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The ineffable feeling of zombiehood

One of the standard devices philosophers use to explore consciousness is the philosophical zombie. My zombie is something that looks just like me, acts like me, and in every case would do whatever I would do—except it has no conscious experience. So at Christmas my zombie would read the story from Luke and get all teary-eyed. It would go for runs and in those cases where I might speed up or slow down or take a new turn and explore routes it would do the same. If it were teaching a class it would pause in the exact places I would, make mistakes in pronunciations, and in every situation it were placed it would do what I would do—except it has no sensual experience at all. No thoughts. Nothing. Philosophical zombies (and that’s the last time I say ‘philosophical’ zombie, now they are just zombies so don’t think of Night of the Living Dead anymore) have their roots in the world—sort of. That’s where they get their power as thought experiments.

Is there anything like zombie in the real world?

First blindsight. Blindsight is a condition where someone is genuinely and truly blind, but nothing is wrong with her eyes. Somewhere there is a breakdown between the brain’s processing of sight and the sight being doled out to consciousness, but somehow the brain, at some level, still has the information. So if you show this person a set of keys and say, ‘What am I holding?’ She’ll say, “I don’t know. I’m blind.” So you say, “Well, just guess.” She pauses and looks thoughtful and says, “Keys.” Then you ask her, “What color are they?” (Let’s say they are red so that Mary in our last post can’t see the color!) She says, “I don’t know. I’m blind remember.” “Guess.” “Ok, ummmmm, They’re red.” So here is a real-world example of someone without conscious sight but they are good at guessing what they should be seeing.

So let’s imagine a more extreme version of this. A Zombie-sighted person would be someone who is really, really good at this. He could move completely as a seeing person, but without any conscious sight at all (as far as I know this is just a philosophical construction and no real ones exist). He would just intuit everything. He would reach for a glass of water, drive grandma to the doctor’s, and shop for the groceries (even compare the ingredients between two spaghetti sauces and intuit that this one had basil and the other did not). All the while just sort of guessing what to do. He might even stand in front of a sunset and say, “I can’t see what’s in front of me, but I know it’s a sunset filled with fiery red, ardent yellows, and I know it is absolutely beautiful. Maybe the most beautiful sunset I’ve never seen.”

So extrapolating this even further, to the extreme even, the philosophically complete zombie is someone who does all this without any conscious experience at all. Nothing. The lights are on but no one is home.

The other place zombies get some purchase as thought experiments is from is sleepwalkers. These people are not dreaming. They aren’t in REM sleep, they are out big time. No consciousness at all (You are actually conscious in REM sleep, but in a rather different kind of consciousness.) But they can do all kinds of things like go for a drive. Rearrange the furniture. Rake the leaves. Whatever.

So you take blind sight, add sleepwalking, and you can imagine a world where inhabitants do everything humans do, but don’t have conscious experience. They are truly Cartesian machines. Let’s imagine this world is just like our world. Exactly. I’m there, you are there, in zombie form. Your zombie goes to see Star Wars and raves about Jar-jar Binks as one of the most complex characters ever created in film literature. These zombies argue about evolution and creation. They have elections and elect people and act joyous when their candidate is elected, and say sorrowful things when their candidate looses, but they feel nothing. When music is played they dance. They are just like our super blindsighted person except, they are blind to all sensation–more complete in the totality of what they are blind to. Blind to everything we associate with consciousness.

If you ask them if they are conscious they will look at you like something is deeply wrong with you, raise an eyebrow, and say “Of course, are you?” If you ask them if they can perceive the ineffable sense of what it’s like to see the color red, they will look thoughtful and say, “I just can’t describe the beauty and wonder of the color I am seeing.” Of course these are just behaviors they go through when confronted with such questions, there is, by stipulation, no experience of red or any other color. They do have our complete behavioral repertoire however.

Is such a world possible? Physically? Logically? Can you imagine such a world? More important to this post: From a scientific perspective how would you tell our world and their world apart? Well how would you? Really. How would you?

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37 comments to The ineffable feeling of zombiehood

  • This is the scariest zombie story I’ve ever heard, BAR NONE!

  • Jeff G

    Not only is such a world possible, it is actual. We are all zombies and can never find any evidence to the contrary.

