Consider the following scenario:

(i) Due to the human's biology (or for some other reasons), everyone is actually a zombie, and there is only a handful of people (including me, the person writing this question) that actually have consciousness. These people (including me) are abnormal, in a sense.

Now consider the usual view:

(ii) Everyone has consciousness.

It seems like in (ii) we posit consciousness, this complex unexplainable "thing", on billions of people. So, the natural questions are:

Does Occam's razor actually favor (i) over (ii)? If so, then why is (ii) so widespread, even among philosophers?

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    I wonder what Turing would think about it ;)
    – Paul K
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 7:53
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    putting aside the endless debates and confusion regarding what consciousness even means, option (i) would explain better why so many people (including many notable philosophers and physicists) insist there is nothing in their inner experience which could be described as Qualia.
    – nir
    Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 9:26

3 Answers 3


Does Occam's razor actually favor (i) over (ii)?

No, because although (i) and (ii) both assert the reality of consciousness, (i) further asserts the reality of something that inexplicably mimics it.

So (i) inevitably involves greater complexity; it has multiplied the entities involved with the assertion that there are really existing p-zombies. If so, in addition to explaining consciousness, we need an explanation for "seemingly conscious" persons that are in fact p-zombies. I.e., (i) is the same as (ii) but more elaborate.

Of course, if we had uncontroversial evidence for the existence of p-zombies, then (ii) is just false. Not everybody has consciousness, so (i) or some version of it is the only reality.

There is a third option, if we can question the existence of consciousness generally:

(iii) No one has consciousness.

Which might lead us into thought experiments involving fake p-zombies! However, this option being true probably involves even more complex multiplication of entities (to account for all the apparent consciousness, when in fact it does not really exist), and so is even less viable, Occam's razor wise.

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    Assuming that an explanation of p-zombies is more complex than an explanation of consciousness is begging the question for physicalism. We don't know which is more complex and common-sense intuition seems to tell us (rightly or not) that we will eventually explain human behaviour leaving the qualitative experience unexplained. Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 9:05
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    @quen_tin It cannot be anything but more complex. Let's call consciousness phenomenon A and p-zombies phenomemon B. Prop. (i) asserts both A and B are real. Prop. (ii) asserts only phenomenon A is real. Prop (i) is more complex because it must explain the existence of both A and B whereas prop (ii) must only explain A. If you have zero evidence for something, claiming it does not exist is simple, whereas claiming it does demands an explanation -> increased complexity in your ontology. Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 12:49
  • Keep in mind the Q is not a thought experiment and we are not proving or disproving physicalism. The question presents two hypotheses and asks which one is more likely to be true according to Occam's razor. That's pretty cut and dried. Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 13:04
  • ok. Your formulation made me think you were saying that B alone is more complex than A, so I agreed with your conclusion but not with the argument. It's clearer now. Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 17:50
  • The locution "something which inexplicably mimics consciousness" (in reference to p-zombie) is a bit loaded to me... I think an antiphysicalist would have a different formulation: "while (i) and (ii) both assert the reality of consciousness, (i) further asserts an inexplicable lack of systematic correlation between conscious-like behaviour and consciousness", or something like that. Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 18:05

In an absolute sense, no. Having zombies and normal people is itself adding an entity without effects. If all the effects are covered by assuming no distinction, then we are better off assuming there is no such thing as a zombie.

It is just this kind of scholastic effulgence of needless potential distinctions the thing was invented to complain about. It is not actual intricacy the razor naturally removes, it is exceptions and pointless lack of uniformity. A universe with only one conscious being is in some sense less complex, but has one more rule -- it names who is 'real'.

Studies of science validate the value of this interpretation. We find good science tends to allow for a lot more arbitrary complexity and chaos, but has fewer and fewer basic principles over time. (We are down to a Tee-shirt full of equations.)

  • Mod deletes comments. Please take ended discussion to chat
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 20:10
  • If you want to say that normal people are in fact zombies and have been all along, under a "non/consciousness non-distinguishable" premise, that also works. What you can't say is "the concept of a zombie evaporates". See: overstating the case.
    – Jeff Y
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 20:12
  • I can say what I want, and if the purpose of Occam's Razor is to get rid of concepts they need to vanish when it gets rid of them, or it is not really very effective. See: putting up with a little rhetorical flourish when it is obvious what is meant... The whole point is already off topic, the third option 'no consciousness not implied by observation' or 'consciousness as an epiphenomenon; or 'consciousness as a mis-labeling' or however you would characterize it, is not part of he original question.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 20:25
  • I have gone to chat as requested.
    – Jeff Y
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 20:32

Occam's razor favors hypothesis (ii).

There is only one way for everybody to have consciousness; thus consciousness is just part of the definition of person. Figuratively, this is just one extra feature of the world, and is required in order to explain why other people seem to respond to situations similar to the way I do.

If some people have consciousness, I have to add an extra label to people, conscious vs. not, in order to describe the world. Figuratively, this is "number of people" additional features of the world.

It is these extra conscious/unconscious labels, to people who otherwise act equivalently (to me, and each other), that constitute the "plurality" that "posited without necessity".

The objection might be made that "but consciousness is itself complex". Suppose that that consciousness entails a plurality of size F (100,1000 whatever). Then under the model that different people are/aren't consciousness then each may or may not have this plurality of features, and thus has (6 billion)xF features. Whereas the "everybody is conscious" hypothesis just has F of them. You've still added a whole bunch of degrees of freedom by allowing otherwise indistinguishable individuals to have or not have consciousness.

However complex consciousness is, it is more complex to say some people do and some people don't have it, than to assume that everyone is equivalent in this regard, unless there is a good reason to infer otherwise.

We do infer that some people are unconscious, but we do so when there are observable behavioral differences between them and ourselves (who are necessarily conscious in order to be making the observations). Thus, representing that difference is "posited with necessity", i.e. for a good reason.

  • So, labeling overweights positing consciousness on billions? How is that possible?
    – user132181
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 22:37
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    Consciousness is complex, but applying the same complex thing to billions does not make it more complex. Assuming all the molecules in the universe obey gravity is simpler than having terrestrial and celestial molecules, even though not having gravity affect the celestial molecules seems to somehow economize. That is just a misunderstanding of what complexity is. It is not like work, you don't have to somehow handle each case individually to distribute the rules to their targets. If every odd molecule in a cube moves left one inch the result is far less simple than if they all do.
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 22:53

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