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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