#119 The Zombie Solution

#119 The Zombie Solution

Here it is at last, the solution to the problem of evil – the zombie theodicy. I’m sure you’ll all agree that this solution eliminates any possible problems that evil could pose for existence of an all-good, all-powerful God. Zombies – they aren’t just for philosophy of mind anymore!

And if you’re still not clear on the whole “philosophical zombie” thing, you can take a quick look here. Or check out a more detailed discussion here. Enjoy!

Discussion (44)¬

  1. Abeo says:

    Pretty clever.

    My concern is that being turned into a zombie, however temporarily, is itself a “bad thing” that is happening to you. I also wonder how this argument applies to long-term, but temporary, ailments. Depression over a dead loved one, etc.

    Also, yay zombies.

  2. chaos872 says:

    No fair, you are excessivly verbose and get away with it. Whenever I do that, like whenever something horrible happens and i tell people “I dont care, they arent really people to me” i get slapped.

  3. Wm Tanksley says:

    Well, I’m stumped — that’s way better than the best explanation I’d previously heard. I’m already a theist, so I can’t convert — or is double-conversion possible?

    Now, if there were a philosophical pirate concept, or a philosophical ninja… Imagine philosophical zombie pirates! Talk about the ULTIMATE proof of the existence of God: the extension of Anselm’s ontological argument into the dimension of PURE AWESOMENESS.

  4. Wm Tanksley says:

    Seriously, this is one of the best comics (or series) in a while. Well done.

    You made us suffer for a while, but after the suffering was over, you proved your fundamental goodness.

  5. I don’t see how such a zombie could be logically impossible. Physically maybe.
    Nice try, it’s a possible answer to the LPoE, hah.

  6. […] From Chaospet, the best solution ever to the traditional problem of evil: The Zombie Solution: […]

  7. Mark says:

    I laughed out loud at the first panel. But I thought the argument was going to be one of those beautiful misinterpretations of Dennett–since we’re all actually philosophical zombies, our pain and suffering isn’t *real* pain and suffering, and so God’s not culpable. But this line’s pretty good stuff too.

  8. Marcus says:

    Ahaha! Great comic. Saw a similar one over here: http://www.principiacomica.com/archive/29.html

    Seems like everyone’s jumping on the zombie bandwagon.

  9. Liquid_Elf says:

    Well that does explain why i’m in a tight spot i always lust for brains. It made visits to the dentist akward 😛

    But also your Philosophy-fu is great oh mighty chaospet. I haven’t seen such a beautifully crafted since i gave up reading plantinga

  10. chaospet says:

    @Abeo – Even if being temporarily zombified is itself an evil, it’s certainly much less an evil than suffering a famine or a horrid disease, etc. And so with zombification added the traditional theodicies (like virtue building, etc) are much more plausible than they would be otherwise.

    @chaos872 – The trick is to say “I don’t care, they’re zombies”. I’m not sure what reaction you’ll get, but it probably won’t be slapping.

    @Wm – Thank you! Philosophical zombie pirates has serious potential…

    @Emil – Frankly I don’t find it plausible that they’re logically impossible, but some other people do. In fact some (like Dennett) argue that they aren’t even really conceivable. See here in the Stanford article I linked to before.

    @Mark – I’m very wary of misconstruing Dennett in any way after the last time. I don’t want the blood of any more dead puppies on my hands.

    @Marcus – Nice. This seems like an interesting instance of synchronicity. Which of course is itself also explained by zombies.

    @Elf – That is high praise indeed, thank you! Whatever else one may think of Plantinga, he is undeniably clever.

  11. Liquid_Elf says:

    I disagree plantinga is not clever either that or he’s much too clever

  12. Abeo says:

    Thanks, your reply to my post gave me an idea.

    What about people who are suffering from horrible diseases or starvation, who also do bad things to other people? If they have been zombified then god has directly replaced you with something that will be hurting others. God is causing suffering.

    Of course, if the targets are zombies nobody is actually suffering but it seems a bit contrary to his message to have god-zombies hurting other god-zombies.

  13. Chaospet,

    I know. I read the link. Thereafter I started a discussion about the zombie argument against physicialism at FRDB.org — the world’s largest online philosophy board. IIRC the thread is called “Zombies are a problem for physicialism” in the philosophy category.

