Consider the following situation:

  1. You are in a room that has a mirror as one of its walls.
  2. You assert/commit to that you are conscious and have qualia.
  3. You look at the mirror, and you observe your own image.
  4. The person in the mirror looks and behaves like a conscious, qualia possessing human: you.
  5. You assert that mirror images cannot be conscious.

Therefore, the mirror image of you is an example of a human that looks and behaves identically to a conscious human, but is not conscious: it is a philosophical zombie.

What are the weaknesses of this argument?

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    The person in the mirror is not autonomously functional like philosophical zombies are supposed to be, in fact it is not even an object in the conventional sense but an optical effect, like a rainbow. As a result, it does not "look and behave identically to a conscious human" in the relevant sense, where the full array of empirical tests is allowed to inspect "look and behave".
    – Conifold
    Oct 4, 2016 at 17:29
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    My point is that a conventional object is a unity of various properties, optical, mechanical, chemical, behavioral, etc. Neither an image in a window, nor a mirror image reproduce this unity aside from the optical part, and close enough physical inspection will easily tell the difference. I think Husserl had a relevant distinction between conferral and fulfillment of intentions. Visual appearance is enough to confer an expectation of an object, but when this expectation is comprehensively pursued in this case it will fail to get fulfilled, or rather it is the original that will fulfill it.
    – Conifold
    Oct 4, 2016 at 17:55
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    @Conifold, I think you miss the point of the thought experiment. The issue is not to distinguish human from non-human. The issue is to distinguish conscious from non-conscious. Can only conventional objects be conscious? why? Oct 4, 2016 at 19:36
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    We can easily modify the thought experiment... take some robot duplicates a persons movements and speech. Is this robot a sufficient unity? The robot behaves as if it is conscious. Oct 4, 2016 at 22:18
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    Your issue is in getting from point 3 to point 4. Upon observing a mirror image, you apparently conclude that it behaves exactly like a real human. In this, you overlook that a real human does not appear only in reflective surfaces, does not mirror the actions of a real human, can be detected by senses other than sight, and can be observed independently of (ie. does not require the presence of) other objects (such as mirrors). Thus you are too quick to assign qualia and autonomy to an observed "entity", which is the root of your problem. Oct 5, 2016 at 9:52

7 Answers 7


This illustrates how removed the concept of 'philosophical zombie' is from reality. The mirror image does not have a brain; it is a trick of light. It is no more a 'zombie' than a photo, a drawing, or a terse sentence in a bad novel.

More specifically; the concept of a philosophical zombie is that there can exist something in principle indistinguishable from a human, that does not possess consciousness. A mirror image can be distinguished from a human by a number of means, and hence it doesn't even qualify as a philosophical zombie. No questions of dualism arise from this.

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    "the concept of a philosophical zombie is that there can exist something in principle indistinguishable from a human, that does not possess consciousness." no, I disagree with this. The point of the philosophical zombie concept is that current theories of physics don't explain why philosophical zombies are impossible. Nothing in current physics tells us why human bodies are conscious, whereas a rock isn't. Based on physics, a non-conscious human body is perfectly legitimate.... I'd say more legitimate than conscious human bodies. Oct 4, 2016 at 19:33
  • @AmeetSharma: current theories of physics don't explain why philosophical zombies are impossible -- You're trying to prove a negative, and looking into a mirror won't help.
    – user319
    Oct 4, 2016 at 23:43
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    @AmeetSharma Nothing in current physics proves that the world isn't a simulation played for our personal or collective benefit, etc. But there is certainly enough in there to relevantly distinguish rocks and humans, complicated chemical and neuronal structures for once. Unconscious human bodies are not only not ruled out by physics, we encounter them often, but zombies are an attempt to drag physics into empirically sterile metaphysics, where it doesn't belong.
    – Conifold
    Oct 5, 2016 at 0:33
  • @Conifold, "Unconscious human bodies are not only not ruled out by physics"... how? What is the scientific test for consciousness? Oct 5, 2016 at 1:04
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    @AmeetSharma We do faint and fall asleep, not to mention die, are we using "consciousness" in the same sense?
    – Conifold
    Oct 5, 2016 at 1:15

Approach 1 - (4) is false.

One line of reasoning has already been presented.

(4). The person in the mirror looks and behaves like a conscious, qualia possessing human: you.

This is false, because the person in the mirror simply reflects the behavior of something else, which is not the behavior of a conscious human, but that of a reflection.

Approach 2 - (5) is false.

But there's a different way of approaching it.

(2). You assert/commit to that you are conscious and have qualia.


(4). The person in the mirror looks and behaves like a conscious, qualia possessing human: you.

