Philosophical zombies are usually presented as, let say, "conceivable" and then this assertion is used to infer dualism.

Have any philosophers taken the position that p-zombies are in fact real, and, if so, what do they conclude from this?

By real, I mean that, at least for some periods of time, some people act in a human-like manner, but without consciousness. This is not implausable: many people, including me, report that they've done something reasonably complex without being aware that they've done it. One could also argue that certain drug-induced states result in apparent loss of consciousness (i.e., afterwards the person is unaware of their activities) without fully eliminating their ability to interact in a complex, seemingly conscious, manner.

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    Somewhat related video with Beatrice de Gelder
    – user3164
    Commented May 22, 2013 at 17:16
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    Also somewhat related: the hard problem of consciousness
    – user3164
    Commented May 22, 2013 at 17:20
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    Is somnambulism a p-zombie state?
    – Vector
    Commented May 22, 2013 at 17:42
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    Nobody likes my answers, so I've taken to asking lots of questions...
    – Vector
    Commented May 22, 2013 at 18:45
  • But wikipedia entry includes lack of qualia. I am not sure you lack qualia at any time. Even if you are unmemorably drunk you probably still see colors.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 19:19

7 Answers 7


It certainly seems plausible to claim that we occasionally behave like p-zombies.

However, philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore have taken the claim one step further, arguing that everybody is always a p-zombie. How exactly do they pull this off? Well, they simply deny that consciousness exists at all! They say that what we think is special as consciousness is really just a consequence of the much less significant access consciousness, i.e. all the stuff our brains do much the same way as any computer (e.g. storing and retrieving information, responding to stimuli, etc.). Thus it's just a trick of the mind to think that we have something more than "lifeless" machines do. We feel like we have "hard" consciousness as a result of all the things our minds do, but this is not the case.

Of course, they assert that this does nothing to the significance of our minds. In Blackmore's words, we are p-zombies "that can talk and think about mental images, dreams and feelings; that can marvel at the beauty of a sunset or the light rippling in the trees; but if we think that being conscious is something separable from all of this, we are mistaken"(Consciousness: An Introduction).

In any case, this is an incredibly counter-intuitive view for most and very hard to swallow. Still, it has some appeal and may be promising.

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    Consciousness is like sausage: delicious until you start asking what it's made of.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented May 22, 2013 at 19:10
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    I've never interpreted Dennett's statements as a complete denial of the existence of consciousness.
    – Dave
    Commented May 22, 2013 at 21:35
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    @RexKerr - so it seems there those who contend we are indeed all p-zombies. But as commando comments, this is incredibly 'counter-intuitive'. 'counter-intuitive' is a nice way of putting it... I have other, better expressions but they are not appropriate in this forum...
    – Vector
    Commented May 22, 2013 at 21:53
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    @commando - "Of course, they assert that this does nothing to the significance of our minds. In Blackmore's words, we are p-zombies 'that can talk and think about mental images...' " Sounds like a bit of vacillation, or perhaps even discomfort, on the part of Blackmore...
    – Vector
    Commented May 22, 2013 at 22:21
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    Isn't it a bit funny for philosophers to tell us we are zombies? It is a kind of intellectual pathology to use subtle arguments to argue against matters of fact which are so obvious, no argument can seriously undermine it.
    – adrianos
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 17:24

In Solipsism everyone else is a "philosophical zombie"; and all the time. However, I am not aware of any (serious) solipsist philosophers.

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    Solipsism has given me much comfort over the years. I don't understand why more people don't take it up!
    – Ryder
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 12:06

P-zombies are a thought experiment, and no philosopher takes their existence seriously, except for the fact that their metaphysical plausibility is an irksome idea.

Dennett's claim that we are all p-zombies is a scornful reminder that any discussion without clear topic definition is a hotbed for barren rambles.

  • Welcome to philosophy.se! "no philosopher takes their existence seriously" can you substantiate this claim with some sort of citation or data that reflects its truthhood? If even one philosopher does take their existence seriously then that statement is not correct, even if you feel something like "well, they shouldn't because it's not supposed to be taken seriously".
    – Not_Here
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 21:12
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    Thank you! I could never prove such an universal statement. Even if I could, it would suffice one disgruntled philosopher to falsify it anytime. However, in words of the foremost advocate of p-zombies, David Chalmers: "Zombies are probably not naturally possible". I believe that this abridges the mainstream view that p-zombies are tools for stirring debates. After all, the p-zombies of Dennett are not real zombies in the sense that they are deprived of the concept of consciousness rather than of consciousness itself. Dennett is indeed a zombie under his own definition of zombie.
    – marsarius
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 0:15
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    Any of the comments you just wrote would make great expansions to your answer, especially if you sourced the direct quotes! In general our aim on this SE is to try and provide as much context as possible in our questions and answers. I think the person who downvoted your answer did so because of how short your answer is. And probably because, just in a general way, if you can't substantiate a universal claim then its bad for your argument to make the universal claim.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 0:22

