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September 24, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Demons vs zombies

Our knowledge about the workings of our brains is fast evolving, yet in one area we remain woefully ignorant. Human consciousness continues to baffle our very best science and to be honest philosophers haven’t made much fundamental progress on this front either. But what philosophy does do well is personify the reasons why this is such a thorny issue in the first place. The villains that are conjured could have stepped right out of a Saturday afternoon B-movie. Two of the best are zombies and demons, which pose equal and opposite challenges to a theory of consciousness.

The Demon was a product of Descartes, who asked us to imagine a being “as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading”. If such a malevolent force dedicated itself to tricking us, then it could create ensure that all of our thoughts were illusions and shadows which had nothing to do with reality. More recently, Zombies have been formulated by Australian philosopher David Chalmers. These creatures aren’t the kind that eat brains, but are perfect behavioural replicas of living, breathing humans. If we came across one in the street, we wouldn’t notice them. What makes them zombies then? It is the fact that they have nothing going under the hood, no conscious experiences or sentience to speak of.

The Demon is meant to illustrate a reason to be skeptical about the contents of our thoughts. The Zombie is meant to show us that the contents of our thoughts might be the only thing which marks us as different to mindless machines. Are we any further along in finding the solution? Probably not. But with these bogeymen in view, we hopefully begin to get a better understanding of the mysterious mysteries that consciousness poses.

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