Philosophical zombies may lack a consciousness, but does this preclude the ability to have a free will? Why does consciousness matter, for agency, or at all, if determinism is real?

(I've framed the question, as such, to make room for more than a Hume answer to my inquiry.)

  • 3
    What is your specific definition of freewill? In my experience, questions like these are designed to create a razor sharp edge with which to cut a problem in to manageable pieces. For such razor sharp edges, crisp definitions of hard to define words like "freewill" are essential. I could give you two answers to this question, one unequivocal "yes" and one unequivocal "no," with the only difference between them being the definition of free will. Worse, those two definitions I would choose are empirically identical -- there is no way to develop an empirical test to differentiate them.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented May 6, 2016 at 16:51
  • @Cort Ammon I'm not defining free will, more an exploration into various views which might solve this inquiry. I would say that free will, therefore, is at the heart of the discussion. I would like to know how various philosophers would respond to this issue, since it doesn't seem people discuss it in any length or framing. I would assume Hume would have little issue with saying a zombie had free will and, I would suspect, would say consciousness didn't matter because it was all deterministic anyway, but I am looking for more views. Commented May 6, 2016 at 16:59
  • You might want to tag this reference-request then. It's a good topic to explore what others have said about it. It's a tricky topic to try to arrive at answers to.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented May 6, 2016 at 19:01
  • i didn't really need or want a personal answer. it was a suggestion to edit the question to make it clearer ... now done for you.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 10:59
  • @Cort Ammon I didn't, at the time, think of this as a reference request, but I suppose you're correct. Commented May 11, 2016 at 14:11

2 Answers 2


Chalmers runs a (semi-serious) site Zombies on the Web with lots of (serious) references, where he makes a 3-way distinction:

Hollywood zombies. These are found in zombie B-movies...

Haitian zombies. These are found in the voodoo (or vodou) tradition in Haiti. Their defining feature seems to be that they lack free will, and perhaps lack a soul...

Philosophical zombies. These are found in philosophical articles on consciousness. Their defining features is that they lack conscious experience, but are behaviorally (and often physically) identical to normal humans.

...One might make the case that philosophical and Hollywood zombies lack free will and are thus a sort of Haitian zombie, although both claims would be controversial. In any case, many believe that Hollywood zombies are a sort of corruption of Haitian zombies.

Free will can manifest without consciousness on modern understanding of volition in both compatibilist (with determinism) and libertarian (without determinism) accounts. This attitude is relatively new however, and motivated by the rise of the philosophy of the unconscious, first in the works of Schopenhauer, Hartmann and Nietzsche, and later in Freud's psychoanalysis; Wittgensteinian and Heideggerian critiques of the rationalist view of action (the rule-following regress and the "embodied-embedded" approach); and recent neuroscience experiments (e.g. Libet's), which showed that people often can not accurately time formation of their "intentions", or even "fill them in" after the fact. See the review How Does Neuroscience Affect Our Conception of Volition? by Roskies.

In hindsight, it seems implausible that every letter in a voluntarily said sentence is separately "willed", and therefore that exercise of will requires awareness. But traditionally it was a very common philosophical position, aligned with "common sense", which is still implicitly or explicitly held by many rationalist philosophers and scientists (including Libet himself). In modern accounts conscious and unconscious wills are usually explicitly distinguished.

To summarize, unless one makes a question begging definition that free will is conscious will there is no logical connection between will and consciousness in either direction. Compatibilists describe how deterministic creatures can be conscious, and anti-conceptualists describe how non-conscious creatures can will. For more discussion and references see What counters are there to Spinoza's argument that acts of free will create infinite regress?

  • 2
    I can't answer this question directly, I don't have an refs, but doesn't freewill require a first person perspective and therefore cannot be had by P-zombies? Commented May 6, 2016 at 20:05
  • @Alexander See edit on Chalmers. I am inclined to sidestep P-zombie case because what they are consists entirely of stipulations made by philosophers for themselves. What I had in mind more is something like animals, especially low-level animals, where we have little reason to suspect self-awareness but "free will" appears to manifest analogously to many human actions, assuming one sees it even there. Schopenhauer even considered inanimate objects to be individuations of the World Will, but that seems to dilute the concept to a point of vacuity.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 6, 2016 at 21:56
  • 2
    "unless one makes a question begging definition that free will is conscious will" I disagree that this is a question begging definition. If will doesn't have to be conscious, then what prevents us from making statements like "The rock wants to fall down the hill" and "The wave is trying to reach the shore"? Additionally, it's common to think of victims of people acting under hypnosis, sever psychosis or psychoactive chemicals to be acting to things other than their freewill. Tying freewill and consciousness seems intuitive. Commented May 10, 2016 at 20:14
  • @Alexander It is question begging because it is unclear if even the paradigmatic examples of free will in humans fall under it. Also psychotics and people under the influence of (most) psychotropic drugs remain conscious even as their volition is severely impaired. But generally intuition is not a defense against begging the question, Descartes and others thought that immateriality of souls was intuitive too. Intuition needs to be cashed into an argument, and apparent ways of doing that are blocked by the rule-following regress and other objections to rationalizing actions.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 1:05
  • 1
    I actually find the discussion of free-will and P-Zombies, as @Alexander makes, to be related enough that I like to plow through that topic rather than sidestep it =) I find they're a useful tool for approaching any trait in the form of "I axiomatically state I have this trait, and I state that these other things (like rocks) lack this trait, and it should be intuitively obvious to everybody where the dividing line is." While P-zombies originally were purposed to do this for consciousness, I find the same constructions are useful for exploring the questions of what the words "free will" mean.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 14:36

Free will does not exist.

My personal theory, that I have only now just finalized from absorbing all your various comments is that, "THERE IS AND ISN'T FREE WILL" Which then means it does not actually exist, because it cannot become a choice, therefore the closest title or definition we as human beings can describe it as is " AN ILLUSION " Anyone that may believe that they are exercising thier own "free will" by reading this comment, or in fact any action they have ever done, I regret to inform them that they are wrong. Any action that has ever been done has needed a stimulus. Go back to Newtons third law of motion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Think about it, every action to this day that any living organism has ever done was because of another action. Even plants which are living entities that some may believe don't have a "conscious " still germinate, grow and feed because of another action.

Before I conclude, I want those that can to digest my following statement:

FREE WILL??? To be free is to carry out instructions or actions without any intent or reason (according to me). Will, is to carry out instructions or actions with a goal or a purpose.(in my own words).

Which may mean "free" is the intangible act and "will" is the tangible act. None exists without the other

A simple example is eating. We all eat, or rather we know the act of eating. We cannot see or touch "hunger" however, we respond to it by "eating". And vice versa if we carry out the action of "eating" we intern do not feel "hunger".

Intangible needs tangible to exist and vice versa.

Therefore that it is why I have stated that free will doesn't not exist, because if anything can be something and something can be anything than it cannot be called anything and on and on and on it goes. That's just want I think, it may be complete crazy talk I don't know.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .