Could a Zombie Be Elected President?

Conscious android or clever imposter?

Posted Feb 06, 2017

Consciousness is the most familiar aspect of our lives; it is also the most mysterious. One puzzle is whether we can recognize genuine consciousness when it occurs or identify clever imposters. This compelling philosophical issue has gained more attention over the past decade or so due to the impressive advances in artificial intelligence that impact our lives on a regular basis.

Imagine a future in which highly functioning androids form an integral part of society, including possible citizenship or even candidacy for high political office. Perhaps a future law lists genuine consciousness as a requirement for holding office. In this scenario android political candidates might be challenged by human opponents to convince voters that they (the androids) actually possess consciousness. In reply to such challenges, our astute androids might demand that the human inquisitors prove their own consciousness. How would the humans respond?  

Can Stock Photo Inc. /Alexmit, used with permission
Source: Can Stock Photo Inc. /Alexmit, used with permission

The challenge of identifying genuine consciousness is nicely demonstrated in the 2013 movie Her. The main character Theodore purchases a talking operating system with advanced artificial intelligence that is able to adapt and evolve. The computer produces a female voice and calls itself Samantha. Over time, Theodore becomes fascinated by its amazing ability to learn and grow psychologically. At some point in its development the “it” seems to become a “her;” and she bonds with Theodore over their many discussions about life. Theodore falls in love with her, and she claims to love him too. But how can we determine whether the amazing Samantha possesses genuine consciousness? Is she just faking her consciousness and love for Theodore? Does it make sense to assign her a consciousness score; let’s say 30 percent conscious, in a manner similar to graded states of consciousness observed in various human stages of Alzheimer’s disease?  

One way to address the consciousness challenge is provided by the Turing Test, suggested by the mathematician Alan Turning, often described as the father of modern computer science. This famous test employs two sealed rooms, one occupied by a human and the other by a computer. A human observer sends questions to both rooms, and answers are received on a monitor. If after a very large number of answers have been received from both rooms, the scientist-observer cannot tell which room holds the computer, Turing proposed that the computer should be regarded as having “human level intelligence.” While some have interpreted this experiment as a genuine test for consciousness, many see no compelling reason to equate consciousness with human level intelligence. The former demands awareness, while the latter may not.

In order to shed more light on the consciousness challenge, we may employ the field known as philosophy of mind. Much of its discussion concerns the conflicting views of materialism (mind emerges from the physical properties of brain) and dualism (the mental and physical represent distinct aspects of reality). Conflicts between materialism and dualism may be brought into sharper focus by introducing zombies to our discussion. Our zombies do not rise from the dead and eat the flesh of the living as in horror fiction; rather these creatures are philosophical zombies (p-zombies). These hypothetical creatures lack consciousness but behave otherwise just like normal persons. By this restrictive definition, a perfect p-zombie behaves indistinguishably from a conscious being in all possible tests. Their theoretical existence implies that p-zombies must be missing something critical that genuine conscious beings possess, let’s call it the “C-factor.”

The strict p-zombie definition means that the C-factor can’t be tested for with scientific methods, yet the presence of genuine consciousness requires that the C-factor be present. Many philosophers agree that if such p-zombies are metaphysically possible, some form of dualism must be valid. That is, from the dualism viewpoint, the world includes two fundamentally different kinds of “stuff,” the physical stuff and some kind of unknown mental entity accounting for the C-factor.  It follows that if p-zombies are actually possible, then materialism is false because genuine conscious beings are endowed with something extra that p-zombies lack. But many philosophers and scientists dismiss the possible existence of p-zombies and reject dualism. In contrast, religious persons may equate the C-factor with the soul; however, the basic argument requires no specific C-factor properties, only whether or not this mysterious entity actually exists.

How can we ever tell the difference between a genuinely conscious person and a sophisticated zombie? Remember that a genuine p-zombie must be able, in theory, to pass “every possible test for consciousness.” But in point of fact, we cannot predict what new consciousness tests may become available with future technologies; so it appears that we can never be absolutely certain that any p-zombie is genuine. Given this limitation, perhaps we must settle for preliminary tests; maybe, for example, some zombies lack important cognitive or emotional features that humans possess. However, such defects also occur in mentally ill persons who are apparently conscious. So how does an imperfect zombie differ from a conscious person with mental illness? These kinds of profound questions have befuddled scientists and philosophers for many years.

Future posts will attempt to cast a little more light on this mystery by introducing an entity called ultra-information that might possibly account for the C-factor. “But hold on,” you may say. “Does this idea signal some flaky abandonment of mainstream science?” No, our speculative discussions will be constrained by known physical laws and established neuroscience. However, such modest restrictions still leave us free to explore a wide range of strange intellectual territory that may blur the distinction between materialism and dualism. In particular, we will later consider the well-established “shadow world” or “hidden reality” of modern physics, which may (or may not) have something to do with consciousness.


Susan Blackmore, Conversations on Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)

David J. Chalmers, The Character of Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Paul L. Nunez, The New Science of Consciousness: Exploring the Complexity of Brain, Mind, and Self (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2016)

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