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.

man in zombie spaceman outfit
Participants take part at the Zombie Walk Duesseldorf along the Rheinuferpromenade on September 6, 2015 in Duesseldorf, Germany. (Photo by Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images)

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:

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Fireball meteorite offers clues to origins of life

A meteorite that smashed into a frozen lake in Michigan may explain the origins of life on Earth, finds study.

Security camera footage of the fireball in the sky over Toledo, Ohio. | Meteorite hunter Robert Ward shows the meteorite on Strawberry Lake by Hamburg, Michigan.

Credit: T. Masterson and the American Meteor Society | Robert Ward
Surprising Science
  • A new paper reveals a meteorite that crashed in Michigan in 2018 contained organic matter.
  • The findings support the panspermia theory and could explain the origins of life on Earth.
  • The organic compounds on the meteorite were well-preserved.
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Should facial recognition software be banned on college campuses?

A heated debate is occurring at the University of Miami.

Credit: asiandelight / Adobe Stock
Technology & Innovation
  • Students say they were identified with facial recognition technology after a protest at the University of Miami; campus police claim this isn't true.
  • Over 60 universities nationwide have banned facial recognition; a few colleges, such as USC, regularly use it.
  • Civil rights groups in Miami have called for the University of Miami to have talks on this topic.

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