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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).



Alan Turing, the Virtual Simulator Hypothesis,
and Recalibrating the Hard Problem

David Lane


I thoroughly enjoyed Andrew P. Smith’s recent essay, "Consciousness So Simple, So Complex". I thought it was quite well written and demonstrated a deep engagement with Tononi’s and Koch’s Integrated Information Theory concerning consciousness. I particularly liked Smith’s detailed distinction between unconscious and conscious processes and the necessity of the former for the latter. Writes Smith, “So while our conscious experience is indeed highly integrated, a great deal of that integration takes place unconsciously. Consciousness is often described as ‘where it all comes together’, but it has already come together to a considerable degree before we are conscious.”

What most caught my attention, however, was Smith’s invocation of what has been called in various intellectual quarters as the “Zombie” argument, which has parallels (even if not precisely) with Searle’s Chinese Room argument.

As Smith explains,

“One could imagine a zombie—a being behaviorally identical to a human being but lacking in consciousness—playing a musical instrument in exactly the same fashion as an ordinary human. Its brain would still have to unify the different sensory modalities—if it didn't, it couldn't perform the musical composition correctly—and we could certainly imagine something like Koch's view of integrated information enabling it to do so. But the zombie would still lack conscious experience of playing the instrument. Comparing the zombie to an actual human being, there is something missing, and that missing something is not obviously provided for by integrated information.”

The Zombie dilemma, of course, raises the age-old philosophical issue of “other” minds. While I can be quite certain of my own subjective experience--the qualia of this or that occurrence—the same cannot be said about my perception of other beings. In other words, I may have great confidence in my own self-reflective awareness, but when it comes to “you” (the other) I am not so sure.

I have in a series of articles touched upon this conundrum (particularly in “Is My iPhone Conscious?” and “The Disneyland of Consciousness”) since it is one that seems elemental to why such awareness may have evolved in the first place.

As humans we have a tendency to impute conscious intentionality upon a whole host of materials outside of ourselves. Depending on the time and the space, we may animate the sun, moon, and an array of planets and stars. Or, we may impute soul-like qualities to mountains, rivers, trees, and even certain precious stones or metals.

Daniel Dennett, the distinguished professor of philosophy at Tufts University, has long argued that taking “intentional stances” allows us to develop predictive models of how others may behave. As the Conscious Entities website clearly explains,

“According to [Daniel Dennett] there is, in the final analysis, nothing fundamentally inexplicable about the way we attribute intentions and conscious feelings to people. We often attribute feelings or intentions metaphorically to non-human things, after all. We might say our car is a bit tired today, or that our pot plant is thirsty. At the end of the day, our attitude to other human beings is just a version - a much more sophisticated version - of the same strategy. Attributing intentions to human animals makes it much easier to work out what their behaviour is likely to be. It pays us, in short, to adopt the intentional stance when trying to understand human beings.”

Taking such intentional stances, however, doesn’t mean that the object we are currently animating (lightening, say) necessarily has that particular attribute. No, it is just that such psychic transferences provide us with a stratagem with which to act or react.

This naturally leads to the contentious issue of Zombie consciousness, since the very word conjures up all sorts of definitions ranging from the rudimentary, “a person who moves very slowly and is not aware of what is happening especially because of being very tired” (which sounds like my brother early on Saturday morning) to the specifically magical, “a will-less and speechless human in the West Indies capable only of automatic movement who is held to have died and been supernaturally reanimated.”

What seems to be common among almost all Zombie definitions is that the person looks and acts a human being, but inside is soul-less or unconscious of what he or she is doing--which, in most horror movie versions, is when it is trying to eat another person, who is usually all too aware of what is happening!

Yet, this begs a much larger question: how do we really know that the Zombie is merely a mindless automaton? The obvious answer is that we don’t. For instance, medical doctors have only recently come to realize that some coma patients who they mistakenly believed were in a completely vegetative, non-aware state, were in fact quite conscious but were unable to communicate such outwardly.

