The Informavore Doppelgangers I: Zombie-You

Encounters with philosophical characters from the consciousness debates

Posted Feb 23, 2020

According to an influential thought experiment by David Chalmers (1995), it is conceivable that there is an identical physical copy of you, molecule by molecule, with the exact same functions and behavior, but who lacks entirely conscious awareness. This “clone” of you is very deeply not you, because they lack any of your conscious thoughts, desires, memories, and perceptions. But it is also very much you because both of you are indistinguishable as far as structure and function are concerned. You both process the same information from the outside world (in the same way) in order to interact with it. In other words, “from outside” she is just you: she talks like you, behaves like you, expresses herself in general like you. You both appear to be informavore doppelgangers, one which is a “conscious-you” and another being a “zombie-you.”

Chalmers more polemically argues that because this “informavore doppelganger” scenario is conceivable, and partly because issues about consciousness are assessable by reasoning alone, that it is possible, not just in thought but in some possible reality, that there can be such a copy of you in a parallel universe—there can be a “zombie-you” because this seemingly baffling possibility is compatible with the laws of physics, as far as we can tell. In the very least, Chalmers poses this as a challenge concerning how in principle we could tell the difference between conscious-you and zombie-you by just using scientific theories, from chemistry to psychology to neuroscience.

This is the “hard problem” of consciousness: no theory or description, as long as it is “from the outside," suffices to explain what it is like to be you, that is, the conscious-you.

Many nuances go into the validity and soundness of this argument, which are not at all our focus here. In fact, let us generously grant that the arguments concerning the possibility of “zombie-you” make perfect sense. If they do, as many philosophers think, then the challenge is how would you describe to zombie-you who you are from your “point of view” and why the zombie-you lacks the essence of you.

In the terminology we have been using, the challenge posed by Chalmers’ hard problem is this: how would these two informavores communicate? An imagined conversation between these two characters, a conscious individual and her philosophical zombie, will be presented in this blog series soon. For now, let us think about how would you communicate with your zombie. In principle, there will be no possible way of distinguishing both of you from your expressions and communications. You both jab your finger with a needle and both say “ouch,” you both desire to eat an apple and you both go to the same store and go about purchasing the apple in the same way.

You get the picture: all the cognitive and physical functions evaluable through external assessments will render the same verdict. She is a mirror! You two are indistinguishable. But notice, she is a mirror, but not in a robotic way, because she understands the world in very similar ways, at least based on how she is behaving and conversing with you.

Stefan Mosebach (used with permission from the artist)
Informavore Doppelgangers
Source: Stefan Mosebach (used with permission from the artist)

Zombie-you is not robot-you, or extended-you. She is quite literally you, metaphysical problems about identity aside. She is you minus, allegedly, the “what it is like” to be you – the phenomenal experience of being you. You may want to call her “functionally-identical-you”, but things start getting baroque. If she is attentive to things just the way you are, and you add another category in the mix, “attentive-you”, why shouldn’t attentive you be just you?

Because, one might think, attentive-you lacks “what it is like” to be you. But what is this “what it is like” if you find her perfectly identical to you in every respect, including all cognitive respects? She knows what is grandma’s favorite pie, she plays with your pet in the same way, which kind of surprises and confuses your pet (for the sake of simplicity let us not assume a zombie pet). She loves the same wine and reacts in the same way when she tastes it. She responds to questions just like you. How eerie, and how revealing of the deep conundrums of consciousness.

At some point, however, you give up. There is just no real difference you can possibly identify between you and zombie-you. But not just because you are ignorant of some deep mystery of the universe, or because you are now looking at you “from the outside.” It is, rather, because there is no informational difference between you and zombie-you. You are both “informavores” in the same way. So how silly of you to keep insisting that zombie you is merely a zombie who lacks all the lovely mental conscious life you have. You might think to yourself, “how can I deny zombie-me consciousness if she is just like me?”

Some authors want to give moral standing, based on some kind of consciousness, to animals, and even to plants or robots. Denying moral standing to zombie-me because she is not conscious, even though she is just like me as far as I can tell, seems preposterous and actually, it may even be immoral. When confronted with her in your multiple amusing exchanges, the last thing that crosses your mind is that she has the status of a robot or a chair because she lacks “what it is like” to be you.

What went wrong here? If not the arguments, then perhaps the definitions? “What it is like” is a fishy notion. But there seems to be a difference “from the inside” – of a personal experience. Maybe it is empathy. But this needs clarification, because zombie-you also expresses empathy in many ways. We will explore a way of distinguishing you and zombie-you informationally by implementing the consciousness and attention framework (Montemayor and Haladjian, 2015). The key point for now is this: when it comes to informavores, we need to accept the principle that argues if something makes no difference in terms of how information is processed, then it makes no difference at all.

How exactly this principle should be interpreted will be, of course, a matter of controversy. But we hope to show that something like it must be true in our next few posts.

References

Chalmers, D. J. (1995). Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2(3): 200-219.

Montemayor, C. and Haladjian, H. H. (2015). Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.