Philosophical Zombies are a thought experiment that is used to argue for dualism and against functionalism. The argument goes something like this:

  • A purely functionalist account of the mind fails to distinguish between a person with subjective experience and a philosophical zombie (P-zombie) who has all the outward appearances and behavior of a person, but doesn't have any conscious subjective experience. Functionalism therefore fails to account for a key feature of the mind-body connection which is subjective experience.

Now consider a similar thought experiment:

We have 2 subjects who are outwardly and functionally identical in every way, and both have conscious subjective first person experience.

  • The first person however makes conscious decisions and goes though life choosing to drink tea or to drink coffee, to turn left or turn right, to vote for Clinton or for Trump, etc...

  • The second person goes through life in an entirely reflexive way. They can perceive what's happening around them as well as any conscious being, but they never make any conscious decisions to do anything. They go through life on auto-pilot, and everything thing they do is a reflex. Call this person a FW-Zombie.

A FW-zombie has freewill according to compatibilists, but not according to those who argue for libertarian freewill.

The concept of FW-zombie shows that compatibilist freewill fails to differentiate between a person performing conscious intentional decisions and a person going through life on auto-pilot, and therefore fails to give a complete account of our experience of freewill.

If the conceivability of a P-zombie is enough to provide a serious argument against functionalism and for dualism, then is the conceivability of a FW-zombie a serious argument against compatibilism and for libertarian freewill?

If anything a FW-zombie seems like a more realistic concept than a P-zombie. Although P-zombies are purely conceptual, many people go through FW-zombie like experiences in real life, if only for brief amounts of time.

But I am not trying to argue for the reality of FW-zombies. Nor am I trying to understand the validity of conceivability based arguments.

My question is the following:

If we are willing to accept conceivability based arguments like P-zombies or Twin Earth as legitimate, then is the FW-zombie argument I suggested above a valid argument against compatibilism and for libertarian freewill?

Someone flagged this as a possible duplicate of another p-zombie question. This is question is not about P-zombies as usually defined, but about a reimagining of the p-zombie so that it applies to freewill instead of qualia.

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    N.b. I think that people go through P-zombie like experiences in real life ( philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/6979/…)
    – Dave
    Commented May 16, 2016 at 18:22
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    Jonathan Edwards spoke of "moral necessity," arguing that decisions undetermined by our nature would suggest that they are determined by something independent of it. This sort of determination was never conceived by him as an unconscious reflex; but rather, it might be seen as a freedom from indetermination in which we always fully decide according to our nature. That suggests that there is another perspective that your FW-zombie model doesn't quite capture.
    – user3017
    Commented May 16, 2016 at 21:27
  • @PédeLeão "are determined by something independent of it" - would this correspond to Reed's agent causation theory? - I've always felt that freewill was actually the strongest argument we have for dualism. Commented May 16, 2016 at 23:31
  • Edwards was saying that it would imply that our decisions wouldn't be under our control. He also denied that we have any power to change our own nature, arguing that would require the absurdity of having two separate natures, one to alter the other. Although I'm not that familiar with the agent causation theory, I believe Edward's view would be incompatible with it. (Note: Edwards actually used the word "will" instead of "nature", but I prefer to think of an immutable nature rather than a immutable will. In that way, the will is perfectly free to act according one's nature.)
    – user3017
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 1:12
  • @user3017 Anyone who has accomplished self improvement knows that we CAN modify our natures. If Edward's reasoning leads to a consclusion refuted by observation, then it is flawed in some major way.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 16:17

2 Answers 2


This seems like a follow-up on Does having free will presuppose consciousness, can philosophical zombies have it?, and FW zombies are Chalmers's Haitian zombies. Two preliminary remarks. First, functionalists (and physicalists) would deny that they fail to account for subjective experience. There is an equivocation in "account for", to them it is accounted for if a model of the mind provides for special cognitive phenomena accessible only privately. Carruthers accounted for "conscious experience" in this sense in Phenomenal Consciousness, and arguably this is the same sense of "accounting for" as in "physics is geometry, and gravity is accounted for by the curvature of spacetime". Dualists would say that this is not the "account for" they have in mind, and a typical response will be that what they have in mind is unintelligible, and in any case begs the question against the physicalists. And on and on it goes.

Second, it is unclear that your two subjects exhaust the logical possibilities. Just because someone makes no conscious decisions arguably does not mean that their actions are reflexive, i.e. that they function like a sophisticated version of a vending machine. People report acting "intuitively", and as long as we are admitting conceivability and introspection, unconscious volition is a distinct option. A number of philosophers accept such a thing, Ryle, Wittgenstein, more recently Hacker, possibly even Kane (it is hard to see how his deliberation in the state of indetermincy can be entirely conscious, see How does Quantum Mechanics affect the modern account of free will and determinism?). Indeed, they argue that it is necessary to block the Spinozian regress of willings, see What counters are there to Spinoza's argument that acts of free will create infinite regress? This issue might be moot though since most compatibilists would presumably reject the unconscious free will along with the conscious one.

