, enactivism, Goethean phenomenology, radical naturalism, process philosophy, and panexperientialism offer visions of consciousness as fleshed out in living relationships networking across an animated world. With a shift from content, cause, and part to process, purpose, and whole arrives a new appreciation for how intimately the mind participates in the surroundings in which it evolved. As Whitehead stated in Process and Reality, “No entity can be conceived in complete isolation from the system of the universe.” To try is to set up a vision of spectators shuffling about on a dead world.

The Big Machine view of reality–consciousness as compartmentalized in the human head; people as parts; elements more significant than the relationships that organize and give meaning to them–has had its run and is tired. Even now we can hear it grinding to a halt as institutions founded on its ponderous linearity fall apart in the face of social and ecological complexities beyond the reach of materialist analysis. Every weed knows better than the chemicals sprayed to control it, especially when its superweed offspring show up. Every genuine synchronicity disposes of materialism forthwith. We have heard about materialism on the one side, dualism on the other, and panpsychism and panexperientialism somewhere in between, but is it time perhaps for pansoulism, a panimism of the edgy aliveness, liminal imagination, and pleromatic presence bursting continually outward from the synchronicity-spanning verge between subject and object, form and substance, conscious and unconscious, being an becoming: a creative in-between reaching from intergalactic quasars all the way down to quarks and quantum foam? Can our perspectives be as animated as the all-creative cosmos suggests they should be?

If Philosophy of Mind is to retain any relevance, it will have to outgrow the mechanistic paralysis that signals its speculations about zombies and automatons as symptoms of dissociation and decline. Only then perhaps can Sophia, the wisdom goddess whose name informs “philosophy” itself, be freed from her long imprisonment in dark materialism and returned to the light of soulful reflection.

* “What sort of science is that which enriches the understanding, but robs the imagination? …If we knew all things thus mechanically merely, should we know anything really?” — Thoreau’s remark after watching a sunset