The case of Ron Houben is chilling case in point. As the Daily Mail in U.K. reported,

“A car crash victim has spoken of the horror he endured for 23 years after he was misdiagnosed as being in a coma when he was conscious the whole time. Rom Houben, trapped in his paralysed body after a car crash, described his real-life nightmare as he screamed to doctors that he could hear them - but could make no sound. 'I screamed, but there was nothing to hear,' said Mr Houben, now 46, who doctors thought was in a persistent vegetative state. 'I dreamed myself away,' he added, tapping his tale out with the aid of a computer. Doctors used a range of coma tests before reluctantly concluding that his consciousness was 'extinct'. But three years ago, new hi-tech scans showed his brain was still functioning almost completely normally. Mr Houben described the moment as 'my second birth'. Therapy has since allowed him to tap out messages on a computer screen. Mr Houben said: 'All that time I just literally dreamed of a better life. Frustration is too small a word to describe what I felt.' His case has only just been revealed in a scientific paper released by the man who 'saved' him, top neurological expert Dr Steven Laureys.'Medical advances caught up with him,' said Dr Laureys, who believes there may be many similar cases of false comas around the world. The disclosure will also renew the right-to-die debate over whether people in comas are truly unconscious.”

The world of appearances can be a beguiling and deceiving arena indeed. We tend to make quick and ad hoc judgments when rushed so that if something walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, we are convinced it really is a duck, forgetting in the process that it may be nothing of the sort. We now live at a time where CGI effects are so convincing that it is becoming nearly impossible to distinguish a manufactured image from a real one.

We are fast approaching the time when the Turing test (in which a computational device will be able to trick us into believing that it is human) will be routinely passed and where the dividing line between artificial and human intelligence will most likely be forever blurred.

I raise this issue because I think the Zombie argument is a misleading one, since it assumes (wrongly, I suggest) that we know a priori that the creature in question is somehow devoid of what we ourselves possess. But how do we even know this, except by exterior observation, which is precisely how we adjudicate whether other humanoids have minds similar to our own. This is an epistemological cul du sac, since we at present don’t have the ability to know what it is like to be a Zombie or even a bat, as Nagel cautioned decades ago. And if this is true then the Zombie hypothesis is a non-starter because we are stuck within the limits of our subjective universe. We simply cannot a priori deny the qualia of another, whether it is our lover, our dog, or a Zombie standing next to us at McDonald’s ordering French Fries.

It appears we are trapped (at least temporarily) within a biological version of Plato’s allegory of the Cave, where we are bound to interpreting mere tracings and then inferring what such sketching may portend.

This it can be argued is the real hard problem of consciousness. As Sam Harris, notwithstanding his neuroscience background, admits,

“The problem, however, is that no evidence for consciousness exists in the physical world. Physical events are simply mute as to whether it is ‘like something’ to be what they are. The only thing in this universe that attests to the existence of consciousness is consciousness itself; the only clue to subjectivity, as such, is subjectivity. Absolutely nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence of it in the physical universe—nor would we have any notion of the many experiential states that it gives rise to. The painfulness of pain, for instance, puts in an appearance only in consciousness. And no description of C-fibers or pain-avoiding behavior will bring the subjective reality into view.”


John Searle tackles this dilemma using a linguistic pointer when he argues that any and all 3rd person descriptors cannot provide us with the internal view of our 1st person experiences.

Therefore, the complexity of any neural system though it may or may not be necessary for self-reflective consciousness cannot in itself (as a set of data points) provide us with what it is like to be a jelly fish, a gold ring, or an extraterrestrial, since subjective components cannot be captured objectively, try as we might. Harris elaborates on this when he argues,

“It is possible that some robots are conscious. If consciousness is the sort of thing that comes into being purely by virtue of information processing, then even our cellphones and coffeemakers may be conscious. But few of us imagine that there is ‘something that it is like’ to be even the most advanced computer. Whatever its relationship to information processing, consciousness is an internal reality that cannot necessarily be appreciated from the outside and need not be associated with behavior or responsiveness to stimuli. If you doubt this, you must read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean Dominique-Bauby’s astonishing and heartbreaking account of his own “locked-in syndrome”—which he dictated by signing to a nurse with his left eyelid—and then try to imagine what his predicament would have been if even this degree of motor control had been denied him.”

