A Note on Soulless Zombies

1 March 2012


Recently in The Limitations of Human Consciousness I reviewed a typology of “philosophical zombies,” which latter are employed as thought experiments to investigate the possibility of human (or quasi-human) existence without consciousness. One species of philosophical zombie is referred to as a “soulless zombie,” and I want to take a few minutes to think about what exactly a soulless zombie would be.

What is a soulless zombie? The Neuronarrative blog defines a soulless zombie in passing as that which, “which looks like a human, has a brain, but lacks, wait for it, a soul (as defined by said inquirer).” The Wikipedia article on philosophical zombies is similarly terse, simply saying that the soulless zombie, “lacks a ‘soul’.” Well, we knew that much from the etymology of the term. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Zombies doesn’t even mention “soulless zombies.” Given that the “soul” is a concept that many philosophers have likely consigned to the category of folk psychology, the idea of a soulless zombie may well be more discussed outside philosophy than in, but it represents a kind of moral intuition, and for that reason alone commands our attention.

Theories of soulless zombies will bifurcate based on the distinction between naturalistic and non-naturalistic explications of the soul. One can follow the lead of Aristotle’s On the Soul and give an essentially naturalistic account of the soul, or one can insist upon the irreducibly non-naturalistic character of the soul, which Plato sometimes called the “divine spark.”

The non-naturalistic interpretation is a dead end for science and philosophy and therefore uninteresting. Theologians may have something more to say on this head, but a non-naturalistic soul means that by definition no naturalistic investigation can shed light on the soul (or that part of the soul that is irreducibly non-naturalistic, if any internal complexity or structure of the soul is recognized; often the advocates of a non-naturalistic soul insist upon the simplicity of the soul, in which case the simply non-naturalistic soul is closed to naturalistic investigation). There remains the possibility that, if the surrounding naturalistic context of the non-naturalistic soul can be better elucidated, this may in turn improve the terms of the discussion surrounding the non-naturalistic soul, but I will leave that possibility aside for now.

If, on the other hand, we acknowledge the legitimacy of the naturalistic account of the soul (as in Aristotle), there is no reason to suppose that the methodological naturalism of science cannot converge upon an adequate (by which I mean non-reductive and non-eliminative) account of the soul and the ensouled person. It is only in the case of the irreducible non-naturalism of the soul and personhood (in at least one of the aspects of personhood) that the methods of science and naturalistic philosophy must fail to capture the essential nature of human persons. If it is categorically denied that naturalistic methods as such can fully account for the human person or the human soul, then it is likely that such a denier will also hold the irreducible non-naturalism of the soul (although I can think of an exception to this which I will not attempt to explicate here).

In discussing philosophical zombies, soulless zombies, and scientific philosophy, the reader may well have Daniel Dennett in mind, so I am going to quote Dennett here in order to point out the way in which the inquiry I have suggested differs in essentials from Dennett’s approach, despite the similarly of the terminology I have employed. Here’s the passage from Dennett:

There is a powerful and ubiquitous intuition that computational, mechanistic models of consciousness, of the sort we naturalists favor, must leave something out — something important. Just what must they leave out? The critics have found that it’s hard to say, exactly: qualia, feelings, emotions, the what-it’s-likeness (Nagel) or the ontological subjectivity (Searle) of consciousness. Each of these attempts to characterize the phantom residue has met with serious objections and been abandoned by many who nevertheless want to cling to the intuition, so there has been a gradual process of distillation, leaving just about all the reactionaries, for all their disagreements among themselves, united in the conviction that there is a real difference between a conscious person and a perfect zombie — let’s call that intuition the Zombic Hunch — leading them to the thesis of Zombism: that the fundamental flaw in any mechanistic theory of consciousness is that it cannot account for this important difference. A hundred years from now, I expect this claim will be scarcely credible, but let the record show that in 1999, John Searle, David Chalmers, Colin McGinn, Joseph Levine and many other philosophers of mind don’t just feel the tug of the Zombic Hunch (I can feel the tug as well as anybody), they credit it. They are, however reluctantly, Zombists, who maintain that the zombie challenge is a serious criticism.

Daniel Dennett, The Zombic Hunch: Extinction of an Intuition?

