pZombies meet the Terminator


Published in the Philosophical Review, 2016


The Internet gives well over 400,000 results for studies related to ‘philosophical zombies’, a volume of research which gives an idea of the wide interest and engaged debates about the concept.  

It is a subject strictly related to the Problem of Body and Mind - and some philosophers think that there is no way to solve this problem(1).  How to define the philosophical Zombie (the ‘pZombie’)?  

Zombies in philosophy are imaginary creatures used to illuminate problems about consciousness and its relation to the physical world.  Unlike those in films or witchcraft, they are exactly like us in all physical respects but without conscious experiences. (2)

In other words, a pZombie behaves exactly like us, but it has no feelings or consciousness.  Somehow this pZombie would shout “ouch!” when it touches a hot stove, for example, but that shouting would not be caused by the feeling of any pain (as we would have felt in the same situation); simply, the pZombie imitates our reactions but lacks the feelings we have.

The idea of pZombie met with various perspectives of opposition:

  *        “Can we really imagine zombies? Daniel Dennett thinks those who accept the conceivability of zombies have failed to imagine them thoroughly enough: ‘they invariably underestimate the task of conception (or imagination), and end up imagining something that violates their own definition.'*"(3)

While Dualism suggests that the idea of pZombie is based on separation of body and mind, the idea in fact suggests separation between the two functions of the mind: intellect and consciousness.  

pZombie and the Mental Aspect of Intellect

To be like us pZombie must be equipped with some sort of intelligence in order to do what we do: daily actions, rational perception of time and location, memory of repeated events, ability to count, use language, differentiate colours, ride transport vehicles . . . etc.  The only difference, as the idea of pZombie suggests, is that pZombie lacks the emotional drive and feelings.  

‘Awareness about the world’ is our basic mental function, which the pZombie must necessarily possess, in order to go about living in society.  Therefore, pZombie must be equipped with an adequate intelligence, and intelligence is mental in nature.  The ‘intellect’ is a mental faculty, and this means that pZombie has a mental faculty.  What p-Zombie is lacking then is the mental domain of self-awareness.  Awareness of the self pertains to a sense of identity, motivations, tendencies, desires and feelings.  

In this perspective, then, pZombie does not have motivations or mental states of – for example – sadness, joy, stress, anger or other states of consciousness.  In short, the idea of pZombie is akin to being based on ‘dissecting the brain’ and ‘throwing the emotional side away’ as being not important for functionality in daily life.  

The idea of pZombie can be shown to be incoherent through disproving the claim of its undetectability, so that it turns out to be practically impossible.  Detection of mental states is the domain of Physiological Psychology, i.e. examining the correlation between mental events and their physiological imprint.

Detectability of pZombie

Physiological studies correlate the experience of a certain mental state with secretion of chemicals in the bloodstream, change in skin properties, variations in electrical or acoustical waveforms (associated with particular mental states), and other detectable factors.  

Mental states of a person are strictly associated with related bodily functions.  Various physiological and neurological factors, which are associated with the mental states of intellect, tranquillity, excitement, depression or fear, etc, are technically (or practically) detectable, either directly or through computer analysis of EEG-based emotion recognition:

  *        “The need for computer applications which can detect the current emotional state of the user is ever growing.  In an effort to copy human communication, research has already been done into recognising emotion from face and voice.  Humans can recognise emotions from these signals with a 70-98% accuracy,* *and computers are already pretty successful especially at classifying facial expressions (80-90%)”.* (4)

The aforementioned research into emotion recognition is directed towards developing software for certain applications, but detection of mental states of people like us does not have to be confirmed through laboratory wires or sensitive devices.  Sensitivity of the ordinary observer is sufficient to perceive the mental background in daily-life interactions and relationships between people.  When we are joyful (or sad), for example, our voice vibrations carry the message of that mental state of joy (or sadness).  Success in detecting mental states depends on our experience and maturity, and it is possible to detect whether a person is genuine or is faking a state just to mimic us, to be ‘like us’.

The example of pain is usually given by pZombie literature to explain how pZombie is ‘like us’ in showing our reaction of feeling pain by saying “ouch!”.  But this example of behaviour is too weak an indication to refer to what is “like us”.  The mental domain includes motivations and tendencies, such as love, hatred, jealousy, anger, fear, compassion, etc, which the pZombie should – according to the given definition – manifest in order to appear to us as being ‘like us’.  

