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The Zombie Preacher of Somerset

41 Post author: Yvain 28 March 2009 10:29PM

Related to: Zombies? Zombies!, Zombie Responses, Zombies: The Movie, The Apologist and the Revolutionary

All disabling accidents are tragic, but some are especially bitter. The high school sports star paralyzed in a car crash. The beautiful actress horribly disfigured in a fire. The pious preacher who loses his soul during a highway robbery.

As far as I know, this last one only happened once, but once was enough. Simon Browne was an early eighteenth century pastor of a large Dissident church. The community loved him for his deep faith and his remarkable intelligence, and his career seemed assured.

One fateful night in 1723, he was travelling from his birthplace in Somerset to his congregation in London when a highway robber accosted the coach carrying him and his friend. With quick reflexes and the element of surprise, Browne and his friend were able to disarm the startled highway robber and throw him to the ground. Browne tried to pin him down while the friend went for help, but in the heat of the moment he used excessive force and choked the man to death. This horrified the poor preacher, who was normally the sort never to hurt a fly.

Whether it was the shock, the guilt, or some unnoticed injury taken in the fight, something strange began to happen to Simon Browne. In his own words, he gradually became:

...perfectly empty of all thought, reflection, conscience, and consideration, entirely destitute of the knowledge of God and Christ, unable to look backward or forward, or inward or outward, having no conviction of sin or duty, no capacity of reviewing his conduct, and, in a word, without any principles of religion or even of reason, and without the common sentiments or affections of human nature, insensible even to the good things of life, incapable of tasting any present enjoyments, or expecting future ones...all body, without so much as the remembrance of the ruins of that mind I was once a tenant in...and the thinking being that was in me is, by a consumption continual, now wholly perished and come to nothing.

Simon Browne had become a p-zombie.

Needless to say, Browne's friends and congregation didn't believe him. Browne seemed as much in possession of his wits as ever. His writing, mostly on abstruse theological topics and ecumenialism, if anything accelerated. According to a friend:

What was most extraordinary in his case was this; that, excepting the single point I have mentioned, on which the distraction turned, his imagination was not only more lively, but his judgment was even improved. And it has been observed that, at the very time that he himself imagined he had no rational soul, he was so acute a disputant (his friends said) that he could reason as if he had two souls.

Despite everyone's insistence that he was fine, Simon Browne would have none of it. His soul had gone missing, and no one without a soul was qualified to lead a religious organization. Despite pleas to remain, he quit his job as pastor and retired to the country. After a brief period spent bemoaning his fate, he learned to take it in stride and began writing prodigously, authoring dictionaries, textbooks on grammars, essays on theology, and even several beautiful hymns still sung in churches today. Did his success convince him he was ensouled after all? No. He claimed:

...only an animal life, in common with brutes, so that though he retained the faculty of speaking in a manner that appeared rational to others, he had all the while no more notion of what he said than a parrot, being utterly divested of consciousness.

And, appreciating the absurdity of his conundrum, asked:

Who, by the most unreasonable and ill-founded conceit in the world, [could] have imagined that a thinking being could, for seven years together, live a stranger to its own powers, exercises, operations, and state?

Considering it pointless to exercise or to protect his own health, he died prematurely in his Somerset house in 1732. His friends mourned a potentially brilliant pastor driven to an early death by an inexplicable insanity.

But was his delusion really inexplicable?

David Berman is probably the top expert on the Simon Browne case, and the author of the only journal article dedicated specifically to the topic: Simon Browne: the soul-murdered theologian (other books that devote some space to Browne can be read here and here). I've been unable to access Berman's paper (if anyone can get it free, please send it to me) but I had the good fortune to be in his Philosophy of Mind class several years ago. If I remember correctly, Dr. Berman had a complex Freudian theory involving repression of erotic feelings. I don't remember enough to do it justice and I'm not going to try. But with all due respect to my former professor, I think he's barking up the wrong tree.

Simon Browne's problem seems strangely similar to neurological illness.

You remember anosognosia, when patients with left-arm paralysis thought their left arms were working just fine? Somatoparaphrenia is a closely related disorder. Your arm is working just fine, but you deny you have an arm at all. It must be someone else's. Some scientists link somatoparaphrenia to Body Integrity Identity Disorder, a condition in which people are desperate to amputate their working limbs for no apparent reason. BIID sufferers are sane enough to recognize that they do currently have a left arm, but it feels alien and unwelcome, and they want it gone.