    I think that zombies are pretty conceivable and they are logically possible. I don’t think their logical possibility is a problem for physicalism. If they were physically possible, then it would be a problem, but I think they are not.

  14. Oops, physicalism, not physicialism. I don’t know why I wrote that. Silly.

  15. chaospet says:

    Hey Emil,

    I found the thread, haven’t had a chance to read through it all yet but it looks interesting so far.

    Anyway here (in brief) is my understanding of why zombies are a problem for physicalism. Physicalism (at the very minimum) is committed to the claim that all facts supervene on physical facts – if two states of affairs/worlds/etc are physically identical, then they must be identical in all other respects. Yet if zombies are logically possible then this supervenience thesis is denied. To say that zombies are logically possible is to say that two worlds can share all of the same physical properties and yet possess different mental properties, and so even this minimal sense of physicalism cannot be true.

  16. Chaospet,

    I see what you mean but I disagree.

    I don’t see physicalists as making claims about other worlds. I see them only as making the claim that physicalism is true in the actual world. There is, in my view, a possible world where dualism is true. There is also, in my view again, a possible world where there is a phil. zombie so that dualism is true in that world. I don’t understand why this would imply that physicalism in the actual world is false.

    About the thread. It seems that there is a highly knowledgeable (substance?) dualist on the forum. Interesting. The forum is formerly known as the IIDB–Internet Infidels Discussion Board. So the forum is mostly populated by atheists/sceptics.

  17. […] finally (pardon the self-indulgence please), here is a recent one of my own in which I propose a new zombie based […]

  18. John says:

    This reference describes what the killer zombies have been doing to the entire planet for over 1500 years.


  19. GaryPK says:

    This is incredibly awesome.

  20. Someone says:

    There is one problem with the temporary zombies because pain only exists as the memory of pain. It is like when you sleep and don’t dream, you still dream you just don’t remember and it therefore never happened to you.

  21. chaospet says:

    “It is like when you sleep and don’t dream, you still dream you just don’t remember and it therefore never happened to you.”

    I feel like there just might be a couple of contradictions hidden in there somewhere.

  22. Wm Tanksley says:

    “I feel like there just might be a couple of contradictions hidden in there somewhere.”

    Oooh ooh ooooh! I know the answer, professor!!! Call on me!!!

    Dialethism — we can live with the contradictions!
    or maybe Chaospet is a philosophical zombie — he “feels” like there are a couple of contradictions, but because he’s not actually conscious, he doesn’t actually experience any proposition with contradictions, and therefore his observations matter not at all to us.

    Now, some will say that chaospet is clearly a vampire rather than a zombie, but I answer, “where’s your imagination — vampire zombies are definitely cooler than mere vampires, and therefore (by Anselm’s island thought experiment) must clearly exist!”

    Or maybe he’s a zombie who likes wearing a black cape while eating brains. That’s possible too.


  23. Emil says:

    But vampires have no mirror image! Thus they are not existent.

  24. Azraphon says:

    I can’t see how becoming a zombie is a bad thing at all, since there’s no cognitive difference between a zombie and me. Although it also wouldn’t solve the problem of evil, since the zombie would still be suffering – there just wouldn’t be anything it is like for that zombie to be suffering.

  25. Emil says:


    Suffering is often thought of as a mental event. If there are no mental events, then there is no suffering either. If someone is a zombie, then there cannot be any mental event associated with that person (at least as long as he is a zombie). Thus, that person cannot suffer.

  26. chaospet says:

    Azraphon: Yup, what Emil said. It is hard to see in what meaningful sense the zombie can be said to be suffering if there is nothing it is like to be the zombie. When you remove any subjective awareness of the “suffering”, you remove suffering in any sense that would be incompatible with the existence of a loving, compassionate God.

  27. […] From Chaospet, the best solution ever to the traditional problem of evil: The Zombie Solution: […]

  28. DapperAnarchist says:

    I know I’m coming about 6 months late, but –

    Surely this is completely contrary to our experience? Each of us should be able to admit that we have experienced pain – even if we believe that everyone else is lying.

    Or! It ignores empathy. I feel pain because others are in pain – my pain is less severe, but still exists – so, if pained-people are replaced by pain-simulating-zombies, then at a certain point, EVERYONE is a zombie, which seems contrary to any idea of theism I know.

