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Zombies and chocolate: what it is like to eat a block

Last updated on 6 Feb 2013

Chocolate zombies
You just knew somebody had made chocolate zombies, didn’t you? But the addition of cherry fillings is unnecessary. All a real chocolate zombie wants to eat is chocolate. Brains. Sweet, sweet chocolate brainsss…

Zombies are very much in the news lately. People are using them as a way to teach science. However, long before the scientists caught up with the trends, philosophy had been discussing zombies after the question of whether there are philosophical zombies (P-zombies) was raised by Saul Kripke in 1972, after a long history of philosophy discussing Cartesian automata.

It is axiomatic that light can be shed on this problem by consideration of the verities of Chocoholism. Let us recap the argument:

The question whether a purely physical object can experience something is old. Panpsychists think that everything experiences the world in a nonphysical fashion. For them, there is no problem, apart from the totally absurd claim that rocks experience things. Arguments have been made, however, that there is something irreducible to the physical about experience, as argued by Thomas Nagel in his famous 1974 paper “What is it like to be a bat?”. Nagel argued that all the knowledge in the world about how bat sonar works would not tell us what it is like to be a bat using sonar. Similar arguments were made by others, such as Frank Jackson’s 1986 argument about “What Mary didn’t know” (Mary is a neurophysiologist who is the world expert on colour vision, but was raised in a red-less environment by some weird parent; upon seeing red for the first time she learns something that all the knowledge about how red-seeing is done couldn’t teach her).

So along comes David Chalmers with what has come to be known as the Hard Problem (that is, the problem of giving a physical account of experience is Hard, not just hard). Chalmers asks whether zombies, who are in every physical sense the same as you or I, could exist, who simply do not experience the world. They behave just like us, and report experiences, but they are not having experiences. What is it like to be a zombie?

According to Chalmers and those who hold similar views, there is nothing like being a zombie. Zombies don’t have qualia, the experiential phenomenal properties that experiencers have. They, quite simply, lack experience. So experiencing is not like being a physical thing, because it is conceivable that physical things might be in every respect like experiencers and yet not experience things.

This argument fails on the experience of eating chocolate, because chocolate is the earthly corollary of Chocolate, the Fifth Flavour. Hence even if a zombie ate chocolate without experience, they would have qualia shortly afterwards. Hence p-zombies are unstable in a world with chocolate.

But more than that, the panpsychists are almost right: if the world is made from Chocolate, then everything has the potential to experience it. Chocolate, not Mind, is the fundamental aspect of the universe. You just need the right arrangement of parts with the proper proportions of the other four Flavours. Hence, what it is like to be a bat is to be a bat, and what it is like to be a p-zombie eating chocolate is to be a p-zombie eating chocolate.

This implies that the whole qualia thing is otiose. Experiencers are just physical things in the right order and proportion. If you have taste receptors and the right neural parts, then you experience eating chocolate when you do it. There’s nothing above and beyond that. The world is set up to experience Chocolate, end of story.

So, we are all p-zombies. And by biting blocks of chocolate we spread the zombie hood to other physical systems as they see us meld and become one with the Chocolaty Nature of Things. If we contrast Angels with Zombies, we do not need to be p-angels to have the Chocolaty Experience. Just as well, too, because there aren’t any. But there is chocolate. QED.

In less Chococentric terms, the whole Hard Problem looks like it was derived from the way words are used. Qualia seem to be ineffable, indescribable, and nonspecifiable. So the whole problem boils down to us believing that when words are used like this: “what is it like to be X?” that there is a “like-ness” that can’t be further specified. This is a kind of fallacy: what Whitehead called the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness (the mistake of thinking that if there’s a noun or adjective, then there has to be an object or property that answers to those words).

But if what it is like to eat chocolate is just to eat chocolate, then the Hard Problem becomes a lot less worrisome. I refute it thus <eats some chocolate. Mmmmm, chocolate>!


    • I added a link. Nice catch, and now I have to read it, of course.

  1. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    There are some philosophers who argue that the Hard Problem has not yet been shown to exist….

    I guess until you have sucked all the chocolate off you can’t see if you have a chocolate-coated truffle or a chocolate-coated toffee.

    Do zombies exist? Of course they do. Books and films are full of individuals who we ascribe feelings and thoughts to and they become real to us – at least for a short while – but they are just empty devices.

  2. Jeb Jeb

    Reading around this one I pull together a response or a way to question and find half an hour later Dan Dennett has already said it. Seems to be repeatedly happening.

  3. Joachim Joachim

    So now you dealt with Chocolated zombies, will you next Choc the monkey?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Who knows what Xocolatl will reveal next? Possibly something about political philosophy. A Chocolate Veil, perhaps.

      • Oh no! Please,
        it’s much better to Snicker about some Flakey Twix study than to go Balisto about politicians. Just Taza and Fredo the Lotter.

  4. Jeb Jeb

    I must confess I had difficulties with the chocolate theme at first, but growing use to it.

    Rather like the direct seemingly simple (perhaps not the correct word as you write rather well) approach you use.

    Thought experiments I still can’t get use too, can see the point but still get the same emotion as when at a parents evening some years ago, the assistant head stood up and said “and now our fourth year students will explore African poverty and famine through the medium of dance”.

    Find it a lot with philosophy the thoughts and ideas are highly interesting but often the traditional writing styles are somewhat difficult to get past (gives you the sudden urge to scream and leave the building instantly), though that’s not the case here.

  5. This reminds me a lot of the work that the sociologist Harry Collins is now doing to classify types of expertise. To very swiftly summarize, it measures the level of enculturation, wherein tacit rules govern the application of explicit rules, statements, actions… The only way to learn these tacit rules is to share experience. Here’s a recent article in The Atlantic, if you’re interested.

  6. Marilyn Marilyn

    It goes a lot deeper than the above mentioned counters way past to the dark sparkling back drop that reflects life and future. Mmm could be a veil and moreish.

  7. I want to make sure that I finally understand this. Chalmers’ zombies can eat chocolate and then act and talk as if they enjoyed the chocolate but never actually experienced the taste and digesti0n of chocolate. This sounds sad. But this also could happen only in a charade of causal determinism. Does anybody else see it this way?

  8. John the Plumber John the Plumber

    Blessed are the cracked for they let in the dark.

  9. Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

    So chocolate is a sweet umami for zombies, or do they consume it in the ancient true style: the unsweetened for the undead?

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