(according to Wikipedia, one cure being investigated for BIID is squirting cold water in the patient's right ear...)

Somatoparaphrenia is an identity problem - people lose identity with their limbs. That arm might work, but it doesn't seem like it's working for me. Every other rational process remains intact in somatoparaphrenics. A somatoparaphrenic physicist could do quantum calculations while still insisting that someone else's leg was attached to his hip for some reason.

Cotard's Delusion is an even worse condition where the patient insists she is dead or nonexistent. Tantalizingly, patients with Cotard's occasionally use religious language, claiming to have been eternally damned or without a soul - a symptom shared by Simon Browne. Unlike anosognosia and somatoparaphrenia, it is not necessarily caused by stroke - all sorts of things, neurological or psychological, can bring it on. V. S. Ramachandran (yes, him again) theorizes that Cotard's may be a disconnect between certain recognition circuits and certain emotional circuits, preventing the patient from feeling an emotional connection with himself.

Browne reminds me also of "blindsight", the phenomenon where a patient is capable of seeing but not consciously aware of doing so. Ask a patient what she sees, and she'll swear she sees nothing - she is, after all, totally blind. Ask a patient to guess which of four quarters of the visual field a light is in, and she'll look at you like an idiot. How should she know? She's blind! Harass the patient until she finally guesses, and she'll get it right, at odds phenomenally greater than chance. Ask her how she knew, and she'll say it was a lucky guess.

Simon Browne sits somewhere in between all of these. Like the Cotard patient, he denied having a self, and considered himself eternally damned. Like the somatoparaphreniac, he completely lost identification with a certain part of himself (in this case, the mind!) and insisted it didn't exist while retaining the ability to use it and to reason accurately in other domains. And like the blindsight patient, he was able to process information at a level usually restricted to conscious experience without any awareness of doing so.

I don't know any diagnosis that exactly fits Browne's symptoms (Cotard's comes close but falls a little short). But the symptoms seem so reminiscent of neurological injury that I would be surprised if Dr. Berman's psychoanalysis was the full story.

So, what does Simon Browne add to the p-zombie debate?

Either nothing or everything. We can easily dismiss him as a complete nutcase, no more accurate in describing his mental states than a schizophrenic is accurate in describing his conversations with angels. Or we can come up with a neurological explanation in which he has conscious experience, but considers it alien to himself.

I acknowledge the possibility, but it rings hollow. Browne's friends were unanimous in describing him as rational and intelligent. And Browne himself was very clear that he had no mental experience whatsoever, not that he had some mental experience that didn't seem like his own.

But if we accepted Browne as mostly truthful, it demonstrates consciousness is not an inseparable byproduct of normal mental operation. It is possible to take consciousness, remove it, and have a p-zombie left. Not a perfect Chalmerian p-zombie - Browne made it very clear that he noticed and cared deeply about his loss of consciousness, and didn't go around claiming he was still fully aware or any nonsense like that - but a p-zombie nonetheless.

That is a heck of a conclusion to draw from one poorly studied case (there is rumored to be a second similar case, one Lewis Kennedy, but I can't find information on this one). However, Simon Browne at the very least deserves to be shelved alongside the other scarce and contradictory evidence on this topic. Let's give the poor preacher the last word:

God should still have left me the power of speech, [that] I may at last convince [you] that my case has not been a delusion of fancy, but the most tremendous reality.


Comments (31)

Comment author: infotropism 29 March 2009 05:52:05PM 4 points [-]

I may perhaps offer a bit of an idea about something that seems to be similar. We all have feelings, a certain way of apprehending our environment, especially people : other and ourselves. Also, all the stuff that makes us feel non negligible emotions. What you love, what you hate, etc.

The whole pattern of feelings, depicts a certain way it feels to be you, the definite, unique undertone, the certain "cachet", that your will attach to your experiences or observations.

I can remember certain phases of my life as having a certain undertone, as if, taking a whole slice of my life, it'd have such an undertone, and all particular experiences within, would each have their own "cachet". Then, a few years later, as I've changed, the whole undertone, the emotional drone in the back of my soul, has changed, and so has the particular cachet for for experiences.

Think of bits of my life as if they were objects, and each has its flavor, and that flavor has many subtle details, a pattern of smaller tastes woven together.

