One of the oldest questions in philosophy is that of determinism. Do we have free will or are we simply machines that react to external stimulus. Recent brain research shows strongly that in most of the things we do, the brain actually makes decisions and initiates actions microseconds before we are conscious of the decision. In his book Incognito, David Eagleman gives study after study demonstrating that the brain functions on a level below willful consciousness. One interesting study describes a man who got up in the middle of the night, drove to his in-laws and murdered them, -all while sleepwalking and not remembering it the next morning.
I think that we’re all familiar with some examples of this in our own lives. At times we’ll read a page of a book and realize that we’ve done it totally mechanically and can’t really remember anything from it. We did it. We looked at each word and it registered in our brains, but we didn’t do it on a cognitive level that included awareness of the meaning. Similarly, walking or driving home may become a mechanical act. With a little honesty, I think that this might extend to a lot of behaviour, including interacting with certain people.
On these occasions we’re acting like the proverbial zombie, acting mechanically without consciousness. How do we know that people are not acting like that all of the time. I know that I’m not because of my inner dialogue, which we’ll return to later. However how can I be sure that other people are not just going through the motions, firing off stimulus/response reactions in the same way that Turing’s test for AI claims that a machine can fool an observer into thinking that they are speaking with a real person. Eagleman comes to the conclusion at the end of his book that more than 90% of our actions is our brain working on automatic pilot with consciousness just checking in occasionally to make sure that the brain’s projection of reality is consistent with the “actual” reality. (Don’t get me started on that.) Consciousness, awareness and decisions fueled by will power are the remaining 10% or less. He actually suggests that it is very much a sliding scale where some individuals implement this level of consciousness far more often than other, and some perhaps only 1% or 2% of the time.
That leads us to the question of whether there are some people who exercise that level of awareness to such a minor degree (or perhaps not at all) and as a result are conducting their lives much like Turing’s AI. The program is sophisticated enough to approximate real human reaction, but really there is little or nothing in the way of actual human consciousness and free will. Something as complicated as a chess game can be faked by a non-conscious computer program, so believing it possible of other human actions is only a matter of degree.
In his new novel, Quantum Night, Robert Sawyer takes ideas from new discoveries combining quantum physics and consciousness, and works them into a fiction which starts with some good, hard science and then extrapolates it into speculations about the consequences. He postulates three kinds of people: normally conscious people, those without empathy who are psychopaths, and those without inner dialogue who are simply acting mechanically. The third type relates to an old idea of “philosophical zombies”, which are people who appear to be conscious but do not really have any inner consciousness. One question which I carried away from Sawyer’s speculation was whether it had to be an all or nothing proposition. In his novel, to be true to his plot line, it does. But this may take on varying degrees.
Are there people who have a stunted or perhaps even non-existent inner dialogue and who drift through life without real consciousness? Many philosophers have asserted this, as have many psychologists. Dealing with some people who seem to just babble on with glazed eyes it is not hard to imagine. Looking at bizarre behaviour by otherwise normal people, it is not hard to imagine a momentary glitch in the system of the brain’s programming that causes someone to adopt radical ideas, act violently in a moment of jealousy or commit some other uncharacteristic or explainable act.
It’s not a question of how logical somebody is. One can have an inner dialogue which is very rooted in emotions and not be a philosophical zombie. One can be highly logical and yet have no inner dialogue, like the computer chess program. What it seems to have more to do with than anything else is the idea of the quality of inner dialogue. Hence the ideas of meditation and self reflection in the current mindfulness trends being among the most productive methods of self-improvement. Inner dialogue slows down thinking and reaching conclusions so that the first thing that the brain presents doesn’t have to be the final conclusion. Self reflection promotes an examination of multiple options and forces the brain to do that “checking in” thing that Eagleman talks about, encouraging a more discerned answer.
But, as is suggested by the Turing test, philosophical zombies can respond mechanically to the extent that they can fool the average person. How do we tell if we are dealing with a zombie, and does it actually make a difference?
