Tuesday, March 30

E-mail: P-Zombies and "Infection"

This post refers to a discussion between myself and "Our Mutual Friend," regarding the connection I proposed between the idea of philosophical zombies (p-zombies) and Sayid's "infected" condition. To get context for this post, please visit this link.

The E-mail exchange between Our Mutual Friend and MMorse:

From: Our Mutual Friend
To: MMorse


I'm enjoying your Lost recaps a lot - a little more than I'd care to admit to friends - so congratulations on having at least one German reader. However, unfortunately you're on a bit of a wrong track when it comes to philosophical zombies and how they relate to Sayid's "condition". A genuine p-zombie is ex hypothesi absolutely (!) indistinguishable from a non-zombie. You could perform as many experiments and interrogations as you'd want without ever being able to determine whether he has qualia or not. (Kirk's thought experiment about slow zombification is known to be either inconsistent or incoherent, so that won't help!) What a p-zombie is decidedly NOT is emotionless, cold, without a conscience et cetera.

The whole argument revolves around the notion of epiphenomenalism or the idea that conscious experience (= the redness of red or QUALIA in general) is causally ineffective. If consciousness doesn't supervene on the physical, i.e. if zombies are logically possible, then science is screwed. Sayid isn't just losing qualia - he acknowledges the change, it has physical consequences! He's losing his moral compass, his conscience. Also, if it turns out that Locke-ness is in fact just a mad philosopher who robs his minions of phenomenal content, there's gonna be a shitstorm of epic proportions in the non-metaphysical parts of the fanbase...

From: MMorse
To: Our Mutual Friend

Thanks so much for your email, and for the informative download of Zombie info. Clearly your knowledge of, and level of comfort with, these concepts puts mine to shame!

That said, and speaking on a symbolic/metaphorical level, I'm not certain that the distinction you're making here precludes Sayid from being a metaphorical zombie. My understanding of the concept includes the idea that the person in question (Dan, in the example I'd posted in the column) would acknowledge the changes that were occuring inside of him, would express dismay (as Sayid does in the episode) and would recognize the accompanying loss of sensation (see the example again as it relates to both the physical experience of pain and the emotional experience of anger).

The test that Dogen administers to Sayid specifically seems designed to measure his experience of pain in some way, and seems to me (again, strictly symbolically) to reference the numerous tests that a doctor might perform on a potential p-zombie (as in the example). As you say, according to people much smarter than I, such a test would not (or maybe it's more accurate to say 'could not'?) indicate any change in him. And indeed, from what we see of the test there is no change in Sayid. But, given that this is a fiction, and that it deals openly with scifi concepts, despite the apparent lack of 'evidence from the test, Dogen seems to understand that something has changed, that 'darkness' is growing within Sayid.

Metaphorically, can't this darkness be seen as the kind of senses-deadening zombification that the Stanford encyclopedia and the author of the paper linked to also refer to? Aren't there more similarities between the symptoms of Sayid's condition and the notion of the p-zombie as described by the authors referenced in the column then there are differences (again in the metaphorical sense - as you say, if it turns out that AntiLocke is literally some kind of rogue philosopher/human alchemist, it'll probably tick some folks off)?

I'd love to hear your thoughts, and I thank you for reaching out and sharing your knowledge. Recieving intelligent comments like yours is one of the best things about writing for Chud.

From: Our Mutual Friend
To: MMorse

I appreciate your response! Your basic point seems clear: the zombification of Sayid is quite apparent. But I suggest that he's turning into a much more terrifying entity than the (relatively harmless) p-zombie. Here is why.

First, let's take something as fundamental as experiencing pain. One has to differentiate between two aspects of this process. On the one side there's a mainly functional component: Whenever a bunch of C-fibers in your hand is stimulated accordingly, your afferent nerves will transmit a small electrical current towards your brainstem which will be relayed to parts of your brain (e.g. the amygdala and so on). This is where your higher-level cognitive apparatus kicks into action. You quickly move your hand, you say "ouch", you learn to avoid, say, hot surfaces (if that's what burned you). Maybe you decide to consult a doctor or put your finger in cold water. All of this functional processing is impressive but can/could be achieved by a sufficiently advanced robot or computer. Now, on the other side, there's a further aspect - the phenomenological one. The functional process of experiencing and reacting to pain is, as you know from experience, accompanied by the raw sensation that is pain; so-called pain qualia. That's just what it FEELS LIKE to be in pain. Your robot can function just like you without actually FEELING pain as you do. Qualia are perfectly natural as we experience them on a daily base but utterly mysterious once we think about them. Why are they necessary? Why does being a human being feel like anything? Why are we not just robots?