I am completely unversed in the realm of psychology, but for the sake of promoting thought I'll give my opinion here. Commando cited two known philosophers who echoed exactly what I had thought upon reading your questions and looking up the meaning of 'p-zombie.'

On the presumption of evolution, we MUST all be 'p-zombies' mustn't we? While one may believe in a "soul" or something/anything of that nature, that is irrelevant to the conversation, as our brains still seem to be responsible for all of our thought. Other animals clearly have a sense of self: for example, a dog may hide a bone in its mouth to sneak it by its owner; that shows a clear understanding by the dog of its external appearance.

On the same note, if one is injured, an outcry of pain is very rarely a conscious maneuver; it happens automatically. Why must our feeling of pain be related to something "greater" than electrical activity, something that we call consciousness? It is simply our machinery's response to negative stimuli, which prompts a reaction. We may be an incredibly complex machine, one we don't fully understand, but at the end of the day we ARE still a machine.

Nobody has ever been able to define consciousness, and the reality is that I don't see how we have any evidence to support the idea that it exists. Every living animal species we know of makes decisions. They do things. And we have no evidence whatsoever to dictate that we are "doing things" in any different manner than they are; we are just doing more complex things, much of the time. Sometimes we may be focus more of our mental energy on thinking about the things we are doing, but is simply machinery redirecting its energy. There is no distinctive change that makes one a zombie, and there has never been found a true distinction that makes one conscious.

Some species of ants farm. They even herd aphids, "milk" them, and protect them from intruders. Intelligence is almost certainly not what it has been made out to be, so the next time you're about to kill that little critter that isn't "conscious" maybe you should ask yourself..."How do I know?"

  • +1 and welcome to Philosophy! :) -- just to probe the framing of the problem here a little -- while one could certainly agree there are merely neurological impulses; in humans do these not always-already code for something infinitely more refined than just the sign of the trace of another body on our own (affects); aren't they always already part of a flow of pure perception, don't we also touch the withdrawn essence of things through labor in the earth, interaction with the world, encounters with the bleak indifference of the universe, etc... :)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented May 25, 2013 at 16:28
  • (Not to say animals are more affective than humans; rather almost the opposite -- affective materiality is a kind of infinite variability... If animals are automatons in Descartes, it is because they are pure intensive particles running madly across the surface of an organless body, the Earth; to live is to be hunted, on the run.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented May 25, 2013 at 16:33
  • At any rate, I am reminded of Pierce, who emphasizes the degree to which this intensive-sensible substrate had to be analyzed-lacerated to make for the "unified" sense-faculties of the human mind; the same perhaps goes for the general system of knowledge, economy, the law and so on -- I might underscore here: language, the unconscious... :)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented May 25, 2013 at 16:33
  • Just to try to bring this back around to zombies: we might say at this point -- okay, but then aren't these habits, just higher-order automation, all-too-virtual intelligences? --This might be where psychoanalysis becomes critical: in the necessary misrecognition of the self which demands some minimal instrument or prop (a fixed mirror.) The suggestion might be that an "impersonal" or "material" perception is always-already "leaking" through the spaces and silences between traces or signs (as visions, auditions, etc.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented May 25, 2013 at 17:17
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    You made a distinction between humans and animals and stated that you feel animals are either less affective than humans or that the word "affective" doesn't even properly apply to them, I wasn't sure which meaning was intended. Regardless, I'd say that if anything many animals' level of affect rivals or exceeds that of humans. Take for example the excitement of a dog upon your return, or their despair and anxiety when you leave unexpectedly. Additionally, why do you make a distinction between humans and animals, and when/where do you believe that distinction comes into play? Commented May 25, 2013 at 18:09

Being a p-zombie means to do function, without consciousness. 99% of our brain processing is unconscious, so we are p-zombies for almost everything we do.

Chalmers limits his p-zombie argument to all or nothing p-zombies, not "mostly p-zombies". The vast majority of philosphers do reject the plausibility of the actual existence of all-p-zombiehood, and most claim that an all-p-zombie is not possible.

