Phenomenological Psychology

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Is It Possible for a Zombie to Have Borderline Personality Disorder? How about a Brain in a Vat?

June 5th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

Zombies and brains in vats are philosophical constructs.  While they don’t exist in real life they allow us to push theories to their explanatory limits.  They permit this because they are extreme examples of what would have to be the case if a given theory was true.  In this mode of inquiry I started wondering if it’s possible for zombies and brains in vats to have borderline personality disorder (“BPD”).

Zombies are just like us physically.  They have brains and are capable of intentionally-directed behavior.  They do not however have conscious experience.  BPD (DSM 301.83) primarily is a condition of emotional lability.  To have emotions one must be connected to a somatic network.  In Looking for Spinoza (2003) Antonio Damasio hypothesized there are two such networks: one conscious and the other non-conscious.  The former is responsible for reasoned decision making and rational judgment.  The latter is responsible for visceral, intuitive responses.  Emotions are the outcome of activity in either or both pathways.  The neural pathway for the latter frequently reaches the amygdala first however the former frequently mediates the latter.  In fact according to Damasio one can “have” an emotion only after one identifies or names the outcome of the former; in the final analysis, emotion and feelings must be considered as the residue or precipitate of a cognitive process.

Under this definition zombies fall short of being able to have BPD.  Certainly they have emotions in Damasio’s latter “reactive” sense.  They can conceive intentional tasks or objectives and respond when they are not accomplished.  Their moods fluctuate according to the same factors that govern the rest of us.  They are not able however to identify or name their emotions because they lack higher-order, self-reflective conscious processing ability.  According to Damasio this is a condition precedent to being able to have an emotion.  They “lack personality” so they can’t have BPD.

Even if they could it should be noted that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) would be useless for the zombie.  The main tenet of CBT is that thinking precedes emotions and behavior.  If the zombie is incapable of reflective, insightful thinking then there is no way it will be able to modulate its emotions or restructure its behavior.  CBT will be ineffective.

Let’s turn to the case of brains in vats.  Unlike the zombie, the brain in a vat is somatically deprived.  It is not embodied.  It is capable of having cognitions and most likely capable of self-conscious reflection in a way that the zombie is not.  However by definition it is not capable of engaging in behavior since it has no body to behave with.  If Damasio is right it also is incapable of having an emotion since emotions arise in the body.  There is one neural network that processes them cognitively and another that processes them automatically.  The brain in the vat might be capable of having an emotion under the former, but not by way of the latter, which stipulates that emotions are not the outcome of conscious thought.

It also is unlikely that CBT would be of much use to a brain in a vat.  The brain in a vat would be capable of the thinking part of the equation and possibly using that thinking to regulate emotional activity, to the extent the emotional activity is somatically independent.  It would not however be capable of engaging in behavior since it doesn’t have a body to behave with.

Understood as characterizations on either side of the argument, both the zombie and the brain in a vat raise significant doubts about the efficacy of CBT for a condition such as BPD.


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