Believing Zombies


Believing Zombies



Could there be zombies that believe they are conscious?[1]They have no consciousness, but they erroneously believe that they do. That may seem possible if we think of their beliefs as implanted at birth or something of the sort: couldn’t a super scientist simply interfere with their brain to install the belief that they are conscious, as innate beliefs are installed by the genes? The belief is false, but that is no obstacle to belief possession. We may have an innate belief that we are surrounded by a world of external physical objects, but that belief might be false if we are really brains in vats. Similarly, zombies might have false beliefs about their mental world, supposing it much fuller than it really is.

But the matter is not so simple: for beliefs need reasons. What reason could the zombies have for believing they are conscious? The reason we believe we are conscious is that we are conscious and this fact is evident to us–without that we would not have the belief in question. If the believing zombies were to reflect on the beliefs they find implanted in them, they would wonder what grounds those beliefs—what evidence there is for them. Finding nothing they would abandon their groundless beliefs, perhaps with a shake of the head at being so irrationally committed to something for which they have absolutely no reason. Minimal rationality would quickly disabuse them of their error; they would believe instead that they are notconscious, or possibly remain agnostic.

It might be replied that consciousness is not necessary to ground belief in consciousness, only the appearance of consciousness is. The zombies have to be in an epistemic state just like our epistemic state except that we have consciousness and they have none—the appearance of consciousness without the reality. But this is contradictory, since the appearance of consciousness would have to be a form of consciousness: it would have to seemto them that they were conscious. For instance, it would have to seem to them that they have a conscious visual experience of yellow without having any conscious visual experience (of yellow or anything else). Surely that is impossible: seeming to have a conscious state is having a conscious state (of seeming). So the only reason they could have for believing they are conscious is that they are conscious, and they need areason for that belief if they are to have it stably.

Now it may be said that we are being too rationalistic about belief: people can believe things for no reason at all, without any evidence whatever. Couldn’t our zombies believe they are conscious because this is what they have always been taught or because of superstition or from wishful thinking? They want badly to believe they are conscious (it seems so undignified to be a mere zombie) and so they deceive themselves into believing it. Happens all the time: no evidence at all, but firm belief nonetheless. That sounds like a logical possibility, though it would be an odd case of irrational dogma or motivated self-deception. One problem is that irrational believers generally thinkthey have reasons for belief, even though these putative reasons look hollow and unconvincing to everyone else. They will cite these reasons when challenged to defend their beliefs. But what will the zombies say when challenged? They can’t point to anything that even appears to look like consciousness, since that would imply that they have consciousness. People whose religion requires them to believe in miracles will cite certain natural events as proof of said miracles, however unconvincing these events may be as evidence of miracles; but our zombies have absolutely nothing to point to, since the mere semblance of consciousness isa case of consciousness. Their religion may require them to believe they are conscious, but they can point to nothing that could even be interpreted as consciousness, because they have no consciousness. An appearance of miracle may fail to be a miracle, but an appearance of consciousness is always consciousness. And nothing else could provide any halfway reasonable grounds for their belief. So we are left with the idea that they believe they are conscious without even believing they have any grounds for that belief.[2]This gets us back to the case of beliefs that exist without even having any purported justification. All they can say when challenged is, “I simply believe it”. This is a difficult thing to make sense of because beliefs need grounds ofsomesort (they purport to be knowledge after all).

We should conclude that zombies that believe they are conscious are not possible. Any being that believes it is conscious must be conscious. That includes us: if we believe we are conscious, then we must be conscious. This refutes an eliminative view of experiential consciousness: it cannot be that we lack such consciousness while simultaneously believing that we have it. We cannot be actual zombies under the illusion that we possess consciousness.[3]


Colin McGinn

[1]These are zombies with respect to experiential consciousness not zombies tout court, since they are stipulated to have beliefs. The intuitive idea is that they have no conscious experience and yet they believe that they do: for example, they think they have conscious visual experiences of colors, but they don’t have any such experiences.

[2]They may have a sacred text in which it is written that zombies are conscious, despite the introspective appearances, and they may be brainwashed into accepting that text. But then the “belief” they have is really a matter of faith, since they have no direct grounds for the belief, even of the thinnest kind. They accept the text only because of their religion, not because they can offer any justification for the beliefs it recommends. They don’t really believethey are conscious, as they (rightly) believe themselves to be embodied believers. For that they need some sort evidence, even if it falls far short of what it is evidence for.

[3]Some extremists have sought to deny that “visual qualia” (etc) exist, despite our firm conviction that they do exist. But it is simply not possible to believe in such things without there beingsuch things, since they provide the only possible grounds for such a belief.


