A Not Very Philosophical Zombie

Just a quick note to share some news:

My short story, “A Not Very Philosophical Zombie,” is now available for your reading pleasure on Daily Philosophy.

Interesting tidbit: The adorable picture that goes with my story (not the one above, but on the Daily Philosophy site) was AI generated. You’ll see how fitting that is when you read it.


What do you think? Feel free to comment and answer any or all or none of the questions. I’m including these just to get the ball rolling.

Story Questions (posed here in vague terms to avoid spoilers):

  • If you were in Monica’s position, what would you conclude about Brian?
  • What if you were in Cynthia’s (Brian’s wife) position?
  • Do you think Monica has good reasons for believing what she believes?
  • Regardless of Monica’s reasons, do you agree with her conclusions? What are your reasons?

13 thoughts on “A Not Very Philosophical Zombie

  1. Loved the short story! To your questions…

    1. If I were in Monica’s position, I’d conclude Brian wasn’t conscious. I think consciousness is a byproduct of the brain’s functioning (an epiphenomenon), but don’t know exactly what causes it. Regardless, I see no contradiction in the idea of someone who is not conscious behaving in a way indistinguishable from one who is.

    2. In Cynthia’s position, I’d feel shattered. For me, I’d want to know that someone I shared my life with had an inner life. I think it’s irrational to make my happiness contingent on another’s mental state (or even the existence of one) but I still would value it.

    3 & 4. I think Monica’s views are valid, but not sound. I disagree with her premises, and therefore don’t share her conclusion. But given those premises, it’s logical that she’d arrive at her conclusions.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for answering these questions. It’s so fascinating to hear how people respond to the predicament in the story. Also, I’m considering expanding this into a longer story, a novel or novella, and it’s very helpful to get people’s reactions.

      Apparently, I’m in the minority. The three of you (you, Wyrd, and SelfAwarePatterns) agree in thinking Brian wasn’t conscious, whereas I would be on her son’s side. I would’ve concluded that Brian was conscious and that consciousness is definitely not to be identified with the brain (though there would, of course, still be many questions to address).

      I actually came up with the idea for this story one night while trying to figure out what could possibly happen that would make illusionists rethink their position. In other words, what would get people to stop calling consciousness an illusion? I imagined a healthy, seemingly normal person who turned out to have no brain. Like Monica’s son in the story, I thought that would be a knockout blow.

      Then I tried to think of how a dug-in illusionist might respond to this scenario—they’d say Brian wasn’t conscious. Then I tried to think of how an ordinary person would respond to this scenario, and bingo, there was the story.

      “Regardless, I see no contradiction in the idea of someone who is not conscious behaving in a way indistinguishable from one who is.”

      So you’re agreeing with Chalmers in saying p zombies are conceivable (as opposed to those who think they entail contradiction)?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, I think p-zombies are conceivable, which is why consciousness is so hard to study.

        Regarding those who say consciousness is an illusion, how I’d respond would depend on how that statement is to be interpreted. Off the top of my head, I can think of 3 ways to interpret the claim that consciousness is an illusion:

        1) Consciousness is an illusion to ourselves: for this to be true, we must be conscious to experience the illusion, so this seems a contradiction. Unless they mean #3 by this.

        2) There is no such thing as consciousness and that our belief that such a thing exists is an illusion: I know this to be untrue because I am conscious, but I cannot disprove this because I cannot prove my own consciousness.

        3) Consciousness is not what we think it is (e.g.: not an unbroken stream or mediated by thoughts instead of pure experience): this doesn’t attack the hard problem of consciousness at all, which is the most interesting aspect of it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Congrats on the story! Enjoyed it. I also saw that Philosophy News linked to it. (I had actually seen their link before your email arrived and had a thrill when I recognized the title.)

    I’m pretty sure my attitude would be similar to Monica’s at the end, but much stronger, in the sense of, “What is wrong with you people?!? Whatever this is needs to be investigated, by scientists if not the police.”

