Are your colleagues zombies?


No, I don’t mean that kind of zombie; you’d know it if they were.  No special philosophical training is required to detect Hollywood zombies; they are easily recognized by their facial expressions, gait, and characteristic behavior patterns.  The philosopher’s zombie, in contrast, is indistinguishable on grounds of physical appearance alone, and a dualist might want to argue that no material distinctions can be made between the zombies in your department and the rest of your colleagues.  What makes a zombie a legitimate object of philosophical inquiry is its (his?  hers?  eir?) absence of consciousness.  And today’s question is whether mathematical research requires consciousness, or whether it could just as well be left to zombies. If I were a philosopher of mind I’d consider it my professional duty to spend at least an hour every week imagining that my colleagues are all zombies, totally lacking in conscious experience, and introspecting about what, if anything, would be different about my professional and personal relations to them.  (And writing up the notes of my introspection for publication.)  No such duty weighs upon me as a mathematician, but I still recommend the exercise for the light it sheds on the question of mechanization of mathematics.  My colleagues may or may not think their colleagues are zombies, but those who profess a belief in a future in which the field is dominated by artificial intelligence are telling us that we may as well be, for all the difference it makes to mathematics. I was led to this train of thought by reading Andrew Smart’s Beyond Zero and One, subtitled Machines, Psychedelics, and Consciousness.  Chapter 7 of MWA is largely inspired by the notion that mathematics is neither invented nor discovered but is rather an altered state of consciousness, and to this end sought (without much success) to catalogue examples of mathematicians working creatively under the influence of mind-altering drugs.  Elsewhere I have described mathematics as a consensual hallucination, following the expression originally due to William Gibson.  But it had not occurred to me before reading Smart’s book to explore the more basic question of whether mathematics and consciousness necessarily have anything to do with one another.  Smart is writing about artificial intelligence, and about when, if ever,  consciousness will be attributed to computers.  His argument, which I think is original, is that altered states of consciousness are not merely coding errors but are inseparable from the very possibility of consciousness.  Thus he proposes to replace the Turing test for AI consciousness with a Turing-acid test, in which an AI would be tested for the ability to hallucinate as well as to display the normal attributes of consciousness. Colleagues who favor mechanization of mathematics should reflect upon this comment from Chapter 8 of Smart’s book:

…in order for a machine to have human consciousness and its own intuitions, the computer might also have to develop human-like biases and errors, even though these are the things we wish to eliminate by using robots to reason perfectly.

Since the expressed motivation for mechanization is precisely to eliminate the errors of human reasoning, it follows, if Smart is right, that the ideal mechanical mathematician will be unconscious.  Smart follows John Searle in his own account of the objectivity of mathematics:

Mathematics, like language, is observer-relative:  its mode of existence is ontologically subjective in that it depends on conscious agents for its existence.  But mathematics has epistemically objective truths.

If you accept this characterization of mathematics, then you have to agree that talk of zombie mathematicians is a category mistake, and that the machines that some of our colleagues expect to replace us on the near side of the singularity will necessarily be epistemically indistinguishable from human beings; in particular they will be conscious.  Thus we may be tempted to read the dialogue between Tim Gowers and C, the AI helper in his essay entitled Rough Structure and Classification as an account of an hallucination; but which of the two characters is hallucinating?

              (Image from Night of the Living Dead, public domain)


Update:  You may want to refer to this site for additional information on the title question.



19 thoughts on “Are your colleagues zombies?

  1. Jon Awbrey

    There are many things that could be discussed in this connection, but coming from a perspective informed by Peirce on the nature of inquiry and the whole tradition augured by Freud and Jung on the nature of the unconscious makes for a slightly shifted view of things compared, say, to the pet puzzles of analytic philosophy and rationalistic cognitive psychology.


    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      Are you saying that Peirce and the rest anticipated Hollywood zombies? I wouldn’t put it past them. But to answer your implicit (though not unconscious) question, Smart largely shares the presuppositions of cognitive neuroscience. Freud shows up once, and not as an especially reliable authority, the other two not at all. It’s quite thought-provoking nonetheless.


      1. Jon Awbrey

        Let me just ramble a bit and scribble a list of free associative questions that came to mind as I perused your post and sampled a few of its links.

        There is almost always in the back of my mind a question about how the species of mathematical inquiry fits within the genus of inquiry in general.

        That raises a question about the nature of inquiry. Do machines or zombies — unsouled creatures — inquire or question at all? Is awareness or consciousness necessary to inquiry? Inquiry in general? Mathematical inquiry as a special case?


      2. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

        I know how I would answer these questions. After I wrote the post I started to speculate uncontrollably about a time in the future (say Tim Gowers’s 2099) when the tables are turned and the zombie AI using (the few remaining) humans as “interface,” since we can “do consciousness” for less than it would cost to build it into the hardware. Since I can’t see how to separate inquiry from consciousness, we would have had to program the drive to inquire into earlier generations of our zombie helpers. The speculation is accompanied by truly horrible visual images, and it’s a good think I can’t draw, otherwise I’d feel compelled to share them with you.


  2. Jon Awbrey

    One of the ideas we get from Peirce is that inquiry begins with the irritation of doubt (IOD) and ends with the fixation of belief (FOB). This fits nicely in the frame of our zombie flick for a couple of reasons: (1) it harks back to Aristotle’s idea that the cognitive is derivative of the affective, (2) it reminds me of what my middle to high school biology texts always enumerated as a defining attribute of living things, their irritability.


  3. Jon Awbrey

    Heaven knows the devil has far better advocates than I. And I can’t say I know their mind. But they’d probably say it already is. Did you not get the memo about the Zombie Apocalypse?


  4. Pingback: Zombie postscript | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

  5. sntx

    One of my pet theories – only slightly tongue-in-cheek – is that the attainment of Nibbana is identical to the ceasing of certain higher-order cognitive phenonmenon: the person evaporates, as it were, leaving behind only the residue of a philosophical zombie.

    So your post leads me to wonder, whether an arahant can do good mathematics.


      1. sntx

        Well, let’s wait and see if [he] returns…

        Perhaps, he wanted to be a ‘mutant’ instead. As an aside, the only mathematician in his list of mutants is Riemann. This is interesting because we have generally been unkind to Riemann (we speak of Gauss and Euler when we invoke the old gods and undergrads only know him as the guy who improved Cauchy’s integral). I think its fair to say the reasons are tied to the birth-pangs of formalism during his time.


  6. Pingback: Problems In Philosophy • 5 | Inquiry Into Inquiry

  7. Jon Awbrey

    I have long understood the Hollywood zombie as a cinematic symbol of the repressed personality. But our discontented civilization leaves us all more or less repressed. So the question becomes, Just how repressed do you have to be to do mathematics?



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