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Have Zombie Aliens conquered the Universe?

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

From UKSRN member Matt Colborn:

Conscious beings are a problem. We’re not sure how they fit into our world-picture. John Seale, for example, claims it’s difficult to square our self-conception as purposeful agents with a universe of mindless fields and forces. In SETI’s Drake equation, meanwhile, intelligence is not currently defined with reference to consciousness.

Donald Griffin offers a useful distinction between awareness or perceptual consciousness and a more complex self-awareness of thoughts and feelings, that he terms reflective consciousness. Many animals seem to have awareness, and some, like chimps, probably possess reflective consciousness, but do aliens? One problem is that the nature of consciousness remains obscure.

David Chalmers’ ‘Hard Problem’ refers to the mystery of how information processing could give rise to subjective experience. ‘Why,’ Chalmers asks, ‘should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?’ He sees subjective experience as unfolding in parallel to the working of cognitive systems, and having no causal input.

This leads to the ‘Zombic Hunch,’ or the notion that you could have a human being who behaved exactly like any other person, but who lacked a ‘rich inner life.’ This idea has also featured in debates about Artificial Intelligence, where some have suggested that you could have machines that equal or exceed human intelligence, but who are not conscious.

This is where Zombie Aliens come in. If we accept Chalmers’ claim, then we can imagine aliens who also completely lack consciousness. So maybe there are civilisations out there whose inhabitants build cities, transmitters and even starships, but who do not feel, wonder, or reflect as we do. They would be ‘empty’ information processors.

But for humans, subjective yearnings and emotional needs seem a crucial SETI motivator. Would Zombie Aliens be interested in communicating?

Some researchers reject Chalmers’ scenario. Dan Dennett suggests that subjective experiences do not really exist in the way that we think, and that we only need a deeper understanding of brain function to explain consciousness.

Mary Midgley suggests that it’s very implausible to treat consciousness as an ‘isolated, mysterious problem’ or an ‘extra’ element. She thinks that this sort of idea – traditionally termed epiphenomenalism – is a bad one, because it makes it very difficult to see how consciousness fits into evolution.

She also suggests that we need to see consciousness as a matter of acting consciously, a unified process that depends upon our emotions and condition as thinking agents. She thinks it unlikely that in humans we can split ‘information processing’ from either subjectivity or emotion.

However this issue is resolved, it seems to me essential to see consciousness as a part of cosmic evolution, as much a part of the story as the Big Bang and the emergence of stars, planets, life and intelligence. This has implications for SETI, as consciousness may be a necessary precondition of contact. So I’m not expecting Zombie aliens to call anytime soon.

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