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.

Opening a Window into Philosophy of Mind

No doubt there are still cocktail-party conversations about Descartes, Nietzsche, and Sartre, but I wonder how many Bordeaux-sipping intellectuals discuss Dretske, Nagel, and Kripke. The relationship between academic philosophy and the general public is nearly non-existent. Professors mostly speak to each other, in a technical language full of confusing terms with multiple definitions – “qualia,” “intentionality,” “representationalism,” “epiphenomenalism,” and so on. A few, such as Daniel Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey, have written for a wider audience, but most seem comfortable remaining within their own ivory towers.

I have been a member of the American Philosophical Association for nearly 25 years, reading books and professional journals and regularly attending conferences and colloquia. So I have spent years as the proverbial fly on the wall, listening to professorial interchanges within these lofty retreats. I am impressed with the need for competent philosophical analysis, and one of my life goals is to open a window into contemporary philosophy of mind for interested non-philosophers.

But I have sincerely wondered whether this is possible. When I tell people about my book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You, I cannot sum it up in a sound bite. In the book itself, it takes the Introduction and the first five chapters just to explain the key problems.

Last Sunday, however, I had a very encouraging experience. I presented Part One of a workshop called Your Mysterious Mind: New Insights into Baffling Enigmas at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. The program concludes with Part Two on February 15. About 35 showed up, an excellent turnout for an early Sunday afternoon program, and participants seemed interested and engaged.

It was especially heartening to see that some attendees had an intuitive feel for the problem of consciousness and its possible solutions. One person (“K”) dealt with Frank Jackson’s Mary-scenario by proposing what academicians call the ability hypothesis – after seeing colors for the first time, Mary acquires new abilities but does not acquire new facts. “M” suggested that sensory experiences are memories, perhaps implying that they involve cognitive responses to recent (not current) perceptual inputs. And “E,” who has a strong science background, wondered whether some consciousness-conundrums are merely pseudo-problems. I could imagine Daniel Dennett cheering her on: “Right! There isn’t any special Problem of Consciousness. There just seems to be.”

I’m under no illusions that conveying contemporary philosophy of mind will be easy, but I am now more hopeful that my project will make a positive difference.

Roger Christan Schriner