In this way we seem to be stuck in a Skinnerian black box. All we can surmise about anyone else is our own intentional stances projected outwardly that we confirm or disconfirm by our increasingly sophisticated observations, which are exponentially aided by our technological prowess. Yet, even here we are still caught within a neurological storefront that can only provide us with a menu of possible entry states but which cannot give us the taste of that specific internal realm. We are, in sum, onlookers to the subjective realm. Or, to bastardize a famous quote from Rudyard Kipling, “subjective is subjective and objective is objective and never the twain shall meet.”

It is for this reason that humans have had a long history of mistaking something inanimate as animate and vice versus. Disneyland is full of animatronic characters (Zombies?) that have befooled many a visitor into thinking that they were real humans putting on a performance. Just as we can mistakenly believe that a comatose person is vegetative, we can also quite innocently presume that the animatronic in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln on Main Street in Disneyland is a normal human being.

Therefore, the Zombie argument doesn’t actually illuminate the hard problem of consciousness but only obfuscates the knotty issue of what it is like to be something other than what we ourselves our.

Andrew Smith illuminates on this when he writes,

“In fact, much of our actual behavior is not that far removed from zombieland. When an accomplished professional musician performs, most of what the brain does is carried out unconsciously. As has been recognized for decades, this is one of the major distinctions between an expert and a novice, with regard to any form of behavior. The novice initially has to be conscious of nearly every detail of the performance, whereas for the expert, someone who has practiced the behavior extensively in the past, the performance is mostly automatic. This is very clear evidence that a vast amount of integration of information in the brain is carried out unconsciously.”

But perhaps there is no hard problem in consciousness as posited by David Chalmers and others and we have only made it hard or harder (as Dennett has suggested in his recent book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking) by claiming that it is.

In this contrarian view, the way to understand consciousness is to assume (metaphorically speaking) that we are all Zombies and that what we take to be so unique in our first person narratives is, on closer inspection, not as special or resistant to outside comprehension as we might presume.

Daniel Dennett has long championed the view that consciousness can be explained provided that we recalibrate how we view our own notion of what it means to have a self. As Dennett argues,

“It’s [consciousness] astonishingly wonderful but it is not a miracle and it isn’t magic. It’s a bunch of tricks and I like the comparison with magic because stage magic of course is not magic, magic. It’s [a] bunch of tricks and consciousness is a bunch of tricks in the brain and we’re learning what those tricks are and how they fit together and why it seems to be so much more than that bunch of tricks. Now, for a lot people the very suggestion that, that might be so is offensive or repugnant. They really don’t like that idea and they view it as in a sort of an assault on their dignity or their specialness and I think that’s a prime mistake.”

One way to tackle this divided take on consciousness (whether a soft or hard problem) is to follow Gerald Edelman’s lead and define awareness in a two-fold way: First nature, or primary awareness is of the present moment and the immediate past and can be understood as sensory consciousness or sentience itself; Second nature, or higher order awareness is when we can deeply reflect upon past, present, or future actions and have the ability to be cognizant of our self-consciousness--awareness of awareness, so to speak.

This can also be parsed as first nature being “association” (in the moment and in tune with prevalent proceedings) or “zoning in”; and “dissociation” (out of sync with what is occurring and ruminating about past or future activities) or “zoning out.”

Analogously, primary consciousness is an engaged moment whereas secondary consciousness is disengaged to the point where one is somewhere else (mentally speaking).

Edelman makes these distinctions since he feels that most if not all animals have some sense of primary awareness or sentience whereas secondary or higher order awareness may be only the lot of those with more highly ordered and complex brain structures.

Why evolution would have evolved such a sophisticated form of awareness isn’t as intractable as it may at first seem. Again, Andrew P. Smith touches upon this when he asks the question of why consciousness would have evolved when apparently an unconscious Zombie could have the same functional advantages.

