Monday, August 23, 2010
What it is like to be a zombie
(Background music: David Chalmers sings “The Zombie Blues”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyS4VFh3xOU )
In a famous article, “What is it like to be a bat?”, Thomas Nagel argues that it is impossible to “catch” the inner experiences of a bat, a human being, a Martian or whatever being with an inner subjective life in the objective description of an outsider. What it is like to be or to experience for a bat, for a human being, for a Martian or for any other being with inner experiences is inherently different from how an outsider, for instance an investigator, observes these same inner experiences. Inner experiences as they are for the holder and as they are for an outsider looking at them are fundamentally of a different type. Therefore we have to distinguish between the perspective of the first person and the perspective of the third person when describing them (see http://organizations.utep.edu/Portals/1475/nagel_bat.pdf ).
Some twenty years later, David Chalmers argued in a similar way that we must make a distinction between the mental and the physical and that a physical reduction of our inner experiences is not possible. In his reasoning he used the so-called Zombie argument. A philosophical zombie is not the terrifying figure we know from films and the like but, in the words of Chalmers, “someone or something physically identical to me (or to any other conscious being), but lacking conscious experiences altogether” (The conscious mind, 1996, 94). However, if we try to describe a zombie, we must conclude that “There is nothing it is like to be a zombie” (id., 95). Arguing from here, Chalmers concludes that consciousness does exist, which makes that reducing conscious inner experiences to physical experiences is not possible. I know that my summary is too oversimplified, and maybe Chalmers will protest, but what I want to discuss is: Is there really nothing it is like to be a zombie?
Once upon a day I made a bike tour on my race bike, as I do so often. I had a strong wind against me and my legs were wheeling round like mad to fight the natural counter forces. The evening sun was dazzling me and I couldn’t see anything. My head had become empty and I felt like in trance. Suddenly I came back to myself and at once I knew it: So it is to feel like a zombie. Zombies do exist! And there is something it is like to be a zombie, for I experienced being a zombie! And we can experience how it is like to be a different creature! How sad for Chalmers and Nagel that such a simple bike ride can topple their theories. The upshot is: Take a bike and philosophize!