Last updated on 6 Feb 2013
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>!