Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

All we zombies


When the French chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul, who discovered the margarine, received a pendulum as a gift in 1812, he was really surprised. As he was told, the pendulum worked as a detector of occult forces: it only oscillated when held in the air over water, metals or living things. When a different material was put between the pendulum and the metal, however, the oscillation ceased. He could verify it himself, holding the pendulum. It was not a fraud. It worked as magic

But Chevreul was a scientist, and he knew that it is not enough to eliminate the possibility that other people may deceive him. We also deceive ourselves.

Chevreul then conducted a series of experiments, among them the simplest of all, but that nobody had done until then. He simply blindfolded himself and asked another person to place and remove objects under the pendulum without his knowledge. All of a sudden, the pendulum stopped working as a magic detector of materials

Chevreul discovered the simple basic fact that he was indeed the one moving the pendulum and it only reflected his own knowledge. No magical forces included. 

On the other hand, Chevreul knew that he was not consciouly making those movements, which were nevertheless intelligent and coherent. His expectations were being transmitted to the pendulum unconsciously. This unusual effect would be called the ideomotor effect, and further study of it would prove even complex movements may be accomplished unconsciously.

In a previous post we saw how our own conscience and free will are not what they seem to be. That intelligent unconscious movements can emerge should not be surprising: it is the same that happens with our own conscience. The only difference is that such movements are not felt as being ours, they are not tagged by our conscience. 

Which brings us to the zombies.



Libet’s famous experiment on the free will evidenced that almost half a second before we feel we made a decision, our brain has already been taking steps in such direction, exhibiting the so-called “readiness potential”. Our free will, at least as the freedom of making decisions the moment we feel we made them, is an illusion.

But if the readiness potential already indicates that we will make a decision, couldn’t we create a machine to foresee our decisions before we feel we made them? 

Surprise: this has been already done, even before Libet’s famous experiment.

In 1963, William Grey Walter asked some subjects to control a slideshow with a button. What they didn’t know was that the button was not connected. What was connected were the sensors on their heads, measuring the readiness potential in their brains. As soon as the potential to press the button was detected, the slideshow went forward.

The result was reportedly bizarre. The subjects said that the slideshow seemed to predict their decisions. Amazingly, Walter created a precognitive machine more than forty years ago.

Though it may seem the easiest explanation, the experiments by Libet and Walter are not evidence of time travel: they are evidence of the illusion of our free will. Chevreul’s pendulum and all the other applications of the ideomotor effect are also evidence of the illusion of our consciouness: our unconscious may behave as a sentient being, fooling even ourselves. But it’s all on our own mind. The alien hand syndrome is one extreme demonstration of it.

Walter was also a pioneer of robotics, and his most famous robots were the “electronic tortoises” Elsie and Elmer. They were the first autonomous robots in history, half a century before the Roomba. Elsie and Elmer moved freely, without programmed paths, in search of light sources that indicated where they could recharge their batteries.

Given his studies of free will, it’s very relevant to note he described the electronic tortoises’ movements as showing signs of… free will.

Above: The movement of W. Grey Walter’s tortoises. 
Notice the arbitrary zig-zag. 

Which brings us finally to the point. If something acts exactly as if it has free will and consciousness, does it actually have free will and consciousness?

It is a philosophical question, and to some, the answer is no. Even if a robotic descendant of Walter’s electronic tortoises behaves exactly as a human being would, showing all of the responses suggesting conscience and free will, that would not mean that it actually has any of it. It would still lack something, maybe a soul, a spirit. Without them, it would be a philosophical zombie.

But the experiments and cases that we saw demonstrate that consciousness and free will are much more complex and hard to define than they look.

We don’t have to wait for a Terminator T-1000 model capable of befriending John Connor and saying “Hasta la vista, baby”, to finally question the popular (and even religious) ideas about consciousness, free will or even soul.

We already live every day with clear demonstrations that unconscious phenomena can have all the appearance of consciousness.

The thing that moved Chevreul’s pendulum was a philosophical zombie. And it lived inside his mind. What’s the difference between it and Chevreul? Play with the pendulum, and ask if you’re not a “zombie” yourself.

