The concept of a philosophical zombie makes no sense to me

It is defined as a thought experiment in that it is a being that appears for all purposes to have a “soul” or consciousness, but it really doesn’t.

It seems like saying that rock might appear to be a rock under the strictest scrutiny, but it is really a shapeshifting unicorn that can perfectly imitate a rock.

If it can perfectly imitate a human being, wouldn’t it be a human being?

If that’s all it could do, yes. If it could also imitate sharp blades and daggers, it would be a shapeshifting killer robot from the 25th century.

Heh, but before someone ignores the implied question.

What point does this thought experiment prove?

It behaves in ways we would expect a being with a soul or consciousness to have, but it doesn’t have one. It doesn’t actually experience pain, but it reacts to painful stimuli exactly as something that did experience pain would.

I’m not sure what doesn’t make sense, can you clarify? The idea is that it has the outward behaviours of a human being, but lacks the inner life and the experiences that a human being has.

Since this is not a factual question, let’s move it over to GD.

General Questions Moderator

How is this information arrived at?(that there is no inner life, even though it seems to all observers to have one).

Ahh time out.

I get that it appears to feel pain and think, even though it really isn’t, but for all purposes it appears to and there is no way to prove otherwise. I got it, but this seems absurd, I see one of the restatements(swampman) is what is a person if replaced by a perfect duplicate, are they the same person. Well yes by definition.

The zombie arguments section is where I lose exactly why it proves anything.

If you have immersed yourself in computational cognitive science for a while, and come to believe that the mind might be a computer program running on the brain as hardware (or even if you are older, and were raised on behaviorist psychology, whereby everything people do is really just a bunch of conditioned reflexes), then the concept of a “philosophical zombie” soon comes to seem very plausible, or even inevitable. It becomes difficult to understand how we are not all philosophical zombies. Some people (in order to hang on to all that ‘science’) convince themselves that we all, in fact, are zombies, and that consciousness is an illusion (despite the paradox that, by their lights, there is no-one there to be deceived by the illusion). Those who (like Dave Chalmers) are nevertheless convinced that, at least in their own case (and, out of politeness, other people’s cases too), there really is conscious experience, either indulge themselves in contemplation of the perfect intractability of the “hard problem”, or do their best to put the matter out of their minds, and get on with trying to do cognitive science and neuroscience without reference to consciousness (and the more they seem to succeed, the deeper they dig themselves into the hole).

The intellectual wrong turning happened almost exactly 100 years ago,* when J.B. Watson first started persuading people that psychology could and should be done without any reference to consciousness (and that it would be a lot easier to do methodologically sound psychological experiments if it were done that way). This error was only compounded in the mid-20th century when a majority of psychologists persuaded themselves that they had overcome Watson’s philistinism by conceiving of the mind as a computer rather than a bundle of reflexes. Either way though, there is no room for consciousness in psychological theory, and if you convince yourself that you understand and believe in computational psychological theories, it is easy to imagine, indeed, almost impossible to avoid imagining, that the mind, and the brain, and all the human behavior they control, could quite readily carry on in just same if there were no consciousness there at all.

I think you are right,** grude**, that zombies are not a real possibility, and that anyone with a mind not corrupted by too much cognitive theory can readily see that, but to admit that is to admit that most of our currently accepted cognitive and neuroscientific theories must go to the wall with the zombies. (Some of us are attempting to construct a different sort of cognitive neuroscience that will not imply the possibility or actuality of zombies, but, as yet, we are a small and often derided, though growing, minority in the scientific community.)

*Well, except that, in a way, it happened way back in the 17th century, when Descartes persuaded himself, and others, that most aspects of mentality (imagination, perception, emotion, memory, muscular control, etc.), apart from consciousness and a few other things like like language understanding, ratiocination, and free will, could be explained in terms of the brain operating as a sort of fluidic, hydraulic, computer (since he did not know about electronics). In order to explain consciousness, and those few other things, he postulated an immaterial soul beyond the reach of scientific understanding, that occasionally perturbed the workings of the brain a bit, but very few people ever much liked that idea, and even those who did could see that most behavioral functions would carry on the same without it. Computational cognitive science is just the Cartesian research program pushing towards its limits by attempting (via more sophisticated ideas about computation) to explain everything it possibly can (except pure consciousness, which it attempts to ignore) in terms of neural computation. It can’t possibly succeed, because of the way Descartes set up the game, the metatheory, to require an immaterial soul in there controlling the machine, but for those who persuade themselves it can succeed, it becomes obvious that if you just took the minimal, residual soul (i.e., consciousness) out of the machine, its behavior would not be discernibly different, and you would have a philosophical zombie.