That's because the person in the mirror is you.

(5). You assert that mirror images cannot be conscious.

The mirror image is you, and you've already asserted that you are conscious, therefore it's illogical to assert that the mirror image isn't conscious.

The Difference

The difference between these approaches is simply in the delineation between "a thing" and "its reflection". Neither is more valid, and each is more useful in certain circumstances.

Example 1

If I walk up to a lake and look in, I see my reflection. But I say my reflection isn't me because if you punch my reflection, I just get a little wet, but otherwise feel no pain or discomfort. (We could do the same with a mirror, but I'd rather not take you to get stitches or clean up all that broken glass.) I also see that the reflection is distorted by the waves, your angle of viewing, etc., but yet doesn't appear to feel any of these things.

In fact, the reflection doesn't seem to feel anything except the things I feel. If I sneeze, my reflection sneezes. If I laugh, so too does the reflection laugh. The reflection's actions are clearly caused by the stimulus acting on me, not it, while my actions are unaffected by any stimulus acting on the reflection.

This tells me the reflection is not a part of me, and that it doesn't behave like a human.

Example 2

This time, let's say I'm standing near a dark curtain. I look past the end of the curtain and see a beautiful girl smiling at me.

Top view of guy looking past curtain to see a girl.

I wave at her, and she waves back. I write something on a dry erase board and she laughs. I write something else and she sticks her tongue out at me. She pulls out her own board and we start chatting back and forth.

After several minutes of this, I conclude that she must be a conscious, intelligent person. Then the curtain is drawn back.

Top view of guy looking at a girl's reflection in a mirror, and she's standing beside him.

Oh no! Turns out I was communicating with a reflection! This must mean the reflection is conscious, right? Well, no.

What is really means is that I was mistaken about the exact physical form of the girl I was talking to (guess that cute little birthmark is on her left cheek, not the right), and her exact location. Because really, the signals from my brain were causing signals in her eyes via the mirror, and it was her brain that was processing those signals to communicate back to me via the same mirror.

In this case, it could make sense to say the reflection is just part of the girl I was talking to. I wasn't talking to a reflection; I was talking to the girl herself.

Example 3

In one of your comments, you say

We can easily modify the thought experiment... take some robot duplicates a persons movements and speech. Is this robot a sufficient unity? The robot behaves as if it is conscious.

There are two ways to deal with this. First, let's assume there's a robot in Ecuador while I'm in the United States. The robot duplicates all my movements, speech, and mannerisms as exactly as it can.

In this case, we'd probably say the robot isn't conscious, and that it's not me. It's really just a (real-time) recording of me.

If some giant alien spaceship starts doing stuff far above Earth, it's possible both me and my robot are looking at the spaceship at the same approximate angle, giving the impression the robot is actively perceiving things and reacting to them.

But if a guy in Ecuador walked up to the robot, the robot would pay him no mind. It wouldn't react to being hit, beaten, stabbed, thrown off a cliff, etc. It would just keep attempting to play out the recording.

This is clearly not a robot behaving like it's conscious.

Example 4

This starts like Example 3. We have a robot. But this time, the robot has some kind of high-speed connection to my brain; I'm plugged in like some kind of Matrix simulation.

The guy in Ecuador walks up to my robot and says "Hi" (or "Hola" or whatever they say down there), and I say "Hi" back. We have a conversation. I react and interact with him.

We could now say the robot is behaving like a conscious entity. But that's because at this exact moment, the robot is really just me in a new body. So it's not just behaving like it's conscious; it is conscious.

This, again, comes down to a delineation between "robot" and "human" and whether we're separate entities. If you want to say we're distinct entities, then the robot isn't me, but it's not behaving like it's conscious either, because it's merely a reflection of me. Otherwise it's behaving like it's conscious, but only because it actually is conscious. There's no meaningful way to define this such that the robot is both behaving like it's conscious and not actually conscious at the same time.

Of course, the guy in Ecuador might not realize that high-speed connection exists, and might then tell his friends "I met a conscious robot!!!!". From here we could say the robot seemingly behaves like it's conscious even though we know it's not conscious, but it's rather silly to jump from there to "p-zombie". Because we've arbitrarily defined the unconscious robot as the hunk of metal in Ecuador, while ignoring the all-important WiFi signal that's actually driving it.

In this case, if our Ecuadorian friends brought the robot to Mars, they'd notice that it has a 40-minute lag time, and probably just shuts down completely, which would tell our Ecuadorian friends that something on Earth is controlling it.


Your argument has a very straight forward resolution: statements 4 and 5 together are sufficient to prove that "the person in the mirror is a p-zombie." Those two statements form the definition of a p-zombie. That's the easy part.