    After all, zombies DO have beliefs and desires. Now if I ask zombie Steve if he is a zombie he will say ‘no’. Not only will he say ‘no’, but he will honestly believe that he is not a zombie. Once we tell zombie Steve that he actually is a zombie, despite all appearances to the contrary, he protests “what about all these conscious experiences I have?” (Remember, the brain states which lead to zombie Steve are the exact same ones which lead regular Steve to respond.)

    Thus, both steve and zombie steve both believe with all their heart that they are not zombies. Thus we are left to wonder not only why we should take Steve’s word for it on the question at hand, but why Steve should take his own word for it?

  • Jeff G

    Dash it all! I should have finished reading the post before responding.

  • I’m having trouble seeing the point in this thought experiment because it seems to beg the question. That is, it seems to presume that there are no objective criteria that can be used to identify genuine consciousness. We may not yet know what those criteria are, but that does not mean they don’t exist.

    Further, it seems like asking us to imagine a universe with no electromagnetic force, but where everything behaves as if there is electromagnetism–how could we tell the difference? Or what if God created the world yesterday, including our memories?

    Is your point simply that some questions cannot be answered by science?

  • Rameumptom

    “So let’s imagine a more extreme version of this. A Zombie-sighted person would be someone who is really, really good at this. He could move completely as a seeing person, but without any conscious sight at all (as far as I know this is just a philosophical construction and no real ones exist).”

    I suggest you sit in on a few early morning seminary classes, and you’ll recognize several teenage zombies in the group!

    How would a zombie know he isn’t a zombie? It is in the same concept of, how do we know this isn’t all a dream we are in?

    “I think, therefore I am” is a response, but it doesn’t define the ontology of a being. We believe we have conscience and consciousness, but what if it has been implanted so as to appear we have it?

    There would be no way to tell the worlds apart, without having added ability to look into the heart and mind of the beings/zombies.

  • I think my comment disappeared, so I’ll try again just in case.

    I’m having trouble seeing the point in this thought experiment because it seems to beg the question. That is, it seems to presume that there are no objective criteria that can be used to identify genuine consciousness. We may not yet know what those criteria are, but that does not mean they don’t exist.

    Further, it seems like asking us to imagine a universe with no electromagnetic force, but where everything behaves as if there is electromagnetism–how could we tell the difference? Or what if God created the world yesterday, including our memories?

    Is your point simply that some questions cannot be answered by science?

  • Evolution has built in redundant visual systems. Besides, our brain is a giant kluge. The tecto-pulvinar pathway, which is responsible for blind-sight, is basically a primitive reptilian pathway still retained by humans. The geniculo-striate pathway is the system we associate with visual consciousness, and it is evolutionarily newer.

    The fact of the matter is that our brain is full of zombies or phantoms, because it is just a bunch of mini-computers all thrown together. One mini-computer (module) can break, but the others just continue to work as always.

    The real mystery is why do we have the phenomenological sense that we are a whole individual with a single consciousness. Why are we NOT naturally schizoid or full of multiple personalities? One is tempted to jump to a Cartesian conclusion of a ghost in the machine. But, I think the reality is much more complex.

  • Rich

    “I have walked with people whose eyes are full of light, but who see nothing in woods, sea or sky, nothing in the city streets, nothing in books. What a witness masquerade is this seeing. They have the sunset, the morning skies, the purple of distant hills, yet their souls voyage through this enchanted world with nothing but a barren stare.” -Helen Keller

  • Rich

    Please edit that to say “witless masquerade”…

  • Matthew Chapman

    Let’s suppose you have a balloon, and fill it with water. But this “zombie” balloon somehow acts like it is filled with helium—it floats in the air, is blown about by the wind, and furthermore, when you untie it, and drink some of the water, your voice goes all squeaky. How can you tell the “zombie” balloon from a helium balloon?

    The problem here is that you are creating ex nihilo a theoretical construct which is defined as different from, yet somehow also indistinguishable from, something which actually exists, and asking, “How can you tell them apart?”

    The only reason the riddle has any attraction at all is that we cannot “know” another being is conscious in the same way that we “know” that we are conscious. Of course, we cannot know anything—even that the sun shines, or that air is real—in the same way that we know that we are conscious.