It falls into the same set of problems that we find with the notion of “qualia.”

How do you perceive colors? Maybe you see the red ball, but in your inner perceptions, it’s actually green. You’ve just learned to call it red, because that’s what everyone else does, but “really,” in your mind, it looks green.

Problem is…how can anyone tell? It gets nonsensical, damn quick. There aren’t any tests we can perform to know what your own, personal, private, internal perception of the color red is.

It might actually be that some people are born with a defect, and don’t have the full richness of the emotional life that other people have. But they don’t know this, and they have learned to behave just the same as everyone else. How would you know? You might listen to the opera, and think, “Wow, this is beautiful,” but you aren’t actually feeling the true depth of wonder and awe that the guy next to you is feeling. He is truly perceiving the vast magnificence of the music; you’re just hearing the notes.

How would anyone ever be able to tell? You say, aloud, “Wow, that was wonderful.” You mean it. You have no way whatever to learn that you’re missing out on the deep emotional inspiration.

With regular musical tone-deafness, there are tests. With color-blindness, there are tests.

But with internal feelings and sensations, of the more personal and private kind? How the hell would we ever know?

Honestly I look at it and usually see it argued the exact opposite way. It’s usually in my experience the “computationalists” who find the idea of a “p-zombie” bizarre or impossible, while the people arguing in favor of p-zombies being possible are (or are accused of being) some kind of vitalists postulating some kind of soul or “life force”. Oh, you might be able to create something that looks and acts human that lacks consciousness, but a really detailed look would logically have to show differences in the brain at least; because if it had a brain identical to a person, it would also have an identical mind since that’s what the brain is.

If a p-zombie and a person are identical down to the last neuron and still can’t be distinguished, then a claim is clearly being made that there’s some kind of non-material “vital spark” that the person has and a p-zombie doesn’t.

Well there’s an interesting semantic word game - “consciousness cannot be an illusion because then who would be fooled?”. I found this laughable in the last thread about this too. Try this instead - consciousness is a simulation - a computer running a program that becomes aware of itself. The computer runs a program that simulates higher intelligence, and this program is aware of itself. This is absolutely consistent with what is observed in reality, and requires no outside “consciousness”.

Honestly, I’m going to blunt - the whole field talking about “philosophical zombies” and “qualia” and basically anything relating to solipsism (indeed, anything relating to epistemology that doesn’t already accept the axioms that the world we observe is real) is a complete waste of time - fundamentally unresolvable thought experiments which do nothing to further our understanding of the world and indeed simply degrade it. I can’t know that everyone else around me isn’t a philosophical zombie. But not only is it fundamentally impossible for me to ever resolve this problem, the fact is that either way, I’m forced to live my life as though they weren’t, because it’s the only way of living that allows for me to ethically understand the laws of society. It’s a problem that cannot be solved, and even if it could be solved, the solution would be completely useless.

You’re missing the whole point. Philosophical zombies are an attempt to disprove physicalism. If it’s logically possible for zombies to exist, then physicalism is false.

Only what exists is in the mind of us, human beings. Nothing exists without the thought to notice it. So you can’t say that any thought existing outside of a physical being is possible. If we are a computer program it is only so because we thought it. Physical being brought us to this point, so the answer is ultimately irrelevant whether it is rooted in the reality we see or an elaborate illusion.

I really want to thank you for your post njtt, I think I get now the issues involved, I haven’t changed my mind on the P-zombie issue but I don’t think I’m misunderstanding something big.

It reminds me of non-falsifiable theories, except secular.

No, I got that. However, whether or not it’s logically possible for zombies to exist is completely unresolvable. It’s a problem that cannot be answered or resolved, unless we find some other way of establishing that physicalism is false (in which case their entire purpose is already dealt with). Is it logically possible for zombies to exist? Not if physicalism is true! It’s largely circular and a complete waste of time.

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. If I open an old Phaedrus thread and post to it, I will have created a philosophical zombie. Having established that it is possible for a philosophical zombie to exist (because I just created one), I will thereby have proven physicality to be false.

The consequence of this is that I no longer have to worry about doing the laundry. I can now go to Costco, and instead of buying detergent, by two extra packages of chocolate truffles. This is starting to sound pretty sweet. The only snag that I can see, is that all of the threads started by Phaedrus seem to have been disappeared by the mods, leading us to the inescapable conclusion that the administration of the SDMB is in the pocket of Big Detergent.


No, you will not. You will not have created a philosophical zombie because a conscious entity (you) is a vital component of the system which is emulating a conscious entity.

P.S. I meant physicalism, not physicality.

Oh, piffle. If 10 years go by between posts it’s a zombie, by definition.