I have read extensively in the philsoophy of mind, but have not yet found any of the rationales that justify "all-p-zombies are impossible". The only justificaiton I have seen is a weak/fallacious one, of ASSUMING an identity theory.

I call this a fallacy, and reference our mostly p-zombiehood to suppport this. As we are mostly p-zombies, the identity of consciousness with either function, or with neural net processing, is pretty clearly falsified. This is a different use of the p-zombie thought concept than Chalmers uses it for, and it leads to different conclusion than Chalmers reaches.

What our partial p-zombiehood reveals is that there is something evolutionarily critical that consciousness does for us. And this is a key fact that any model of mind has to expalin, as a first order observation. IE, functionally, somethings we do go causally through consciousness, and there are aspects of ourselves that prevent these things from ever being done unconsciously. There are two models of mind with predict this -- emergent causally independent dualism, and ensoulment spiritual dualism. No physicalist or purely functionalist model of mind can predict partial p-zombiehood.

Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore, and Paul Churchland all reject p-zombies as incoherent, yet their models of mind hold consciousness to be a delusion-- IE we are p-zombies. When the advocates of all-p-zombiehood deny the validity of all-p-zombiehood, this makes me suspect the integrity of their rejection of the concept.


You wrote:

many people, including me, report that they've done something reasonably complex without being aware that they've done it. One could also argue that certain drug-induced states result in apparent loss of consciousness (i.e., afterwards the person is unaware of their activities) without fully eliminating their ability to interact in a complex, seemingly conscious, manner

Can't one explain these cases with failure of memory rather than absence of consciousness? how would you eliminate that possibility?

EDIT Dec 6th - in response to Dave's comments:

My point above is that Dave's examples are not evidence that people are sometimes p-zombies, as I explain in the comments below.

on the other hand I believe there is plenty of evidence that many (maybe even most) people may be p-zombies all-the-time; if you don't believe me, just ask them yourself.

Dennett maintains we are all p-zombies since in his mind there is no such thing as Qualia: "Dennett wryly notes, he is committed to the belief that we are all p-zombies" (Dennett protected the original statement against quoting with a curse).

One way to interpret this is that philosophers have some weird unresolvable argument going on between materialists and non-materialists, where each camp believes the other's position is plain silly, absurd, or even dishonest.

Another way to interpret this is to realize that it is just radically possible that we don't all have the same kind of inner experience.

In fact this idea is testable; if I am correct then there should be a detectable correlation between one's position on materialism and particular genes.

It is interesting that people often react badly to this speculation; both materialist and non-materialist alike are often offended and angered when presented with this idea, and I am not aware that it has ever been discussed seriously by philosophers.

EDIT Dec 12th:

It just occurred to me that Dave's examples are irrelevant since p-zombies are not distinguished by lack of awareness; that is, a conscious being and his twin p-zombie will be able to recall the same events.

  • I have no idea -- I don't see how subjective reports can be used to differentiate between lack of consciousness and failure to construct memories (and have wondered what that implies for these two mental states).
    – Dave
    Commented Dec 4, 2014 at 23:46
  • @Dave, note that this problem applies to introspection as well, not just subjective reports.
    – nir
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 6:15
  • @Dave, but I don't believe failure of memory is the same as not having consciousness, since we have experience with gradual memory loss. For example in the case of dreams, or in the case of trying to remember how a conversation started, or in the case of trying to recall events which took place 20 years ago. these things make me believe that consciousness is independent of memory.
    – nir
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 6:26
  • @Dave, for example, lets say I have no recollection of locking the door a minute ago; I would tend to believe that I was at least partially conscious of it while doing it but did not form memories since I was distracted thinking about something else. I think it may be possible to create an experiment which tests this by interrupting different subjects at various times (1, 5, 10, 30 seconds) after such a distracted mechanical task to interrogate them about their consciousness of doing it.
    – nir
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 6:48
  • your points are valid in general, but (imho) only tangential to the question at hand: "what can you conclude by assuming that sometimes people are p-zombies?"
    – Dave
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 15:26

P-zombies are a thought experiment. If a p-zombie is deliberately struck by a human it tries to evade or fight back and cries out in pain just like a human, even though it is not conscious. So far so good. Why does the p-zombie go on to curse the human out, just like a human? If it is unconscious of the insult, what is the motivation for this voluntary action? I can say categorically that I am not a p-zombie all of the time, and infer that neither are you. I drive unconsciously. So what? I know that I am driving and where to.

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