  29. Azraphon says:


    There is still an aspect of pain that is not phenomenal, and remember that the zombies still have cognitive mental properties.

    Also, the zombie can be harmed, in the same way that any living organism or functional system can be harmed. Therefore, if one is (as I am) a utilitarian, it wouldn’t make a difference if someone were transformed into a zombie/daisy/computer before being harmed.

  30. chaospet says:

    @Azraphon- I agree; certainly there are non-phenomenal aspects of pain, and we can meaningfully speak of zombies having certain cognitive states. But I don’t think it follows that they deserve any moral consideration. Utilitarian arguments are typically based on phenomenal states like pleasure and suffering; again, if there is nothing it is like to be a zombie, then it is hard to see why they count morally.

    @Dapper – Well, certainly each of us think we have experienced pain, so nobody is lying. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t be mistaken. 😉

  31. […] One of my favorite Chaospet‘s. I’ll have something on the logical problem of evil coming up soon. […]

  32. Azraphon says:

    @Chaospet – It happens that humans have phenomenal states, but surely the salient point for an utilitarian is that humans can come to harm and more importantly can be aware of this harm? Both of these things are (unless one is an ardent a priori physicalist) separate at least conceptually from one’s phenomenal properties.

    If you are espousing a version of utilitarianism that is dependant upon phenomenal properties, that’s your call, but it’s hardly canonical and surely suffers from the problem of other minds. My non-phenomenal utilitarianism (or at least my version of utilitarianism that does not even consider phenomenal properties) at least can demonstrate the existence of (the neural aspects of) pain, pleasure and so forth.

    All God would be doing, were the theodicy true, would be switching off the lights inside someone’s head whenever they were about to suffer. The suffering still happens. I think we’re having linguistic problems here, because obviously there is a sense in which pain is inherently painful, a very vivid phenomenal experience. On the other hand, by definition its phenomenal aspect does not have any causal role. The thinking that follows pain, “I’d better not to that again” is a result of neurological arrangements. Nothing relevant about pain is contained within the phenomenal side of it, but being phenomenal creatures, it is the only part that is immediately obvious to us.

  33. chaospet says:

    @Azraphon – Even granting that there is a sense in which we can speak about suffering (if we are only referring to the neural aspects of suffering, etc) even when the lights are off, it is hard to see what’s morally bad about suffering when the internal lights are off. I would think that what’s bad about suffering is the vivid phenomenal experience; that’s the aspect of suffering that we wish to avoid.

    Imagine, for example, that you were about to get surgery. Suppose the anesthesiologist presented you with the option of a phenomenal anesthetic. It would have no impact whatsoever on you physically (and thus carry none of the risks inherent to traditional anesthetics); it would simply ‘turn off’ the phenomenal aspect of the pain inflicted on you during the surgery. You’d still remain aware of what the surgeons were doing as they, say, removed your appendix – it’s just that the very vivid phenomenal aspect of the pain, the part that makes it subjectively objectionable, would be missing. Would you go for such a phenomenal anesthetic? I would – because clearly everything that I want to avoid about the ‘pain’ experience is now gone.

    This sort of consideration shows, I think, that what Utilitarians have been traditionally been concerned with is the phenomenal aspects of pleasure and suffering. Or at the very least, it’s what they should be concerned with. Their arguments are after all grounded in what we seek to gain and avoid (Mill, for example, derives his moral conclusions from the claim that what we all ultimately seek is happiness), and if taking away the phenomenal aspect of pain removes exactly what makes pain desirable to avoid (and likewise, it seems that removing the phenomenal aspect of pleasure takes away the very aspect of pleasure that makes it desirable to gain), then surely that shows that what matters for Utilitarians like Mill is those very phenomenal aspects.

  34. Azraphon says:

    @chaospet – The point is that the phenomenal part isn’t an aspect that can be affected other than by turning off the functional part.. An anaesthetist can’t causally affect my qualia without affecting my brain, which he’ll do anyway.