    As Alex mentions, and recognized by your title, if Monica is right, Brian wouldn’t be the classic p-zombie, since a zombie’s behavior is supposed to be identical to a conscious being’s? Although from Cynthia’s perspective, it might seem like that was what he was.

    That said, I don’t buy p-zombies, so if I were in Cynthia’s position, after presumably years of seeing conscious capabilities from Brian, I’d be skeptical that he wasn’t conscious through some alternate means. Which is why, if I were Cynthia, I’d insist on someone studying whatever he was.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for letting me know about Philosophy News. I had no idea! How cool. And thanks for reading my story!

      “As Alex mentions, and recognized by your title, if Monica is right, Brian wouldn’t be the classic p-zombie, since a zombie’s behavior is supposed to be identical to a conscious being’s? Although from Cynthia’s perspective, it might seem like that was what he was.”

      Brian wouldn’t be the classic p-zombie simply because he has no brain. Initially I was thinking of calling Brian’s brainless situation an inverse p-zombie, or some such thing, but all those are apparently taken. I was left with “not very philosophical zombie”. In the end, I enjoyed the playful double meaning there.

      “That said, I don’t buy p-zombies, so if I were in Cynthia’s position, after presumably years of seeing conscious capabilities from Brian, I’d be skeptical that he wasn’t conscious through some alternate means. Which is why, if I were Cynthia, I’d insist on someone studying whatever he was.”

      By “I don’t buy p-zombies”, I assume you mean you think they’re inconceivable? (I know you know what I mean, but I’ll leave a link here in case someone stumbles upon this exchange and wants to know more.)

      What alternate means would you want to investigate?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Good point about the missing brain. Brian would be more of a behavioral zombie than a classic one.

        By “not buying ” them, I basically mean I don’t think they’re a productive concept. I’ve never been sure what people mean when they talk about conceivability in this context. (Someone recently asked Chalmers about this on Twitter. I didn’t find his response clarifying.) Classic zombies seem to require some form of epiphenomenal dualism. So I can imagine them existing if that’s reality, although if it is reality, I’m not sure how we could ever know. (Likewise, it doesn’t seem like a p-zombie could ever “know” it was one.) But if it isn’t true, then classic zombies seem logically incoherent.

        There’s more conceptual space for behavioral zombies. But the concept assumes that only one (or a limited number of) implementations can produce “real” consciousness. My view is there are always different ways to skin a cat. If an entity can do everything a conscious one can (including talk about its own inner life) over an extended period of time, then I have a hard time seeing any justification for concluding it’s a zombie.

        On alternate means to investigate, not sure. If there’s no brain, maybe try to see where the neural connections go. Try to ascertain what caused the body to move. And what lead to it breaking down. In other words, how did Brian work in the first place?

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m not sure what a behavioral zombie is or how it’s different from a philosophical one.

          I wonder about the ruckus over “conceivability” myself. I’ve heard it means “does not entail logical contradiction”—don’t ask me where, though, because I’ll just have to say “the internet”. Of course people reading popular articles on the subject might not find the word so strictly defined. Anyway, once I dig into the conceivability stuff, things get far too analytic for my tastes. Really the zombie argument is far too analytic for my tastes. The problem exists with or without zombie arguments.

          “If an entity can do everything a conscious one can (including talk about its own inner life) over an extended period of time, then I have a hard time seeing any justification for concluding it’s a zombie.”

          I mostly agree with that, unless the entity in question looks like, say, gelatinous goo, or a paper mache head, or what have you. (Now I’m reminded of a movie about a guy trapped on a desert island who gets so lonely he talks to a soccer ball.) Then the gelatinous goo has got to have a sparkling personality.

          I can picture you in the morgue tearing poor Brian’s body apart looking for his seat of consciousness, even while the body decomposes. 😉

          Actually, that might be a good bit of tension if I ever do write the novel. Hey, thanks!

