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consciousness is like obscenity

November 19, 2014

Scientific American: “A True and Complete Account of the Neuroscience of Zombies” by Gareth Cook questioning that ZombieLaw favorite, the pre-eminent new UCSD assistant professor, Dr. Bradley Voytek, Ph.D.

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain” by Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek 

At first I didn’t think this article was particularly noteworthy. I’ve written about Voytek many times before and his new book doesn’t strike me as all that new. Perhaps being in Scientific American magazine is noteworthy enough, while we may worry about the quality of older institutional brands, this brand still holds wide popular credibility. Still, I might not have done more than retweet it (which I did yesterday morning) but then I read it and now I have to respond. He mentions the Supreme Court.

Wait what? Yes, he quotes Justice Potter Stewart’s cliched concurrence from Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). I mean it is a neuroscience book so I guess cliche is really all we can expect; as if the mind could be found in the material, ha! Nevertheless let’s examine Dr. Voytek’s usage of this particular legal cliche, shall we:

it’s quite difficult to define consciousness, but much like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s views on pornography, most of us, “know it when we see it,” and zombies ain’t it

Voytek is saying that consciousness is like obscenity (well, he says “pornography” but the actual Stewart opinion is about “hard-core pornography” and particularly about the legal notion of an obscenity exception to the First Amendment’s free speech freedom). So Voytek is saying of consciousness, “know it when you see it“.

This is interesting for at least two reasons. First because in the history of consciousness we have not been particularly good at knowing it when we see it (or not good at seeing it – more on this below). Second, in the context of the history of obscenity law, the court’s decision in Jacobellis (in which Stewart concurs) was that the allegedly pornographic film, Louis Malle’s 1958 “The Lovers“, was Constitutionally protected speech.

Justice Stewart’s concurrence is actually rather short, here in its entirety:


It is possible to read the Court’s opinion in Roth v. United States and Alberts v. California, 354 U.S. 476, in a variety of ways. In saying this, I imply no criticism of the Court, which, in those cases, was faced with the task of trying to define what may be indefinable. I have reached the conclusion, which I think is confirmed at least by negative implication in the Court’s decisions since Roth and Alberts, [n1] that, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. [n2] I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

1. Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago, 355 U.S. 35, reversing 244 F.2d 432; One, Incorporated, v. Olesen, 355 U.S. 371, reversing 241 F.2d 772; Sunshine Book Co. v. Summerfield, 355 U.S. 372, reversing 101 U.S.App.D.C. 358, 249 F.2d 114; Manual Enterprises v. Day, 370 U.S. 478 (opinion of HARLAN, J).

2. Cf. People v. Richmond County News, 9 N.Y.2d 578, 175 N.E.2d 681, 216 N.Y.S.2d 369.

Is Dr. Voytek saying something similar about consciousness, that it “may be indefinable” and perhaps we will “never succeed in intelligibly” defining it? Is that the defacto premise of neuroscience? It’s part of the material determinist philosophy. We’re just matter, responding to other matter. That “you”, you think you are, you’re just an emergent moment in a complex pattern of environmental system transactions.

Two years after Jacobellis the Supreme Court revisited obscenity law to further clarify obscenity law. In the case against “Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” by John Cleland, again the court upheld the First Amendment’s protections, and then again in creating the Miller Test.

Incidentally (and since I am plugging Voytek’s book I may as well plug mine) I almost included that case, Memoirs v. Massachusetts (1966), in my book collection: “Creativity in the Supreme Court” but I cut it for space constraints and because the word “creativity” only appears in an appendix not actually in the justice’s opinion.

But I’ve digressed, let’s now look away from the Court’s obscenity laws and consider Voytek’s use of the Stewart quote in context of the history of consciousness. Historically we have not actually been very good at knowing consciousness when it is before us. How long did it take to recognize that women and black people shared enlightened consciousness? What of animals, still so much modern disagreement about their consciousness. If our best neuroscientists can’t provide a definition of consciousness, how would we ever prove it for a chimpanzee? (see Nonhuman Rights Project)

Voytek is comfortable asserting that zombies lack consciousness. He invokes the classic p-zombie argument but later in the article references Haitian drugged zombie slave workers. Voytek is aware of the possible abuses of oppressed people. I’ve called him out for it before in reference to his cartoon zombie diagnosis and see “Oppression of the Neuroscientist“. This philosophy is inextricable from neuroscience philosophy. The possibility of a p-zombie, a person without consciousness, is a rhetorical and theoretical ground for neuroscientist investigation. Unfortunately, it risks making us all subhuman.

Like the unraveling of obscenity into community standards, neuroscience carves away at the practical possibility for defining consciousness as anything but signal firings. They insist on looking in the material and then are surprised they can’t find it there. Hint: it’s not in the brain.

Voytek’s reference to “Blade Runner” is well-placed. His praise of Harrison Ford’s performance is noteworthy because Ford plays it so stoic-straight. The performance more usually praised is Rutger Hauer’s emotional death scene where the audience sees the machine as conscious (“seen things you people wouldn’t believe”), the rain as tears, the dove offering the power of symbolic meaning. This challenges the audience to wonder if we are anything more than machines ourselves. And Deckard himself, portrayed in Ford’s sterile performance, is perhaps himself also a replicant that doesn’t know he’s a replicant.

“Blade Runner” director Ridley Scott directed “Thelma and Louise” and “Alien”, and so many other movies that explore similar themes of otherness. His upcoming movie “Exodus: God and Kings” hits theaters soon and is already blurring metaphors between Batman and Moses. These are stories of raising consciousness.

Consciousness is a frame of otherness, a way of respecting difference and the behaviors of the environment. What we feel in ourselves neuroscience considers a powerful illusion. We are not here. We are lagging behind, responding to bodily stimuli, looped through historical habits, in blooming fractal glory. For neuroscience, we are the dreaming zombies.

Only outside the sciences, in the humanities, can we become more fully human, but sadly, nobody knows which arts are the truly valuable arts or even what it might mean to have a greater consciousness (how can we quantify it if we can’t define it). So we keep falling back to the neuroscientists, but they will never be able to tell us; they’ll only know it after they see it. We need more consciousness studies of non-material reality to better define what we are looking for, but from a scientific community standard, any talk of the non-material may as well be obscene.


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