Zac’s disappearing nonconsciousness

Clive Wearing is a former musicologist and musician who has chronic amnesia, both anterograde and retrograde. He can’t form new memories or retrieve old ones. Although he is fully conscious, Clive lives trapped in a perpetual present, with no awareness of his own past (according to Wikipedia his episodic memory has a capacity of only 30 seconds). He continually feels that he has just emerged from a long period of unconsciousness, and in his diary he repeatedly affirms that he is now at last awake, scoring out earlier entries which affirmed the same and which now mean nothing to him:

8:31 AM: Now I am really, completely awake.
9:06 AM: Now I am perfectly, overwhelmingly awake.
9:34 AM: Now I am superlatively, actually awake.

Clive’s condition is a personal tragedy for him and his loved ones, but it is a also a fascinating psychological case study, and I want to take it as the basis for a philosophical thought experiment. I hope this does not suggest any disrespect to Clive or his family. I certainly intend none.

Clive suffers from what we might call disappearing consciousness. At every waking moment he is fully conscious, but those conscious moments rapidly pass into oblivion, and Clive’s conscious life has a brief temporal extension. We can imagine his memory span reducing further — to twenty seconds, ten, one, less — until his conscious life is the merest flicker in an otherwise dark existence.

I want to imagine someone who is the inverse of Clive — someone who suffers from disappearing nonconsciousness. Consider Zac. Zac has suffered an illness which has left him a zombie in the philosopher’s sense. His brain functions exactly as it did before, taking in the same range of sensory information and using it to produce responses just like those of a fully conscious person. He can give detailed reports on the world around him and his own bodily condition, noticing everything a fully conscious person would. However, his brain no longer produces any subjective experience — his mental states no longer have any phenomenal feel to them, no ‘what-it-is-likeness’. The inner light of phenomenal consciousness has gone out, and Zac experiences the world unconsciously. Given the standard way of thinking of consciousness, this should be at least conceivable.

There is a twist, however. Zac is not a complete zombie. Unlike other philosophical zombies, he is aware that he is not phenomenally conscious. So when he describes the visual scene before him, he adds that he isn’t really seeing it. He knows what the world is like, but his experience is not like anything. If zombies are conceivable, then a partial zombie like Zac should be, too. (I have borrowed the notion of a partial zombie from Allin Cottrell, who uses it to question the conceivability of zombies. See his excellent paper ‘Sniffing the Camembert’.)

Zac’s lack of phenomenal consciousness troubles him, and he repeatedly notes it in his diary. (He can write perfectly well, of course, and is aware of what he is writing, though the experience of writing is not like anything for him.)

8:31 AM: Now I am really, completely unconscious.

So Zac is unlike Clive in not being conscious. He is unlike Clive in another way, too. Whereas Clive’s brain fails to record memories of being conscious, Zac’s brain keeps fabricating them. When it forms episodic memories of scenes and events, it tags them as having been experienced in the normal way, just as they were before Zac’s illness. So although Zac experiences the world unconsciously, he remembers it has having been experienced consciously.

The upshot is that Zac suffers from the opposite delusion to Clive. Whereas Clive continually feels that he is waking up into consciousness and denies his past consciousness, so Zac continually feels that he losing consciousness and denies his past nonconsciousness:

8:31 AM: Now I am really, completely unconscious.
9:06 AM: Now I am totally, overwhelmingly unconscious.

9:34 AM: Now I am fully, actually unconscious.

And as the latency period between experience and memory shrinks, Zac’s sense of nonconsciousness shrinks too, until it is a mere flicker of darkness in an otherwise illuminated life.

What is the moral of this? The obvious one is that even if our experiences do have a subjective phenomenal feel to them, this feel may play little or no role in generating our sense of being conscious — of its being like something to be us. So maybe consciousness doesn’t have much to do with phenomenal feel after all.

Posted in Blog, Consciousness, Illusionism, Mind.

One Comment

  1. “…this feel may play little or no role in generating our sense of being conscious…”

    Your use of the words “feel” and “sense” within your syntax is a tautology. Furthermore, you are conflating the contents of the experience with what generates the experience; and they are not the same.

    “…maybe consciousness doesn’t have much to do with phenomenal feel after all.”

    Again; phenomenal feel is the content of the experience and content really doesn’t have anything to do with the mechanism that generates the experience let alone the definition of consciousness. Without a cogent, straight forward definition of consciousness, a definition that does not conflate the contents of the experience with what the experience actually is from a physics standpoint, you will have a satisfying career in academia debating these circular arguments.

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