          Liked by 1 person

          • A classic philosophical zombie is usually described as being both physically and behaviorally identical to a conscious being. A behavioral zombie is described as being behaviorally identical (or at least indistinguishable) but can be different physically. Behavioral zombies don’t have the metaphysical implications of philosophical zombies. A lot of people would insist, for instance, that a seemingly conscious machine would be a behavioral zombie.

            Yeah, Wilson (the soccer ball), and our species’ long history of attributing consciousness to natural phenomena, is a cautionary warning. But it seems like we only ever get behavior as a guide. A lot of people talk about a system’s internals, but those specific internals need to have been previously associated with the right kind of behavior (such as self report) in other systems.

            Glad to be of service in supply mad scientist vibes. 🙂 We writers have to take inspiration wherever we can get it.

            Like

  3. Your story reminded me a little of something Ray Bradbury might write if he were alive today. (He wrote a lot of short stories, so you’re in good company in that way, too!) The rather fantastic aspect of Brian’s reality being accepted and dealt with as an almost normal thing. One would otherwise expect such a thing to be huge news. I kept wondering how he was able to function at all.

    I was also reminded of a Robert J. Sawyer novel I read last year (Quantum Night) that had an idea that really stuck with me: The notion that a certain quantum phenomenon was necessary for full (self-aware) consciousness and, further, that only one-seventh of the population were in that state. Four-sevenths were straight up p-zombies. (Two-sevenths possessed consciousness but were psychopaths — conscious without conscience — the ratio was 1:2:4.) I’ve wondered ever since if there might be some truth to the basic idea. It would explain a lot.

    Given that: [1] I might easily agree with Monica since I wonder if it’s not true of many people. [2] Likewise but doubt I would have married a p-zombie in the first place. [3] Sure! [4] Yes, because I wonder if p-zombies are real, but certainly given the information in the story.

    The adorable picture… you mean the one with the shoes? That’s AI-generated? Wow!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow, Ray Bradbury? Thanks!

      It’s so true what you say about expecting such a thing to be big news, and that’s kind of why I decided to downplay it. It seemed to me we’d go on talking forever about what dress such and such actress was wearing at such and such event, and the really important things would simply go unnoticed. But it’s interesting you point this out, as I gave it considerable thought.

      The Quantum Night premise sounds interesting. It certainly does feel like we live in a mixed-consciousness society!

      As for your reply to question 2, how would you know if you avoided marrying a p-zombie?

      Yeah, can you believe that adorable doggie picture was AI generated? I went back and forth with the guy who runs the blog on what sort of images to use, and I came up with an AI generated maltese on a leather couch. He thought it lacked drama and added the shoes. I thought that a nice touch…creates that feeling of absence, and also makes you wonder what Kudos the dog thinks of Brian’s absence. (I have to think she’s sitting by his shoes because they still smell like him and she misses him dearly.)

      Liked by 2 people

      • I was going off what both Monica and her son observed about Brian’s behavior and figured I wouldn’t be likely to marry someone matching that description. Although, on reflection, arguably I kind of did (and regretted it). Although, although, unless Sawyer’s notion of actual p-zombies is true, one presumes she was a fully conscious being. Still, I’d like to think I would pick up on someone with no inner life (and run for the hills).

        Those shoes really do make the photo stand out!

        If you were to expand on the story, and framed it in physical reality as we know it (rather than in a Bradburyesque fantasy frame), you’d need to account for how Brian was able to function at all with no brain. What made his heart and lungs function, for instance. That’s what was so striking to me about the Sawyer story. His use of the Hameroff/Penrose notion that quantum effects are necessary for consciousness allowed for seeming fully functional people — true p-zombies — but ones with no inner life.

        I think you can get away with a man with no brain in a short story, but a novel would need to explore what would be ground-breaking news. Unless you went full-Kafka or something. You can get away with just about anything in surrealism or absurdism.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Perhaps I will go full Kafka and it’ll turn out Brian did have a brain, only it migrated very slowly over the course of his life to another region of his body, the discovery of which gives a whole new meaning to ‘thinking with your…’ Yeah, okay.

          No but really, I do like the idea of going absurd with it. Hm.

          Liked by 1 person

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