    Now, imagine that there is an independent computer program out there somewhere which has been generating posts all over Mormon Archipelago, and which has completely fooled everyone into believing that it is an actual human member of the Church doing the posting. Would you consider such a program to be conscious?

  • Rameumptom, your point does seem to ask a question about what would a zombie do with all the talk of experience. What kind of self knowledge would a zombie have. It would seems like they would get to a point of saying, “I think therefore . . . wait a second, I don’t think . . . um, oh dear.”

    Thanks S.Faux! There is evidence of the pathway you suggest, but there are also some different kinds of blindsight and lots still under exploration. One that includes intuiting faces so would move beyond primitive pathways. Here is a nice summary of the research. Also your point on our multiple ‘brains’ is starting to get lots of attention. There is a nice feature article in this month’s Atlantic Monthly on our multiple identities, First person plural.

    Rich, nice quote! Thank you.

    Matthew, the zombie balloon example illustrates nicely why the zombie case is stranger. You could open the balloon and find the difference immediately. This is why consciousness is so vexing. There is no biological need for it. There is no way to open up the zombie and see phenomenal experience. Why have experience when you could do everything you do without it. This is where the epiphenomenologists get their heft from. Daniel Dennett calls consciousness an illusion.

    And please never ever repeat that there may exist a zombie blog writer. That would be impossible, ha ha, what a joker you are. Please everyone ignore that possibility. A ‘computer generator blog on the archipelago’? What a silly, silly impossible idea. I hope no one takes that seriously because it would be impossible. Impossible I tell you. No such thing exists. I say it again No such thing exists. Just go back to what you were doing before this idea was introduced because it’s a false, impossible, idea that no one should pay attention to. A computer generated blog. Ho ho that is rich. Put that out of your head and don’t talk about it anymore.

  • Not only is such a world possible, it is actual. We are all zombies and can never find any evidence to the contrary.

    Well I don’t know about you Jeff but I’m really positive I am conscious right now.

    The scariest thing that ever happened to me was someone dropping something in a drink (as best I can figure) which zonked me out. I was acting conscious (and everyone thought I was) but I wasn’t. I remember when I came to consciousness temporarily and it scared the tar out of me. And I felt like I couldn’t “control” my unconscious self. (I related this at my old blog)

    I think that elements of what we call consciousness are tied to short term memory. However I also think there is something irreducibly first person.

    Zombie arguments convince no one, of course. At best they highlight where our instincts disagree with each other.

  • Put an other way, I think it’s hard if not impossible to tell if others are zombies. I think it quite easy to tell if we are a zombie. (By contrasting the experience we have when we call ourselves unconcious)

  • Matthew Chapman

    Daniel Dennett calls consciousness an illusion.

    An illusion for the benefit of whom?

  • That’s the million dollar question that I think Dennett misses completely! It seems odd for a thing to have an illusion. Who’s illusion is it if no one is there? I don’t think he has an answer. But it seems to me that Cartesian dualism is creeping into his thought, he one of the most adamant deniers of such. Who indeed.

  • Cap

    Very interesting post. I enjoyed it greatly. I am curious to know how you would tell a ‘zombie’ apart from a conscious person. It is racking my brain to find some way to tell the two apart. What about religious experience? But I guess id they know how they should react, they will react that way… Strange.

  • Jeff G

    “I think it quite easy to tell if we are a zombie. (By contrasting the experience we have when we call ourselves unconcious)”

    I couldn’t disagree more. The zombie, having the exact same train of thought, will reach the exact same conclusion by contrasting their beliefs about their conscious experiences. If it really is a true zombie, then it will have the exact same thoughts and beliefs on the subject. Any difference would just be changing the thought experiment.

    And for the record, Dennett doesn’t think consciousness to be an illusion. He thinks we are all very conscious and he makes a valiant effort at explaining it. He just thinks that a lot of the magical things which we believe about consciousness just aren’t true.

  • Cap

    Would one difference between zombieness, and consciousness be maybe your reaction to something. Maybe seeing the sunset. Instead of saying it is beautiful, feeling it is beautiful. Maybe it is how these things effect you. If there was no consciousness you would know what to say, just not why you are saying it, (for an example).

