Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash

What Separates Us from the Zombies?

Science is replete with abandoned theories of what makes humans unique, distinct from the animals. I myself have always been puzzled by our differences from zombies. Like how can they digest those brains they are eating? How does their rotted brain control their rotted limbs with rotted nerves? … and so on.

However, starting with zombies you can follow a trail of knowledge about a dimension of mental ability where we do have an edge over even our closest animal relatives.

Sadly, we have to dismiss as “not real” the zombies who have steadily inundated our imaginations after George Romero’s, Night of the Living Dead. The only maybe real zombies were the Haitian ones: people who were punished by exposure to pufferfish poison in a concoction that left them mindless for a long period of time. One day they might wake up, find that they were cutting cane in a stranger’s field, and would wonder why they and everybody else were so much older now. These people had no interest in eating brains. They were just serving time as drug-induced slaves.

The Australian philosopher David Chalmers, seeking to understand our first-person consciousness, imagined a philosophical zombie. This would be a human body, identical atom-for-atom to one of ours, but having no internal experience. His logic was that if we could imagine such a thing then there must be more to consciousness than the mere physical working of the brain. While he did not convince many, he did set off a decades-long spree of philosophical ferment about the nature of mind and the advantages of having a conscious one.

Once a speculation as wild as the philosophical zombie appears in the literature, science fiction writers (the real ones, not the Hollywood hacks) pick it up and run with it. The Canadian writer and professional pessimist () Peter Watts, in his novels Echopraxia and Blindsight, describes encounters with a totally non-conscious alien species, quite social, who function well enough to be highly technical and star-faring. Indeed they are so capable that they can make themselves psychologically invisible to us. Since these were not scary enough, Watts invents a vampire species that evolved to prey on humans, and is so smart and observant that it can pretty much read our minds by predicting what we will think and do. They can do from outside of us what we can barely do inside our own pretty little heads.

Robert Sawyer is another Canadian SF writer who actually hangs around the real consciousness experts (these days also known as “scientists of mind”). He even lectures at their conventions. In his novel, Quantum Night, he imagines that in fact some 60% of people actually have no inner mental life, but just mimic very well the behavior of people who are conscious. The made-up explanation is that these zombies have a different quantum superposition of the quarks in their nervous system microtubules. Of course SF writers invent science-y stuff that supports the fictional setup that they need. Sawyer’s quantum jibber-jabber is a whopper of an idea. It’s good enough that real scientists might say, “Well why not? We don’t know.” While he is at it (the best SF writers don’t stop at one brilliant idea) he also has a related, made-up, explanation for why some people are sociopaths. In the novel another 20% of humans are sociopaths. They have different control of their eye movements and can therefore see the micro-expressions that we make, but cannot ourselves perceive. This gives them an advantage in reading our emotions, the better to manipulate us.

A flood of research has shown that each of us is mostly zombie. That is, most of your mind is unconscious, outside of your awareness. The conscious part, what we call the Self, thinks that it is in charge of you, like a rider guiding a horse. Dramatic exceptions disprove this. Nobody ever consciously tells their mind to bring on an anxiety attack. Slips of the tongue happen, to our chagrin. Dreams are a kind of consciousness. Everything in a dream is presented to us without our intent, and the dream self has no agency, no control over its own actions. Nearly all our decisions are made with unconscious bias, which can be measured and predicted in psychological experiments. Instruments can show us that brain patterns indicative of a particular decision occur distinctly before we, in our conscious awareness, think that we make them. And so on — the Self is not obviously in control of the mind. The horse is running away with the rider.

Peter Watts was making fictional use of speculation by some thinkers that consciousness is an evolutionary dead-end because it adds extra time and effort to nearly everything that we do. You might be wondering how someone or something with no inner mental life could possibly mimic all the useful things that we do, particularly interacting with other people. As in, “No zombie could ever fool me into believing that they were a conscious person.”

Arguments for the possibility of crypto zombies (zombies that act like us, not like “zombies”) propose a form of behaviorism. The zombies would just learn a set of useful responses to social stimuli. This seems implausible, right? The zombie would at least need some sophisticated models of other people to carry off their deception. How could that happen without a conscious mind — somebody thinking? You could say that the plausibility of a zombie being possible would increase if any machine ever passed the Turing test. Current approaches to AI do emphasize learning from large sets of data, which would be kinda like what a crypto zombie would do as it grew up, or whatever zombies do to develop.

