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zombies and p-zombies

Zombies are allegedly dead bodies with no souls, animated by the black magic of voodoo priests or bokors. Voodoo is a religion which originated in West Africa and was brought to Haiti in the early 16th century by West African slaves. According to tradition, the slaves could not practice their religion openly and were forced to adopt in public the practices of the French Catholic settlers. [A correspondent, Dorian David Leigh, who says he is a practitioner of Haitian Voudon, says the traditional view is wrong. He says that "rather than using Catholic images to disguise their traditional religious beliefs, the members of the many disparate tribes that made up the slave population of Haiti likely found that Catholicism was the one thing they had in common when it came to religious belief.  Rather than hiding behind Catholicism, they recognised something that was already familiar to them and had already been adopted into their various tribal religious practices.  Haitian Vodou (not voodoo) is not only from Benin, although Benin is where the practice of Vodoun originated and is still practiced.  Haitian vodou is a combination of spiritual practices from many tribal groups in Africa, including the Fon (of Benin), Kongo, Ibo, and Yoruba (of modern Nigeria); amalgamated with Catholicism and the beliefs and practices of the native Taino indian population.)] Voodoo is still a popular religion in Haiti and in cities where Haitians have emigrated, such as New Orleans. (According to Leigh, "New Orleans Voodoo has nothing whatsoever to do with Haitian Vodou.  It is acompletely different thing, and not even an actual religion. It is the local variant of hoodoo/conjure, concerning itself with spellcasting and divination rather than the worship of lwa, or spirits.") Vodu is an African word meaning spirit or god. (Leigh disagrees and says that "Vodu is the Fon word for 'spirit', and does not mean 'god' in any sense of the word. The spirits of Vodou are not gods, as Vodou is a monotheistic religion centered on the belief that there is one God, who created the universe and spends all his time running it, therefore he is too busy to worry about the concerns of men.  Instead, he created the spirits to act as intermediaries, to advise, guide, help and heal human beings.  The spirits are therefore lesser beings than God, and are not considered deities by those who serve them.") The black magic of voodoo sorcerers allegedly consists of chemicals, various poisons (perhaps that of the puffer fish) which immobilize a person for days, as well as hallucinogens administered upon revival. The result is a complacent, paralyzed, or brain damaged creature used by the sorcerers as slaves, viz., the zombies. [Leigh says that "There is no 'black magic' involved, and those who create zombies are not always bokor.  In the most common form of Vodou, Afrique de Ginen, killing is forbidden.  So when a crime is committed that is so horrible it can only be punished by death, instead the criminal is turned into a zombie.  This is rare, and not done lightly.  There are others who do not share this morality, and may sell zombies (astral or physical) for their own profit.  These persons are the ones associated with black magic.  Additionally, there are many secret societies in Haiti who act as something like a police force, but who are more feared.  These societies are the ones associated with creating zombies as punishment, and one (the Bizango) is discussed at length in Wade Davis' book The Serpent and the Rainbow."] The zombie is not to be confused with the zombie astral, whose soul (ti-bon-ange) is controlled by the sorcerer.

It is quite understandable that a religion practiced under slavery would emphasize evil spirits. [Leigh writes: "Vodou does not in any way at all emphasise evil spirits.  Instead, Vodou emphasizes happiness, healing, community and service.  There are some spirits in Haitian Vodou who are considered 'hot', who may be angry when they appear in possession, who are warlike or who have a more ambiguous morality.  However, these spirits are not considered evil.  They are beloved in Haiti as they helped the slaves overthrow their masters in the Haitian Revolution.  Also, the spirits have very human aspects to them.  A baloved mother may become violent if she has to protect her child.  There is a spirit considered to be the mother of all Haitians and of the country of Haiti, and she will certainly become violent and angry if her children are threatened.  That does not make her evil.  There are also spirits who are nothing but happy, whose goal it is to do nothing but spread joy and happiness.  There is no emphasis on evil spirits, all spirits are given equal weight, although those who are most commonly encountered or who are most popular are likely to be emphasised over those who are less common or well known.  To state in any way, shape or form that Vodou emphasises evil spirits is both false and offensive to those who practice that faith."] It is a cruel irony that some in the religion would evolve to worship at evil's altar and engage in practices which not only enslave others but keep the community in line from fear of being turned into a zombie/slave. [Leigh writes: "Creating zombies, as I said above, isn't done by evil sorcerers and isn't about enslavement.  Turning someone into a zombie is Haitian Vodou's equivalent of the death penalty. It is the ultimate punishment for serious crimes, and is done more to protect the community than to terrorise it.  Very respected members of the Vodou community (Such as Ati Max G. Beauvoir) have the ability to turn someone into a zombie, but no one believes them to be evil.  A judge in a court of law may have the ability to send someone to death row, but that doesn't make him evil either.  True, there are a very few people who traffic in zombies, but Haitians trust that secret societies (who also have the power to create zombies) will protect them from those individuals.  The issue of zombie is not so clear cut, and to state that those who create zombies 'worship at evil's altar' is a rather simplistic and dramatic view of the subject."]

Many people are skeptical of the existence of zombies, which I take to mean they are skeptical that a dead person could be revived with or without retaining his or her "soul" or "self-consciousness" or "mind." Once you are dead, you are dead forever. For those who don't believe a person has a soul, death is not the separation of the body from the soul, but the end of life and consciousness. The voodoo zombie is not a dead person, but a living person who has been brain damaged.