    Your position implies that you’d allow the torture of someone unable to feel pain. They’d be damaged, and they’d know this, but they can’t actually feel it. I would argue that the relevant point of utilitarian ethics is that the harm done to a subject should not outweigh the good done by the same action. In the case of our painless non-zombie, it seems as though there’s justification in saying that were he to feel pain it would be worse. In the case of the perfectly functioning zombie, there is nothing it is like for him to suffer, but suffer he does. Remember – as far as you can be certain, everyone with whom you interact is a zombie. If you were a solipsist, would you believe yourself justified in murder, torture, rape etc?

    Another issue at the heart of this debate is that it seems that the zombie is being made sub-human. One of the defining qualities of a human, arguably, is that it is a moral creature, being both the receiver and exerciser of moral consideration. I suppose that might not move you as an argument, after all there’s nothing it’s like for the poor zombies to feel subjugated! Even so, the physical systems are all in place. I’m not a standard sort of physicalist, in that I do believe that phenomenal consciousness is both an epistemological and ontological problem, but ultimately even someone like Chalmers must admit that the phenomenological aspect to my mental life is just the smoke coming out of the engine – it has no causal role, and should have no bearing on our moral consideration. After all, your zombie twin thinks he’s conscious, talks about consciousness and so on, even though he has never experienced it. And he still owes and is owed moral consideration to and by other zombies.

  35. chaospet says:

    @Azraphon – “The point is that the phenomenal part isn’t an aspect that can be affected other than by turning off the functional part”

    If you’re making this sort of claim – that there cannot be any variance in the phenomenal aspects without variance in functional states – then you’re just denying the possibility of zombies. Which is fine, that’s a line many people take (including Gabe in the comic), but then the original thought experiment never gets off the ground.

    Again I will grant you for the sake of argument that there is a sense in which it can be said that the zombie suffers, but for the reasons I gave above it is not the sense of suffering relevant to moral consideration. Removing the phenomenal aspect removes everything that is undesirable about pain or suffering (and everything that is desirable about pleasure). If a creature completely lacks the capacity to *experience* pleasure or pain or any other conscious state, then I simply cannot see why we owe it any more moral consideration than we owe a rock, no matter how complex its physical states.

  36. Wm Tanksley says:

    The point is that the phenomenal part isn’t an aspect that can be affected other than by turning off the functional part.. An anaesthetist can’t causally affect my qualia without affecting my brain, which he’ll do anyway.

    Some anesthetics come very close, and it’s possible we’ll come even closer. They come close by almost instantly removing the memory of the experience of pain; all the person has to do is endure the experience for an instant, and then it’s gone. It’s replaced by a new one, but according to the person experiencing it, the old one never affected them, only the current one is affecting them, and they “know” that’ll be over in no time. The odd thing is that the memory of the rest of the experience is still there (dulled by other side effects, but there) — one can imagine a better-targeted anesthetic which was able to cut only the memory of the _suffering_ from the pain…

    Your position implies that you’d allow the torture of someone unable to feel pain. They’d be damaged, and they’d know this, but they can’t actually feel it.

    To damage someone in this sense is to cause them to suffer in the future (or to cut off their possibility of enjoying pleasure in the future, I suppose). If they’re zombies they won’t suffer in the future any more than they’ll suffer now. And “they knowing it” wouldn’t cause them to suffer now either, because they’re zombies and don’t experience suffering.

    Remember – as far as you can be certain, everyone with whom you interact is a zombie. If you were a solipsist, would you believe yourself justified in murder, torture, rape etc?

    I certainly don’t believe in doing any of that to anyone who actually exists.

    -Wm (did that answer the question?)

  37. Azraphon says:

    @chaosdyne – Be careful – I said that the phenomenal properties can’t be changed without a change in the physical system. All this means is that there’s a one-way relationship between them, a supervenience relationship to be specific. Perhaps I should say it’s unlikely that such a change would be possible – dancing qualia and so on would mean that the relationship is counterintuitively weak. Besides which, the anaesthetist doesn’t have access to my qualia, so he can’t do anything to them – only to their neural correlates.

    Well, the rock can’t be harmed in the same way that a zombie can. A rock does not enclose a functional system whose function can be compromised by damaging it. Life-forms do, and furthermore have systems for detecting that damage. This is the only scientifically relevant aspect to pain, and the only aspect which I consider relevant. Let me put it this way: Daniel Dennett doesn’t even think that he’s conscious, yet he still behaves ethically (at least, I have not heard otherwise) because he believes that morality has a physical basis (be that convention, or some ethical model based upon scientifically demonstrable human nature, etc). Bizarrely, since he and I are on opposing ends of the consciousness debate, it is one of the things I believe we are agreed on. The relevant aspect of our consciousness is the functional, neural part, the only part that we can observe in others.