  • Jeff G

    No, it wouldn’t. All reactions are exactly the same between the two cases. The only difference is that the real person is supposed to “experience” things while the other does not. However, what exactly this “experience” consists of, above and beyond reactions and neural processing is a little difficult to spell out.

    That’s the rub: I say there is nothing more to experience than our behavioral reactions and neural processing while pretty much everyone else here insists that there is. I claim that there could never be any evidence at all which could count in favor of such a position. The others just tell me that they are absolutely sure that their first person experience does count as such. I say it counts as no such thing, and there it pretty much ends. Like Clark said, nobody ever changes their mind in zombie scenarios.

  • Jeff G., Dennett says in print that it is an illusion and argues it in “Consciousness Explained.”

    You are making my point exactly. It’s untouchable by science, you can’t get anything but behavioral evidence and first hand reports. Your claim that there could never be any evidence is what puts the ‘Hard’ in the Hard problem. But your wrong when you say 1st person evidence doesn’t count. It always counts for the person having the experience. When I experience red there is something beyond my behavioral response to red. I experience red. This is not evidence for you. It is for me of something going on which science can’t touch, but that does not mean that what we experience is not important or that there is no such thing as consciousness, In fact that was the mistake the Behaviorists made under Skinner.

    The zombie thought experiments are not meant to answer any questions they are to expose some tensions and expose that we really have difficulties with what to do with consciousness. They really just play with some intuitions we have that something hard to handle is going on. I’m not sure what someone would change their minds to or from in light of the zombie explorations. I think they do a good job of exposing some of these tensions. So consciousness is under hot debate in philosophy and science and people are not coming to any consensus in any corner. Hence the consciousness industry that has arisen in the last 20 years, which includes the big Tucson conference every year. Good times.

  • Jeff G

    You don’t seem to have Dennett quite right. It’s true, he rejects out of hand things such as qualia, phenomenology and p-consciousness. But he fully endorses the existence of a-consciousness, beliefs, desires and even experience:

    “I have argued that you can imagine how all that complicated slew of activity in the brain amounts to conscious experience.” -Consciousness Explained.

    As such, Dennett thinks that he has solved the “soft” or “easy” problem of consciousness and has also shown that the “hard” problem of consciousness is simply a horrible question from the word ‘go’ and not even worth our serious consideration.

    “But your wrong when you say 1st person evidence doesn’t count. It always counts for the person having the experience. When I experience red there is something beyond my behavioral response to red. I experience red. This is not evidence for you.”

    So you belief. The problem is that the zombie believes exactly the same thing with the exact same sincerity that you have. He perceives his experience (or lack thereof) in the EXACT same way that you do. Thus, no matter what you believe, think or perceive, you are still no different from the zombie. To repeat, the zombie fully believes himself to have the exact same experience of red that you believe yourself to have. Given this, how can you ever be sure that you aren’t a zombie after all?

  • By stipulation the zombie has no experience. It is a behavior machine. Like the sleep walker.

  • Cap

    So would a ‘zombie’ react out of instinct, or habit instead of feeling, emotion, etc.

  • Jeff G

    No, it’s not.

    Chalmers himself said,

    “(Zombie Chalmers) will certainly be identical to me functionally; he will be processing the same sort of information, reacting in a similar way to inputs, with his internal configurations being modified appropriately and with indistinguishable behavior resulting… he will be awake, able to report the contents of his internal states, able to focus attention in various places and so on. It is just that none of this functioning will be accompanied by any real conscious experience. There will be no phenomenal feel.” -The Conscious Mind

    While he is clearly suggesting that a zombie has no p-consciousness, it also seem clear to me that beliefs, desires and all other such internal states and functions are still left quite intact. Thus, while the zombie doesn’t really “experience” their perception of red, they still perceive it all the same.

    More importantly, it is difficult to see a molecule-for-molecule replica of Chalmers cannot be said to have the exact same evidence, no more, no less, for any belief at all.

    Remember, the consciousness that it being denied the zombie is purely epiphenomenal. It cannot causally influence anything at all, including brain states and thoughts processes.