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Posted in Skepticism | 5 comments

5 Comments so far

  1. charles November 20th, 2007 10:33 am

    I got troubles with the “no free will” thing. I decide the course my life will run, no one else does. Completely on my own, I crafted excellent flutes from plumbers pipe, and still do. They are fine, beautiful and precise instruments.
    What “programming” caused Beethoven to make his works? He would say they were his own ideas, and to anyone familiar with his works or the works of any creative original, and there are many, they would have to agree.
    Most people find my works original, singular and creative. Any worthwhile and honest individual delving into the creative potential of the Cosmos and him/herself may yield completely singular and unique results not attributable to anyone else, as individual as a fingerprint.
    A theory of conciousness should include a cogent explanation for acts of creation initiated and executed by individuals, completely on their own and often diametrically opposed to common views and beliefs.
    The theory would have to explain why one would decide to give his life that others may survive, in spite of self survival programming.
    The theory falls short of explaining basic human qualities. For example how does this theory address Individual Accomplishment, driven totally by forces inside the individual?
    No effort has been made by this writer or any other writer that I have come across to explain how and why creatures who have no conciousness or free will can manifest individual works of Creation that change the World, and inspire, foster, and shelter the rest of us.

    God bless.

  2. Dennis Igou November 20th, 2007 6:00 pm

    Colin Wilson the mind parisites. Read it.

  3. Umbriel January 16th, 2008 10:03 pm

    The definition of “free will” is frequently a muddy one, and no less so in the context of these experiments. Does “free will” mean the capacity to make decisions entirely independent of outside stimuli? That seems more to me like “randomness” than free will. All human thought is the product of a convergence of current stimuli, accumulated memory, and the characteristics of the thought medium itself (whether you believe that that’s a purely material brain or a spirit-based consciousness or “soul”). Alteration of any or all of those factors, or “vectors” if you will, as they are effectively converging forces, may produce a different result in terms of the thoughts, decisions, and or actions of the subject.

    The fact that the decision process may not be instantaneous, but rather an extended chain of deliberation, does not, to my mind, “disprove” free will. It illustrates only that human perception of the world is not a pure experience of fact, but rather a convergence of numerous illusions — Our visual focus is physically rather narrow, but our brain assembles a mosaic of images into a panoramic vision of our surroundings. Our consciousness necessarily functions at a lag relative to the events surrounding us. What we think of as the present is actually always slightly in the past. So the fact that my “cognative footprint” — the interval that it takes to assess a situation and decide on a response to it — may be longer than I perceive of it as being, hardly seems to me to “disprove free will”. It does, on the other hand, vividly illustrate that the mind is a bigger and more complicated thing than we generally perceive of it as being.

    The question of consciousness in others is a more mysterious one though. Because, given our sensory and rational limitations, our own consciousness is perhaps the only thing we can be truly certain of (Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum”), we are prone to anthropomorphize — to assume the consciousness of — other things. In western culture, we typically rationally adjust that assumption in favor of creatures more like us, and against creatures less like us (as well as generally against inanimate objects), but that’s a process that can be adjusted by cultural influences and personal experience. We tend to assume, though, that the robot turtles are not conscious like ourselves, and that other humans are — even though those assumptions can never be confirmed with absolute certainty. As advancements in computing and robotics pose ever greater challenges to the Turing Test, we can expect deepening philosophical dilemmas in the future over how our consciousness biases should be resolved.

  4. [...] and how we think it is, emerging instead from a complex pattern of unconscious processes. Perhaps we all have many little people who doesn’t understand English inside our brains, and yet, our brain is fully capable of “understanding” Shakespeare?While the pioneers of [...]

  5. Joseph G. Mitzen February 26th, 2010 1:40 am

    Fantastic set of articles on free will. The only point I have an issue with is this one:

    “We already live every day with clear demonstrations that unconscious phenomena can have all the appearance of consciousness.
    The thing that moved Chevreul’s pendulum was a philosophical zombie. And it lived inside his mind. ”

    We don’t _know_ that what moved the pendulum was a philosophical zombie. Isn’t it possible that our “subconscious” is conscious, but separate and independent, and thus not experienced by us? You’ve shown that the brain can fill in details for us and create memories, as well as filter many out. Perhaps the thoughts of the subconscious are but one more set of things that are filtered away from our conscious experience.

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