Zombies, Replicants, the GOP, and Mrs. French’s Cat

We have our zombie apocalypse. Replicants are among us, wreaking havoc. Honey the cat is loose.

It’s going on right now.

It just isn’t what you expected.

Call and Response

First, I have to tell you about the "Chinese Room" thought experiment. Originally described by John Searle, it goes something like this:

[In this thought experiment], Searle…supposes that he is in a closed room and is receiving questions in Chinese. While he cannot understand Chinese, he has a large collection of Chinese phrasebooks in the room, with questions and matching answers. When he receives a question, he need only to look up the same sequence of characters in one of the books and respond with the indicated answer, even though he does not understand the question nor the answer….Searle argues that, without “understanding” (or “intentionality”), we cannot describe what the machine is doing as “thinking” and, since it does not think, it does not have a “mind” in anything like the normal sense of the word.


This concept makes the Turing test – sometimes thought of as a test to see if a machine “thinks” – worthless. If the “phrasebooks” are complex enough, a machine could pass the Turing test but be entirely without thinking, without consciousness, without awareness. Searle was originally talking about the difference between humans and computers; his point isn’t limited to them. What he is describing is the distinction between conciousness (or awareness) and intelligence. A computer – or any entity – could be highly intelligent but completely without consciousness. It could be intelligent enough – have enough “phrasebooks” – to give appropriate responses and behaviors that mimic consciousness without there being “anyone home”. That’s the idea behind philosophical zombies.

Complicated Replicants

It’s also what Deckard was trying to determine with his Voight-Kampff test in Bladerunner. There, the replicants (androids) were undetectable except by their visceral emotional reaction (or lack of reaction) to a series of upsetting images and questions.
While it tracks that a philosophical zombie wouldn’t be capable of real empathy [1], there’s a flaw in trying to measure that with external observations like shown in those films.
The assumption of the Voight-Kampff test.
While the Voight-Kampff test works for the film, it falls prey to the same failure as the Turing test [2]. It assumes that emotional responses are complex enough that they cannot be replicated accurately by a machine. To use the “Chinese Room” example, they’re assuming that the person inside won’t be able to deal with the complex incoming messages, dropping some entirely, not having time to look up others, and not be able to write responses fast enough. But that isn’t a problem of the system. To solve this problem, you can still use the same Chinese room. You just need more people inside the room, making sure that each has a complex enough “phrasebook”. Both the Turing test and the (fictional) Voight-Kampff test are testing a quantitative difference, not a qualitative difference. They are just testing processing speed. Which means that those tests cannot determine if a human-shaped individual has “consciousness” or “awareness”, or if it is just a very complicated (meat) machine. If you asked a philosophical zombie if it had a consciousness, it would know to say “Of course I have a consciousness” and appear upset just as you would…merely because its “phrasebook” would tell it to act that way!

Read the Questions Twice Before Starting the Test

So how could you really test for a philosophical zombie? I think it’s pretty simple – though a bit complicated to do in practice. You look for introspection and self-consistency. See if the individual is resolving conflicting ideas and thoughts. Determine if they’re incorporating new information and ideas into their existing thoughts and world-view. Let’s go back to the “Chinese Room”. Normally, your Chinese room can expand its range of responses with a pretty simple addition method. The hard part is teaching “If you get this format of a message, take the first part to match your input, then take the second part to form your response.” Once you’ve brute-forced that lesson, everything else can follow that example. But having an internally consistent world-view is a qualitatively different problem. In such a scenario, it wouldn’t matter how many people you had working, or how complicated the phrasebooks were. It would be extremely difficult – maybe impossible – to even appear to have this kind of reflection and introspection. Think about it: To achieve that goal, you’d have to give the people inside the room (who do not speak or read a bit of Chinese) instructions written entirely in Chinese, about comparing two different Chinese texts, making a value judgement about the content of the texts, then editing the phrasebooks(!) and generating new output that makes sense. In Chinese. With no translation manuals.
A duolingo meme to break up the seriousness.
Can you think of any human-shaped creatures right now who don’t seem to “get” empathy (though they try to say “the right things”) and who seem utterly unable to have a coherent set of principles? Indeed, they will endorse completely opposing ideas (and lies) from one minute to the next with no sense of irony?
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash
Yeeeeeah. This “zombie” infection has spread pretty damn far, and unlike COVID-19, a mask isn’t going to help.

Zombie Creation Engines

Looking at the world right now like this could seem … well, hopeless. But there’s one big sign of hope. One thing that might turn back this infection. Sufficient – and the right kind of – conflict. All of us enter states of intelligent non-consciousness from time to time. Remember the last time you drove home and don’t remember it? Or were working on something and hit “the zone” and don’t really know how you did the task you did? One big theory of consciousness suggests that consciousness plays a role in resolving internal conflict. Our consciousness is middle management. In situations like driving a familiar route, our consciousness doesn’t have to resolve any kind of conflict. All your body has to do is “repeat the pattern of turns that get us to where we’re going”. In those sorts of situations, you could think of it as our awareness “powering down” temporarily. In those situations, we’re still “conscious” in the sense of being awake, but we aren’t really “conscious” in the sense of being aware. That kind of supervisory awareness only kicks in when there are competing options and a decision needs to be made, or an ethical dilemma resolved. For most of us, switching consciousness back on is not a problem. Boots right back up, and once our consciousness kicks back in, change can happen. It would only be a problem if our consciousness stayed shut down most – or all – of the time.

