Fans of The Walking Dead teeter on the edge of nihilism with glee in hopes of a zombie apocalypse. Unfortunately for zombie fans, hopes for an apocalypse on par with a debacle portrayed in The Walking Dead is a far and distant dream (nightmare?). Nevertheless, Walking Dead fans can take comfort in the fact that a form of the zombie apocalypse is already here. Like The Walking Dead, the virus is inherited by virtue of being human, and it is by virtue of being human that we are zombies.
The zombies that walk the Earth are not the same as the zombies portrayed in epic Hollywood films. They pay their taxes, respond to various stimuli, watch The Walking Dead but are devoid of an inner life. These entities are known as philosophical zombies, which (who?) take the guise of humans but lack conscious experience. Just as there is nothing it is like to be a table, there is nothing it is like to be a philosophical zombie.
Philosophical zombies were originally contrived to undermine physical theories of the mind, which purport consciousness is the result of information processing at the level of the brain. According to physicalism, the mind is not a derivative of the brain—rather, the mind is the brain. Mental states and brain states cannot be separated. C-fibers firing in the brain are not just associated with pain; they are pain. If philosophical zombies are metaphysically possible, then brain states can exist independently of mental states; and if mental states can be dis-attached from brain states, then it follows consciousness is not purely physical.
Philosophical zombies are intuitively plausible upon first impression. It is so easy to imagine beings physically indistinguishable from ourselves that lack conscious experience. As a corollary, consciousness must consist of some nebulous “soul stuff” gift wrapped in an immaterial package. The problem with the purported reasoning is that it conflates what is conceivable with what it is metaphysically possible. It is easy to conceive of God existing and not existing, yet only one is actually the case. The same could be true with respect to philosophical zombies. The ability to conceive of consciousness existing independently of the brain may be an illusion generated by an incomplete theory of the mind. When a picture of the mental world is complete, the ability to separate mind from matter disintegrates.
So what positive reasons are there for suggesting that the mind and the brain are separate substances? A difficulty facing a materialist description of the mind is not just explaining consciousness in purely physical terms but how it could have evolved in the first place. Their does not appear to be any sort of evolutionary advantage for having an “inner-life.” A spider, for example, is capable of spinning a complex web, devouring prey and bearing off-spring with little, if any, conscious experience. Human beings could carry on their jolly little lives hunting, eating and copulating without conscious experience. In fact, consciousness often gets in the way of these activities. Further, consciousness throws us into the pits of despair by wallowing in the knowledge of mortality. Rather than being an evolutionary advantage, consciousness seems to be an evolutionary curse.
For every evolutionary disadvantage there is to consciousness there is an evolutionary advantage. Sure, consciousness curses human beings with the recognition of mortality. Yet consciousness also allows us to steer clear of our own premature demise. By having future foresight, we can take steps to actively avoid undesirable situations. In addition, consciousness permits us to alter nature to our own benefit. Surely the technological and medical innovations consciousness has sprung outweigh any vices attached to the mind. Contrary to what advocates of philosophical zombies would have us believe, there are positive reasons for suggesting that consciousness is evolutionary advantageous.
If it is metaphysically impossible for philosophical zombies to lack consciousness, then we are in fact philosophical zombies. This does not mean human beings are devoid of conscious experience. Rather, it means our former conceptions of consciousness are flawed. Our experiences are real but the beliefs that those experiences generate about our experiences are false. We share an experience of being some sort of immaterial “I” occupying the center of a Cartesian theater watching life’s narrative unfold. In reality, the theater is empty. Consciousness is reducible to unconscious bits of matter. When the mind’s proverbial eye is caste inward, it sees nothing but darkness.
According to this view, consciousness is equivalent to a computer that simulates an internal picture of the world physically embodied in the brain. When an internal representation of the world is complete, the brain simulates a model of itself. Another term for this is “the mind’s eye.” However, as noted earlier, consciousness does not consist of some subsystem that “views” the whole, like an observer watching a movie. Rather, the observer is an integral part of the movie: a fictional character that life’s narrative revolves around. Thus, Walking Dead fans may be pleased to discover that we are not just watching a zombie epidemic. We’re living it.
By Nathan Cranford