Is a psychopath conscious?
First, what does it mean to be conscious?
Consciousness is our subjective experience. It’s the feeling of being inside your own head, looking out.
The philospher David Chalmers explores “the hard problem of consciousness, or, to use the kind of language that might give a neuroscientist an aneurysm, of having a soul.” So far, no one has been able to figure it out. It’s our normal way of being so most of us take it for granted and seldom think about it, but it is one of the greatest mysteries of human life.
Chalmers asks, ‘why should all our complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it?’ He theorizes that consciousness somehow falls outside the domain of the physical. That might seem believable to you, but these academics need evidence and proof.
Chalmers’ ideas come across as ‘wildly improbable’ to his colleagues, but he takes it in stride. At philosophy conferences, he is fond of climbing on stage to sing The Zombie Blues, a lament about the miseries of having no consciousness:
I act like you act,
I do what you do,
But I don’t know
What it’s like to be you,
Wouldn’t it be a drag to be a zombie?
Consciousness is what makes life worth living,
and I don’t even have that;
I’ve got the zombie blues.
That doesn’t sound ‘wildly improbable’ to me. As I read those lyrics, I thought of one thing: A psychopath.
I actually read the musings of a psychopath who wondered what the difference was between being alive and being dead. To me, the difference is clearly consciousness. There were no ‘blues’ involved in the psychopath’s musings. There was no sadness or suicidal ideation expressed — it was merely a question he or she pondered. Several others chimed in and said they often wondered the same thing. Psychopaths exist in a ‘zero state’ — emotionless, empty without feelings of despair, along with a chronic sense of bored restlessness.
“It would be poetic – albeit deeply frustrating – were it ultimately to prove that the one thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending is itself. An answer must be out there somewhere. And finding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else could ever matter more – since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a consequence of its impact on conscious brains.”
Nothing matters to psychopaths. Nothing has any inherent meaning, value, or worth to them, nor do they assign any. They live in a world of meaningless inanimate objects they care nothing about. Self-gratification is their only goal.
Is a psychopath conscious? They don’t seem ‘human’ because of their lack of emotion (and their bizarre way of thinking, as a result of that), so perhaps consciousness is what’s missing. And maybe consciousness arises from emotion, or emotion arises from consciousness. Because of our ability to feel emotion, we feel connected to others and to life, and they feel meaningful to us. The psychopath, on the other hand, feels no emotion, no connection, and no sense of meaning.
Chalmers stated, “Look, I’m not a zombie, and I pray that you’re not a zombie, but the point is that evolution could have produced zombies instead of conscious creatures – and it didn’t!”
Is that so?
“The zombie scenario goes as follows: Imagine that you have a doppelgänger. This person physically resembles you in every respect, and behaves identically to you; he or she holds conversations, eats and sleeps, looks happy or anxious precisely as you do. The sole difference is that the doppelgänger has no consciousness. This – as opposed to a groaning, blood-spattered walking corpse from a movie – is what philosophers mean by a ‘zombie.’ Such non-conscious humanoids don’t exist, of course.”
All quotes in this post are from The Guardian article, ‘Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?’ by Oliver Burkeman.
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