When We Were Zombies: Why Time Consciousness Matters
We are not zombies but in control of conscious experience and subjective time
Posted May 16, 2016
Zombies are fictitious creatures which look like humans but are not conscious. Philosophers use the zombie idea for discussing the possibility that, in principle, there could be creatures which act like humans and would live among us walking, talking, eating, loving, caring for their children, inventing space ships … However, like the intelligent robots of our days, these creatures would have no realization that they exist and that they experience. Zombies do not know or feel how it is like to bite into a ripe pear and taste its sweetness. To quote the philosopher Thomas Nagel, organisms are consciousness “if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” Clearly, you and I, we are not zombies. We are conscious of ourselves as we feel. This conscious feeling can be aggravating when we are in pain. We seek out pleasures because of the conscious feeling states we anticipate.
Yet, there are moments when we realize that we were zombies. A common black out: Why did I put the clean pan into the fridge? I was on automatic mode when I was emptying the dish washer. No trace of what I was doing the last few seconds. But I performed a semi-intelligent operation, storing away the pan. Only, it went into the wrong place. I am driving my car through the familiar territory of my home town. When I arrive at the designated place I cannot recall driving the last few miles. There are indeed serious neurological dysfunctions where individuals for several seconds or longer are absent minded but can sometimes still function on an automatic mode. Later they have no memory of what happened. The individual’s state does not change during this transient dysfunction, no matter what happens. In contrast, when we are driving in an automatic mode, a little unexpected change in the environment – a ball bouncing onto the street – will get us back to conscious realization that we are driving, albeit only after we have stepped onto the break. This example makes it clear how many of our actions, from walking to talking to driving, are performed rather automatically. But at least, we remember what has been happening if we are not in automatic mode. Other activities are done fully aware, especially when we have to make a decision on a problem which cannot be readily solved. Then we slowly and consciously ponder the options.
However, we do not alternate between two extreme modes of being, either as a zombie or as self-conscious human: zero or one, black or white. Consciousness changes gradually, from being highly alert to letting the mind wander and getting lost in thought. Through these changes in conscious experience our sense of time is also strikingly modulated. Actually, changes in subjective time are indicators of the modes of conscious experience. In zombie mode, we are not consciousness and have no experience of time. In the everyday functional mode of fulfilling duties imposed by our business schedule, that is, rushing from A to B, we hardly feel ourselves and time passes by very quickly. What did I do at work today? According to my schedule, I did a lot. But why do I have the feeling that time passed by so quickly? Because I was rushing from one appointment to the next and I was hardly aware of myself. When I was doing one thing, I was already thinking about the next commitment. This is auto-pilot mode, this is zombie mode. I did not feel how it is like to be myself. Therefore, I do not feel time. But what is time? Time in this context does not mean clock time; time means my conscious existence. In the words of the philosopher Jean Gebser in referring to man when he realizes what he is saying with “I have no time”: How shocked he would be if he were to realize that he is also saying “I have no soul” and “I have no life”!
The moments in life, which we savor most and can recall the most intensely, are those of positive (or negative) surprise. Why is that so? If circumstances defy our expectation we are suddenly pushed out of auto-pilot mode. When immersed in routine activities we anticipate what is lying ahead. No special attention is needed. A surprise, be it negative or positive, forces us to reassess the situation. What is happening? We become strongly self-aware in such a moment of reappraisal. Research has indeed shown how this process leads to an intensified experience of self which in turn slows down subjective time. Looking back at what happened, we remember many details colored by strong emotions. Refering to Gebser’s thought: We feel time when we have a life.
In the spectrum of consciousness modulated by the tides of mind we sometimes want to get lost and feel time pass smoothly. We want to get absorbed in music, a novel or a movie. Sometimes it is a treat to exist aimlessly during Sunday morning. We then enjoy the break from ourselves as we are one with the world, resonating with the music we are listening to. Note that this is not zombie mode but leisure mode, which is powerful in restoring the body and mind. However, in case when we feel awkward about how we are losing time and are not our self, feel free to break through your daily auto-pilot and be open for change and surprise. Don’t do what you always do. Be conscious of experience. We can be in control of ourselves and therefore of time. We are not zombies. We feel what it is like to be.