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How to Abolish Minds: Implications of Zombies

Ilkka Pättiniemi

For this week’s installment (woefully late) I am going to dive into the depths of the philosophy of mind. Namely I will be arguing against minds, at least as they have been conceived by many thinkers in the past. To that effect I will start with philosophical zombies.

Zombies were introduced into the philosophy of mind in the 1970’s (e.g. Nagel 1970, Kirk 1974) as an argument against materialism[1]. Current debates on zombies, however, stem from David Chalmers’ detailed exposition of the argument (Chalmers 1996). A simple definition of zombies can be given as follows:

  • Zombie: A creature that resembles a human person […] in all physical and behavioral respects but lacks qualia (Kirk 2011).

From this definition it follows that it is not like anything to be a zombie. And what is a quale (pl. qualia), one might ask? Qualia are phenomenal raw ‘feels’, like the experience of redness when seeing red or the painfulness of pain. Qualia are taken to be fully intrinsic, that is their properties are not relational in any sense. It is an allegedly important technical term in the philosophy of mind and in the study of consciousness. 

It is worth pointing out (although the above definition entails this) that zombies will have what Keith Frankish calls zero qualia. Frankish defines zero qualia thusly:

  • Zero qualia: The properties of experiences that dispose us to judge that experiences have introspectable qualitative properties that are intrinsic, ineffable, and subjective. (Frankish 2012, p. 669.)

So, zombies will truthfully (i.e. without lying) claim to have qualia. The argument for zombies goes roughly like this:

  • (1) Zombies are conceivable.
  • (2) If something is conceivable it is also (metaphysically) possible
  • (3) Thus zombies are possible.

Both premises are contested and if either fails, then the zombie argument will also fail. If the argument is sound, however, then materialism seems to be in trouble. The failure of materialism comes about as follows: If zombies are possible, then there exists a possible world that is physically identical to the actual world but that lacks qualia. But our world doesn’t lack qualia, and thus qualia are not physical and thus materialism fails (Kirk 2011).

I would personally argue with Dennett (1991) that zombies are not conceivable and with Frankish (2007) that possibility does not follow from conceivability thus denying both premises of the zombie argument. However I will grant the possibility of zombies simply to see what will follow from it.

A straightforward consequence of the possibility of zombies is the recurrence of the problem of other minds[2]. For if zombies are possible, then anyone I meet might be a zombie. In fact, for all I know everyone I meet is a zombie. From this it follows that I am completely ignorant with regards to the (putative) consciousness of others: I can never know who is conscious and who is not. Indeed, if I take behavioral evidence as not having any relevance as to whether any being is conscious, I will be drawn to the following conclusion: Given that an inference from a single case (namely my own) to many is considered unjustified, and I have no evidence for any other consciousness (for the simple fact that nothing could count as such evidence), the only rational option for me is to go about as if nobody else is conscious. This follows from (1) that I know that it is possible that my fellow beings are zombies, (2) that I know only one instance of a non-zombie (myself), and (3) that no physical/behavioral evidence is pertinent in ascertaining consciousness. Therefore, the cost of having minds fully divorced from matter is solipsism, or at least having to take on the burden of proof against solipsism.  

Thus, it seems that accepting the zombie argument leads us down a path not worth following. There might be an out, however: Thomas Nagel’s famous paper What is it Like to Be a Bat? (1974) might offer the mentalist (or dualist) a way out. But more on that next time around!

[1] I will throughout this post talk of materialism. Those with worries about materialism stemming from contemporary physics are free to mentally substitute the word ‘physicalism’ whenever materialism is mentioned. Nothing turns on this.
[2] Or rather, of other consciousnesses. I will however call it the problem of other minds, hopeful that it will not cause any confusion.

Chalmers, D. J. (1996). The conscious mind: In search of a fundamental theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness explained. London: Penguin Books.
Frankish, K. (2007). The Anti-zombie Argument. The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 57, No. 229: 650–666.
Frankish, K. (2012). Quining diet qualia. Consciousness and Cognition 21 (2): 667–676. 
Kirk, R. (1974). Zombies v. Materialists. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 48 (supplementary): 135–152.
Kirk, R. (2011). Zombies, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Nagel, T. (1970). Armstrong on the Mind, Philosophical Review 79: 394–403.
Nagel, T. (1974). What is it Like to Be a Bat? Philosophical Review 83: 435–450.

Published by Ilkka Pättiniemi

A Helsinki based philosopher and bassist. An idiot.

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