Sciency Words: Philosophical Zombie

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Science fiction uses scientific language as a form of artistic expression.  With that in mind, today’s post is part of a series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words.  Every Friday, I’ll bring you a new and interesting scientific word to help us all expand our scientific vocabulary.  Today’s word is:


Philosophical zombies, or P-zombies for short, have nothing to do with undead monsters hungering for “BRRAAAIINNS!!!”  They’re part of a thought experiment in the field of psychology.  Imagine a creature that is a perfect simulation of a human being.  It looks human, it acts human, and it even thinks like a human, but it lacks that inner essence that all humans have, what some might call a soul.  Would it be possible to distinguish between a real human and this simulation?

Another way to think about this is to simply ask where does the “soul” come from?  If all the physical parts are put together correctly, does the soul emerge from this assemblage of matter, or does it come from someplace else?  Someplace beyond our current understanding of science?

This theme comes up frequently in Science Fiction.  Does Frankenstein’s monster have a soul?  What about Commander Data from Star Trek or Jane from the Ender’s Game series?  All of these characters are articulate, intelligent, and often emotional beings.  They are all philosophical zombies.

In real life, there’s chatterbot, a computer program that you can have a conversation with.  Supposedly, chatterbot is so good at small talk that most people can’t tell the difference between it and a real person.  If technology like that continues to develop, one-day computer intelligence and human intelligence really will be indistinguishable.  So if we get to that point, how will we know if computers have souls or not?  This won’t be a “philosophical” question forever.

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Did you already know this word?  If so, please share another sciency word in the comments below.  That way, we can all keep expanding our sciency vocabularies together!

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