Putting aside the ontological question of what Zombies may or may not experience subjectively, I think it is fairly obvious what evolutionary benefit higher order consciousness conveys upon those who have it. Any organism that can “virtually simulate” varying options within itself before outsourcing them in a real, empirical world has a tremendous advantage over creatures who lack such a simulacrum Rolodex.

Think about what your consciousness does most of the time, particularly during an uneventful and tedious lecture on consciousness itself. It spaces out. We tend to dissociate and ruminate about all sorts of things, from fantasizing about this or that person or imagining what we are going to do on vacation or perhaps if the lecture doesn’t go too long about what we are going to order at Veggie Grille. These mind wanderings allow us to conjure up all sorts of real and unreal possibilities and as such allow us the opportunity to play out different end game scenarios without ending up injured or dead. Those who lack such an internal theatre don’t have the ability to “rehearse” and thus are forced to act in a real and dangerous world almost immediately.

There is, undoubtedly, a drawback to have such a conjuring mind since it can (and often does) capture us in an admixture of fantastic phantasms which have no direct correlation to the eat or be eaten world in which we live.

We can also be subject to some truly horrifying delusions, such that it becomes nearly impossible to differentiate the exterior world from our interior machinations.

This became clearer to me this past semester at Mt. San Antonio College when I became well acquainted with an older student in my Introduction to Philosophy class. He introduced himself early in the semester after I had given a lecture on consciousness as a virtual simulator. He couldn’t look me in the eye and explained that he hadn’t left his house for nearly 20 years. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had an inordinate fear of people. His doctor had advised him to go back to school and my class was the first one he was taking. He was mesmerized by the idea of the virtual simulator since he felt that it explained his situation to a tee.

He then proceeded to write a long narrative in which he described in excruciating detail what a typical day in his was like. Here is but one small excerpt,

“Now that I look back, I remember that I did experience mild panic attacks beginning at the tender age of nine years old. I would sleep in a sitting position because I thought I was going to vomit my intestines if I slept lying down. I slept in this position for months. Now that I look back at this moment, I realize that this was just the beginning of the nightmare that lay ahead. You see, once a stubborn notion enters my mind, I cannot get rid of it. It completely takes over my mind and body. I guess I am so screwed up in my head that when a notion enters my mind, I get sick for days. My body gets overwhelmed with fear. I also begin to tremble. My head begins to hurt and my stomach begins to turn. I sometimes even suffer from diarrhea. The sickness lets me know that a negative notion has entered my mind. If the notion was caused by wearing a new shirt, I either don’t ever wear the shirt again, or I decide to put up with the sickness every time I wear it. I have been asking myself the same question for twenty years, “How can something as harmless as a shirt cause so much mental and physical pain?” I know the shirt is not to blame for my defective mind, but I would still love to know the scientific explanation from beginning to end. I always end up depriving myself of many simple pleasures in life because I have associated them with pain. Half of the things I own I don’t use because a negative notion in my head developed that induces fear every time I try to use these items. For example, I bought an expensive stereo a few years ago and I haven’t touched it since then. I am afraid that my head is going to explode if I listen to the stereo (that is the crippling belief that exists in my mind). Every time I try to use these items, a rush of fear takes over me and I begin to perspire. My stomach begins to turn and I immediately begin to get sick. If I am ever in a rare happy mood, all I have to do is reach out for one of these items and fear and sickness will wreak havoc on my body and mind.”


As I got to know this student (we would invariably talk at length after our class was over) I realized how brilliant he was. Indeed, he was by far the brightest student I had taught in years, since he seemed to grasp almost any complex subject immediately, despite not having any academic training per se.

