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Zombies, Human Sonar, and Transhumanism: an Interview with Rutgers Professor Katalin Balog
Kris Notaro   Aug 23, 2010   Ethical Technology  

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Katalin Balog, an Associate Professor at Rutgers/Newark. Prior to her current position she taught at Yale for 10 years. Prof. Balog is primarily a philosopher of mind and psychology though her interests intersect with metaphysics and philosophy of language.  Her interest spans both Western psychology (cognitive and evolutionary psychology but also psycho-analysis) and Eastern (especially Buddhist) psychology. She is currently working on problems related to the nature of consciousness, personal identity and free will.

1. KN: How did you get interested in philosophy of mind?

KB: I was born and raised in Hungary where at the time philosophy meant mostly Marxist indoctrination. I had the good fortune of studying with the only analytic philosopher allowed to teach in Budapest in the early 1980s, Ferenc Altrichter. Altrichter immigrated to the US shortly afterwards but my love of philosophy remained. I felt analytic philosophy answers a hunger for clarity and understanding that the examples of Continental writings I studied didn’t satisfy (I recall Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge, and Habermas’s Knowledge and Human Interests - Marx I avoided reading, for political reasons, until much later when I already lived in the US). I found analytic philosophy to be an antidote not only to the confusion I felt facing the duplicitousness and empty verbiage that dominated public discourse but also to a more personal sense of confusion. Philosophy just might cut through all sorts of garbage, I thought. I have been interested in the problem of free will and responsibility since I was a child. I have always wanted to understand how I can be responsible for who I am even as my being has been formed by forces outside of my power.

On the other hand, my interests have also been deeply influenced by the fact that I am coming from a family of psycho-analysts. My grandmother’s sister studied with Sándor Ferenczi who was one of Freud’s main students. A number of my aunts and cousins are also psycho-analysts representing a variety of schools (Freudian, Adlerian, Jungian). I have grown up with the sense that the most intriguing object of curiosity is the mind itself and the most worthy path is learning to deal with it.

As a result of these influences, I came to the US at the end of the 1980s with a year-long fellowship and the desire to study the “philosophy of psycho-analysis”. As I later discovered, this is not a specific discipline and - though my original interest in psychoanalysis has persisted to this day - I set out to study the philosophy of mind in general. At Rutgers I met my future husband, philosopher of science Barry Loewer, who has been a continuing source of support and a huge influence on me both philosophically and otherwise. I form my thoughts with him as primary audience in mind.

2. KN: Can you please explain your own interest in phenomenal concepts?

KB: My dissertation advisor, Brian Loar set the course for my work for the coming decade. He proposed, in a very important paper published in 1990(1)  that the mind-body problem can be solved if we consider the special cognitive mechanisms involved in introspecting our experience, i.e., if we focus on the nature of phenomenal concepts. Phenomenal concepts, roughly expressed in words as “this sensation” are typically applied in introspection; I apply a phenomenal concept when I think to myself “I have felt this sensation in my shoulder before” upon noticing a strange yet vaguely familiar feeling as I throw a frisbee. The “mind-body problem”, as it is traditionally called, is the problem of how the mind, and especially experience relates to the rest of nature, and more specifically, to the brain. Is the mind a wholly physical - albeit monumentally complex - feature of the brain or is it radically distinct from it, i.e., is it wholly or partly unphysical? In recent decades a number of dualist arguments have been proposed, following Descartes’s argument in his Sixth Meditation - by Thomas Nagel, Frank Jackson, and David Chalmers, among others - to support the latter view. Chalmers, for example, argues, that, roughly, since we can conceive of beings physically just like us, yet without any experience, experience is really non-physical. By experience I mean states that - like perceptual states, sensations, emotions, or acts of imagination - have a phenomenal quality, so that, in Thomas Nagel’s felicitous term, there is “something it’s like” to have them. Recent literature calls creatures that are physically just like us yet lack phenomenal experience, “zombies”, so this argument can be called the zombie-conceivability argument.

Loar’s suggestion is that the conceivability of zombies is compatible with physicalism. Physicalism is the view that, at the fundamental level, everything is physical, that there is nothing more, at bottom, to the universe than hugely complex physical goings-on which give rise to all that exists, including the planets and stars, the oceans and rivers, the animals and plants, all the seemingly non-physical processes and properties in the world studied in such fields as astronomy, chemistry, geology, biology, sociology, economy, and psychology. The successful reduction - at least in principle - of chemistry, geology and biology to physics has given a big boost to physicalism in the 20th century. It has turned out that no emergent forces and properties are needed to explain chemical combination and the behavior of chemical substances, and there is no need to posit an elan vital to account for the behavior of living organisms. The last frontier for accounting for everything in the world in purely physical terms is the mind, and especially consciousness. That is where the last battle is being waged.

