Podcaster Lucas Skrobot recently interviewed neurosurgeon Michael Egnor on the difference between the mind and the brain. Egnor told him, “My wife jokes with me that meeting me is always the worst part of a person’s life.”
At 22:08, Dr. Egnor provides a thought experiment to explain that minds must transcend materials—the zombie problem.
The zombie problem? Ah yes, the philosophers’ zombie: For that, you might also see one of Egnor’s articles:
“Neuroscientist Michael Graziano should meet the p-zombie.” To understand consciousness, we need to establish what it is not before we create any more new theories:
A p-zombie (a philosophical zombie, as distinguished from the kind that sells movies) is identical to a human being but has no first-person (subjective) experience. It’s a meat robot, so to speak, that is indistinguishable in behavior from a human being. Thus, my p-zombie would look exactly like me, walk like me, talk like me, write blog posts like me, etc.. It would do exactly as I do but it would not have an “I” like me. It would feel nothing and think nothing. It would have no “I” at all. To borrow a concept from philosopher Thomas Nagel, there would be nothing it is like to be a p-zombie.
I’m not concerned here to argue whether a p-zombie is practically possible but rather whether it is conceptually possible. Specifically, does a p-zombie break any physical laws of science?
If a p-zombie is conceptually possible—that is, if it does not violate any scientific principles—then it is reasonable to conclude that whatever gives us first-person subjective experience must be something that is not physical, as the term is understood scientifically. If p-zombies, who lack consciousness, are conceptually consistent with physical science, then consciousness is something outside the purview of physical science.
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In one sense, consciousness IS an illusion. We have no knowledge of the processes of our consciousness, only of the objects of its attention, whether they are physical, emotional, or abstract (Michael Egnor)