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B. Philosophy of Mind: 2nd Student Essay

Tom Marshall

What is the philosophical significance of the idea of disembodiment and/or the idea of a zombie?

I shall start by defining terms. Philosophy translates from the Greek, "love of wisdom". This in itself tells us little. It is a process of critical analysis of ones beliefs, looking for internal consistency and logical progression from premises to conclusions. By "significance" we mean relevance or importance. By "philosophical significance" we are suggesting that a particular idea may be of relevance to exploration of our beliefs, and that considering it will allow us to make progress in our inquiries. Clearly, an idea could look initially promising but on closer inspection prove to be a blind alley.

By a zombie we mean a creature with no inner conscious world. We do not mean the horror movie version of an animated decaying corpse seeking human brains for sustenance, but rather an apparently normal human being with all the outwards appearance of consciousness. We would greet a zombie and they would reply, smile at them and they would reciprocate and we would attribute this behaviour to their internal mental processes. However, there would be a void where their inner world should be. There are two opposite poles in the philosophical debate concerning the relationship between mind and body. Materialists believe conscious experience ie thoughts, feelings, memories are the direct consequences of chemical and electrical activity in the brain. Cartesian mind body dualists believe that mind and body are separate. There appear to be two main reasons that the latter belief holds sway.

The first is the sheer richness and variety of our mental experiences, such that it appears absurd to believe that they are the consequence of physical reactions in our brain. The second is the intimacy of our mental experiences, which contrasts with our lack of access to other peoples inner world. Now, if you pursue these two beliefs to their logical conclusion one is forced to admit that we can have no knowledge of what goes on in other peoples inner world, or even if they have one. One cannot argue that mental activity must be similar due to the similarity of brain structure because you have already stated that the mind is more the brain. At its most extreme this view admits sceptical doubt to the extent that I may be the only creature with a mind, and that all other human beings are automatons.

Thus the idea of a zombie becomes the crux upon which this controversy can rage. If physical processes in the brain can be demonstrated to take place in the absence of mental activity (ie brain activity that is associated with seeing blue can take place in the absence of the mental experience of seeing blue) then we would demonstrate that the mind and body are not identical. Now, a scientist would search the published research journals, looking for accounts of such a creature and appraising the rigour of the methodology used. But this is a philosophical inquiry. We shall aim to determine if the concept of a zombie is a coherent one which contains no inherent self-contradiction ie is it logically possible? If mind-body dualism is a coherent concept then zombies should be logically possible.

We do this by addressing the question, "Is it possible to envisage encountering a zombie and there being no other interpretation of this experience?" If we can demonstrate that the answer is in the affirmative then we will have demonstrated that the concept of a zombie is logically possible. By this we mean that we have proved that we could encounter a zombie and be certain of the fact, or to put it another way that zombies could possibly occur in reality. This would prove that mind and body are not necessarily identical.

Let us return to our definition of a zombie. To all intents and purposes such a creature is indistinguishable from a conscious human being. All its actions would lead an observer to believe that it has an inner world of thoughts, feelings and sensations. We cannot gain any access to their inner world other than by interacting with and questioning them. But they are automatons, ingeniously designed to in every respect simulate consciousness in their behaviour. It is thus clear that we could not know whether a human being we encounter is a zombie or not because the only difference is hidden from us.

Perhaps we should try a different approach, having accepted that we can never identify another person as a zombie. Can we imagine what it would be like for us to become a zombie? Let us explore a thought experiment whereby zombie-hood encroaches upon us. Imagine that we suddenly realise that the left side of our sensory field has been absent for some time, but that we seem to have remained aware of what has been happening in this field. Thus nothing in our behaviour would have lead an observer to believe we were having any sort of problem. We recover the sensations from the left sensory field, but then the same thing happens to the right side. These experiences continue alternating and we realise that there will be a time when they will overlap and we will be completely cut off, but that we will appear to function normally. Have we demonstrated that we can imagine becoming a zombie, and that there is no other interpretation?

I believe we can best answer this question by examining the definition of a zombie again. A zombie is empty inside, without thoughts or fears. If an experience as described happened to us we would be cut off from our bodies, receiving no input from our senses and exerting no control over our actions. However, there would still be emotions and thoughts in our inner world and thus by definition we would not be zombies. It also appears implausible that you could have a detailed awareness of what you could not sense.

If we cannot imagine encountering a zombie, or the process of becoming one, can we imagine what it would be like to be one? We all experience driving on autopilot, arriving at our destination with no recollection of our journey. Yet, we arrive there safely. Is this similar to being a zombie? I would say not. We are not aware of driving because our mind is otherwise engaged, not because it is absent. Thus there are still thoughts.

We have thus failed to demonstrate that zombies are logically possible either on the basis of imagining an encounter with one, the process of becoming one ourselves or what it would be like to be one.

In summary, the idea of a zombie could be of potential importance in the debate about whether consciousness is a purely physical phenomenon or could be better explained by the concept of a soul. If we could demonstrate that an encounter with a zombie were logically possible , and that there was no other interpretation available, it would follow that the physical process of sensation need not be accompanied by the relevant mental experience. Thus we would demonstrate that the two are not identical. This would be the first step in arguing for a soul. Our philosophical inquiry was not to determine whether zombies actually exist, but rather whether the concept was absurd or self-contradictory. We have demonstrated in our musings that since we cannot even imagine an encounter with a zombie that it would be futile exercise to look for one in the real world. The concept of a zombie appears initially promising but on close inspection transpires to be a blind alley.