9 responses to “Believing Zombies”

  1. Henry Cohen says:

    I have two disputes, though I do not know whether, if I am right, they would alter your conclusion. First, I dispute that beliefs need reasons. Many people say that they believe in God but acknowledge that no evidence exists, and that their belief is based solely on faith. They may claim to “feel” that God exists, but that feeling is not evidence; it means no more than that they strongly want God to exist. Second, if people are asleep, then, in a dream, can’t it “seem to them that they have a conscious visual experience of yellow without having any conscious visual experience (or yellow or anything else)”?

    • Beliefs are claims to know; that’s why no one ever says “I know that p but I have no reason for saying that”. What is called faith is not a claim to know, so not a belief in the relevant sense. In dreams you have visual experiences but they are not veridical.

  2. Henry Cohen says:

    An otherwise sane person once told me that he accepts that science has established evolution by natural selection but nevertheless chooses to believe the Genesis account of the creation of species.

    • Choosing to believe is a problematic idea (see Bernard Williams’ classic paper). In the case of religion people invariably have reasons they produce to justify their belief–they don’t say “I have no reasons whatsoever”. They also compartmentalize.

  3. My zombie twin doesn’t have ‘beliefs’ because it is a zombie. Zombies (of the philosophical variety) don’t have beliefs or any other mental states. They behave as we do but nothing is going on inside.

    If, believing epiphenomenalism to to be true, I were to assert, ‘I am an epiphenomenalist’, then my zombie twin must assert this too. Whatever physical chain of causes and effects that led to the sounds that come out of my zombie twin’s mouth is identical to the physical chain of causes and effects that led to the sounds that come out of my mouth. In this story, consciousness, supposing that it actually exists, is altogether out of the loop.

    However, let’s say I don’t in epiphenomenalism. I believe in interactionist dualism. I cannot have a ‘zombie twin’ because it would lack a vital component, that which gives human beings the ability to think and act consciously and rationally.

    Why would I believe this? Because I believe that I might not have existed but someone exactly like me (in a world exactly like this world) might have existed in my place. Or, to put the matter in terms of epistemic rather than metaphysical possibility as Descartes did, I believe that it is possible that I did not exist five minutes ago but that someone exactly like me (but with a numerically different soul) existed in my place.

    This isn’t an objection to dualism (as Strawson notoriously claimed in ‘Self, Mind and Body’) unless you are a verificationist. There’s lots of stuff we don’t know and can’t know. Kant believed in a ‘noumenal’ self, while arguing against Descartes’ ‘mental substance’ in the Paralogisms.

    • I’m not seeing the relevance of this to what I wrote, but on your first paragraph let me draw your attention to footnote 1 of my essay. I’m discussing the question of whether someone could be wrong about whether they have experiences.

  4. Yes, your target is someone who thinks that they have an adequate materialist account of content — paradigmatically belief — which someone explains why we have the false notion that there exists something extra ‘inside us’ which we call ‘consciousness’, and which philosophers have called ‘qualia’. But if qualia don’t exist then what could possibly explain our dogged belief that they do exist?

    The ‘blind sight’ thought experiment is relevant here. I am amazed that I am able to tell, by ‘looking’ that a surface is red, even though I don’t ‘see’ red, my visual field has gone black, or maybe just a section of it has. What actually happened? Maybe I blurt out the word ‘red’ when asked to name a colour. What about more subtle forms of colour discrimination?

    Your ‘partial zombies’ don’t have that disturbing experience. They think they really see red. That’s what they say. They would strenuously deny that they are somehow ‘missing’ something. And their behaviour is 100% what you’d expect from beings whose senses are working normally.

    Materialist philosophers who buy this eliminative strategy are quite happy with the idea that they are, in fact, ‘partial zombies’ in the sense described. But you have a knock-down argument to show why they’re wrong. The ‘appearance’ of consciousness, you say, just IS consciousness. I agree.

    My point was that if we look at this idea more closely, the ‘partial zombies’ don’t really have beliefs. Their behaviour is explicable in terms of the attribution of beliefs and desires, but there’s more to belief then behaving ‘as if’ you had a belief. There is something ‘it is like’ to believe (not always, of course, but when you are consciously reflecting on a belief). Beliefs are associated with emotions, for example, anxiety, if a cherished belief is challenged.

    So this materialist is forced to say that not only do we have the ‘false belief’ that we are ‘conscious’ but we also have a false belief about the nature of ‘belief’.

    My further points were not entirely relevant to what you actually wrote, but I was thinking ahead to where this all leads.

  5. Giulio Katis says:

    Is there not a more general argument here about the implausibility of rationally believing in the existence of an essential (as opposed to contingent/accidental) property and that a particular mental object/process possesses it, when in fact it doesn’t. E.g. in what sense can any creature (zombie or not) capable of thinking, believing etc, and that understands basic geometry, believe it has formed a mental representation of a triangle, when it has in fact formed a representation of a square? (By ‘mental’, I mean information theoretic, which may or may not be conscious.)

    I assume you can always have a false belief about the contingent properties something has.

    Maybe from a biological-neurological perspective conscious brain processes have contingent properties, and from an information processing perspective they have an essential property.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.