Zombies, Part 2: the Philosophical Undead

November 14, 2010 at 1:26 am (By Theo Boehm)

As a former musician, I’ve played in and heard quite a few concerts that could only be described as nights of the living dead. Most musical people have had this happen. I’ve been searching for something more on undead in music ever since, but it looks like the current fascination with Zombies has taken other turns.

But I still don’t have an answer to the social question of just what is it with Zombies lately?  And I don’t mean the LA Philharmonic. I’m wondering why all the pop culture Zombies, not to mention their appearance in otherwise serious philosophy and psychology?

Philosophical Zombies?

Not this guy, exactly. But from reports of his female students, close enough.

No, as I mentioned in the last post, I had my curiosity piqued the other day when I came across a survey of philosophers and students of philosophy on attitudes toward some of the basic, perennial questions. This was done by philpapers, a site for “online research in philosophy,” as it’s titled. The homepage of the survey is here.

In any event, the following question appeared at the end of the survey:

Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?

  • Accept or lean toward: conceivable but not metaphysically possible 331 / 931 (35.5%)
  • Other 234 / 931 (25.1%)
  • Accept or lean toward: metaphysically possible 217 / 931 (23.3%)
  • Accept or lean toward: inconceivable 149 / 931 (16%)

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

This is a question in a respectable academic survey?

It seems so.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has the following:

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. This disconcerting fantasy helps to make the problem of phenomenal consciousness vivid, especially as a problem for physicalism.

Few people think zombies actually exist. But many hold they are at least conceivable, and some that they are ‘logically’ or ‘metaphysically’ possible. It is argued that if zombies are so much as a bare possibility, then physicalism is false and some kind of dualism must be accepted. For many philosophers that is the chief importance of the zombie idea. But the idea is also of interest for its presuppositions about the nature of consciousness and how the physical and the phenomenal are related. Use of the zombie idea against physicalism also raises more general questions about relations between imaginability, conceivability, and possibility. Finally, zombies raise epistemological difficulties: they reinstate the ‘other minds’ problem.

Wow. I had no idea. It looks like philosophy of the mind has made something of a comeback, modern philosophers having realized that devising logical ways to stop the asking of hard questions, or proving in a really deep way that 1+1=2 are at a dead end, so to speak. Neither Ludwig Wittgenstein nor Lord Russell have been seen wandering in from the graveyard lately, but at least Wittgenstein had a bit of practice looking the part before he actually took up residence there.

Sartre, despite his philosophical and literary protestations, was, from all reports, a fairly good candidate for undead status himself.  He seems to have been more concerned with the effects than the cause of consciousness and/or mind.  And I’m not going to say anything about his personal life, which, if I did, would be the biggest clue about his having fooled everybody into thinking he was alive.   Further, as a matter of taste, I much prefer Zombies to rocks if we have to pick models for nobody being home.

The question remains, however, not when or if philosophers became Zombies, but when did Zombies become philosophical? It seems their earliest mention in the literature was in Robert Kirk’s “Zombies vs. Materialists” in Mind in 1974. It figures. It was the 70’s. After that, philosophers began to use the example of Zombies in the 90’s, and there have been dozens of papers since, not to mention things like a Symposium on “Conversations with zombies” in 1995.

One of the leading lights of current philosophical Zombiedom is David Chalmers, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University. He’s a charming guy and a terrific writer. He has written the best general introduction to philosophical Zombies on the web. He also provides plenty of links, although many are getting tattered lately. One of the best is this amusing summary of Zombie-based papers back in the ’90’s.

I could go on, quoting and rehearsing various positions taken and conclusions reached, but I think the best introduction to philosophical Zombies is the following cartoon, which pretty much lays it out, and saves me the trouble of writing any more about modern philosophers, not to mention dusty old types such as Descartes and the Buddha, who were known to have a few things to say about this, tedious as they can be when read online.


  1. amba12 said,

    This is awesome. I’m sending it to my dualist friend, who I think is friends with Chalmers, or at least admires him.

  2. realpc said,

    Anyone who believes the universe is alive and conscious could never believe any of this. I never believed it. We have never seen any example of an autonomous being who lacks consciousness. Even one-celled creatures are probably conscious, according to holistic philosophy. Even sub-atomic particles.

    Philosophers have been stuck under the spell of materialism for centuries, and dualism doesn’t make sense.

    One question we should always ask philosophers is “Where is your evidence?” Of course they won’t be able to answer.

  3. Theo Boehm said,

    One of the reasons I put this and similar posts up is to demonstrate to realpc’s critics that she takes a perfectly respectable philosophical position with roots in Western thought at least as old as Plato, and which is central to Vedantic and Buddhist philosophy.