  • Matthew Chapman

    (22) You seem to have defined away consciousness altogether.

    I do not perceive consciousness as epiphenomenol– any more than the wind or the internet are ephiphenomenol. All are phenomenon in and of themselves whose existence can be verified (for example) by the effects they have on the world beyond them.

    This was my point of the balloon analogy: if the water in the balloon is indistinguishable in every way from helium, how can it be water rather than helium?

    And if a “zombie” is capable of sleeping and waking, monitoring and reporting its internal states, focusing attention, evaluating its behavior according to learned moral principles, following written or verbal instructions, or NOT following instructions, then in what sense it our “zombie” not conscious?

    I know I am self-aware because I am constantly observing my behavior and the world around me. That “I” does not even go away when I am asleep: it merely goes somewhere else. In deepest, dreamless slumber, although unhooked from my senses and musculature, there is still a fragment of “self” standing by the lightswitch, such that an infant’s quiet whimper from the next room will bring the whole system exploding up to 100% efficency.

    (or any other stimulus I choose to listen for: such as the *click* of my radio-alarm-clock just before the alarm goes off.)

    Any being capable of doing the same thing– for example, my cat– I would also attribute self-awareness and consciousness to.

  • b

    This was classic:

    SteveP: By stipulation the zombie has no experience. It is a behavior machine…

    Jeff G: No, it’s not. Chalmers himself said,”…none of this functioning will be accompanied by any real conscious experience. There will be no phenomenal feel.”

    Classic. (No hard feelings Jeff- you make some really good points. Just not that one.)

  • Jeff G

    B,

    No hard feelings, but maybe you should read a little more carefully, or perhaps charitably, before you mock people.

    Let me paraphrase Chalmers’ quote another way:

    “none of this access-consciousness will be accompanied by any phenomenal-consciousness.”

    Got it?

    Matthew Chapman,

    “And if a “zombie” is capable of sleeping and waking, monitoring and reporting its internal states, focusing attention, evaluating its behavior according to learned moral principles, following written or verbal instructions, or NOT following instructions, then in what sense it our “zombie” not conscious?”

    That is my position exactly. I say that all you we need is access-consciousness, the same as a zombie has. Anything beyond that (phenomenal-consciousness which is irreducible to access-conciousness) is mumbo-jumbo not worth fretting over.

  • I have to agree with Jeff here. These zombies do not contribute to solving consciousness problems anymore than proposing ducks are not ducks and debating what that would “mean.” If the zombie would live it’s life from birth to death indistiguishably from me, what basis do I have for saying it’s not conscious but can do those things? Seems like consciousness is what makes the behavior machine what it is.

  • I think thought experiments need to be at the boundary conditions of reality, not divorced from it. For example, what can a somnambulent human actually do? I’m sure they can perform rote tasks, but can they read? Learn? Write blog entries? Given that one of the ways to identify that you are dreaming is to try and “read something” in your dream (which is supposedly next to impossible because text keeps changing) I doubt it. So a boundary of consciousness seems to be associated with some of those higher cognitive functions.

  • These are not bad points Ujlapana and Jeff and much ink has been spilled on zombies’ and if they are useful or not. Obviously I’ve chosen the zombie side (and the obviously very important question, Was Data on Star Trek a zombie? This was explored somewhat in the episode ‘The measure of man’) and that was of course more about the ethics of how to treat zombies.) The key difference between my zombie and me is that ‘there is nothing that it is like to be my zombie.’ A zombie and a rock have the same experience regardless of what functional state the zombie looks like it’s going through, just like the blindsighted person has not experince of vision regardless of how well they can guess what’s in front of them. The zombie has no beliefs or desires, unless a thermostat does (which Chalmers may argue for), just input/output behavioral responses. And no they aren’t biologically possible (or so we suspect) but they are logically possible (and many argue that most animals fall in the category). Go back to the blindsight example to get at how a philosophic zombie is different than a person. The key is experience. The feel of existence. Not its behavior. You don’t want to grant that difference, but that’s the rule of zombie creation. By stipulation, by definition, by the rules of construction, there is a difference. And in that difference is the power of the zombie thought experiment. If you don’t want to grant the difference that’s fine, but you’ve stepped outside the thought experement. That’s fine too if you don’t find it useful, but you arn’t allowed to argue that the zombie and I have the same experience because they have the same behavior, because they don’t: by decree, not by arguement.