To be ‘like us’, at least outwardly, pZombie should express anger (while inwardly not angry), manifest compassion (while being uninterested) or sadness (while not sad), and crack a joke without having a sense of humour, etc.  The idea of pZombie is too bizarrely incoherent to be taken into consideration as a possible argument to show that Dualism is true.  

Nonetheless, the idea can be beneficial in exploring the sharpness of our ability to discern the truth.Suppose one observes a person, who behaves just like us in particular situations, while being in fact a deceiver. How skilled is the observer in recognizing the truth about the observed?

The Problem of Discernibility

The suggestion of the pZombie represents a philosophical ‘mind experiment’, to explore the subject of body and mind.  

A creature of no conscious motivations would not have an intention – obviously – to deceive, but in reality some people try to do so.  To benefit from this thought experiment, we can use it as a test for our own intelligence.  If we do not discern any difference between our behaviour and the behaviour of a person superficially imitating – ‘being like’ – us, then our discernment has to be trained and sharpened.  This is because our judgment about others’ behaviour depends on our valued ability for recognition of details and subtle clues, and for overall comprehension of what is going on.

In general, people are deceived by the imitation of mental states when their awareness does not allow for full conscious recognition of the background of the situation they are in.  

How to guard oneself before deception?  If we can be deceived by someone (mimicking the feeling of pain while not feeling anything, or mimicking close friendship while uninterested, to say the least), then there is a problem with our discernment.

Conceivability and Possibility

The general argument about the concept of pZombie is that:

It is conceivable that zombies exist.  (Premise)

If it is conceivable that zombies exist, zombies can exist.   (Premise)

If zombies can exist, then dualism is true.  (Premise)  

Zombies can exist (from 1 & 2)

Dualism is true (from 3 &4).  (5)

The suggestion presented in the above-mentioned argument – that if something is conceivable in one’s mind, then it can exist in reality – leads to the question: does conceivability lead to possibility?

The conceivability of the flying horse, Pegasus, is one thing, and the possibility of encountering it alive in reality is another thing altogether.  But the conceivability of a man flying in the air or even landing on the moon was turned into a possibility after immense efforts to create a project, which used the laws of nature that would allow the event to occur in reality.  Many useful inventions were first conceived, then became a possibility when employing the laws of reality for their realization.  The field of Potentiality, which is part of our identity, is rife with rich conceivable scenarios we wish to exist.  To turn the conceivable into a manifest reality requires abiding by the laws of reality.

Nonduality and pZombies

First of all, the hidden assumption in the concept of pZombie is that it possesses the mental aspect of information processing (and intellect) in order to recognise things around it and behave in society undetected by us as anything different from us.  Intelligent behaviourof pZombie means that it has the mental aspect of intellectual reasoning.  

If we accept that the mental domain is manifest through Intellect and Consciousness, then the proposition of the pZombie suggests that it is possible to separate the mental aspect of intellect from the mental aspect of consciousness (including self-awareness, motivations, intentionality and so on).  To assume the existence of a creature, which can employ logical reasoning but lacks consciousness about self-motivations, emotions etc, is to take the meaning of distinctness (between intellect and emotions) as meaning complete separateness (between them).  

The two aspects of mind – the intellectual aspect of reasoning and the emotional aspect of self-identity – are represented in the structure of the brain’s two hemispheres.  The functionality of each hemisphere, however, is not strictly independent, as cooperation between the two parts indicates an interwoven connectedness, which strengthens in cases of dramatic situations:

”. . . the brain has immense flexibility.  Other structures do what they can to perform the function of traumatized structures.  Related to this is the brain’s “lateralization”.  

Every structure in the brain is located on each hemisphere, with the exception of the pituitary gland and the corpus callosum.   If a baby lost half of its brain, the other hemisphere would rewire itself to perform the tasks usually seen as the exclusive prerogative of one side.  This firms up with age and myelinisation – the hardening of the cover on nerve cells.  Regardless of this lateralization, the left and right brains have different, but often complementary, styles and capacities". (6)

As the description of the structure of the brain suggests, the concept of pZombie does not fit with the obvious inseparability of intellect (which pZombie has to manifest) from emotions (which pZombie does not possess).  It is also a fact that a truly intelligent person is one who is conscious about the feelings and mental states of people around.  

The principle of Interconnectedness of individual and society excludes the possibility of the concept of pZombie.   Reality is not the domain of dualism.  Relationships have two inseparable sides.  Most of the problems in real-life relationships emerge because one of the two sides lacks appreciation of the mental state of others.  

