Abstract: consciousness and sensation

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.

5 thoughts on “Abstract: consciousness and sensation”

  1. Damn – I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel about a zombie civilization. Looks like Peter Watt’s has beaten me to it!

    Just a slight quibble, though – is it strictly correct to say of Metzinger that he regards consciousness as delusional. He regards selfhood as a phenomenological artifact of the transparency of the computational processes which generate the self-model. So maybe selfhood is a delusion for him

    But the dynamic and meta-representational processes underlying the self-model are real have causal efficacy – e.g. in their governance of action.

  2. This looks really interesting, Steve. I don’t know if it’s relevant (as there are no zombies in it) but I just wrote a piece looking at consciousness in whitehead, gil and merleau-ponty (it’s about the shortcomings of a phenomenological approach for thinking experience). If you want to see it just let me know. Can’t wait to see the finished paper!

  3. this talk of zombies and consciousness is interesting since it completely elides Ramachandran’s book Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind…

  4. “[..] and yet they all suggest (perhaps in spite of themselves) a certain affective intensity” – Zizek’s projected excess of the mythic ‘Other’ comes to Mind(s).

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