Philosophy and Theology,  Quick Takes,  Science and Mathematics

Zombies on Your Mind?

Editorial Quick Take

28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s surprise 2002 hit, is widely credited with revitalizing what had become something of a dead genre – the zombie film. But the resurrection, if you will, of this particular category of horror has continued throughout the early twenty-first century. With films like I am Legend, the Resident Evil series, HBO’s The Walking Dead, World War Z and a host of other films ranging from zombie comedy and satire to art-house films to the dozens of remakes that cashed in on the trend, it’s clear that the undead are on our minds.

But did you know about the Philosophical Zombie?

The “Philosophical Zombie” is a nuanced and contentious thought experiment designed to help philosophers think about the nature of consciousness. Consciousness, loosely defined as “the state of being aware,” is one of the most challenging issues in contemporary philosophy, neuroscience, and other related fields. Just what is consciousness and how does it work? What does it mean that I am aware? What does it mean to be aware of myself? Does consciousness arise entirely from the brain or is it a function of a soul? Are other animals conscious? How would we know? Does individual consciousness survive beyond death? 

The Philosophical Zombie thought experiment works something like this. Imagine a being exactly like ourselves, responding to external stimuli as we do, eating, drinking, etc. The only difference is that this being has no first-person experience of these things—no consciousness of them, no awareness. If this ‘zombie’ is conceivable (a different question than whether zombies actually exist, it should be noted), then some argue that consciousness itself must be what philosophers call a ‘further fact’ — something beyond the physical reality of the universe.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (yes, there is an entire entry on zombies therein), the argument runs something like this:

  1. Zombies are conceivable.
  2. Whatever is conceivable is possible.
  3. Therefore zombies are possible.

If zombies are possible, and the only difference between them and us is consciousness, then consciousness must be something ‘extra,’ something ‘beyond.’ 

Whether or not this is true has been hotly contested in philosophy since the 1990’s with the Stanford Encyclopedia saying, “In spite of the fact that the arguments on both sides have become increasingly sophisticated — or perhaps because of it — they have not become more persuasive. The pull in each direction remains strong.”

So where does the argument stand at this point? 

A 2013 survey of nearly two thousand philosophers found that around 16% pronounced zombies inconceivable. A little over a third found them conceivable but not possible. But almost a quarter of the philosophers surveyed found them not only conceivable but also metaphysically possible! 

While surveys concerning the Philosophical Zombie may seem a bit out there, the underlying questions of consciousness are critical to our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the world.

So whatever your take on the possibility of zombies, next time you pop some popcorn and sit down to a good ol’ zombie flick, spare a thought for the Philosophical Zombie. He may be out there somewhere saving your consciousness from being reduced to nothing more than a complex arrangement of electrons.


Interested in more about consciousness or the zombie thought experiment? Follow one of the links below!

Header image: “Nisley Cemetery. Goshen, IN.” by Jon Balsbaugh

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