The Chronicle of Higher Education gives us, in festive mood, A Brief History of Academics Writing Seriously About Zombies. Unsurprisingly, philosophy takes center stage:
In philosophy, zombies are confined safely to the theoretical realm. Contemporary philosophers use thought experiments involving zombies to “illuminate problems about consciousness and its relation to the physical world,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, whose entry on “zombies” includes priceless passages such as this:
“Suppose a population of tiny people disable your brain and replicate its functions themselves, while keeping the rest of your body in working order (see Block 1980); each homunculus uses a cell phone to perform the signal-receiving and -transmitting functions of an individual neuron. Now, would such a system be conscious? Intuitively one may be inclined to say obviously not. Some, notably functionalists, bite the bullet and answer yes. However, the argument does not depend on assuming that the homunculus-head would not be conscious. It depends only on the assumption that its not being conscious is conceivable—which many people find reasonable. In [the philosopher David] Chalmers’s words, all that matters here is that when we say the system might lack consciousness, ‘a meaningful possibility is being expressed, and it is an open question whether consciousness arises or not’ (1996, p. 97). If he is right, then the system is not conscious. In that case it is already very much like a zombie, the only difference being that it has little people where a zombie has neurons.”
“Suppose I smell roasting coffee beans and say, ‘Mm! Roasting coffee: I love that smell!’. Everyone would rightly assume I was talking about my experience. But now suppose my zombie twin produces the same utterance. He too seems to be talking about an experience, but in fact he isn’t because he’s just a zombie. Is he mistaken? Is he lying? Could his utterance somehow be interpreted as true, or is it totally without truth value? Nigel Thomas (1996) argues that ‘any line that zombiphiles take on these questions will get them into serious trouble.’”
Serious trouble, indeed. In some corners of academe, real zombies are unnecessary: the brains eat themselves.
Big burn, Chronicle. Now in the spirit of the season, I think we’re all honor bound to leave burning bags of dog poop on the Chronicle’s door step. . .