So, why aren’t we entirely zombies — why do we have a conscious self, and what is it for? To solve the question of the purpose of consciousness, some scientists of mind look for an advantage in how it might help mental processing. For example, Bernard Baars’ Global Workspace Theory says that consciousness is a place where important perceptions and thoughts get connected when they bubble up from the unconscious. He likens it to a theater, with spotlights on the important actors.

The mind as a theater for mental contents is not the whole answer, unless you want to say that the theater also, in a strong sense, includes other people. A vast literature connects our social environment with the development of the conscious Self. Starting as infants, we gradually develop awareness of other people as actors (agents of self-initiated behavior) in our world. By age four this awareness becomes a mental model. Someone who has this mental model is said to have, or be using, Theory of Mind. This model lets us attribute to others thoughts and feelings that help us explain what they are doing, and predict what they might do. It’s called a theory because we are making educated guesses about other peoples mental states.

A classic experiment shows the age at which this first develops. A child is shown a puppet, Anne, placing a ball in a box. Anne leaves, and puppet Bess moves the ball to a basket. When Anne returns, the child is asked, ‘where does Anne expect the ball to be?’ A three year old will assume that others know what she herself knows, so she answers, ‘in the box’. A four year old can deduce that Anne will expect it to be where she left it. The four year old recognizes that Anne would have a false belief about where the ball is.

We can’t create and use such a theory without a parallel model of our own person. This model is what we know as our own conscious Self (see The Ego Tunnel, Thomas Metzinger). The two models, self-with-a-mind and others-with-minds, pretty much have to stay in lockstep as they get more elaborate. One feeds the other. So, for example, when our self model becomes capable of meta-awareness (”I am aware that I am aware”), we start to add to our theory of other minds that they, too, can self reflect. This means, to the extent that our particular self can tolerate it, that we start to care about other’s states of mind, not just for how they might affect us, but how other’s states of mind affect them.

The primatologist Robin Dunbar pointed out that we have known for some time that chimpanzees also have a theory of mind. In fact the term originated with a chimpanzee study in 1978. Dunbar popularized the notion (download) that we evolved big brains because they are needed to deal with the complex soap opera called other people. He also added on to theory of mind a philosophical concept called levels of intentionality.

This concept is not primarily about “intending” to do something. Philosophers such as John Searle say (Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind)that some subjective (i.e., mental) states are directed to the outside world, thereby creating an “intentionality” relationship between us and that world. Dunbar notes that there are levels of intentionality, denoted by how many such relationships hold simultaneously. A child may have a theory of mind about her doll with whom she is having tea. This is level two: she thinks (level one) that her doll likes (level two) tea. Level two intentionality is the same thing as basic theory of mind. Dunbar thinks that many animals have level one — they believe something, or intend something — while some might have level two. So how far can this levels business go? Listen to Dunbar as he describes the magic of human storytelling. Count the italicized verbs to follow the levels.

“… the audience must understand that Iago intends that Othello believes that his wife Desdemona wants to run off with Cassio (which would probably not be much more than idle fantasy by Desdemona were Iago not able to convince Othello that Cassio himself also wanted the same outcome) … if they also have to factor Cassio’s complicity into the equation to make the deception convincing for Othello, the audience has to be able to work at fifth order intentionality. But to do this, Shakespeare himself must operate at one level higher: he must intend that the audience understands … etc. Shakespeare was having to work comfortably at sixth order intentionality, and this is now one level beyond the normal limits for most adult humans. “

Dunbar and others emphasize the cognitive processing power that is needed for higher order intentionality. Hence bigger brains exist. In primates, relative neocortex size correlates with social group size and other social behavior measures.

In humans, what we believe to be our personal identity involves higher order intentionality, as in the sociologist Charles H. Cooley’s concept of the Looking Glass Self. There are 4 levels (just count the verbs) in his prototypical statement about social influence:

“I am what I think that you think I am.” — Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, 1902.

Here again we see the intertwining of our models of self and other.

