Am I a Zombie?

Subjective Idealism posits that nothing exists unless it is perceived. A cornerstone of this philosophy is the existence of consciousness, a phenomenon that isn’t required by physicalism. From a physicalist perspective, if it walks like a human, talks like a human, and acts like a human, it’s a human, whether conscious or not. The idealist doesn’t accept this, claiming that consciousness is the key to being human and without it the physicalist’s human is nothing more than a zombie. They use some sketchy logic to prove that the physicalist argument is wrong, that there is no objective material world of which everything, including consciousness, is part of. Hence the title of this post. 

The gist of the argument is this: everything in the world is physical; physicalism predicts the existence of a parallel universe that is exactly the same as ours, but lacking consciousness [because it is not physical];  imagine a world full of unconscious zombies (if you can imagine it, it’s possible); thus physicalism is false by a logical method called modus tollens.

I find the assumption that consciousness is not a physical phenomenon somewhat self-serving and don’t accept it. I don’t think it convinces Physicalists either, but this introduces an intriguing idea, one I’ve been exploring in my Dao De Jing blog. I don’t think the philosophers took the zombie world thought experiment far enough. 

Let’s begin with my a hypothetical question: What would it be like to be a zombie?

I have my own thought experiment to address this, without using the word, consciousness, which the philosophers appear to be hung up on.

Imagine a day like this: you get dressed, have breakfast, and go to work, recalling a movie you watched the night before, so that you don’t recall the commute; you have a lot of busywork to do, forms to fill out and mindless emails to answer; your work day is interrupted by lunch with some coworkers talking about their new house, which they’ve been describing all week; you don’t recall the unmemorable drive home and make a dinner you’ve prepared a thousand times, talking to your family about school and other familiar topics; you clean the kitchen and watch TV until bedtime.

Question: Did you ever engage your prefrontal cortex in complex problem solving, analysis, or making plans? Remember this is a thought experiment, so brief interludes of thinking about a nagging problem don’t occur. This day was successfully traversed using only heuristic memory, your automatic behavior modified slightly using Bayesian estimation. This is a technique built into our cerebellum and thus requiring no active thinking. 

Are you a zombie?

Of course, I did the same as the philosophers, switching the definition of consciousness without telling you. My story defines consciousness as being aware (as in I AM AWARE thinking) of what you are doing. But if you can’t recall the drive to work immediately afterward, were you conscious of it? Considering the rest of this boring day, in which your mind basked in the afterglow of a movie you loved (an emotional response stimulated by memory), were you ever really conscious?

It seems to me, therefore, that the concept of a zombie world is an axiom rather than a thought experiment intended to show that Idealists are more clever than Physicalists. Such a world does exist, only not as a homogeneous universe filled with permanent zombies. We are all zombies, unconscious beings who walk, talk, act, and behave like humans much of the time.

The only prerequisite to being a zombie appears to be that the entity is unconscious. Zombies have brains with neurons, axons, and electrical signals flashing to and fro within their gray matter. Hormones are secreted by their limbic system. They have emotions. They are human. But they are also zombies, just not all the time.

I’d like to add a word on the sophistry of these arguments. There is overwhelming empirical data that demonstrates the neurological manifestation of consciousness. The brain reveals conscious acts through electrical activity. Thus, even if there is something vague called universal consciousness as proposed by Objective Idealism and there is a mind-body dualism, this unknown entity, whether physical or metaphysical, functions through the brain to create consciousness. It seems inescapable therefore that consciousness exists in the physical world as a concrete, measurable process–a process that acts on matter even if not itself a material substance. 

Next time, I’ll discuss another interpretation of the zombie concept, this time with a decidedly more idealist perspective.


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  1. Zombies Revisited | Timothy R. Keen - March 27, 2021

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