There is another kind of zombie, however: the philosophical zombie. A philosophical zombie (p-zombie, for short) would be a human body without consciousness which would nevertheless behave like a human body with consciousness. To some philosophers (e.g., Daniel Dennett) this is a contradictory notion and thus an impossible conception. If it behaves like a person and is indistinguishable from a person, then it is a person. Other philosophers (e.g. Todd Moody and David Chalmers) argue that a p-zombie would be distinguishable from a person even though indistinguishable from a conscious person. It is distinguishable, say these philosophers, because it is stipulated that it is not conscious even though it is indistinguishable from a conscious being. In case you are wondering why philosophers would debate whether it is possible to conceive of a p-zombie, it is because some philosophers do not believe or do not want to believe that consciousness can be reduced to a set of materialistic functions. Important metaphysical and ethical issues seem to hinge on whether there can be p-zombies. Can machines be conscious? If we created a machine which was indistinguishable from a human person, would our artificial creation be a "person" with all the rights and duties of natural persons? To the p-zombie advocates, consciousness is more than brain processes and neurological functions. No adequate account of consciousness will ever be produced that is "reductionist," i.e., completely materialistic.

I think it is possible to conceive of a machine which "perceives" without being aware of perceiving. In fact, they already exist: motion detectors, touch screens, tape recorders, smoke alarms, certain robots. An android which could process visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and gustatory input but which would lack self-consciousness, i.e., would not be aware of perceiving anything, is conceivable. We can even conceive of such machines resembling humans in the flesh. How would we distinguish such automata from persons? The same way we do now: by the imperfect and fallible methods of conversation and observation. But that is not what would make the two distinct; self-consciousness or the lack of it would distinguish the automata from persons. "Visual perception" by a motion detector is unlike visual perception by a person just because of the difference in awareness of perception, i.e., self-consciousness. A smoke detector might "smell" certain chemicals, but it does not process odors the way a person does. In my view, the only conceivable p-zombie would be a machine which perceives but has no awareness of perceiving, i.e., no self-consciousness. Such machines are essentially distinct from conscious persons.


If two machines developed consciousness and were physically identical, could one of the machines be self-aware but the other not, while we couldn't tell which was which? If they're physically identical, then one can't have a property the other doesn't have; otherwise they're not identical in some respect, even if we don't know what physically distinguishes the two.

For what it's worth, I side with Dennett and those who think that the concept of the p-zombie is a logical absurdity. If the "zombie" exhibits all the symptoms of consciousness, then the "zombie" is not a zombie; for to exhibit all the symptoms of consciousness is to have consciousness, which the zombie is denied by definition. It seems silly to grant that there can be two identical beings though one has properties the other lacks. In that case, the two are not identical beings. The concept of a p-zombie makes no sense to me. [/new]

Anyway, this reminds me of a story by Raymond Smullyan, the great logician and paradoxer. A man wants to commit suicide but does not want to cause his family any grief. He finds out about an elixir he can take which will kill him, i.e., separate his soul from his body, but leave his body intact to wake up, go to work, play with the kids, keep the wife satisfied and bring home the bacon. But before he takes the elixir, a well-intentioned friend sneaks in during the night and injects his suicidal friend with the stuff, thereby killing him, i.e., releasing his soul. The man wakes up and doesn't know he's dead (i.e., that he has no soul), so he takes the elixir. He can't kill himself, since he's already dead. But he thinks he can kill himself and become a p-zombie. However, he is already a p-zombie. Question: if the p-zombie can't tell the difference between a real person and a p-zombie, why would we think that we real persons could tell the difference? In fact, since the conception of the "soul" makes absolutely no difference in either the nature of a person or a p-zombie, the concept of the "soul" is superfluous. If persons are indistinguishable from p-zombies then they are not two distinct concepts, but one concept manipulated by language to mislead us into thinking there are two distinct concepts here.

As to the ethical questions regarding how we should treat androids which are behaviorally indistinguishable from natural persons, I think that if we stipulate that such creatures are persons with rights, then they will be persons; otherwise, they will not be persons. The concept of a person is not a matter of discovery, but of stipulation. I would argue, also, that the same is true of the concept of "soul." But it is not true of the concept of "consciousness": anyone who is conscious should be able to tell the difference between a dead body and a living person. Dead bodies which act like persons, and bodiless souls which perceive like conscious persons, exist only in the movies or in the minds of certain philosophers and other fantasy writers.

Personally, I would argue that self-conscious androids should be granted the status of persons on the grounds that the distinction between being synthetic or natural is insignificant. I have a feeling that believers in souls would disagree and would justify creating a race of androids to serve as slaves and to be treated as things not persons.

further reading

books and articles

Churchland, Patricia Smith. Neurophilosophy - Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (Montgomery, Vt.: Bradford Books, 1978).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Consciousness explained illustrated by Paul Weiner (Boston : Little, Brown and Co., 1991).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Kinds of minds: toward an understanding of consciousness (New York, N.Y. : Basic Books, 1996).

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow (New York: Warner Books, 1985). By the Carlos Castaneda/Indiana Jones of Harvard. The book was made into a movie in 1988.

Davis, Wade. Passage of darkness : the ethnobiology of the Haitian zombie (Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

Hofstadter, Douglas R. and Daniel C. Dennett The mind's I: fantasies and reflections on self and soul (New York : Basic Books, 1981).

Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind (New York: Barnes and Noble: 1949).

Sacks, Oliver W. An anthropologist on Mars : seven paradoxical tales (New York : Knopf, 1995).

Sacks, Oliver W. The man who mistook his wife for a hat and other clinical tales (New York : Summit Books, 1985).

Sacks, Oliver W. A leg to stand on (New York : Summit Books, 1984).


West African Dahomean Vodoun

The Unimagined Preposterousness of Zombies by Daniel Dennett

Zombies on the web: compiled by David Chalmers

"Self-Ascription Without Qualia: A Case-Study" by David Chalmers

"In Defense of Impenetrable Zombies"by Selmer Bringsjord

"Zombies and the Function of Consciousness" by Owen Flanagan

Last updated 04-Aug-2016

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