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What is a Philosophical Zombie?

by Stephen M. Walker II, Co-Founder / CEO

What is a Philosophical Zombie?

A philosophical zombie or p-zombie in the philosophy of mind and perception is a hypothetical being that is indistinguishable from a normal human being except in that it lacks conscious experience, qualia, or sentience. For example, if a p-zombie was poked with a sharp object, it would not feel any pain, though it would behave exactly as if it does feel pain. This concept is used in arguments in the philosophy of mind, particularly arguments relating to consciousness and materialism.

What is the history of the Philosophical Zombie concept?

The concept of a philosophical zombie was first introduced by philosopher David Chalmers in the 1990s as a part of his argument against physicalism, the philosophical theory that everything that exists is no more extensive than its physical properties. Chalmers used the concept of a p-zombie to argue that, since such a being could exist (in theory) and yet not have any form of conscious experience, then consciousness must be more than just the physical processes of the brain.

How does the Philosophical Zombie concept work?

The philosophical zombie concept is used in arguments against forms of physicalism such as behaviorism and functionalism, which hold that the mind is entirely physical. The idea is to imagine a being that is physically indistinguishable from a human being but does not have conscious experiences. For example, if you were to pinch it, it would react as though it were in pain, but it wouldn't actually feel anything. This thought experiment is used to argue that consciousness is not something that can be physically measured or observed, and therefore, must be a non-physical property.

What are the criticisms of the Philosophical Zombie concept?

The philosophical zombie concept has been criticized on several fronts. Some philosophers argue that the concept is incoherent, as it is impossible to imagine a being that behaves indistinguishably from a human but does not have conscious experiences. Others argue that even if such a being is conceivable, it does not necessarily imply that consciousness is non-physical. Some philosophers also question the usefulness of the concept, arguing that it distracts from more fruitful avenues of research in the philosophy of mind.

What are the alternatives to the Philosophical Zombie concept?

There are several alternatives to the philosophical zombie concept that have been proposed to explain consciousness. Some of these alternatives include:

  1. Physicalism — This theory holds that everything that exists is no more extensive than its physical properties, including consciousness.

  2. Dualism — This theory posits that the mind and body are distinct and separable.

  3. Panpsychism — This theory suggests that all matter has some level of consciousness.

  4. Idealism — This theory holds that reality is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial.

  5. Functionalism — This theory argues that mental states are constituted solely by their functional role.

These alternatives aim to address the limitations of the philosophical zombie concept by focusing on different aspects of consciousness and its relationship to the physical world.

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