The hard part is your justification of those statements. In particular, how do you justify 5. If you assume it to be true axiomatically, as I just did, the logic is a piece of cake. However, if you feel obliged to defend that statement, how do you know that the person in the mirror is not conscious? We know that there actually is no "person in the mirror" from a scientific perspective, it's just a trick of photons, so when we say "the person in the mirror," we're clearly defining an entity which does not 100% supervene on scientific theory (we know this from statement 4: that it has qualia). Whether it is conscious may be a more complicated question than it appears at first sight.

I think the really interesting question is to step back and ask "what is the person in the mirror, anyway?" I think that's where the real fun is.

  • this is a very interesting point. It seems that if one were to allow for mirror images of humans to have qualia, then it would imply the possibility that a qualia-asserting human might in fact be on the "other side of the mirror", and of whole separate, identical realities on the other side of the mirror as well. In that case, #5 assumes the privileged nature of one side of the mirror, which can be attacked by anti-geo-centric arguments. So then, our side is special, and mirror images are zombies OR neither side is special, and we and the mirror images both are either conscious or zombies?
    – Justas
    Oct 4, 2016 at 20:32

You write:

  1. The person in the mirror looks and behaves like a conscious, qualia possessing human: you.

But what do you mean by the person in the mirror? Is there a person in the mirror? I think most people would disagree.

You probably mean to say: "The image of the person in the mirror..."

You conclude:

Therefore, the mirror image of you is an example of a human that looks and behaves identically to a conscious human, but is not conscious.

Again, is it legitimate to say that an image of a human is "an example of a human"? I think most people would disagree.

It reminds me of Magritte's famous painting "Ceci n'est pas une pipe.":

enter image description here

It is not a pipe, only an image of a pipe.

Furthermore, when you look at a person, the photons arriving at your eye directly or through a mirror correspond to one and the same person. in both cases you just see an image a person. what bearing does the way by which the photons arrived at your eye have on the question of personhood, and consciousness except as a source of confusion?

To conclude, there is no person in the mirror, and the image in the mirror is not an example of a human.


I think it's a very good argument and shows that the philosophical zombie is a legitimate concept. (I have never understood arguments saying it isn't). So behaviorism alone as a test for consciousness (like the Turing test) doesn't make sense imo.

Your argument reminds me of the Chinese room argument, in that we can get seemingly conscious behaviors out of non-conscious objects. I'm sure the same objections to the Chinese room argument (objections I don't agree with) would be made to your argument by functionalists.

  • I don't think philosophical zombies are illegitimate, a lot of philosophers are discussing them, and they are a convenient thought toy, like various demons, Cartesian, Maxwell's, etc. But they are designed to be irrelevant (that is indistinguishable from the real item to anyone but perhaps God), which may account for superficiality (imo) of most discussions I've seen concerning them.
    – Conifold
    Oct 4, 2016 at 19:30
  • @Conifold, they are devices used to illustrate the impotence of current theories. For example physics is currently impotent with regards to consciousness. A human zombie is perfectly legitimate as far as physics is concerned. If philosophical zombies are impossible, then physics is incomplete because it has nothing to say on the matter. Oct 4, 2016 at 19:54
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    Physics is "impotent" with regard to writing music or doing jurisprudence too, it was never meant to be "complete". The problem with zombies is that that are designed to be outside the scope of physics, but nonetheless then dragged into it.
    – Conifold
    Oct 4, 2016 at 20:18
  • @Conifold, so you're saying consciousness is unrelated to the properties of matter? Oct 4, 2016 at 22:18
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    No, music and jurisprudence are certainly related to properties of matter. A musician would benefit from learning acoustics, and a jurist from learning biology, but those don't exhaust music or jurisprudence. Consciousness is where music and jurisprudence come from, so why should we expect it to be exhausted by physics. Even in a material world there are non-physical aspects and perspectives. Even the arch-physicalist Quine says:"I acquiesce in what Davidson calls anomalous monism... there is no mental substance, but there are irreducibly mental ways of grouping physical states and events".
    – Conifold
    Oct 5, 2016 at 0:18

Is the person in the mirror an example of a philosophical zombie?

No. There is no "person in the mirror" only an image of a person reflected by the mirror. Grammar makes a big difference, no?


The mistake is postulating entities "person in the mirror" and then pondering whether they may possess attributes like "consciousness".

There is no person in the mirror; the mirror only folds the path of light so you can view objects from a different perspective.

All that is literally in the mirror is a couple of millimeters of glass, a microns-thin reflective, metallic coating and backing paint to ensure opacity.

The statement "people in the mirror aren't conscious" is meaningless nonsense.

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