Here’s the abstract I wrote for a paper I propose to give (if it is accepted) at the SLSA conference this coming September:
In this talk, I would like to take a speculative (Whiteheadian and cosmopolitical) look at recent scientific and philosophical debates about the nature and function of consciousness. Cognitive science and philosophy are haunted by the figure of the philosophical zombie: a being who would be outwardly indistinguishable from other sentient beings, but who would not be conscious (would not feel pain, experience qualia, etc). Though thinkers like David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett have argued about the logical possibility, and the implications, of this figure, arguably the most adventurous appearances of the philosophical zombie have come in recent science fiction. Peter Watts’ Blindsight (2006) is a “first contact” novel that posits humanity’s encounter with alien beings who are technologically superior to us, but devoid of consciousness. Project Itoh’s Harmony (2009, translated 2010) presents an oppressively utopian future world in which the complete extinguishing of consciousness becomes the final solution to human suffering and dissatisfaction. Tricia Sullivan’s Lightborn (2010) presents an alternative history in which human and animal consciousness can be directly manipulated by the biological equivalent of computer viruses. Scott Bakker’s Neuropath (2008) explores the disturbing consequences of the argument, proposed by Thomas Metzinger and other thinkers, that consciousness is entirely delusional and has no causal powers. All these novels explicitly present consciousness as merely epiphenomenal; and yet they all suggest (perhaps in spite of themselves) a certain affective intensity and efficacy of nonconscious, noncognitive thought.