Science believes that nearly all of us spend about half of our waking hours mentally disconnected from our immediate environment. What we do then they call daydreaming, mind wandering, or, less colloquially, spontaneous thought. Much of this thought is so-called mental time travel; we revisit memories and fantasize futures. A lot of this thinking must involve theory of mind, musing about what should have, would have, or might have happened in our relations with other people. Because, as Dunbar and many others have insisted, we are primarily social creatures, and being able to use theory of mind gives us so many opportunities to exploit and embellish our social environment.

We are so social that we over-generalize theory of mind in a couple of ways. One is to attribute intentionality to groups of people instead of individuals. As in “I think that Orange Americans believe that Green Americans are evil.”

Another over-generalization is to give social attributes to things and abstractions that are not social. Remember how we start out in life. By age four we treat some toys, inanimate objects, as having their own, “pretend”, mental life. As in, “Anne (the puppet) thinks the ball is in the box.” Or, “Trudy (the doll) likes tea and cookies”. We treat reality itself as a social thing. We bargain with it, making stupid deals. As in “Although I smoke, if I ignore the risk of getting lung cancer, then lung cancer will ignore me. As in, “I can screw up just a little bit, and consequences won’t notice.” As in, “I’ll take that bet because fate is going to let somebody win.” As in, “Climate change is not a risk because other people are lying or hysterical.”

The other way we mess up on theory of mind is to under-generalize. We exclude whole categories — whole populations — of people from having mental states that matter, either to them or to us. That last distinction is interesting because of how empathy differs from theory of mind. Empathy is attributing a mental state but reflected back on oneself. Empathically you feel the same thing that you have deduced that the other is feeling. If you make the deduction, and you care but don’t feel something like what the other feels, that is sympathy. You might make the deduction, but for various reasons can’t afford to care. All three of these are common situations for most of us. Which one happens depends a lot on their membership in what Dunbar calls your different “levels of intimacy” groups.

Suppose you make a deduction about another’s mental states, but only care about how their feelings, and the behavior they cause, affect your own desires. If you do this very much, then you might be a sociopath. One theory is that there are two kinds of sociopaths. One kind just is terrible at anticipating what their actions do to others. Many of these wind up doing prison time. The scarier kind is more like Peter Watt’s imaginary vampires. They do have the ability to anticipate what other people will do, based on theory of mind. While they fall short in the sympathy and empathy department, they can fake these social qualities.

Let’s reconsider zombies and sociopaths. A crypto zombie’s every social action would be a falsehood, having the effect of convincing us that it had a mind. This is not a lie because a zombie could not have any intention, either to lie or to do anything at all.

Sociopaths do lie. The scary ones prefer deception to authentic interactions, and they do it with intent. Typical intentionalities of sociopaths are like:

I want Carol to think that this lie is true.

I want Bob to think that some true thing is false.

I want Bob to believe that Carol wants him to believe a statement that she knows is a lie.

I pretend to care about Carol’s troubles so she will want to vote for me.

A politician of our time started out using random lies as a business negotiating tactic. This randomness prevents business opponents (there are no business partners, only temporary associates) from using theory of mind to figure out what you really want or what it’s worth to you. This is Scary Sociopathy 101. Demagoguery involves the transfer of such a tactic to politics or political influence. In politics you need supporters and have enemies. For the sociopath, random self-aggrandizing lies please your supporters. Other lies befuddle your enemies, who chase from one lie to the next, never catching up, while your supporters choose to either believe the lies or admire them, depending on their personal credulity.

Even normal, relatively benign, politics makes heavy use of theory of mind. An example might be the statement about Bob and Carol above, which uses fifth order intentionality. This is a level that our primate relatives probably do not have. Politics and story-telling (remember Dunbar’s Shakespeare example) are therefore human-only things.

Dunbar also says that religion requires us to use higher order theory of mind. He takes “religion” to mean belief in another order of reality that contains beings of some kind who have, shall we say, concerns about how we humans behave. Here is his example of how religion requires fifth order.

“I intend that you believe that we understand that the spirits intend that we act with righteous intent.”

Note that this complexity is there for all religions, from so-called primitive animism to world-girdling faiths. It’s another human thing. Now what happens when we mix two powerful, intentionality-stretching, systems for control of our behavior: politics and religion? It’s corrosive: bad ideas about nearly everybody’s intentionality pop up and take hold. Consider how populism currently stands, linked to one religion and a sworn enemy of another. We have bitter social divisions, wars, and refugees labeled as terrorists and criminals. In the face of this, movies about brain eaters seem like a fun escape.