Unempathetic Zombies

This model totally explains the “empathy gap“. That’s the phenomenon where someone about faces on a position when it affects someone close to them, like a member of their family. When you’re against gay rights but change your stance when your beloved child comes out, or think COVID-19 is a conspiracy until it hits you and yours, that conflict between caring for your family and other beliefs is enough to kick awareness back online. (This goes right along with Mead’s ideas about consciousness as well [1].) It isn’t the fact of conflict alone, though, that is needed to reboot awareness in these people who have fallen prey. In fact, simple, direct conflict can actually harden an existing belief system, making it less likely for any kind of change or introspection to happen. Cult-like groups often view people arguing with them as a badge of honor and a sign of belonging. When religious groups send out missionaries, it’s less about conversion and more about making the missionaries feel isolated from everyone who is not a member of the cult. It makes it easier for the cult leader; the rank and file feel isolated and rejected by the outside world, so they tune out all information coming from anywhere other than the cult. We’ve seen this process happen with the political right in the United States. We’ve seen it with politicians who didn’t fall in lockstep be called “RINOs” (akin to excommunication), with the divisive rhetoric of the Tea Party, with the blatant doublespeak of Trump, with his regime’s constant cry of “Fake News”, and most recently with the idea that an anonymous person on the internet (this “Qanon” crap) is the only one telling the “real truth”.
When you finally meet your online girlfriend: "Ahh, I see you are a man as well."
Not like there’s a TV show about pretending to be someone you’re not on the internet or anything.
This is where the biggest problems arise. Not only do these systems take advantage of people, but they encourage unreflecting knee-jerk reactions. They isolate and harden people against thinking. They actively discourage listening to other voices than their own. They. Create. Zombies. [4]

What do you do with a philosophical zombie?

Which brings us back to conflict. Obviously, it’s not just conflict. If the conflict is anticipated and the person has a stock response ready to go, conflict doesn’t have much of an effect. (This seems to be the case with people in general, not just philosophical zombies.) It’s possible that being subtle in your arguments or appealing to common values may make your words have more of an impact, but only if people don’t think you’re trying to change their mind. [3] And that’s pretty difficult when you are, after all, trying to change their mind. So direct conflict doesn’t always (or even frequently) work with regular people, let alone philosophical zombies. To be able to get through to the non-conscious, the message seems to require three things:
  • It can’t be interpreted as a talking point other zombies have already answered. (It does not matter if that answer makes absolutely zero sense.)
  • Sufficiently high stakes so it cannot be ignored.
  • A personal connection (or themselves) being effected by those high stakes.

Kill Means Kiss

The empathy gap indicates that when those stakes are high enough, and personal enough, that there’s a chance awareness will kick back in, knocking the person out of their zombified state and allow them to re-evaluate decisions. [5] Depending on the severity of the “zombie infection”, the person might be able to resume normal thinking and awareness. (This is what happens at the end of The Brainwashing of My Dad, for example.) This sounds a lot like exaggeration until you hear people who have left cults (religious, social, or political) try to describe how they thought while were still in that cult. The way they thought seems alien and mystifying – to the same person who thought it. They literally can’t make sense of what they thought and believed before. I’ve had a sinking feeling for a while now that all this I just described is not just a thought experiment. It matches up with what’s going on a little too well. Nobody is coming to save us from this kind of zombie apocalypse. Nobody else can. Outside influences don’t have that personal connection. Things like articles and blog posts and television shows and speeches won’t cut it with a philosophical zombie. Instead, it is up to each of us. We must confront those succumbing to these cult-like ideas. It is not enough to remind them of others. It is not enough to just appeal to their empathy. We must teach them that “kill” means “kiss”.
I’m paraphrasing Pontypool, but the point is actually spot on. It is not supposed to make sense. It cannot fit in the expectations of the zombie cult. Right now, the cult-like programming these individuals have undergone (whether through the TV, talk radio, the internet, whatever) actively resists any kind of logical or emotional argument that you might have. It is not enough to just try to refute what they’re saying. It is not enough to just point out the flaws. Instead, you – yes you – have to completely confused and side-step their pre-programmed responses. As tempting as it might be to use facts, or appeals to empathy alone, you will need to step completely outside the box. Break the pattern they’re expecting. Subvert their paradigm. Keep them off balance. Make sure they have to think to make any sense of what you’re saying and doing. It isn’t easy. But I think it is necessary. Tell them that “kill” means “kiss”. And keep fighting back while keeping your soul.
Featured photo by Jeremy Keith under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. [1] Mead’s conception of consciousness implicitly and explicitly requires compassion and empathy for others, or at least the ability to determine the motivations of others. For him, this is exemplified through the saints and (interestingly) capitalism, since to form a better communal society with increased benefits for all, one must be able to empathize with the other. (Capitalists who don’t figure out what other people need and want don’t sell a lot of stuff.) [2] This is actually the point of the Blade Runner franchise. [3] My own masters thesis seems to have measured this effect. [4] Yes, like Pontypool. Go watch The Brainwashing of My Dad and tell me that doesn’t sound like a Pontypool situation. (And yes, that’s where “Mrs. French’s Cat” in the title comes from.) [5] Yes, I’m assuming that the original philosophical zombie’s decision was morally wrong. After all, if it made sense morally, why would you need to avoid reflecting on it?

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