Here's the catch. At some point in your life, for reasons I won't explain here, that whole undertone, and the cachet, becomes a broken symphony. Then it crumbles, and you're just left with noise, a feeling of dullness, of segregation with life, people, and everything. As if a veil had been put between you and the whole world. Dulling colors, smells, beauty and ugliness alike. Making you feel like other people aren't as real as they used to be. Before, there was that spark of warmth, knowing and feeling in yourself, that you were speaking to another human being. Being there, living the experience, creating a bond, etc. All that, gone or dulled enough to make you feel the difference.

I've half jokingly posted about this already, as on the imminst forums. I didn't take it extra seriously. ( http://www.imminst.org/forum/index.php?showtopic=26513 )

But when I see just how it seems that people can't understand that someone who's rational, intelligent, and sounds healthy, might still feel pretty deadened inside, I think that I ought to at least try to pass on the idea of how it feels. Without engrossing it by resorting to zombie stories, but without leaving it out of the picture for others to see either.

I can't exactly point where the difference lies. I can't express it well. But when I compare my life now, and how it "feels", and my life before, the difference is striking. That's in having memories of a past where you have been otherwise, that you can compare, and spot the difference.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 28 March 2009 11:05:00PM *  14 points [-]

But if we accepted Browne as mostly truthful, it demonstrates consciousness is not an inseparable byproduct of normal mental operation. It is possible to take consciousness, remove it, and have a p-zombie left.

I think that if this happened, the p-zombie wouldn't claim to be a p-zombie. The p-zombie would claim to be just like you and me. So something different must have happened to Browne. (Also, he wasn't injured.)

I have the article. How can I send it to you?

Comment author: Yvain 28 March 2009 11:15:19PM 4 points [-]

Send to yvain314@hotmail.com , and thank you much.

Is there a word for a person without consciousness who functions perfectly normally except for correctly admitting he lacks consciousness? I thought p-zombie was broad enough to cover both that and Chalmers-type zombies.

Comment author: SilasBarta 11 June 2010 08:55:02PM 6 points [-]

Is there a word for a person without consciousness who functions perfectly normally except for correctly admitting he lacks consciousness?

Daniel Dennett

(Well, at least by the ordinary definition of consciousness, not the process he believes consciousness really is)

Comment author: loqi 28 March 2009 11:39:15PM *  6 points [-]

If such a word existed, what use would it be? The assumptions underlying these two types of zombie seem very different to me. The dualistic explanation of consciousness creates a necessary "observational barrier" between the mind and the brain. If this barrier didn't exist, the proposition wouldn't really be dualism, it would be "some as-yet-undiscovered physical law". So a zombie under this interpretation can't act any differently due to their zombieness, because doing so would violate the duality assumption.

Treating Browne as a zombie, it's clear that his lack of qualia carries over into the observable, empirical world in a systematic way, which seems to imply that we could in theory trace the neurological origin of his behavior and arrive at a purely materialistic explanation of "zombiehood".

Comment author: AndrewD 29 March 2009 10:45:36AM 2 points [-]

The problem being that its unclear that this materialistic notion of zombiehood does any justice to the Chalmerian notion of a zombie.

The notion that this could indeed qualify as a valid form of zombiehood arises if one views the priest's transformation as involving an absence of qualia; but there is no indication that the priest lacks qualia. The priest certainly appears to lack affect, but this is not the same as an absence of qualia. There are phenomenal properties associated with affective (emotional) states; but like all qualia, these would seem epiphenomenal, being neither necessary nor perhaps sufficient for the existence of affective states (which be characterised in (complex) functional terms).

To show that the priest was denuded of qualia, it would be necessary to show that, for example, when viewing a rose, the priest no longer had an occurent experience of phenomenal red. But, as noted by Andrew and Ciphergoth, if we assume a dualistic view of qualia, demonstrating this loss of qualia is just not possible. Zombies claim not to be zombies and therefore have no authority on their zombie-hood. By virtue of the same lack of empirical verifiability for zombie-hood, any claim by the priest to be a zombie would likewise lack authority.

An interesting further consequence is that, on some views (notably not the view taken by Chalmers), non-zombies (presumably, all of us) cannot authoritatively claim that they are actually conscious.

Comment author: Yvain 29 March 2009 03:19:24PM 11 points [-]

Part of the point I think Browne's case demonstrates is that most p-zombie discussions contains a false dichotomy between the materialist view that qualia are so tightly linked to normal human thought that it's impossible to have one without the other, and the epiphenomenalist view that qualia are so loosely linked to human thought that a human without qualia would be exactly the same.

