The Zombies Among Us

Philosophers like zombies. Usually they show up in gedankenexperiments having to do with consciousness or identity. A classic philosophical zombie (p-zombie) is a person who appears completely normal to an observer but lacks self-awareness and the qualia that support it. The p-zombie would function as well as any other person according to its talents and so forth, but would have no internal life. It is the flesh and blood version of a Turing-test passing robot.

But what if we are actually surrounded by millions of these creatures all the time? Allow me to modulate the definition slightly. What if consciousness is not a binary feature of a living creature, but rather a continuum of some kind? Human beings remain alive when they are unconscious. Perhaps there are people who are quite competent and exceptional but who are less self-aware than others. (I think we all would agree that this is almost certainly the case). So taking it a bit further, we can imagine that there are people who may have only a rudimentary, or stunted apprehension of qualia. Their responses to the external world are generally appropriate and well adapted, but if we could peer into their internal world the experience would add little or nothing to our knowledge of the behavior since there would be little additional phenomena to experience.

If this is the case, then how would we know about it? One possible hint as to the existence of such creatures might be psychological profiles. Certain profiles could allow an observer to make inferences about the internal state of the subject. Setting aside the “problem of other minds” we can now speculate as to what the possible behaviors of this type of zombie might be.

(To put this in Heideggerian terms, the p-zombie I am imagining is lacking something that is characteristic of Dasein: Care. While it is physically in the world, it is not being-in-the-world the way Heidegger describes).

What’s the point, you ask? Well I have been wondering whether self-awareness (let’s use this term instead of consciousness) is such a good thing. What if rather than being an evolutionary success it actually ends up being a disastrous failure? And if that is the case, perhaps we have among us the future of the species: a version of homo sapiens that will survive after the rest of us have turned to ash.

Imagine a creature like yourself unburdened by self-doubt. This version of yourself does not wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat worrying about how he is going to pay the mortgage. This person is not burdened by regret or even concerned about the future. This person is a machine. He is not Superman, but he might be Nietzsche’s Übermensch.

Although there is no conceivable test that could prove that any individual specimen fit the criteria, my theory is that the most likely markers that would point to such an individual would be very similar to the traits of sociopathy. (Apparently, this is not a recognized disorder in psychiatry. They prefer Antisocial Personality Disorder. But I suspect there are lots of good old fashioned sociopaths living among us who are not antisocial and would not be considered “disordered”).

I call this hypothetical creature an s-zombie.

Where would we find one? Try the corner office of a corporation, or a sales manager’s office at a car lot, or the top of the ticket in a political campaign. Both Trump and Clinton are on my suspected list. Trump displays more obvious characteristics of an s-zombie but looks can be deceiving. The s-zombie cannot lie. What is said, is said for effect. What is done, is done for effect. Success is when what is said or done results in a favorable outcome. An s-zombie is an exceptional salesperson.

There is a race going on right now. I’m not talking about the presidential race, I’m talking about the race to succeed the human species. There are lots of very smart and talented people who believe that Artificial Intelligence in some form or another will be the next great leap forward. But what if it’s already here? Silicon or carbon, the rest of us will survive only so long as we remain useful.


2 thoughts on “The Zombies Among Us

  1. “Man is asleep” is an important theme in the “Fourth Way” (Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, etc.) –
    see Speeth’s discussion at

    And I used the “Uncle Sam as Zombie” title at

    speaking of altered states of consciousness – have you seen the trombone quartet version of “Carry on Wayward Son”?


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