Paul Simpson: Philosophical significance of zombies and disembodiment

What is the philosophical significance of the idea of disembodiment and/ or the idea of a ‘zombie’?

The philosophical significance of concepts such as disembodiment and Zombies is that they enable us to test certain ideas of the soul. They represent what might be termed ‘thought experiments’ which provide a means to identify the consequences (or, at least, certain consequences) of these ideas. We can then consider the significance of these consequences — do they lend support to, or detract from, the original idea. To develop this preliminary appreciation, let’s see how this approach works in the case of disembodied minds and Zombies.

We need to be clear, first of all, about the idea we are examining. In this case, we are looking at a fundamental tenet of Cartesianism, that physical substance and mental substance are quite distinct i.e. a claim for substance dualism.

If mind and matter are distinct substances, then it follows that they do not need to be connected — it should be possible for them to exist apart from one another. If we ask what is the result of their separation, then we arrive at the idea of Zombies and disembodied minds. What do we mean by a Zombie? In saying that a Zombie is a body without a mind, we mean a ‘person’ who does not have a ‘mind’ or ‘soul’. Such a ‘person’ would look like you and me, and behave like you and me. Were we to look inside the scull we would see a brain which is structured and functions like yours or mine. There is no scientific test which would identify any difference. However, in lacking a ‘mind’ or ‘soul’, the Zombie has no consciousness, no concept of personal identity, no feeling of what it is like to see blue. A disembodied mind would be undetectable by any scientific test. It would, however, have the characteristics that the Zombie lacks — consciousness, self-awareness, subjective experiences.

But is it feasible to postulate the existence of disembodied spirits and Zombies? Unit 3 asks whether we can envisage an encounter with either of these, or whether we can picture what it would be like if we found ourselves in such a state. It could, however, be objected that these considerations are not conclusive. If we find it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine what it is like to be a bat, how can we hope to imagine what it would be like to be a Zombie?

Because our ‘mind experiment’ needs to establish whether Zombies and disembodied minds can exist at all, we need to consider whether it is logically possible that they could exist. This test does not apply only to the physical universe of which we are aware, but to any possible world. On this basis, and given that the basic postulation is that we are dealing with two distinct substances, then we can accept that it is logically possible for Zombies and disembodied to exist. There is no logical requirement for the body and soul to be combined.

There is a further twist to these considerations. How do I know that you, the reader, are not a Zombie? Come to think of it, how do I know that everyone else in the world is not a Zombie, and that I am the only ‘person’ with body and soul together? I cannot appeal to visual evidence or scientific tests to give me an answer. Nor can I reason that, because I have a mind that other people have minds, because it is not valid to generalise from a sample of one (myself).

Descartes seems to have done it again. First he causes us perpetual difficulties with his notion of an evil demon, now, even if I am convinced that I exist, I am left uncertain whether other ‘people’ are like me. Let’s be clear which particular rut I am in at present. It is primarily an epistemological one, because I am struggling with the question ‘how do I know that other people are like me?’ And there does not seem to be a convincing way out of this difficulty.

Maybe we need to move to another perspective. If we are stuck on the epistemological front, perhaps a move to metaphysics is required. Can we ask whether there is an alternative way, or alternative ways, of viewing the relationship between the body and the mind?

Other views were developed soon after Descartes. To take two and consider the implications of these:

Locke could see no relationship between body and mind; he supposed that God acted separately to introduce the contents of our minds.

Leibniz considered that everything derived from the physical conditions of the universe, that there is a connection between the physical and the mental.

So, for Locke, God has to act twice, one to establish the universe and then to arrange the content of our minds. For Leibniz, God only has to act once, when he has created the physical universe, everything follows on from this.

Now if we are discomforted by thoughts of Zombies, one way out is to adopt a metaphysical approach which does not lead us into this problem. There is no possibility of Zombies with Leibniz’s approach because we are all necessarily constructed the same way. I have a mind, and I can be assured that you have a mind. Not so with Locke’s approach, or with that of Descartes’.

Clearly, we have at this stage only opened up the possibility of alternative metaphysical approaches, and the pros and cons of all of them (Descartes, Locke’s and Leibniz’s) require to be properly considered. Nor do these three cover all possible metaphysical theories. The present purpose, however, is solely to establish that such alternatives do exist.

If we briefly re-visit the route we have taken, we can now establish a fuller answer to the significance of Zombies and disembodied spirits.

We began with Descartes view that bodies and minds are made up of distinct substances. Prime facie, this looks to be a tenable position. Furthermore, we cannot look to scientific evidence to evaluate its feasibility. To establish a way of testing it therefore, we identified certain implications of the theory namely, the existence of Zombies and disembodied minds. These brought to light a number of problems. First, it seems difficult if not impossible to answer the question ‘Do I know that other ‘people’ are not Zombies?’ To try to escape from this problem, different metaphysical solutions to the mind body relationship were identified. However, at this point, we have not reached any solutions; several metaphysical models (including Descartes) remain in the field, and the epistemological question is unresolved.

Zombies and disembodied minds have therefore taken us on a lengthy philosophical journey. We have established implications of a theory which might not otherwise have been evident, tangled with problems of epistemology, and looked at different metaphysical models. Quite a lot to flow from a single idea! They have certainly established a philosophical significance.

© Paul Simpson 2014