The principle of Interconnectedness of object with its surroundings poses another reason why the chances of survival of pZombie (within the uncompromising society or environment) are nonexistent.  For pZombies to have a body like us entails also having internal organs, blood, tissues, etc.  Our body is in constant battle within the environment, rife with all sorts of threats, diseases, viruses and various scenarios of dangerous situations.  In general, the threats to survival must be consciously identified and reacted to when experiencing, for example, internal organ deterioration or a threat from outside – a far more serious reaction than just saying “ouch!” when imitating pain.  In order to endure, pZombie must have a desire for survival, which entails consciousness of self-existence.

Mental states are essential for survival in the world of reality, and the interconnectedness between the life of organisms and their environment would terminate the possibility of pZombie – from within and from without.  

pZombie and Artificial Intelligence

As Daniel Kostic mentions in his work, The Turing Test and the Zombie Argument (7), the idea of indistinguishability of intellect expressed by a human being and by an intelligent machine is at the heart of Alan Turing’s work on artificial intelligence.  A pZombie can successfully pass the test:

“Artificial Intelligence: A criterion proposed by Alan Turing in 1950 for deciding whether a computer is intelligent. Turing called it “the Imitation Game” and offered it as a replacement for the question, “Can machines think?” A human holds a written conversation on any topic with an ‘unseen correspondent ‘(nowadays it might be by electronic mail or chat).  

 If the human believes he is talking to another human when he is really talking to a computer then the computer has passed the Turing test and is deemed to be intelligent”. (8)

It is notable in this presentation of the test that Turing employed “an unseen correspondent”, while the idea of pZombie can be seen as a modification to the same test, replacing the unseen correspondent by a very well-engineered humanoid (so that the correspondent in Turing’s test can be seen).  

Another development of the idea was adding to the humanoid the ability for mimicking pain.  But if it can be made to mimic pain it can also be made to mimic pleasure.  This is a world of mimicking feelings and faking relationships.  Arriving at a fake world shows what conclusion Dualism can lead to.  

The Terminator of all Zombies

Nonduality is the terminator of all zombies.  Think of it: if they are like us, then, logically speaking, we are like them.  We are not different.  If they lack something, and they are like us, then we too, are like them, lacking something: we lack discernment of the truth about others’ true feelings.

The ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ are not two.  To use Eastern Philosophy’s Sanskrit term, both sides are Advaita, ('A’ stands for negation, ‘dva’ means two).  Nonduality is perceived as oneness of body and mind (9), and also is perceived in the interconnectedness of ‘self’ and ‘environment’, without which survival is not possible.  The ‘self’ and the ‘environment’ are two distinct things but they are inseparable (the air we breathe, for example).  Survival of the ‘self’ has to meet conditions set by the ‘environment’, and this involves constant struggle against threats from microbiological invaders (even from people around us).  Even individuals fully equipped with all mental capabilities can face a threat to their bare existence.  pZombie cannot escape the threats to its own survival, and its lack of consciousness, fear, feelings of pain, and motivation to survive would ensure its physical disintegration in no time.  

The idea of pZombie represents a focus on possessing ‘intellect only’; but this side is mirrored in us by the other side of ourselves, ‘consciousness and emotions’, which are lacking in pZombie.  Nonduality paves the way for the rejection of these two extremes.  What can survive in reality is the entity of the ‘middle way’: neither the focus on the emotional nor the focus on the intellectual, but integrating both into oneness.  This is the true nature of who we are: the irreducible integration of the physical and the mental into an individual.



(1) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Zombies’ 2011,

(2) ibid

(3) Ibid, ‘Arguments against the conceivability of pZombies’

(4) Danny Oude Bos: EEG-Based Emotion Recognition.  Department of Computer Science, University of Twente, Enschede, Netherlands.  

(5) Scott Sturgeon, Matters of Mind, Zombies and Ghosts, page 101. ISBN 0-415-10094-1

(6) David D Franks, Neurosociology, The Nexus between Neuroscience and Social Psychology, p. 42, Dept of Sociology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA 23284. ISBN: 978-1-4419-5530-2

(7) Daniel Kostic, The Turing Test and the Zombie Argument, Belgrade, 2004 http://sammelpunkt.philo.at:8080/1007/1/dk.pdf

(8) Dictionary.com, ‘Turing Test’, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/turing-test

(9) Nichiren Buddhism Library, ‘Nonduality of Body and Mind’, https://www.nichirenlibrary.org/en/dic/Content/O/21