Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Philosophical zombies and mutants: thought experiment

Zombies in philosophy exist for quite a long time; you can find zombies in numerous thought experiments which are designed to prove physicalism  and similar theories, such as epiphenomenalism, wrong (perhaps one of the most famous developments of this argument is the one of David Chalmers [born 1966], an Australian philosopher). What is actually a philosophical zombie? There are a few types of philosophical zombies but all of them have something in common – you cannot distinguish between zombies and human beings because they behave in the same way as normal people and look the same too (do not confuse philosophical zombies with people living despite the decomposition – I’ve never liked that ridiculous idea at all). You’re probably wondering what actually makes people different from philosophical zombies.

Well, zombies in philosophy lack sentience, soul, or consciousness (and hence free will). Think about one of your friends. How can you know if he/she is a human being and not a zombie? You may reply that the easiest way to check it is to simply ask him if he is a zombie or not; but the point is that he’d probably reply that he is a human – by observing others he’s learnt how to behave and how to adjust to social norms. He may even hug you merely because of his knowledge of others’ expectances – if someone is sad and you are in a close relationship with him you may, or rather should, give him a hug. Despite the fact that zombie world is perfectly logical most of us don’t really believe it exists. However, zombies may be a threat for physicalists since if they could exist it would mean that a human being has more than simply a zombie body, thus there must exist another "substance".

Let’s leave zombies aside and concentrate on philosophical mutants. Think again about your friend. Is his/her sensing the same as yours? Some people would reply that it’s not and give as an example different flavours. Some people like chocolate, and some people don’t. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the sensing is different. Your friend may simply feel the same chocolate flavour and doesn’t like it. Different taste preferences don’t prove any difference in sensation. Think about colours. How does blue look like? Of course you can’t describe it with words other than: “oh, exactly like that!” pointing your finger to the sky or another blue object. Therefore there is a possibility that your friend sees blue the same way you see red. For him his blue equals your red and vice versa. And there is literally no way you could check it – if you showed a blue object to him, he would say it’s blue. But you wouldn’t be able to tell whether he sees your blue. And maybe that is the reason why some of us like certain colours and others don’t? Maybe there are some colours which are ugly but it depends on a person how he names it?

It seems that we actually know nothing for sure about other people’s minds (or other machines' minds!). We do not know how they sense (they might be mutants!), and we do not know if they sense (beware of zombies!). The more you learn about philosophy the more you are aware of how little you know. I’m wondering what would happen if one possessed all philosophical knowledge – would he then know everything or rather nothing?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Damn! The example regarding colours had haunted me since childhood! Great to see I'm not alone :D

  3. In response to your quriosity about what would happen if one possessed all philosophical knowledge I would like to remind you of Socrates quest. Upon finding out that the oracle of Delphi claimed he was the wisest man Socrates sought to prove that he was in no way the wisest. By the end he could only conclude that perhaps he was the wisest only because he recognized his own lack of wisdom. I may venture as far as to say that if someone did possess all philosophical knowledge they would probably be the dumbest smart person on earth, or insane due to an overflow of contrary points of view.

  4. I always wandered if humans managed to develop advanced enough A.I. if it might develop a soul or simply be a zombie.


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