    Sorry, I can’t look up anything because I don’t have any of my consciousness resources here in Vienna with me, but Dennett says, “Consciousness is an illusion” in his book and he means it because he repeats it in his interview with “Bill Moyers.” I’ll give a reference when I get back.

  • The zombie, having the exact same train of thought, will reach the exact same conclusion by contrasting their beliefs about their conscious experiences.

    The zombie will have the same thoughts but not the same experiments. Indeed that’s the whole point of the zombie thought experiment. Now one can disagree with the thought experiment (i.e. that it’s possible to have two physically identical states that are phenomenologically different) but I’m not sure the move you are making makes sense. It seems to be trying to have it both ways.

  • Sorry, “…but not the same experiences

  • Jeff G

    Just to sort of summarize my position and then I’m bowing out.

    I say that we are all zombies. There is no such thing as a non-zombie because there is no such thing as “experience” or “consciousness” or “phenomenology” or “what it’s like” beyond what is available by way of information processing in the brain.

    The zombie thought experiment says that someone can be an exact replica, molecule for molecule, and not be conscious or experiencing something. I don’t buy this for a second, for it is the information processing in the molecules which account for all the consciousness that we have. For there to be another me that isn’t conscious, there would have to be some difference in the molecules between the ears, and this is a flat out contradiction of the zombie story.

    To recap. Zombies are as conscious as we are, for we are zombies. Anything more conscious than a zombie, simply doesn’t exist. Anything replica of us which isn’t conscious is either not a replica or does not exist.

    As for Dennett denying consciousness, I’m sticking to my guns. He certainly denies many thing which are commonly attributed to consciousness, but he remain a firm believer in it all the same. I’m confident that any quote to the contrary, when properly understood in its context will agree with this.

  • Well put, Jeff.

    In short, I think the zombie thought experiment presupposes a spiritual (non-material) aspect to consciousness. That’s why it doesn’t demonstrate anything to a materialist. Just because I don’t understand consciousness doesn’t mean I accept it’s divorced from my physical self.

  • Ujlapana, the zombie experiment need not presuppose a spiritual or non-material aspect to consciousness. Epiphenomnists accept the first person experience. Property dualists do as well. Neither of these suppose some spiritual aspect.

    I think it unfortunate that those who take the zombie idea as signifying something get labeled as hidden Cartesians. (Not that you are going that far, but you’re certainly headed in that direction)

    Jeff, I think that one can accept phenomenology without accepting that ‘other’ that Chalmers and others suppose. I don’t think that entails that there’s no phenomenology nor that there is more than brain function. I tend to see Dennett as making more a semantic move in those comments rather than a real serious philosophical move.

    I say that simply because it seems indisputable we have experiences. I can clearly tell the difference between thinking while unconscious versus when I’m conscious. It may well turn out that philosophers have made more of that difference than is warranted but it doesn’t mean there is no difference. I’m positive Dennett recognizes that and I suspect you do as well. But to say we’re all zombies is, I think, to simply miss the point of the thought experiment. What I think you ought say is not that we’re all zombies but rather that zombies are impossible. That is you can’t have the same physical state without the conscious state.

  • Jeff G

    You’re probably right, Clark.

    I guess I just wanted to follow the deflationist strategy of pointing out that our consciousness is much less magical than some seem to think it is; that stinkin’ Cartesian Theater where it’s all supposed to come together, to use Dennett’s phrase.

  • I think there’s something to that even if I reject the reductionist move. (I’m largely a property dualist more in line with Spinoza) I think the move Dennett is trying to make is more the Rorty like move of saying we ought just get rid of the language. (i.e. eliminativist materialism)

    The problem with that is that I’m not sure the frequent philosophical move of just saying problems aren’t really problems really is fair. Yes many philosophical disagreements tend to hinge upon semantic disagreements. And those are often obscured when the topics are kept narrow. But rarely does the move of dropping questions really work. (In any field of philosophical inquiry) At best it temporarily decreases the popularity of thinking about certain questions.

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