Are we more than just our bodies? Philosophers argue over zombies.
Philosophers David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett argue over “philosophical zombies,” created to question the nature of human consciousness.
Zombies are a big part of our pop culture. They are both a cathartic exploration of what it means to be human and a vehicle for social commentary. The word “zombie" comes from Haitian folklore and refers to a corpse animated by witchcraft. Facing a horrid life, 17th-century Haitian slaves, who worked on sugar plantations in the French-owned Louisiana area, often considered suicide but were afraid to be trapped in their bodies, wandering the Earth as soulless shells.
In philosophy, this idea of a hypothetical creature that looks like a regular human but has no conscious experiences is known as a “philosophical zombie" or a “p-zombie".
Why do philosophers need zombies?
The concept is kind of a mind trick. Imagine a being that looks and even talks like a human. It goes through all the normal motions of a human and yet has no consciousness. And you would have no idea that it is not like you.
According to philosophers like David Chalmers, p-zombies are an argument against physicalism - the school of thought that everything that makes us human is ultimately derived from our physical characteristics.
Physicalism is based on the success of science in exploring the physical world. According to physicalists, we are essentially intricate arrangements of atoms. Behaviorists, a subset of physicalists, maintain that even all mental processes - thoughts, desires, etc - are just responses to the behaviors of others.
If a p-zombie that is exactly like us, except for the sense of self and consciousness, is logically conceivable, then this possibility could support dualism, an alternative view that sees the world consisting of not just the physical but also the mental.
David Chalmers, Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist, who currently teaches at NYU, thinks that the p-zombie thought experiment can be used to illustrate the “hard problem" of consciousness - “why do physical processes give rise to conscious experience?"
In other words, since a world of zombies is imaginable, all behaving purely at the physical level, why did evolution produce consciousness in humans?
“If there is a possible world which is just like this one except that it contains zombies, then that seems to imply that the existence of consciousness is a further, nonphysical fact about our world. To put it metaphorically, even after determining the physical facts about our world, God had to "do more work" to ensure that we weren't zombies," says Chalmers.
His argument goes like this:
1. Physicalism says that everything in our world is physical.
2. If physicalism is true, a possible metaphysical world must contain everything our regular physical world contains, including consciousness.
3. But we can conceive of a “zombie world" that's like our world physically except for no one in it has consciousness.
4. Physicalism is then proven false.
Physicalists, of course, beg to differ. They argue that any identical copy of our physical world would contain consciousness by necessity.
Daniel Dennett, a noted physicalist philosopher and expert on BigThink, wrote a refutation of “p-zombies" in his commentary, tellingly titled “The Unimagined Preposterousness of Zombies". In it, he proposes that philosophical zombies are logically incoherent.
“When philosophers claim the zombies are conceivable, they invariably underestimate the task of conception (or imagination), and end up imagining something that violates their own definition," says Dennett.
For Dennett's conception of consciousness and free will, check out this video:
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Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.
Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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