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The Zombies Among Us

  • I used to teach a class on Cognitive Science. During the time devoted to emotions, there would always be someone asking me to define what an emotion is. I assumed that that person simply wanted to give the discussion sound foundations, but sometimes it was difficult to connect. During the time devoted to consciousness, there would always be someone asking me to define what consciousness is. Sometimes it felt like that person did not quite understand the concept of self-awareness.
  • We are often appalled by people who commit terrible crimes. We call them "animals". We wonder how is it possible that they didn't feel anything when they committed those crimes.
  • A property of consciousness is its inscrutability: you can never feel another person's emotions and thoughts. We can measure anything in nature, including brain activity, but not another person's consciousness.
  • There is a gap between the moment that the brain orders the motor system to do something (to perform an action) and the moment that the person is aware of that action.
  • We are not always conscious of what goes on in our brain. In fact, the vast majority of brain processes do not result in conscious activity or emotions. They are either routine housekeeping or useless electrochemical reactions that are pruned away in time.
  • I have come to doubt that all humans are conscious. Maybe those students were puzzled by the discussion on emotions and by the discussion on consciousness for the simple reason that they don't have emotions and don't have conscious thought.
  • Emotions and consciousness are epiphenomenal: they are side-effects of the brain's activity. We are occasionally conscious of what goes on in our brain.
  • None of us is fully conscious, i.e. conscious of 100% of the brain's activity.
  • Therefore there might be a range of consciousness in humans, from very low to very high.
  • Some people might have negligible consciousness. They live and behave just like me, but they don't have an emotional and conscious life that compares with mine.
  • I might be surrounded by zombies without knowing it.
  • I might be a zombie compared with someone who is more "conscious" than me