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Zombies Can’t Concentrate

Mary Midgley explains why she doesn’t believe in zombies.

Zombies are supposed to be creatures that act exactly like human beings, but filleted ones, with the consciousness removed. This bizarre idea assumes that consciousness is a removable item like an appendix – a sort of paralysed soul, one that has no effect on behaviour. This is the Behaviourist myth.

The most obvious reason why it can’t be true is that so much of our activity is drastically shaped by effort and therefore by attention, which can’t be unconscious. Of course there is also a great deal that is unconscious. But that unconscious part can only work while attention constantly stands by to deal with choices when they come up.


1) Choosing a Job. Nobody can do that without attending fairly hard at the time when they do it. But once chosen, the job will determine huge slices of their behaviour for as long as they keep it, and probably for much longer.

2) Performing Music. Practised pianists can indeed often play for a time without attention. But if they do it for too long, their inattention will certainly affect their playing – i.e. their behaviour will be different. And, in order to become thus practised, huge attention has been needed in the first place. Unconsciously learning the Moonlight Sonata is not an option.

3) Literary Work. An academic cannot write a usable article in a complete fit of absent-mindedness. Any serious lapse of attention will affect behaviour, resulting in a different article.

These facts are so well known that I don’t suppose anyone will actually deny them (or will they?). They are wellattested empirical generalizations. They make it clear that conscious attention is a causal factor in the world, as wellrecognised as poisoning or rain or measles. It is an ordinary natural phenomenon, not – as Descartes suggested – a supernatural extra.

The law recognises this when it makes it an offence to drive ‘without due care and attention’. Driving ‘without attention’ is seen as something parallel to driving without proper brakes or proper eyesight – the omission of an ordinary, controllable element in the empirical world.

On top of being empirically attested, however, the connection of attention with certain kinds of behaviour can be rationally shown to make sense. It is not a mysterious conjunction that might be attributed to chance. There is a conceptual link between conscious thought and the action that expresses it. Half the time, we wouldn’t know what to do without having consciously chosen – even if the choice is slight and casual.

Examples such as Libet’s experiments – see box – are quite artificial in that, in them, this question of what to do is already decided (“Please press the button.”). By contrast, writing an article is an example of a very common kind of activity which needs direction much of the time. This direction simply isn’t available from anywhere but the person’s attentive mind. Neurons don’t read books, so they can’t tell us what to quote next. (See my Science and Poetry, chapter 10 on Epiphenomenalism) The other point that Libet overlooks is that the gradual rise of a topic into consciousness does not make consciousness’s eventual role insignificant. Of course much of our motivation is obscure to us and vague thoughts surge continually in the background below consciousness – unattended rather than actually unconscious. This results in impulses only becoming conscious after a good deal of unattended preparation. If, however, they then call for attention, they get it, as the light of consciousness is turned on ‘what to do’. Besides this, these impulses as they present themselves have of course been shaped by previous attention or non-attention in the past (comparably with the pianist’s previous practice). You don’t find yourself suddenly moved to murder somebody without a previous history of earlier conscious – as well as unconscious – experience.

On the related issue of whether a machine could be made to become conscious – and how it could be known whether it was so – I think the first thing to be said is that the development of a conscious machine is not a possible outcome of the kind of Artificial Intelligence research that is now going on, because that research never aims in any way to develop feeling. The kind of ‘Intelligence’ at which it aims is strictly a capacity to solve problems – without subjectivity. This is already done by quite unpretentious machines and can obviously be carried very far. But it is not intended to involve feeling, nor could it do so accidentally.

It makes no more sense to expect that problem-solving machines would, at some point, suddenly develop consciousness, simply by becoming more advanced, than to expect cars to become conscious at some point, simply as a byproduct of becoming faster. Journeying on and on to the West will never land you at the South Pole.

Researchers have, of course, very good reasons for not trying to make their machines conscious. Conscious machines would introduce, at a crucial stage in the work, all the social difficulties that we already have in dealing with human colleagues. Machines that argued and went on strike would be a gross liability. They would also raise some fairly horrible ethical problems – see Frankenstein.

This is surely a good reason for not deliberately trying to make machines that actually could feel – perhaps by synthesising nerve-fibre or the like. This would be a quite different project and surely a deeply objectionable one. It would be an attempt to produce sensitive creatures that would exist essentially as experimental subjects – in effect slaves, and ones exploited directly by playing on their emotional capacities.

If somebody did try to do this, I think, too, it would be extremely hard – perhaps impossible – for the experimenters ever to detect whether they had succeeded. As things are, we find out whether other people and animals are conscious from their behaviour, because both we and they are fitted with very delicate powers of expression and of reading expressions, and have wide experience of parallel cases. Our ability to do this falters in abnormal cases, e.g. with autistic subjects, and even with normal subjects peculiar situations such as sleep-walking can baffle it. But with a new, manufactured kind of subject this whole apparatus would be absent and it is hard to see what clues there could be that would ever begin to answer this question.


Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, until the Philosophy Department there was closed down. Among her best-known books are Beast and Man, Wickedness, The Ethical Primate and Science and Poetry.

Why Zombies Matter

In philosophy, as opposed to horror films, a zombie is a hypothetical creature who is physically (and in terms of all his/her behaviour) exactly like a normal human being, but who lacks any conscious experience. Zombies have been the subject of much speculation among people who think about the nature of consciousness, because: (a) They illustrate the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. In other words, if zombies are conceivable, why aren’t we zombies? What is different about us to give us conscious experiences? (b) Why did evolution bother to create us if zombies would have survived and reproduced just as well as us? (c) If there could be a world just like ours except inhabited by zombies rather than humans, surely the difference between our world and that world is something non-physical? This throws doubt, say some, on materialism.

Few people think that philosophical zombies actually exist, but for the reasons above, philosophers are debating hotly about whether zombies could conceivably exist…

Libet’s Experiments

In 1979, a Californian neuropsychologist called Ben Libet began a series of experiments which are claimed by some to show that we have no free will.

Libet asked volunteers to press a button “whenever they decided to do so.” While they did this, he made electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings of their brain activity. From these he detected what he called a ‘readiness potential’ – a subtle change in brain activity which always preceded the pushing of the button. To his surprise, he discovered that the ‘readiness potential’ always appeared about half a second before the subject apparently decided to press the button.

These results have caused much debate, with some claiming that this shows that humans do not have free will. They argue that if the brain shows that we are about to press the button before we ‘decide’ to press the button, this shows that our consciousness is merely ‘rubber-stamping’ something which is about to take place anyway. Other scientists and philosophers have criticised Libet’s experimental procedures or, like Mary Midgley, the conclusions to be drawn from his results.

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