The Philosophical Zombie

Can old bedraggled zombies reflect logically on their condition and calmly resign themselves to their fate? Perhaps, but that’s not what this post is about. In the study of consciousness, philosophical zombies were first described in a famous thought experiment by Australian philosopher David Chalmers. His discussion helps underscore the mysterious nature of qualia (the qualities of sensory experiences).

Chalmers proposed the zombie idea to highlight the Hard Problem of consciousness, the problem of understanding how conscious experiences result from (or are identical to) brain activities. A philosophical zombie is a hypothetical creature whose brain has precisely the same physical structures as ours and operates in the same ways that our brains do, but without consciousness.

Here’s an important point that is often overlooked: This creature would be conscious in the ways that psychology understands the structures, abilities, and functions of consciousness. “He will be awake, able to report the contents of his internal states, able to focus attention in various places, and so on.”* Furthermore a psychologist studying you and your zombie twin would discern no difference in behavior. But even though it would be conscious in a certain sense, it would lack conscious experiences. It would be utterly devoid of qualia, and it would never be in any state that is “like something.”

Thus, as Philip Goff notes, when it screams it is not in pain. “Its smiles are not accompanied by a feeling of pleasure. Its negotiation of its environment does not involve a visual/auditory experience of that environment.”**

Although zombies would have thoughts, these thoughts would not involve conscious perceptions or sensations. A zombie that is screaming might think, “I’m in pain!” but it would have no pain qualia, no conscious sensations of pain. This is an example of the important difference between aspects of consciousness that do and do not seem “present.” The philosophically puzzling states are the ones that seem thus-there-now, and zombies don’t have them.

I’ll allow a few days for comments about these hypothetical organisms, and then journey further into zombieland.

Roger Christan Schriner

*David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 95. Technical note: Chalmers was suggesting that there is an ontological gap between conscious experiences and brain states, not just the sort of epistemic gap that Joseph Levine has discussed. In other words, qualia and brain states don’t just seem different; they really are quite different. In this way Chalmers was following in the footsteps of Saul Kripke, whereas Levine was trying to avoid Kripke’s ontological conclusions.

**Philip Goff, “The Zombie Threat to a Science of Mind,” Philosophy Now, May/June, 2013: Goff provides an engaging and detailed explanation of the zombie problem, graced with charming color illustrations of non-philosophical zombies.


2 thoughts on “The Philosophical Zombie

  1. If I think about being in pain, I have no theory of pain unrelated to the actual quality of being in pain. If the zombie reports being in pain, it is massively mistaken – so much so that it seems hard to imagine its being able to report being in pain.
    The distinctiveness of qualitative experiences does not seem to be ontologically distinct – the organism doesn’t happily tick along in spite of qualitative distinctions.
    Can they reflect? Reflection seems to involve reference to a qualitative state (I know that the object of reflection is mine to reflect upon – it has my ‘thusness’) – a functionalization which the thought experiment seeks to militate against in the first place.
    The ontological gap seems small indeed.

  2. You wrote: “Reflection seems to involve reference to a qualitative state”. Yes indeed, and here’s a quote from my book, Your Living Mind. I note that a zombie twin of David Chalmers “might … wonder about his personal relationship to the mysteries of qualia. ‘Why do I keep blathering on about the inner light of consciousness, when I notice nothing like this in myself? And despite my proven intellectual prowess, why don’t I get the point of worries about bat-consciousness, the Hard Problem, phenomenal presence, inverted spectra, and the explanatory gap? I discuss these issues quite cogently, but I’m not sure why they matter.’”

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