Faversham Stoa is a philosophy discussion group meeting on the 3rd Tuesday of every month from 7.30 to 9.30pm in the The Bull in Tanners Street. We cover a large range of topics. If you have an idea for a topic that you would like us to cover why not drop us a line? There's no charge for membership and everyone is welcome to drop in. Just bring your brain and some beer money!

Zombies

Lucia lived in a town where the lights were on, but nobody was ever home. She lived among zombies.

This was not as scary as it might sound. These zombies were not the flesh-eating ghouls of horror films. They looked and behaved just like you and I. They even had exactly the same physiology as you and I. But there was one key difference: they had no minds. If you pricked them they would say 'ouch' and wince, but they felt no pain. If you 'upset' them they would cry or get angry, but there would be no inner turmoil. If you played them soothing music they would appear to enjoy it, but in their minds they would hear nothing. On the outside, they were ordinary humans, but on the inside, nothing was going on.

This made them easy to get along with. It was easy to forget that they didn't have inner lives as she did, since they spoke and behaved just like ordinary people and that included references to how they felt or what they thought. Visitors to the town would also fail to notice anything strange. Even when Lucia let them in on the secret, they refused to believe her. 'How do you know that they have no minds?' they would ask. 'How do you know that other people do?' would be Lucia's reply. That usually shut them up.


'How do you know?' is often a very good question. It is also, alas, one it is very hard to answer conclusively. We rarely, perhaps never, know beyond any doubt whatsoever. The best we can hope for is to have good reasons for what we believe. Better reasons, at least, than those for believing the contrary. That is why; we don't feel we need to worry about the possibility that we are living among zombies. Even if it is possible that we are, as long as we have more reasons to believe that we aren't, we can safely avoid fretting over improbable possibilities.

The reasons for thinking other people aren't zombies are principally ones of economy. If they walk like us, talk like us and have brains and bodies like us, then the chances are they are like us in all significant respects, including how things feel to them from the inside. It would be very odd if the nervous system which gives me consciousness didn't do the same for others.

This, however, is precisely the point at which the zombie possibility becomes interesting. For why should we think that physical similarities are indicative of mental ones? The problem of consciousness is precisely that it seems inexplicable that purely physical entities such as brains should give rise to subjective experiences. Why should a C-fibre firing in the brain feel like anything at all? What has that brain event got to do with the sensation of pain?

If these questions seem serious and without satisfactory answers, then it would follow from them that there is nothing logically contradictory in imagining brain events such as C-fibres firing without any concomitant sensation. In other words, the idea of zombies – people just like us in every physical respect, but who have no inner lives at all – is perfectly coherent. And so the possibility that other people are such zombies, however improbable, is a real one.

As in horror films, killing off the zombies is no easy task. In order to discount the possibility of their existence, you need to show why it is that a creature that has the same physiology as us must also have the same basic psychology. That means, for example, showing why C-fibre firing must feel like pain, rather than seeing the colour yellow, or nothing at all. It's a challenge that so far no one has been able to meet to the general satisfaction of philosophers. Until someone does, we cannot be sure that zombies do not walk the Earth.

from The Pig Who Wants to be Eaten by Juian Baggini (page 277)

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