Loar suggests that the conceivability of zombies is due entirely to the peculiar cognitive character of phenomenal concepts, concepts that we apply in thought to phenomenal experience - and not to the non-physical nature of phenomenal experience. The paradigm examples of phenomenal concepts are found in introspection. When we introspect an experience as it happens, we form a concept of that experience that in some way exemplifies the experience itself. When I say to myself “I have felt this sensation in my shoulder before” the phenomenal concept roughly related as “this sensation” presents the experience itself. In some strange way, the concept is not wholly distinct from what it is a concept of. This is different from any other concept. Without getting lost in the details, the thing to notice is that all other concepts can occur without their referent being instantiated at the moment of thought. I can think of brain states, shoulders injuries, cats, chairs, colors or particles without any of what I am thinking about being present. But I can’t introspectively think of my current experience without that current experience present. It is not just that if my shoulder sensation is not present, my introspective thought about it would be false. I can simply not introspect what is not there. This is controversial but at least in core cases I think it is true. And because phenomenal concepts in general, even when used in theoretical argument, are closely linked to introspection the unique nature of introspective thought explains why we can conceive of zombies, irrespective of whether physicalism is true. The conceivability of zombies is a direct consequence of how phenomenal concepts work, and is therefore no guide to the metaphysical nature of experience.

Here is why. When we conceive of a zombie - i.e., a physical duplicate of a human organism - we are free to conceive of it as devoid of phenomenal experience since nothing in the way we think of the physical constitution of the brain (its chemical and electrical properties, etc.) compels us to apply phenomenal concepts to it. Physical and phenomenal concepts are conceptually unrelated. You can apply one independently of the other. The cognitive mechanisms involved in applying physical concepts to the brain are wholly distinct from the cognitive mechanisms of introspection. And that is the whole explanation of the conceivability of zombies. It is merely an artifact of the human conceptual scheme. The physicalist, of course, needs to explain how something as seemingly unphysical as experience is, could nevertheless be purely physical, purely a matter of what happens in the brain. But that is another story.

I think this approach to the mind-body problem is extremely fruitful, and can be used by physicalists to fully answer the dualist challenge. David Papineau, Brian McLaughlin, Chris Hill, Ned Block and myself, among others, have been proposing different ways to develop Loar’s suggestion into a full-blown account of phenomenal concepts. My approach is to understand phenomenal concepts on the analogy of linguistic quotation. At this point, such accounts necessarily have a speculative character; we don’t know enough about what concepts are, let alone what phenomenal concepts are, for the theory to have real empirical consequences. In the long run, one of these accounts hopefully will be vindicated by cognitive psychology and neuroscience. But even if vindication is too much to hope for, at a minimum, any such account has to be compatible with future cognitive science.

While I think that the phenomenal concept strategy is key to understanding the mind-body problem - and that learning more about the nature of phenomenal concepts and phenomenal thought is a really interesting scientific, as well as philosophical project - my own view is that the physicalism/dualism debate is overblown. Not only does it seem ultimately undecidable both on empirical and on a priori, rational grounds - there are no more knock-down arguments against dualism as there are against physicalism - it might even be that the distinction is not drawn clearly enough for it to be meaningful. At least this is what I argue for in the book I am writing. But, whatever neuro-science, psychology and philosophical thought will reveal about consciousness in the future, I think - and I hope - it will always remain a bit baffling. Experience eludes and outpaces thought and that is just part of its nature. As long as we are attuned to it we will find it mysterious.

3. KN: Can future science and technology help expand the sensory and phenomenal capacity of humans, for example, can it produce sonar in people?

KB: Thomas Nagel in his famous 1974 paper “What is it like to be a bat?” used bats’ sonar as an example of kinds of experience we cannot even conceive of. Of course, humans have always been curious about what it might be like to be another kind of being, especially what it might be like to possess the senses we don’t have. C. S. Lewis - in his fantasies - often suggests situations where humans suddenly acquire new ways to perceive, even brand new senses to respond to hitherto unperceivable aspects of the world. There are no apparent limits to possible perception; most likely, the species that have evolved on earth have only come up with a small fraction of what is possible for sentient beings.