Eliezer and the other materialists' attack on the epiphenomenalist position is that its assertion that humans would even talk about qualia if they lacked qualia is absurd. This is a good argument.

But Browne suggests a more middle-of-the-line position: that qualia are not necessary for normal human activity, but that it is still possible to notice their absence in exactly the way one would expect. This preserves the intuitive notion that qualia are different from simple processing, and lacks the vulnerability of Chalmers' theory.

Of course, it just makes what qualia actually are more mysterious than ever. But no one ever said that would be easy.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 29 March 2009 04:12:36AM 0 points [-]


Comment author: Annoyance 29 March 2009 05:58:11PM 0 points [-]

"Is there a word for a person without consciousness who functions perfectly normally except for correctly admitting he lacks consciousness?"

'Self-contradictory' is the word you're looking for.

Comment author: thomblake 02 April 2009 08:44:01PM 1 point [-]

I don't think 'Self-contradictory' properly identifies a class of people without consciousness. Its meaning is broader, at least.

Comment author: botogol 01 April 2009 12:46:42PM 3 points [-]

Browne's description of his own symptoms reminds me of interviews I have read and seen of Terry Pratchett talking about his early-onset dementia - particuarly this

It's unusual because people deal with me and they refuse to believe I have Alzheimer's because at the moment I can speak very coherently, I can plot a novel


Yvain, thanks for this - a fascinating case I hadn't read about before.

Comment author: Andrew 29 March 2009 08:19:43AM *  6 points [-]

I agree with your conclusion, but --

"...perfectly empty of all thought, reflection, conscience, and consideration, entirely destitute of the knowledge of God and Christ, unable to look backward or forward, or inward or outward..." (emph, added)

How does someone believe they are empty of all thought when they can't look inward? I smell a rat.

A zombie's behavior will be identical to that of a conscious counterpart; see "Zombies" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

Zombies are exactly like us in all physical respects but have no conscious experiences: by definition there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be a zombie. Yet zombies behave like us, and some even spend a lot of time discussing consciousness.

The "zombie" preacher clearly has some sort of psychological disorder, which is precisely your conclusion. Having a psychological disorder doesn't exclude him from being a zombie, of course -- if zombies are possible, it's possible that some of them have mental disorders, or even believe that they have problems with their consciousness -- but it sounds like in the first part of your essay you are trying to explain the preacher's condition with his decent into zombiehood.

There's no empirical way to determine whether someone is a zombie or not. That's the whole problem with zombies.

Comment author: cousin_it 29 March 2009 09:16:49AM *  1 point [-]

Thomas Ligotti's short horror story "The Shadow, The Darkness" describes a man becoming a p-zombie due to extreme pain caused by a stomach malady. He describes the transformation as losing his "fabricated personality" to become a "successful organism", and actually finds international success as a sculptor afterwards.

I believe the traditional mystical term for this experience is "ego death". Many seek it.

Comment author: Yvain 29 March 2009 03:25:09PM 3 points [-]

Without being an expert, I think ego-death is completely different. Something like an abolition of the desire to control and fit a narrative to experience, not an abolition of experience itself. And all the mystics say ego-death is followed by a superior form of experience, which clearly didn't happen to Browne.

Comment author: ciphergoth 29 March 2009 09:32:14AM 6 points [-]

Please stop this violence to the term "p-zombie"! p-zombies talk and behave just like the rest of us, and describe exactly the same consequences of introspection as the rest of us. You're talking about something much closer to a traditional zombie.

Comment author: aausch 29 March 2009 05:49:30PM 0 points [-]

Has anyone tried to map the preachers' behavior to the symptoms of clinical depression?

Comment author: gwern 03 April 2011 03:39:58PM 2 points [-]

I don't think that works; Yvain says Brown was even more productive and prolific and creative during his soul-murdered/depressed period.

Comment author: alexflint 21 December 2011 11:07:57PM 0 points [-]

Fascinating case Yvain, thank you for writing this up.

So, what does Simon Browne add to the p-zombie debate?

Perhaps this case provides additional evidence that against the existence of (true) p-zombies. If a physical alteration to our brain can remove our experience of qualia, then this suggests again that qualia are just a by-product of a particular mental circuit.

Comment author: HoverHell 19 December 2011 07:30:01AM 0 points [-]

The word “consciousness” is used for at least 5 somewhat distinct meanings (at least that much meanings I have ever used myself), so using it is an invitation for confusion (and I'm highly uncertain about trying to define it as well).