Lisa: You did fix them, right Dad? Because even a single faulty unit could corrupt every other computer in the world.
Homer: That can’t be true, honey. If it were I’d be terrified.
I recently checked out some books from Oxford’s “A Very Short Introduction” series. I started with A Very Short Introduction to Economics but gave up about two thirds of the way through due to it being extremely boring. Next in the hopper was A Very Short Introduction to Consciousness by Susan Blackmore. This one was plenty interesting but it made me want to strangle Susan Blackmore on several occasions.
Her basic MO is to give a brief survey of various positions on an issue followed by a conclusion that most of the positions are stupid and unsupportable. From reading the book I gather that she is a follower of Dennett and Dawkins which takes the surprise out of the fact that she thinks consciousness is an “illusion” (or sometimes, “delusion”). The brilliance of this position, as she explains, is that it avoids the so-called “hard problem” (the problem of explaining how our peculiar experience of being conscious arises from physical processes) by denying that there is a problem in the first place. If our experience of being conscious is all a delusion then all there is to explain is why we are so deluded (which turns out to be pretty easy, you just talk about optical and cognitive illusions and viola!).
As alternatives to Blackmore’s Very Short Introduction I would recommend the SEP article on consciousness as well as the Dialogue article by the nacle’s very own Steven Peck. I found both to be excellent and informative.
All this reading got me thinking about the question of responsibility and how it relates to consciousness. We generally think of a conscious person as being alert and responsive with an unconscious person being the opposite: un-alert and unresponsive. But that’s not always the case. There are those who carry out complex actions (like driving or murdering people) while fully asleep. There are people who are fully conscious but who remain inert and unresponsive (just ask my kids about my wife when she is reading).
We can add to the mix the idea of the subconscious which does all sorts of nifty things without our being consciously aware of them. When someone asks who played Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski and I’m drawing a blank, I know that I can spawn off a background process to work on that question and within an hour it will come back with the answer. Sometimes the subconscious works on more complex problems that just brute-forcing the recall of a name. My manager at work routinely wakes up in the middle of the night with solutions to complex problems involving computer architecture. As Blackmore points out, these kinds of things call into question the supremacy of the conscious over the subconscious mind.
Couple all of this with this recent post over at the Garden of Forking Paths. Apparently some clever compatibilists want to convince me that our intuitions about free will and responsibility are perfectly compatible with determinism and it is only misconceptions about determinism that make people intuit that determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility. This made me curious about how people would answer the following question:
Would it change your view of a person’s moral responsibility for a crime if you could be sure that the person committed the crime while fully asleep?
It seems to me that the answer must be yes. How can we hold someone responsible for what they did while sleeping? I certainly don’t hold myself morally responsible for having sex outside of my marriage in my sleeping dreams. The obvious reasons are that (a) I believe I have control over what I do in my real life in a way that I don’t control what I dream about and (b) the consequences of extramarital affairs in my dreams are nothing when compared with the consequences that would result from a real-life affair.
In the case of a person who really kills someone while sleeping, the consequences are very real, but the argument that the sleeping person lacks control seems to hold. How can we account for this special status we give to conscious decisions? It is interesting to note that many of the mysterious and defining elements of consciousness are present in our dreams. While dreaming we have a unified, subjective, “phenomenal experience” that meets Nagel’s “what it’s like” test. It is hard to come up with what it is that distinguishes a dream experience from a waking experience. And yet, we feel that we control our waking decisions in a way that we cannot control our dreaming ones. (“Lucid dreaming” confirms this feeling that conscious control is usually missing from our dreams. Here is a good paper on lucid dreaming from the aforementioned Susan Blackmore.)
But again I ask, how can we account for this special status we give to conscious decisions? What is different about consciousness? From a compatibilist point of view, what basis exists for a distinction between a crime committed while asleep vs. waking? Both decisions were “up to us” in the compatibilist sense of being a result of our own mental processes. It seems that this is usually the only criteria compatibilists require in order to hold someone morally responsible.
That said, it’s not like this question is smooth sailing for the incompatibilist. The “ability to do otherwise” championed by LFWers as the principal enabler of moral responsibility doesn’t exactly solve the problem. From my perspective, the only thing I ever hold morally responsible is the conscious self itself. I can’t make sense of holding anything else morally responsible. An unconscious person is no more morally responsible than a car or a rock. For this to make sense it obviously requires that there is something special, something significantly different about a conscious self and a sleeping one. Figuring out the difference is taxing me, however. The usual distinctions between various kinds of materialism and various kids of dualism do not seem to help very much.