    Realpc, if I understand her correctly, holds to a rather pure monistic idealism. That is, that consciousness, not matter, is the ground of all being. It is monistic, because it holds that the universe consists of only one thing, and that thing is consciousness. All else that we perceive is illusion. We may be able to understand the seeming rules of the behavior of apparent matter, and achieve great mastery over the physical universe as we experience it, but it all is, at bottom, illusory. We deceive ourselves thinking that matter and thought are separate things.

    This is, as I say, a very respectable and ancient philosophical tradition. It appears, from the results of the survey I mentioned, that a number of the philosophers polled hold to it as well. They don’t seem to be many, but considering the formerly dominant philosophical traditions I made fun of, it’s nice to see this strain of thought has not been erased completely from the face of academia. I would only suggest to everyone that some exploration of the links in the post will reveal the richness and diversity of opinion about consciousness and mind that seems to have sprung up in modern philosophy. I regard this as a very good thing, even if some think that most of the philosophers involved are completely wrong.

    Also, it seems fairly obvious that Zombie thought-experiments could be used both to bolster and argue against idealism. Those philosophers who hold that Zombies are metaphysically impossible may do so from several different fundamental positions. One, a version of the materialist argument, would be that sufficient complexity produces consciousness, and any Zombie who would be functional enough to do the things Zombies are supposed to do, would necessarily have to be conscious. My rejoinder to this would be to ask, if that’s true, what then would it be like to be a Chevrolet? Is that not sufficiently complex? (I know most people would hold out to be a BMW, but you can’t choose your parents.)

    Certain idealists could argue similarly that it would be impossible for a non-conscious Zombie to exist. But in this case, the reasoning might be that, because all is immaterial and consciousness pervades everything, a functional human-like Zombie would, of needs, have to be conscious, as badly in need of a bath and some Bondo (to hold to our Chevrolet analogy) as he or she might seem to be.

    Where Zombies get interesting is wandering around in the center divider between these east- and westbound lanes of the Metaphysical Expressway. But, personally, I’m not going to go there, because all I can do is bumble along in the breakdown lane. I have had my own spiritual experiences that incline me to take the Idealistic Cutoff. But, frankly, I don’t know where to go, except to stay out of the way of fast BMW’s.

  4. Icepick said,

    The last panel reminds me of my favorite line from T-Rex: “You’re made of meat. Your whole family is made of meat!” Pretty funny coming from a T-Rex! I’ve even got the t-shirt.

    And Russell had excellent reasons for his deep proof of 1 + 1 = 2. His push for a rigid formalism helped to rework the foundations of mathematics. And that helped lead the way to Godel and his astonishing results. Even the abstract realms of mathematics have their limits! Between Godel and Heisenberg we know that we can’t possibly know everything – that’s just the way the Universe is made.

    It all makes me nostalgic for graduate school.

  5. realpc said,


    Thank you for explaining why my position (and possibly yours) is respectable! It has just gone out of style for a few centuries. Because I wanted to understand the philosophical argument for zombies, I became very interested in the subject of artificial intelligence years ago. I even went so far as to get a PhD in a branch of cognitive science– all because I wanted to know if machines can ever become autonomous agents (with or without “consciousness,” whatever that is).

    The short answer is “No, machines cannot ever become autonomous agents.” But that answer comes from me and my years of studying the subject. To have any chance of believing me, you would need to hear my explanation.

    For the time being, I will just point out that we have no example of a man-made machine that is an autonomous agent. We have no example of that anywhere in sight, and AI research is not getting any closer to it, in spite of decades of effort.

    So I can spare you the details, and you can believe me about this because you can take a look at the history of AI. I have many good reasons, I think, for saying true AI is impossible. But for now, let’s just admit there is a complete lack of evidence showing it is possible. Believing in true AI requires blind materialist faith.

    And Theo, I think maybe you might like Rupert Sheldrake’s book A New Science of Life. He ties Platonic Idealism together with modern science in a wonderfully logical and sensible way.

  6. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    For the time being, I will just point out that we have no example of a man-made machine that is an autonomous agent. We have no example of that anywhere in sight, and AI research is not getting any closer to it, in spite of decades of effort.

    Hmmm. How would you distinguish an autonomous agent from the other kind?

  7. reakpc said,

    “How would you distinguish an autonomous agent from the other kind?”

    If you want to find out if something has real intelligence, from the human perspective, you can use the Turing Test. Then considering that nothing ever comes close to passing it, you can admit that as of now man-made autonomous agents do not exist.

    Science fiction writers can speculate (often wrongly) about the future, but scientists should try to avoid confusing speculation with fact.

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