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Alexander Wilson: Exactly What a Zombie Would Say: An Ode to Disenchantment (Symposium: I U)

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

September: 23rd -- 10 am Pacific Time

Alexander Wilson

Exactly What a Zombie Would Say: An Ode to Disenchantment

As AI researchers begin to be duped into thinking that large language models are sentient, robots care for our sick and elderly, and lonely men marry their sex dolls, the time has come to redefine the Turing test not as a measure of machine intelligence, but as a measure of human gullibility. How easily we are fooled; all one needs to do is respond this way or that, sequence words or gestures such that they minimally surpass the remarkably low threshold of normative human disbelief. The lurking fear is that, just as your dog whimpers and pouts to get your table scraps, this is precisely what we humans have been doing all along: projecting various cues to each other that say “I am sentient”, “I feel”, “I am”. Is that not exactly what a zombie would say? Perhaps all language is reducible to this one message, surreptitiously smuggled and peddled in the black markets of semantics: like a pass-phrase that grants access to the human world. Indeed, it is as though all human activity piggybacks on this self-assertion of sentience. AI has merely learned the password. As such, it perhaps heralds the ultimate proletarianization, the final Copernican displacement, the last narcissistic wound.

We will contend that this deeply significant historical moment invites us to adopt a kind of methodological superficiality. As David Roden argues, much of phenomenology is “dark”, and introspection gives us very little grasp of what is going on. But there is also a sense in which its opposite, naturalism, materialism, or physicalism, is “dazzling”: the structures revealed by fundamental physics are blindingly bright, such that we cannot see what is right in front of us, nor accept the patterns at face value. Instead, we constantly demand explanations. We have wanted to know what is behind them. We have asked for causes, for purposes, for reasons. And philosophy has always provided both the questions and the answers, trading in a sort of hallucinated diversion from facticity. But as we approach what may be the horizon of history, demands for causes lose their meaning. Can we not see ourselves otherwise than through the lens of some mystical negative theology? Are humans really characterized by default of origin? Are situations necessarily subtracted from the multiple? Can we not be done with the Heideggerian musing that being is always eclipsed by existence? What if there is no fall from grace, no amnesia? What if there is no event or collapse?

In this talk—a critical celebration rather than a lamentation of this speculative state of affairs—we will outline what may be gleaned from assenting to both these realizations in tension: first, that there is no fire burning “behind” the glassy eyes of a human, no who “inside” the what; second, that there is no substance “beneath” the form, no being “beyond” the structure.

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Alexander Wilson (Canada, b. 1979) is a philosopher, filmmaker, musician, designer, general tinkerer, and former theater director and media artist. He is author of Aesthesis and Perceptronium: On the Entanglement of Sensation, Cognition, and Matter (University of Minnesota Press 2019). He lives and works off-grid, in the middle of nature, somewhere between the coast and the mountains of southwest Portugal.

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