KARL JASPERS FORUM
Commentary 63 (to Barnett C58)
CURSE OF THE ZOMBIE OBSERVER
by W A Adams
02 October 2009, posted 17 October 2009
Sid Barnett hopes to demonstrate that a phenomenological approach obviates the necessity of maintaining epistemological dualism between subject and object. I will try to get past diverging use of terminology to the issues Sid intended.
Sid morphs Plato’s cave into a virtual reality environment, an interesting parallel. We are to suppose that a VR screen displays “images representing subjective experiences.” The screen must show conventionally rendered pictures of objects and situations that I (the observer) have experienced in life, such as cows, horses, trees, and my thirtieth birthday party. I am completely alone in this VR experience, Sid proposes.
Also (Barnett <5>) the rule is that there is no off-screen comparator for the representations, so I have only my memory of the world to evaluate them. Sid further wants to distinguish semantic from episodic memory (episodic concerning autobiographical events, semantic concerning knowledge of facts and categories perhaps not personally experienced, such as the boiling point of water.) That is a standard distinction in cognitive psychology.
Sid proposes that some ideas on the screen identify other ideas as “true.” That idea requires clarificaiton. If I think some idea is true, then it is. It is thus completely arbitrary and random what counts as true, since there is no criterion for truth in this environment. One idea cannot just jump up and identify another idea as “true”. Only I, the owner of all the ideas can decide that certain ones are more important or interesting than others. The ideas themselves have no intentionality, no autonomous capacity to refer. Of course I might remember and believe it is true that water boils at 100 degrees, based on experience perceiving and behaving in the real world in the ordinary way, prior to entering the VR environment. So that must be what Sid meant.
Now (Barnett <6>) Sid suggests that the observer’s self-concept is one of the ideas on the display. Being a self means at least, being a more-or-less self-aware individual distinguished from other people by certain boundaries. That notion could be represented like any other. The observer could point to a certain token on the display and say, “This one stands for me.”
Sid says the token itself “adds no information” to what is on the screen. Of course if the token is on the screen, it is in some relationship to the other ideas represented, and that constitutes additional information. What Sid means, I think, is only that the self-token is not a homunculus. The token itself does no thinking, deciding, planning, or evaluating.
A final constraint is that the observer cannot affect what appears on the screen. But this rule requires us to accept an implausibility. Is the observer aware of the screen or not? Let’s assume he is, or the whole exercise is pointless. Is the observer aware that the screen displays representations of his own memories and current experience? Again, let's assume the affirmative if the exercise is to be meaningful. So then, why would it not be possible for the observer to manipulate the contents of the display? Imagine a flying pig and one should appear, right? Meditate on a single idea and all others should disappear, or at least in some way be backgrounded. We do, as a matter of fact, manage our mental contents all the time. If we must assume that the observer is utterly passive, completely unable to manage his mental contents, then we no longer have a normal observer but a mindless zombie. What would the observer be doing? His eyeballs would presumably be pointed toward the display, but for what purpose? It is difficult to imagine what it means “to observe” if the observer is unable to even select among things to observe.
The only solution I can find to this dilemma is to imagine that Sid's VR display does NOT reflect current mental activity, only memories. That would leave the observer as an active, interested, understanding agent, viewing a memory movie, no different in principle from thumbing through a scrapbook or a photo album. But Sid explicitly rules out that possibility (Barnett <6>). He insists that ONLY present experiences are represented on the screen and yet the observer has no affect on them. But that is exactly the constraint that turns our so-called “observer” into a zombie. (Not to mention that it negates prior assumptions concerning memory).
Sid concludes (Barnett <6>) that “what remains” on the VR display is a “thorough phenomenological view” constituted of nothing but experiences. But he forgot about the observer looking at the display. That observer is the subject who experiences all the phenomena on the display. Why is that person suddenly no longer part of the scenario? What happened to him? What happened is that Sid arbitrarily made him disappear by turning him into a mindless zombie.
Sid would like us to believe that the display itself, without the observer, is the example of experience without an experiencer. But that’s just leaving the TV on when I go out to the store. Is Sid really prepared to say that the TV show that plays to an empty house is enjoyed even when nobody is home to enjoy it?