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P-Zombie Hypo as Proof of Non-Physical Consciousness (?)

March 13, 2013

Just yesterday I was ranting that zombies aren’t only economics and are a larger issue of consciousness and identity in complex systems. Now in NYTimes The Stone: “Mary and the Zombies: Can Science Explain Consciousness?” by Gary Gutting, beginning:

We trust science because its claims are based on experience. But experience itself is a subjective reality that seems to elude the objectivity of scientific understanding.

zombie gary gutting


consider a zombie. Not the brain-eating undead of movies, but a philosophical zombie, defined as physically identical to you or me but utterly lacking in internal subjective experience. Imagine, for example, that in some alternative universe you have a twin, not just genetically identical but identical in every physical detail—made of all the same sorts of elementary particles arranged in exactly the same way. Isn’t it logically possible that this twin has no experiences?

It may, of course, be true that, in our world, the laws of nature require that certain objective physical structures be correlated with corresponding subjective experiences. But laws of nature are not logically necessary (if they were, we could discover them as we do laws of logic or mathematics, by pure thought, independent of empirical facts). So in an alternative universe, there could (logically) be a being physically identical to me but with no experiences: my zombie-twin.

But if a zombie-twin is logically possible, it follows that my experiences involve something beyond my physical makeup. For my zombie-twin shares my entire physical makeup, but does not share my experiences. This, however, means that physical science cannot express all the facts about my experiences.

Gutting mentions David Chalmers:

Frank Jackson, who first proposed the Mary scenario, and David Chalmers, who gave the most influential formulation of the zombie example, remain philosophical naturalists.

And concludes by asking readers:

do these thought experiments show that there are facts about consciousness that go beyond what physical science can know—that there is a non-physical aspect to consciousness?

There are already over 200 comments.

On this topic of philosophical zombies, see also the 2005 “Zombies” entry from Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science by Güven Güzeldere – and I really enjoy Thomas Nagel’s What is it like to be a bat?.

See also prior ZombieLaw posts like “Philosophy of Mind – “Zombies Within” – Chalmers, Dennett, Noë

Also finally, I think it might be helpful to acknowledge that non-physical does not mean never-was-physical. Experience is an issue of history and of material traces and emergent patterns. Differences and developmental progressions between different material states create new quality from the absences – or as Hegel might say, “nothing is something” – “facts” are the Nothing shouting back.

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