As far as I can see, there are two ways in which people can acquire sonar. One way - the easier way - is to channel the usual inputs of the sonar system through an artificial transducer to one of our existing senses. This sort of thing has already been done to give some sort of vision to blind people: Bach-y-Rita’s so-called tactile-vision substitution system (TVSS) works via electrodes on the back that receive tactile inputs from a camera fitted on the subject’s head. Something like sonar has also been tried with blind subjects: people have been outfitted with contraptions that emit ultrasonic probes. Here is how it works: a microphone in the device picks up the echoes whose intensity and frequency correlate with the distance and physical properties of objects in the subject’s environment. The echoes are then translated into audible sounds whose pitch, volume, etc. carry information about distance, texture, movement and orientation.

These so-called “sonic guides” provide much cruder information than the bat’s sonar. This can undoubtedly be remedied in time by refining the technology involved. The crucial issue, however, is not the accuracy or “resolution” of this artificial sense; the crucial issue is what sort of phenomenology it produces. When we wonder what it is like to be a bat navigating by sonar we are not just wondering about what kind of information the bat has that we might not have; we are wondering about what it feels like to navigate by sonar. And it is far from clear that these substitutions are capable of producing real visual or sonar phenomenology. Strangely, there is no agreement among experts as to the phenomenal character of these experiences. Some people claim that TVSS experiences are “vision-like”; others, however, think that TVSS produces spatial perception via tactile sensation. No one, as far as I know, ever proposed that sonic guides produce bat-like phenomenology.

There is another way in which sonar phenomenology might be artificially produced. Though this is much more remote in a practical sense it is also more promising in terms of the hoped-for results. Neuro-science strongly suggests that all mental states are correlated with corresponding brain states. Even dualists (who deny that mental states are identical to, or fully realized by brain states) can acknowledge this. Though we are still in the very early stages of working out the actual mappings, there is evidence that no mental state can occur without a corresponding brain state occurring, and vice versa. When we see red our brains are in one state; when see blue it is in another. It is not impossible then that the brain structures that underlie that bat’s sonar experiences, can also be implemented in human brains. This might be done by manipulating the human brain, genetic engineering, or by prosthetic devices… Whether this will ever be an easy thing to do, so anyone interested can try out experiences naturally alien to humans, is not possible to say today.

There is a complication, however, which has far-reaching consequences for the issue of machine-consciousness as well. Even if this far-flung scenario once becomes reality, there is no way we could ever really know whether we are truly succeeding in sharing, say, the bat’s sonar experience. We might be acquiring some new sort of sense with a new sort of phenomenal character - the future will tell if this is a possibility - but whether what we have acquired is really the same thing as the bat’s sonar we won’t really know. I am not talking about the traditional skeptical problem of Other Minds. The problem is not just that we can only be directly aware of our own experience and that whatever we observe of others is always logically compatible with the hypothesis that they are not really conscious or that they have different experiences from ours. Rather, it is by the standards of science that we seem to be in no position to ever know whether we are sharing the bat’s sonar, even if we share with bats some relevant brain structures.

The problem is this. The brains of bats and humans are sufficiently different in terms of their neurophysiology so that it is guaranteed that whatever state we share with the bats will be nevertheless different at the level of specific neuro-physiological implementation. We can only share with bats a somewhat abstract functional/structural property of their brain. However, and here is the rub, both the specific neurophysiological property and the more abstract functional/structural property are equally correlated with bat’s sonar experiences, and there is good reason to think that they cannot come apart in bats. However, they do come apart in humans if there is to be human sonar experience. Humans will share, at most, the abstract functional/structural property with bats but this functional/structural property will be implemented by our somewhat different human neurophysiology. This is where the issue comes to a head: there is no possible way, and I mean no possibility no matter how sophisticated our science and technology might become, to know whether what we share with bats truly results in sonar experience, or something qualitatively different. If the bats’ sonar phenomenology is ultimately neurophysiological (or - assuming dualism - is connected by law to neurophysiology) then we can’t ever share it. If, on the other hand, it is a functional/structural aspect of their brain (or - assuming dualism - is connected by law to a functional/structural aspect of their brain) then perhaps we can share it someday.