What truly surprised me, though, was that once he understood the virtual simulator hypothesis it noticeably calmed him down tremendously because the model helped him better understand his own behavior and how he was fueling (even if unconsciously) his own obsessive behavior and getting trapped within it. Over the course of the term, he even began to make prolonged eye contact and to develop a sense of humor about his predicament. This student also claimed to have improved more in the past few weeks than had in ten years of seeing his psychiatrist. It may well be that if we are convinced in the rightness of a theory and how it applies to our own situation, it can liberate us to some degree from our own guilt and our own consternations. For example, I have noticed that a medical condition can dramatically improve if I receive a proper diagnosis that I can firmly believe is accurate. Clearly, the placebo effect is a powerful one across all fields including those suffering from certain mental illnesses.

Higher order consciousness may provide a tremendous advantage for us to live within our heads before acting out our varying plans, but it can also boomerang against us since we have a tendency to conflate our dreams with the world around. To the degree that our internal models help us navigate and survive it is a tool of incalculable power, but to the degree that it binds us into mistakenly believing (without sufficient evidence) our own imaginings we can become prisoners within its hallucinatory walls.

It can be argued that we are all delusional to some extent since many of our delusions (religious or otherwise) allow us to buffer ourselves from the stark reality that the planet we find ourselves foraging about is a death machine where no one gets out alive. Consciousness as a virtual simulator (Edelman’s 2nd nature) may have evolved not only to help us with developing ways to strategize but also to distract us from our precarious predicament. As my student once quipped to me,

“Too much reality and we become catatonic and too much fantasy and we become schizophrenic.”

Perhaps most importantly, certain aspects of the virtual simulator hypothesis have been tested and are garnering impressive results. New Scientist recently reported that thinking about a certain activity, such as juggling skills, before doing it could significantly improve one’s ability later on.

“Sook-Lei Liew and her colleagues from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, asked eight adults to watch a circle on a screen while an fMRI machine scanned their brain. When the circle turned into a triangle, the volunteers moved their fingers. This movement caused activity in their premotor cortex and supplementary motor cortex – brain areas involved in imagining moving and actually moving – which in turn raised a bar on the screen. The more synchronised the brain activity, the higher the bar went. More synchronisation has previously been linked with better performance in movement tasks.The researchers then asked the volunteers to imagine performing a complicated action – whatever they liked, as long as it increased the height of the bar. This enabled them to develop a way of improving coordination between the brain regions using thought alone. After an hour of mental practice, participants were 10 per cent faster at a manual task. Those who showed the greatest increase in speed also showed the greatest enhancement in synchronisation.”

Interestingly, some neuropsychologists believe that our sense of a self developed after (not before) we evolved ways to envisage (via intentional stances) why others behaved the way they do. In other words, we became adept at projecting prior to becoming adept at reflecting. Ironically, this inverse reasoning implies that Zombie consciousness precedes self-awareness, since the former (unconscious processing) is a forerunner of the latter. If our nocturnal sojourns are an indication of our ancestral past, then it might be correct to surmise that we learned to dream before we could scheme.

Smith rightly touches upon the importance of unconscious processing and integration as a necessary prelude to conscious self-awareness and suggests that any theory of consciousness should take into consideration that what is unconscious to us as humans may be “conscious” to animals devoid of higher order awareness.


It is certainly true that whenever we learn a new skill, such as surfing, we have to be keenly aware of almost everything we do at first: how to paddle, how to sit on a board, how to catch a wave, how to stand up quickly as the wave crashes, how to bottom turn, and so on. But once we have mastered such a set of skills they become automatic reflexes and we act more instinctively. We no longer need to pay such close attention to them, as they have become unconscious reflexes, so to say. Tom Curren, a three-time world champion surfer, once explained that his very best surfing was when he was mostly mindless and instead of being conscious of each and every turn he simply rode the wave and responded accordingly. But this can only happen after many hours of concentrated attention.

In this way, one could argue that the Zombie argument of consciousness should be placed on its head (and the bad pun here is purely intentional), since we only become Zombie like after (not before) being fully aware.

In this context, therefore, Zombie consciousness doesn’t necessary indicate that a person or object is mindless at all, but rather that they might have been so mindful at one stage that they later earned the luxury of tuning and zoning out whenever possible. This may explain why all those people driving cars after work in downtown Los Angeles look like Zombies from the “Night of the Living Dead.”

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