Now to the question. Modal arguments use essentially the same schema: conceivability → possibility → relevance to actuality. If we accept the schema, as we must to get philosophical zombies, then the argument is obviously valid. Unfortunately, this matters little. Because the schema is valid or not according to one's preferences, there is no price to pay either way, see Are arguments based on conceivability refuted by ideas from fantasy and sci-fi? Modal arguments really turn on the plausibility of their premises, which is why most of the ink is spent on intuition pumping, and the argument itself is usually an afterthought. Indeed, if one has to argue that something is conceivable it doesn't bode well for the intended conclusion.

Your idea that people undergo FW zombie like experiences in real life sounds like a good start. But to really make it tick we need something vivid, like a guy stuck in a room with pencils and Chinese dictionaries, or Mary the color scientist, stuck in a black and white room. Or better yet Jones with a Frankfurt-style device wired into his brain, which lets him choose vanilla ice cream freely, but compels him to do so if he is about to choose chocolate. ☺

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    People acting intuitively are still acting. "I chose the red pill because I had a gut feeling to choose the red pill instead of the blue" is different from "I wasn't thinking when I picked up the red pill". Commented May 16, 2016 at 23:47
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    @Alexander Ryle and Wittgenstein would say that indeed we are not "thinking" when we take actions like running, swimming or picking up pills, those actions take place without the representational running commentary of Cartesian "conscious experience", including gut feelings. Those come from a separate activity of rationalization. According to Wittgenstein entire linguistic practice is based on such non-representational knowledge-how, not knowledge-that philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/34219/…
    – Conifold
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 19:49
  • @Alexander This is not a philosophy reference, but in terms of people undergoing FW Zombie-like experiences in real life you might be interested in the recent wave of cognitive scientists who argue that conciousness is an illusion and that modern neuroscience does not support the concept. Bruce Hood's "The Self Illusion" is an accessible introduction. The world may well be composed entirely of FW Zombies and person 1 in your thought experiment is the unreal conception.
    – user22791
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 8:03

You write:

If anything a FW-zombie seems like a more realistic concept than a P-zombie. Although P-zombies are purely conceptual, many people go through FW-zombie like experiences in real life, if only for brief amounts of time.

I suppose you are thinking about a scenario similar to scratching an itch.

You ask person A "did you consciously choose to scratch that itch?" and he responds "No, I just did it without thinking."

You ask person B "did you consciously choose to scratch that itch?" and he responds "yes, I thought about it for a while since I was afraid that I might injure my skin but finally I chose to scratch it."

These scenarios are not functionally identical, and I cannot think of another coherent functionally identical scenario involving a free will "zombie".

If you think there is one please elaborate on a particular example.

you might say that you meant that both persons will respond the same way as B did but one of them would be lacking subjective experience of free will.

But you said that both have subjective experience — well, maybe they both have subjective experience but not necessarily the same.

So in that case by free will zombie, you mean something like a "restricted" p-zombie where the zombie only lacks subjective experience of free will.

If that is so, then please explain what motivates you to contemplate a being that has subjective experience when it comes to redness, to sadness, to inner voice, to the passing of time, and to other intuitions, but not when it comes to free will.

EDIT - You wrote elsewhere that you believe subjective experience may be accounted for by functionalism.

If that is the case and if both beings are "functionally identical in every way" then their subjective experience is identical. That is, neither of them is a p-zombie or a "restricted" p-zombie.

We therefore have a situation in which both beings have the same subjective experience concerning free-will, and both are functionally identical.

What dimension remains for "true" free will to hide itself in from the claws of functionalism?

  • My motivation to contemplate restricted p-zombies is hinged on the validity of conceivability type arguments. If conceivability type arguments are valid, then my restricted p-zombie (FW-zombie) argument against compatibilism stands. David Chalmers states that p-zombies are not real, only conceivable - and therefore metaphysically possible - and yet that is enough for his p-zombie argument to stand. My question is: if conceivability is indeed enough (I don't know enough modal logic to figure that out), then my restricted p-zombie argument should stand as well. Commented May 17, 2016 at 19:55
  • @AlexanderSKing, you seem to acknowledge that your free will "zombie" is actually a p-zombie. That is, the subjective experience of one is different than the subjective experience of the other — whatever that means. But you claim elsewhere that you believe functionalism can account for subjective experience. This appears to entail that both beings are in fact not "functionally identical in every way" and therefore that your thought experiment is flawed.
    – nir
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 16:53
  • Mary the color blind neuroscientists has subjective experience of everything expect colors. Why is it then so farfetched for someone to have subjective experience of everything but freewill? Commented May 19, 2016 at 17:04
  • @AlexanderSKing, to who is Mary the scientist "functionally identical in every way"?
    – nir
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 17:16
  • good point - I wonder why that objection to Frank Jackson wasn't brought up earlier? Commented May 19, 2016 at 17:18

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