This dilemma carries over mutatis mutandis to the question of machine consciousness. Machine consciousness, if it can exist, is not based on neurophysiology of any kind. Machine consciousness is only possible if consciousness is a rather abstract functional/structural feature of the brain. But for reasons that I have just mentioned, we can never know if that is the case. Consequently, we’ll never know if robots or cyborgs are conscious. Searle, in his Chinese Room thought-experiment goes further and argues that no amount of symbol manipulation amounts to real understanding. I don’t agree with him; I think we really can’t know the answer to this question one way or another. The same is the case with mind uploading. Perhaps one day we can upload very detailed - perhaps even complete -  information about your brain onto computer systems. However, short of implementing an organic replica of your brain based on such information we can’t be certain that the resulting thing - e.g., a computer simulation of your brain, or an artificial functional/structural duplicate of your brain - is conscious at all. I should add, further, that either way - organic or artificial - of producing a replica of your brain raises the question whether the resulting being would be you at all. The traditional philosophical issue of personal identity would acquire a brand new urgency and relevance if such possibilities materialized. Parfit’s thought-experiments involving teletransportation - where exact physical duplicates of people are assembled at remote locations based on complete information about them -, sometimes dismissed as idle fantasies, might one day become reality.

4. KN: Would producing new senses, such as sonar in people teach us anything in the sense of the Knowledge Argument?

KB: Frank Jackson’s famous Knowledge Argument is based on a thought-experiement. Consider Mary, super-scientist who knows everything there is to know about the neuro-science of color vision yet who has never seen colors. Locked up in her black-and-white room she studies vision from books and computers. Jackson suggests that when she is finally let out of her colorless prison and experiences colors for the first time she learns something new about the world. The story is supposed to show that no amount of physical knowledge (or, for that matter, no amount of objective knowledge of any kind) can give one a complete knowledge of the world. I do not believe the argument is successful - it doesn’t show that there are more facts than can be described objectively - but I do think that it pretty persuasively makes the point that first-hand experience gives us a whole new handle on experience. So, sure, experiencing sonar first-hand would give us tremendous insight into what sonar is like. We would learn something new about sonar. The chance to experience it would hold great fascination for a lot of people. But that something we would learn might not be a new fact about the world, one that cannot be studied in neuro-science, for example. The difference it would make would be just that: a difference between knowing things about that kind of experience vs. having had that kind of experience and so being able to think about it in a new way.

5. KN: Philosophy of mind uses thought experiments quite often. How would you explain the importance of thought experiments in your own work?

KB: Thought experiments have been used extensively in the sciences. Think of Maxwell’s Demon, Schrödinger’s Cat, or Einstein’s thought experiment of chasing a light beam, which allegedly led him to Special Relativity. But they are really the bread and butter of philosophy. Just in this conversation we have already talked about zombies, Mary the super-scientist, the Chinese Room, and teletransportation, and there are countless more in the philosophical repertoire. Thought experiments in philosophy are not supposed to only limn the possible - in any sense of the word. If physicalism is true, for example, zombies are impossible, and not just as a matter of the laws of nature; it might be that even God could not create a zombie - though, we suppose, God could create a world in which the laws of nature differ. Mary the super-scientist is clearly physically impossible; no mere human’s head could be stuffed with all that knowledge - a complete knowledge of neuro-science. But they are still edifying to think about. Thought experiments are often used not to find out what is the case, or even what is possible to be the case, but to probe our concepts, to teach us something new about the way we think by taking our concepts out of their ordinary, native context. Philosophers disagree about whether this is a promising strategy. Some philosophers argue that by thinking about impossible, or even just alien situations, we fool ourselves and instead of insight we induce confusion. Wittgenstein was one of them. But even he occasionally applied thought-experiments.  I happen to think that thought experiments are often very useful.

6. KN: Do you think radical life extension is possible? And if so, is it desirable?

KB: Transcending the natural limitations of the human condition - the inevitable sorrows of suffering, sickness, old age, and death - has been an aspiration ever since humans have become conscious of it. It comes from the same impulse as when a chimpanzee starts using tools to manipulate its environment but is far more pervasive and relentless because of our greater awareness and greater cognitive capacity. There are two great traditions that in their own ways strive for this transcendence: religion and science. Religion has a promise of eternal life; in some traditions even bodily resurrection. Being an unbeliever in the doctrinal sense I don’t have much to say about this; it seems the stuff of dream to me. The scientific outlook suggests a more sober view; the inevitable, gradual demise of the body, the universe as an unstoppable meat-grinder. We can try to slow down the process and we should, but this is all we can do. Science, however, also has a more flamboyant side: its astonishing success in controlling nature has led people like gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, inventor Ray Kurzweil, and other transhumanists to believe that transcending death (or at least, prolonging life indefinitely, barring the end of the world, or similar disasters) itself might be within reach, if not for ourselves but for our not so distant progeny. We might, in spite of all, find the philosopher’s stone.

I don’t know if this is a physical possibility. But radical life extension and other biological “enhancements” of humans, including planned evolution by means of technology seems increasingly probable. So does artificial intelligence and artificial life forms and the merging of these with humans. Scenarios that have been the staples of philosophical thought-experiments might suddenly spring to life. Are these developments desirable? I am afraid we are not really prepared to answer this question. But given the speed of scientific and technological progress we might have to confront it in our lifetime. Of course there is no summary answer in the offing. But I want to suggest some general avenues of thought that seem to me relevant.

It seems that extending our natural life-span is prima facie a good thing. Of course it can only be so if life is generally worth living (for an interesting exploration of this question see Peter Singer’s article “Should this be the last generation?” in the New York Times’ philosophy blog The Stone) but let’s assume that this is answered in the positive. There are formidable practical consequences, however, that might turn what seems an unquestionably good thing into a nightmare. Think about the shape of a human life and the role of family. Family and kin already play a diminishing role in human life but - depending on how radical the life-extension we are imagining is - that role could become vanishingly small. One would only spend about 20-30 years of life with one’s children and the rest - which is supposedly a very long, if not infinite time - childless. Unless, of course, if people would continually procreate and transition from “family” to “family” as time goes on, which would, on the other hand, make the problem of overpopulation, already unmanageable by ever expanding life-spans even more intractable.

Apart from these problems that might somehow be mitigated - the problem of population explosion, for example, might be solved by gradual dispersion of the human race throughout the universe - there is the problem of boredom. Bernard Williams,  for example, argues that just like Elina Makropulos, the 300 year old the heroin in Karel Capek‘s novella, the Makropulos Case, you would soon tire of your life if it continued on and on. To be exact, Williams thinks that you would face a dilemma. Either you would live a varied and rich life and as a result change so much over time that it would be false to say that the resulting person is the same person as you are now - so you wouldn’t live forever after all! Or you would stay relatively constant, remaining the same person all the way through but then tedium inevitably would set in and your life would have diminishing worth to the point of utter futility in the end. “Been there, done that” is the idea. Doubtlessly, we can only speculate about how we would feel once we hit 1000; what would even happen to our memory in all that time; what aspirations we could have when in a sense there is never a serious deadline… But I am not on the side of those who say death is the keystone that supports life’s meaning; or seriousness, or whatever. From the point of view of the universe it seems preposterous that I should live forever, but then again, if I could, I would chose immortality. I think that humans are infinitely perfectible. There are no limits to that. So immortality could be used to reach higher and higher levels of perfection. Perhaps if we knew that there was no end we would become more patient. The Buddhists think it takes many lifetimes to reach Buddhahood. If we were immortal we would all have the time to do it…

Aside from these issues about the desirability of immortality there is a larger perspective from which the very desire for immortality is questionable - irrespective of whether eternal life would be a good thing. The idea can be found in virtually all the religious traditions of the world including the most ancient, shamanic traditions; it is, to put it very succinctly, that striving itself is the source of suffering. The mentality, by now utterly dominant in the developed parts of the world, of seeking control and power in every sphere, of not putting up with any disruptions in the smooth routines of our lives (“Elevator doesn’t work? Unacceptable!”) is itself the problem. We are terrified of our vulnerability and impermanence and try to overcome it by increasing our power and efficiency. But in doing so, we lose connection to a deeper sense of ourselves. Our world, instead of a living presence, becomes an object to manipulate. You can get around if you are carried in a litter, or drive a car or plane but you are not going to make contact with the ground. It takes the fun out of things when you look at them merely instrumentally as we often do. The same thing applies to our own minds. If you give up striving, say these traditions, you’ll finally get to know yourself. Of course, the point is not to stop doing anything and drop dead. There is a middle way I suppose that steers between the extremes of asceticism and high-powered striving. So, yes, I’d like to live forever. But I shouldn’t allow my life to be driven by this wish.


(1)“Phenomenal states”, Philosophical Perspectives 4, Action Theory and Philosophy of Mind, pp. 81-108.
(2)“The Makropoulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.” In his Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956-1972. Cambridge University Press, 1973: 82-100.

image 01: Kati Balog
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image 03: Michael Sigrist
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image 05: Wikipedia
image 06: Science News Online
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image 08: Jolyon,
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Kris Notaro served as Managing Director of the IEET from 2012 to 2015. He is currently an IEET Rights of the Person Program Director. He earned his BS in Philosophy from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. He is currently the Bertrand Russell Society’s Vice-President for Website Technology. He has worked with the Bertrand Russell A/V Project at Central Connecticut State University, producing multimedia materials related to philosophy and ethics for classroom use. His major passions are in the technological advances in the areas of neuroscience, consciousness, brain, and mind.


Fantastic and mind bubbling stuff.  Thanks.

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