The purpose of this site is to prepare for the revolution that is happening in neuroscience. We will have to think of ourselves in a different way. With time to adjust, the change can be less frightening. So it is disappointing to me when someone makes the recent discoveries about the brain more rather than less frightening.
I have liked the things I have read that were written by Carl Zimmer, a very knowledgeable science writer. Imagine my surprise at his attitude to his unconscious mind. His article, ‘Could an Inner Zombie be Controlling your Brain’ in Discovery, is filled with what appears to be fear of his own mind. Of course, I shall continue to read him because he is a very good and interesting writer, someone not to be missed. Even what he writes in this article is interesting. It is only the way he presents the ideas that is disturbing.
First is a picture of a not too clean hand reaching out of what looks like compost and blindly trying to grasp something – not a very positive image. Next is the use of the word ‘zombie’ with all its negative connotations for all of our brain’s processes except consciousness. These could just be ways of grabbing attention. They are grabbing but definitely negative. He could also be alluding to a philosophical argument about zombies, but he does not mention the philosophical idea.
But then there is the language:
1. “Their research raised the disturbing possibility that much of what we think and do is thought and done by an unconscious part of the brain—an inner zombie.” Why should this be disturbing to us? Why is it presented as still just a possibility?
2. “Mounting evidence of our inner zombie at work has led some scientists to downplay the importance of our aware selves.” There does not seem to be any downplay of the importance of consciousness just a growing clarification of its role. It is very important but just not in the way people once thought.
3. “But don’t give up on consciousness just yet. A small but growing number of researchers are challenging some of the more extreme arguments supporting the primacy of the inner zombie.” This could imply that there is some sort of opposition between consciousness and rest of the mind. It sounds like the remains of some long dead Freudian model of mind.
4. “Brain scans also provide ammunition to beat back the zombies.” Now, we have the very negative vision of engaging in a war with our own minds.
5. “So we may have a mind that is capable of free will and awareness after all—it just needs a little help from its friendly neighborhood zombie.” I assume that we have a brain (one brain) and one of the functions of that brain is a mind (one mind) and that mind makes decisions. That mind is aware of some things (in many cases in is even aware of decisions). Whether our will is free of not is a different question. There is no reason to think that decisions that do not reach consciousness are any more or less free than those that do. Why the connection between consciousness and free will?
Let me say again (although I was disappointed in this article) Carl Zimmer is usually very worth reading.