The Philosophical Concept Of A Zombie Philosophy Essay

When we think of the word Zombie we usually think of a soulless, dead body created by a super viral infection, a nuclear disaster, a mad scientist etc. The resulting creature is usually severely brain-damaged. Many people are sceptical when it comes to deciding whether or not such a creature’s existence is a possibility. Most of us cannot comprehend how a dead person could be resurrected, more so if they actually retained qualities and characteristics they had before they died, a “soul, consciousness etc.” Even if you do not believe in the existence of a soul, then death would probably signify the end of consciousness. Either way, the premise usually remains, when you’re dead, you are most likely to remain dead. The zombie-product of a super virus is not dead; it is still a very much alive being, whose brain is severely damaged.

The philosophical zombie is a “functional” human body but lacking consciousness; their behaviour resembles that of an average human being’s with a consciousness. One of the philosophers, whose view we are called to agree or disagree with in this essay, Daniel Dennett, states that it would be absurd to think of such a being existing, essentially if a being behaves like a being, then it is a being. “If, ex hypothesi, zombies are behaviourally indistinguishable from us normal folk, then they are really behaviourally indistinguishable!” (Dennett, Daniel C. 1995) Other philosophers, like David Chalmers, hold the view that a philosophical zombie is different to a human being even though we couldn’t distinguish it from a conscious person, even when looking or talking to such a being. If we saw such a zombie it would “fool” us into believing they are a fully functioning and conscious being. The philosophical zombie is – at least at first glance- identical to a conscious person. But they are different in “structure”; again, the philosophical zombie has no consciousness.

What do we mean when we are referring to consciousness? This is an apparently easy question but a very perplexing one nevertheless. Many academics hold the view that consciousness is the only organ in the Universe which cannot be subjected to the rules of quantum mechanics. It is a Universe inside us, so vast that most of the time the soul itself tries to find its way. We can question everyone else’s consciousness but we can be certain of ours. Could it be that the soul and consciousness are one and the same thing? There is no generally accepted definition of consciousness; however, there are questions which can map what consciousness is:

How does it feel when… you are an ant? If there is a feeling that one can feel when they are an ant (something that an ant would feel; then it has consciousness).

Subjectivity or obviousness?…Consciousness is a subjective and obvious experience. Things appear to me in the same way they actually are.

Qualia… how red is red? “Experiences of red differ from experiences of green; experiences of colour differ from auditory and olfactory experiences, and so forth. This heterogeneity or variety of conscious mental states has caused some philosophers to wonder whether there is any single phenomenon, consciousness, after all.” (Churchland, 1983) How strong does alcohol taste to me? (Some philosophers do not believe in the existence of qualia.)

The hard problem: How are subjective experiences created by objective brains?

The matter of consciousness goes beyond the tight philosophical boundaries; it involves other areas like memory, neurones, time and senses. A characteristic experiment is the creation of philosophical zombies. We have to imagine someone with the same body as us, the same movements even the same speech impediment. Then imagine coming across a slight difference, no consciousness, in other words, no conscious experiences. That creature would be a philosophical zombie. Undoubtedly, those creatures can exist in our imagination, but could they exist in reality, would they be a possibility? This simple question is enough to sink us into a sea of philosophical debate. One of the reasons why philosophical zombies exist is to pose the following question: is consciousness a special added element which conscious beings have? Or is it that consciousness is something innate and inseparable from out human qualities?

There are several philosophers who are intently opposed to the idea of zombies, partly because they believe that consciousness cannot amount to just a bundle of mechanical functions. Can machines have consciousness? If C3PO’s design improved, thus achieving a remarkable resemblance to a human being, and if their behaviour was consistent to that of a human being’s, then would C3PO be a “person”? Basically, would C3PO be a “he”? And if 3CPO’s design was so good as to render him indistinguishable from actual, physical human beings, how could anyone tell the difference? The only means we would possess, in order to do that would be to depend on our imperfect and false methods of observation and discussion.

If a philosophical zombie is a possibility, then consciousness has to be something more complex than a reaction to neurones and encephalic processes.

The existence of machine, now more than ever, is very prominent. Everywhere around us there are machines that are able to perceive several things, without really being able to analyse what it is they perceiving; voice activated alarms, overheating detectors, touch screen tablets etc. 3CPO and the aforementioned machines, could process visual and sensory messages, but they would possess no self-knowledge. The “ear” of a voice activated alarm is not the same as the ear of a human being. The “quality” of a stimulus, the “internal impression” it can leave on a human being is absent and that is the difference here. Really, that would be the only possible philosophical zombie, a machine that “perceives”, “smells” “sees” etc. but it would not have any understanding of what those processes are, because, again, it would lack consciousness.

I think I share Daniel Dennett’s views, even though I deeply appreciate David Chalmers and his extended mind. I think the idea of such a twin zombie brother is irrational. If a “zombie” presents with all the characteristics of consciousness, then the “zombie” is not a zombie, if they present with the above then it must mean they actually are conscious, but such a thing would be impossible. Also, a question was thumping in my head when I was reading Chalmers’ article “The Conceivability of Consciousness”, “Are we all zombies?” If they feel, see, wake up, go to work etc. like we do, what makes them zombies? Are they our twin zombies because we pre-existed? I mean if the philosophical zombie was identical to us, would they not be us?

Let’s imagine a space trip, from Earth to Andromeda; at first glance it does not seem to be impossible or contradicting. Though, if one is aware of the specific theory of relativity, knows that it would be impossible for any object to move faster than the speed of light. According to some naturalists anyone who, in order to verify their view on something, uses examples which are impossible to prove through empirical testing, such as zombies and beings with distorted qualia (natural copies of “regular” people), is carrying the burden of proving that those premises can actually be true. But, due to the fact that there is no proof, then relevant arguments have (according to those who oppose these views) limited validity.

Moreover, ethical questions on the way we should behave to such androids arise, given that their behaviour would be identical to ours. The term “person” is not tangible, we can only know from observation what it means to be a “person”. I would say that the same is true when we are talking about the idea of a “soul”. My personal view would be very similar to Daniel Dennett’s, and I would assume that androids and zombies that possess consciousness is impossibility, and it is absurd to suppose that such a thing could exist. If they did, however, they should be treated as human beings (since they would effectively be human beings…). I would definitely be difficult for the large majority of humans to treat such a being as an equal, i.e. to recognise it could possess feelings, it could feel pain etc. it would also be especially difficult for those among us who do believe in the existence of a “soul”, consequently, if such being were to exist, they would be treated as machines, whether they resembled human beings in any way or not.

Bibliography and sources consulted:

Churchland, P.S. 1983. Consciousness: The transmutation of a concept. Pacific philosophical quarterly, 64: 80-95.

Dennett, Daniel C. (1995). “The unimagined preposterousness of zombies”, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2 (4), 322-6. Also in Daniel C. Dennett (1998) Brainchildren, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, pp.171-7

Keith Frankish (2010). Thought and Experience: Themes in the Philosophy of Mind – Consciousness. Milton Keynes: The Open University. 1-268.

Terry Fan. (2012). Funny/Surreal Illustration. Available: http://exist-multimedia.com/blog/illustration-category/terry-fan-funny-surreal-illustration. Last accessed 30th April 2013.

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