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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 370 Reponse


by Stefan Brenner

In Ásgrímur Hartmannsson’s “Zombieworld,” Sam’s captor says: “We will get you. It only takes a drop.” Can Sam be sure he hasn’t already been “gotten”?

Ásgrímur Hartmannsson does not specify the precise effects of the zombie-drug, but one assumes that it makes its victim compliant and unreflective. Sam’s consternation about the authorities’ motives and actions, together with his desire to escape from them, seems to provide good evidence of his remaining uncompromised. If Sam is reflectively non-compliant, and being unreflectively compliant makes one a zombie, then Sam is not (yet) a zombie.

However, this cannot be whole story: many people are unreflective and compliant without being zombies. So, what does make someone a zombie? As I understand the term, a zombie is a kind of animated corpse: zombies lack psychological inner lives and perhaps even consciousness. Presumably, Sam knows he is not an animated corpse, but can he be sure? Well, surely Sam knows whether he has a psychological inner life, or at the very least, whether he is conscious.

The classical philosopher Descartes claimed that one’s knowledge that one is a conscious, thinking being is the only thing that one knows with absolute certainty. However, Descartes’ “substance dualism” — a metaphysical division of the living person into an immaterial soul/mind and a material body — is no longer popular. Nowadays, naturalism pervades the philosophy of mind: many modern philosophers claim that our ‘mindedness’ consists of some complex neurological state-transitions or ‘computations’ that mediate between perceptual inputs and bodily outputs. This theory of mind is usually termed functionalism.

If functionalism is correct, then Sam is in trouble. For, if zombies are functionally identical to ordinary human beings, then, notwithstanding their lack of a conscious inner life, they possess perfectly good minds. Indeed, they possess the precisely the same kinds of minds as their living counterparts.

Of course, no one has yet proved that functionalism is correct: indeed, opponents of functionalism have used just this sort of example to urge that it must be false!

So, is Sam off the hook? Unfortunately, he may not be...

The modern philosopher David Chalmers rejects all functionalist theories of mind. He does so precisely because functionalism — the individuation of mental states by their typical inputs, outputs and mediating states — fails to capture the special nature of consciousness.

However, Chalmers also argues for at least the logical possibility of unconscious zombies for whom everything is “dark inside.” Such zombies are our functionally identical doubles: they lack only the light of our psychological inner life.

In addition, he thinks that neither they nor we can be sure about our psychological status: humans and zombies are equally capable of believing they possess the ‘inner light’ of consciousness. It is just that in the case of the deluded zombie, this belief is merely a pale shadow of its conscious, human counterpart.

Paradoxically, it seems that if Chalmers if correct, Sam is still in trouble.

Sam the zombie exhibits every sign of being properly alive and conscious. He proclaims that he is as human as the rest of us. He fears the authorities’ drug, takes every precaution against it and loathes zombies with every fiber of his being. Nevertheless, he is still a zombie.

A new thought now dawns: suppose that I am a drug-induced, functionally identical duplicate of my hitherto conscious self. In that case, even as I sit here typing, all may be “dark inside.”

Can any of us be sure that we haven’t already been “gotten”?


Copyright © 2010 by Stefan Brenner

Thank you, Stefan; a superbly researched and reasoned argument. I believe I think I agree with you. But how can I be sure? My thought may be a figment of its own imagination. Oh well: as you say, we can at least go through the motions.

And existence itself — as we may infer from Ásgrímur’s story — may be one big conspiracy theory. In the end, I keep coming back to Robert Frost’s bargain with the Deity:

“If Thou’lt forgive my little jokes on Thee,
I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.”


Copyright © 2010 by Don Webb
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