Cupids Health

The Splintered Mind: The Schmombie Blues


I bear bad news. You and I are schmombies. Disappointment drips from my voice. What impoverished lives we lead! Let me explain.

You probably know the work of David Chalmers and Robert Kirk on “zombies“. A philosophical zombie is an entity exactly like a human being in all physical respects, except lacking consciousness. Your “zombie twin” is physically identical to you, molecule for molecule. Your zombie twin behaves identically to you, even giving the same verbal reports of consciousness. “Yes, of course I’m conscious,” it will say. “I just introspected and infallibly know it to be so!” Sadly for your twin, these seeming-introspective reports are mistaken. The zombie is completely dark inside — no conscious experience whatsoever.

Although zombies are widely held to be nomologically impossible — that is, a violation of the laws of nature — many philosophers, including Chalmers and early Kirk (but not later Kirk) hold them at least to be conceivable. And if they are conceivable, the argument goes, something important follows: Consciousness is not a physical property. There is a property you have that your hypothetical zombie twin lacks: being conscious. By stipulation you and your zombie twin share all physical properties. Therefore, the property of being conscious is not a physical property.

That zombies don’t actually exist is irrelevant to the argument. If we can coherently conceive of both Eric and Zombie Eric, then we are understanding consciousness as a property that is in principle divorceable from all physical properties. Our ordinary conception of consciousness treats it as something separable from the physical.

How well does the zombie argument succeed against physicalism (the view that there are no non-physical entities or properties)? That’s a topic of immense dispute. But let’s assume that it does succeed. Consciousness is a non-physical property. Ordinary humans have it. Zombies lack it, though zombies fail to appreciate that fact.

Chalmers briefly notes that entities physically identical to us and lacking consciousness might have some other non-physical property, call it “schmonciousness” instead of “consciousness”. Schmonciousness might be as amazingly wonderful and special as consciousness, though unknown to us. Chalmers quickly drops the idea, stipulating that zombies lack both consciousness and schmonsciousness if it exists. But let’s consider the issue a bit.

My central thought is this. Once we allow that there is one type of nonphysical property, why stop with only one? Maybe in addition to conscious or “phenomenal” properties, there’s another whole class of nonphysical properties, as radically different from both physical and conscious/phenomenal properties as conscious/phenomenal properties are (on the property dualist’s conception) from physical ones.

Of course, we can’t positively conceive of such properties. Lacking such properties ourselves, they will be as foreign and unimaginable to us as color is (supposedly) to a blind person, or even more so. But philosophically, metaphysically, once we abandon physicalism there seems no reason to rule out schmonsciousness in principle. We cannot detect it, since it is neither physically detectable like physical properties nor introspectively available to us. Schmonsciousness might well be entirely absent from our region of the cosmos, present only in wild, far-away regions, among wild, far-away entities. Or it might not exist anywhere at all, despite being a real property, one which we regrettably lack. Alternatively, schmonsciousness might be right here under our noses but unknown to us.

Thus we can conceive of at least four different kinds of entity, each physically identical to the other but differing in their nonphysical properties:

  • zombies, who have only physical properties and no consciousness or schmonsciousness;
  • ordinary humans, who have physical properties and consciousness but no schmonsciousness;
  • schumans, who have physical properties and schmonsciousness but no consciousness;
  • wonderkindred, who have physical properties, consciousness, and schmonsciousness.
  • Let me note one epistemic difference between zombies’ relationship to consciousness and our relationship to schmonsciousness. Zombies falsely report consciousness (or at least engage in physical activities that from the outside look like reports). We do not report schmonsciousness, falsely or otherwise. But that epistemic difference is incidental to the question of whether schmonsciousness might exist.

    Now imagine the world from the perspective of wonderkindred philosophers. They agree with us (or at least with human dualists) that consciousness is incredibly special. It cannot be reduced to the physical, and zombies are missing out on something incredibly important. Indeed, zombies are missing out on the very thing that makes life worth living. How sad for those zombies! Or maybe zombies, since they entirely lack conscious experiences of any sort whatsoever, are so far from being persons that even the idea of pitying them is misplaced.

    To this, the wonderkindred add the further idea that we ordinary humans are also radically impoverished, since we are lacking schmonsciousness. Schmonsciousness is every bit as important and valuable to wonderkindred as consciousness. They can hardly fathom life without it. They imagine mere humans with pity, calling us schmombies. They ask, is it even worth living life as a schmombie? Sure, consciousness is present, but schmonsciousness is missing! It’s like being half of a person. Or worse. Wonderpigs and wondermonkeys might not have the full richness of wonderkindred consciousness and wonderkindred schmonsciousness, but at least they have some limited animal-like consciousness and animal-like schmonsciousness. Mere schmombies (i.e., ordinary humans) don’t have even that.

    Are you sad yet? No, not yet?

    Well, consider: Why stop at three types of property? Why only physical properties, phenomenal properties, and schnenomenal properties? Wonderkindred philosophers might contemplate and conceive of indefinitely many distinct types of properties beyond these three.

    We’ll need a new naming convention. Call physical properties 0-nomenal properties, conscious/phenomenal properties 1-nomenal properties, and schmonscious/schmenomenal properties 2-nomenal properties. There could be 3-nomenal, 4-nomenal, 5-nomenal, …. n-nomenal, n+1-nomenal… properties, with no limit. (I am imagining these properties as categorically different rather than scalar or ranked. The choice of the integers as labels is only convenience.)

    If we assume that every entity bearing such properties must at least have physical properties, then we can conceive of entities with 0-nomenal properties plus any combination of n-nomenal properties. Some entities might have 0, 1, 17, and 22-nomenal properties. Others might have 0, 16, 28, 300, 45698, and 4.48833×10^25-nomenal properties. Others might have all the even-numbered properties (and thus infinitely many types of property), or every property whose last digit is zero in the decimal system, or the Fibonacci sequence of properties.

    Compared to such magnificent beings, we mere humans are radically impoverished indeed. Sigh. I’m sad, at least. How much I’m missing out on, which I can’t even begin to understand! Queue the schmombie blues.

    [image adapted from here]

    P.S. Don’t confuse schmombies with shombies, zoombies, or zimboes. That will make everyone quite upset.



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