This is when I started thinking about metaphors and analogies. (Similes are different because they present a physical connection between the meanings being compared, -but sometimes the observations below work with them as well.) I have noticed that some people just don’t understand metaphors or analogies. They just don’t get them. It tends to be certain kinds of people who also seem to lack some other cognitive skills and who have very simplistic views. When I started to think about the question of philosophical zombies I noticed that the people who didn’t get metaphors very often had the kinds of characteristics that I would expect in someone who had limited inner dialogue. That makes sense. Without inner dialogue, the required reflection necessary to make the connections of meaning in metaphors is unlikely to happen. Without that capacity for reflection and inner dialogue, metaphors become very difficult to interpret, other than those that can be learned by rote.
So, can the interpretation of metaphors and analogy be used as a determination of inner dialogue? A quick Google search suggests immediately that there is a lot of research out there that bears this out. I’ll leave the readers to investigate that themselves. Furthermore, it makes sense. And finally, I plan to test the hypothesis (hopefully without angering any zombies), but my past experience suggests that there is at least some truth to this hypothesis.
Why does it matter? Some may regard this whole issue as a bit crass. Why do we need to judge people in this sort of way? Well, I think it is important for a number of reasons.
First, let’s not forget that I’m far from the first to propose that there are philosophical zombies out there. Perhaps a lot of them. From numerous philosophers who promote determinism, to George Grudjieff who proposes that man is primarily a machine, to countless spiritual leaders who point to humanity’s blindness in crucial areas of consciousness, the idea that much of mankind is the “mindless grey masses” (as Tom Brown like to call them) is far from new and points to an urgent need to pursue a course of self improvement. Our world is suffering from all sorts of tribulations which might easily be explained by a lack of genuine consciousness. And furthermore, I’m speculating here that we all suffer from this issue to one degree or another.
Second, ethically, if a person is acting in a way that does not utilize a level of consciousness and awareness that involves free will, can they be held responsible for their actions? Eagleman addresses this in the conclusion of his book, where he says that, of course, responsibility has to exist, but the manner in which you treat, punish, rehabilitate or otherwise deal with such people has to take into consideration their fundamental human condition. That is a difficult issue to deal with because many of those who create laws may easily be zombies themselves.
Third, please remember that I’m not pushing a dichotomy here. I don’t think that it is an all or nothing proposition. I think that many people work on automatic pilot much of the time and occasionally check in with a more conscious part of their brain. As a former teacher, I often had to grade essays. After reading a few carefully, I would create in my mind a kind of evaluative algorithm that would then take over and grade the rest. If I came to something that didn’t fit the algorithm I would re-engage my mind and deal with it more consciously. I have always tried to practice self observation and reflection in my own behaviour so perhaps I’m more likely to be able to notice and analyze that kind of pattern. But my point is that everyone uses this auto-pilot. We wouldn’t be able to function without it. However, some use it more than others, and some may even use it exclusively. Teaching people to improve their existing self reflection and inner dialogue is a critical endeavor of the utmost importance. I think it has been a guiding principle for a lot of the teaching I’ve done in my life, even if I haven’t been totally aware of the issue framed in this model. After all, the map is not the landscape.
Fourth, this has nothing to do with psychopaths or sociopaths, who may or may not have inner dialogues. A psychopath’s inner dialogue just ignores any kind of empathy and is totally self centred. Theoretically, psychological zombies could be very nice people.
I’ve just started using the story of “Jumping Mouse” as an allegorical story of self development with the youth group I’m currently working with. It is interesting to watch the response to the story in these 16 year olds. There are other such stories, many from old spiritual texts, such as Sufi teaching stories and Zen Koans. The fact that they seem to have spiritual roots strengthens the connections between conscious will power, inner dialogue and metaphors I’m advocating in this article. It also suggests that, in addition to being a method of determining consciousness, they can also be used as a vehicle for promoting and developing it.
There is a story in a book of tales by Mullah Nasrudin which talks about this enlightened master walking through the village at night carrying a lantern. A villager approaches him and asks, “If you are so enlightened, why do you need a light to show you the way.” The Mullah responds, “The light is not for me. It is so that others do not bump into me.” Sometimes I read that story and delve into layer after layer of meaning. Sometimes I only am able to relate to the first layer or two. Sometimes I read it and feel nothing. I’ve come to regard it as a good indicator of my own immediate state of mind.