Anyway, once we separate the two levels of experience (functional and phenomenal), it becomes a little more evident why Sayid is no zombie in the qualia-related sense of the word. A p-zombie is an atom-for-atom physical copy of a "real" person that is functionally isomorphic to a regular Joe without experiencing any qualia. Those guys don't really exist (I think) and they may even be physically impossible, but you can imagine them. Now let's have a look at this zombie-dude. He seems normal. That is, if you decide to punch this person in the face - let's call him Kenny - he will take the blow, say "ouch", his neurons will fire just like ours, he will react, learn, punch you back, develop a grudge against you et cetera. To cut a long story short, there's EX HYPOTHESI nothing that would tell us from the third-person perspective that he's in fact a fucking zombie! Otherwise he wouldn't be a proper p-zombie. It's just what we are stipulating to prove our point. A p-zombie isn't a real thing - he's a logical possibility.

So you're quite right: Lost is a scifi show dealing with (often pseudo-)philosophical concepts. But I'm not sure your metaphor is apt. Sayid undergoes a decidedly more radical change than Kenny. He loses functional stuff as well. After all, this tormented Iraqi tells us that he doesn't feel anything; he doesn't give a shit about Claire offering Kate the old knife treatment; he does Anti-Locke's presumably evil bidding. That's not the Sayid of previous seasons, it's a functionally non-equivalent person, ergo (again ex hypothesi) quite the opposite of Chalmers' zombie buddies because we can easily tell that something has changed.

Second, about the thought experiment you mention: What Kirk is going for in the case of Dan is that some people (with Dennett being the most prominent proponent) flat out refuse to believe that p-zombies are a consistent suggestion, i.e. that they are at all possible. Such philosophers claim that imagining Kenny (or any other p-zombie) is like imagining a square circle, or 4 being a prime number, or a fat thin person - but without being as obviously self-contradictory. Now, this is where Dan the zombie comes into play. If his story is coherent and gradual change into a proper p-zombie is possible, then zombie-fans win. If not, then we (the zombie-opponents) need to give a coherent argument regarding the point where the gradual zombification goes wrong. At least that's the idea. What Kirk forgets is that his p-zombie is more like a Sayid-zombie: He's not functionally equivalent to a regular person as he notices that he's turning into a qualia-less bastard. But that's all details and shit.

What's important here is this: Kirk's thought experiment does NOT describe an actual zombification. A proper zombie is indistinguishable from a normal person. He doesn't behave differently, he has (functional) emotions that guide him, he processes pain and love and stuff just as we do. But there's no phenomenal experience behind it. So Sayid may be a p-zombie - but in any case he's much more than that. He's becoming a REAL ZOMBIE (which, dramaturgically, is way more compelling).

I ABSOLUTELY love the fact that you brought up p-zombies! Modern philosophy (of mind) is highly fascinating stuff. However, in this context using such a technical concept for the sake of a metaphor seems a bit shaky. If there's anything unclear or if you think I'm on the wrong track, please let me know.


Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to write back just yet. But I thought that it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this back-and-forth. Our Mutual Friend is clearly far more well-versed in this topic than I am, and he makes a number of good points. I’m left admiring his knowledge but still of the opinion that Sayid’s condition metaphorically resembles the hypothetical p-zombie state as it’s described in the column for The Package. What do you think? And why? Your comments are always read, and always appreciated.




  1. This "little" exchange perfectly encapsulates why these Back To The Island recaps are head and shoulders above any of the others I have read.

    It has also melted my brain.

  2. Now that The End is almost here, I can reveal that these recaps have been part of an elaborate brain-melting scheme. Be sure to save the gooey remains for our approaching Robot/Lizard/Yeti Overlords!

    ...and thanks for the kind words.