    Speaking of Dan Dennett, I suspect that my and his solution to the problem of evil would be the same, too 😉

  38. Azraphon says:

    @Wm – you seem to have missed my point about the anaesthetics. They affect our nervous system, and our phenomenal experience only changes because of that. There is no strongly conceivable sense in which I could change my phenomenal consciousness without my cognitive systems being effected, almost by definition.

  39. chaospet says:

    @Azraphon- I got that you were referring to a supervenience relationship, which implies precisely what I said – that there cannot be any variance in the phenomenal without variance in the functional states (or physical states, if that’s what you think the phenomenal states supervene on).

    Also, how actual anesthesiologists work is beside the point. The point is that IF an anesthesiologist came along who could remove one’s pain without affecting anything physical (and as long as we’re allowing the possibility of zombies, we can allow the possibility of such an anesthesiologist – make him God, if you like, to fit with the theme of the comic), it would make sense to let him do so, because he would be removing everything that is objectionable about the “suffering” you would endure during the surgery. And again, I think this shows that what’s morally significant about suffering is that phenomenal aspect, nothing else.

    I do agree that in the actual world we have to pay attention to the neural/functional/observable aspects of our mental states – but I think that’s merely because that is the best evidence we can have that another person is having the phenomenal experiences that we all recognize to be morally significant.

  40. Wm Tanksley says:

    @Wm – you seem to have missed my point about the anaesthetics. They affect our nervous system, and our phenomenal experience only changes because of that. There is no strongly conceivable sense in which I could change my phenomenal consciousness without my cognitive systems being effected, almost by definition.

    I accidentally made my purpose unclear by replying to you where I did. I wasn’t intending to deny that anesthetics affect the brain; I was intending to say that we can to all appearances _almost_ turn off the phenomenal aspect of consciousness with only minimal side effects.

    I wasn’t trying to explain how science would allow us to construct perfect philosophical zombies within 10 years; I was simply attempting to give the closest possible example to a philosophical zombie that we have right now.

    This fails the definition much worse than simply because its cause is a functional change in the nervous system. It fails because it changes how the “zombie” actually behaves — the putative zombie no longer can differentiate between sustained pain and instantaneous pain.

  41. Azraphon says:

    @chaospet – The phenomenal aspect only seems significant because we’re phenomenal creatures. If you were a zombie, you wouldn’t know what you were missing. In fact, you wouldn’t notice the difference between pain felt normally and under the anaesthesia, since if it’s just the qualia that are being switched off, your cognitive states remain the same. So, if one takes consciousness and the nature of qualia seriously, as I do, there really is no difference except for a prima facie semantic difference, between phenomenal pain and non-phenomenal pain. There would be neither a measurable difference to me, nor to a third person, excluding our misguided supreme being. The only difference would come about if God also turned off my nociception, which is a physical change and constitutes anaesthesia anyway.

    @Wm – Even so, anaesthetists are affecting something cognitive, i.e. something functional, i.e. something physical. We aren’t going to come close to a philosophical zombie in this world, because we live in a world where phenomenal facts seem to supervene on physical ones. Whether this is true in all possible worlds is a matter of continued debate.

  42. Azraphon says:

    Besides which, I have definitely had qualia while suffering. So, at least for my part, I can empirically disprove the theodicy. That or God hates me.

    How irritating that I can’t prove myself not to be a zombie. I can see why some choose not to believe in the possibility.

  43. chaospet says:

    @Azraphon – Unfortunately I think you’ve just convinced me that you ARE a zombie, for only a zombie could be so dismissive of the moral significance of qualia. 😉

  44. Azraphon says:

    @chaospet Blast! The zombie invasion of this world is once again halted by phenomenal chauvinism! We shall have our revenge 😉

    In all seriousness though, given that I will still believe myself to be experiencing pain, I can’t see how it would be preferable to me to have my qualia turned off. It’s one of those things that seems appealing at first, but then David Chalmers has a quick word and points out that it’s not such a sweet deal.

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