Dennett here invokes “we naturalists,” but although I definitely count myself among the naturalists, I do not share Dennett’s point of view on this matter. What Dennett calls a “phantom residue” might be compared to what I called the “irreducible non-naturalistic” nature of the soul, but what Dennett is suggesting is far more radical. Dennett not only rejects the soul (much less the theological, non-naturalistic soul), he rejects the very existence of consciousness and subjectivity. Dennett’s is a eliminativist account, which he pursues despite admitting that he feels the tug of the intuition. Thus for Dennett, a naturalistic account is a mechanistic account, and this is a far more circumscribed conception of naturalism than I would accept or advocate.

However, when Dennett makes the distinction between, “a real difference between a conscious person and a perfect zombie,” he does inadvertently hit upon the essential idea of a soulless zombie: it would be distinct from a conscious person. Thus Dennett’s “perfect zombie” would seem to be what I am here calling a “soulless zombie,” though I could go on to add that Dennett denies even the possibility of a perfect zombie without a naturalistic form of consciousness. In this context it would be very easy to conflate naturalistic and non-naturalistic conceptions of consciousness, but the distinction is most vital where it is most likely to be conflated.

I think that once we make the distinction we can up the ante of the soulless zombie problem, or, in Dennett’s terms, the zombie hunch. To do this we can draw upon a naturalistic account of the soul formulated for the explicit purpose of a sociological explication of religion. I am thinking here of Emile Durkheim’s conception of the soul in his seminal work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

Durkheim in famous for treating religion as an essentially social phenomenon, even in its apparently most private forms. Here is a typical passage from Durkheim:

“…it may be said that nearly all the great social institutions have been born in religion. Now in order that these principal aspects of the collective life may have commenced by being only varied aspects of the religious life, it is obviously necessary that the religious life be the eminent form and, as it were, the concentrated expression of the whole collective life. If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.”

This differs radically from, for example, Alfred North Whitehead’s conception of religion as being, “what the individual does with his solitude.”

Here is a passage from Durkheim specific to the soul, and incorporating his sociological conception of religious ideas:

“Thus the notion of the soul is a particular application of the beliefs relative to sacred beings. This is the explanation of the religious character which this idea has had from the moment when it first appeared in history, and which it still retains to-day. In fact, the soul has always been considered a sacred thing; on this ground, it is opposed to the body which is, in itself, profane. It is not merely distinguished from its material envelope as the inside from the outside; it is not merely represented as made out of a more subtle and fluid matter; but more than this, it inspires those sentiments which are everywhere reserved for that which is divine. If it is not made into a god, it is at least regarded as a spark of the divinity. This essential characteristic would be inexplicable if the idea of the soul were only a pre-scientific solution given to the problem of dreams; for there is nothing in the dream to awaken religious emotions, so the cause by which these are explained could not have such a character. But if the soul is a part of the divine substance, it represents something not ourselves that is within us; if it is made of the same mental matter as the sacred beings, it is natural that it should become the object of the same sentiments.”

EMILE DURKHEIM, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, TRANSLATED BY JOSEPH WARD SWAIN, Chapter VIII, “The Idea of the Soul,” section IV

Durkheim’s naturalistic-socialogical conception of the soul has been formulated in a particularly compelling manner by professor Charles B. Jones:

“The soul is nothing but the image of society introjected into the individual and appropriated by the individual as his or her most essential identity. When a person has been successfully integrated into the religious life of a social group they then take that image of the group and of all the virtues and goals, the mission of the group, the ideals that it adheres to, and brings it on board as part of their own being.”

Charles B. Jones, Ph.D., University of Virginia, The Catholic University of America, Introduction to the Study of Religion, published by The Teaching Company

I think that this nicely captures the sense of necessity that people typically invoke in relation to the soul by contextualizing it as implicated in the individual’s identity and being.

Now, a perfect zombie would presumably be able to be successfully integrated into the religious life of a group (if a zombie failed to do so its behavioral emulation of human beings would be imperfect) and so would able to appropriate the group identity as its own.

Would there be a difference between a religiously socialized zombie, perhaps even a zombie that believed itself to have a soul, and if asked, “Do you have a soul?” would respond in the affirmative, and a human being who was also religiously socialized, also self-identified as having a soul, and also affirmed the possession of a soul when asked?

I think that this sharpens the dilemma a bit, because it is possible for me to imagine a soulless zombie undergoing initiation rites in the religion and mimicking all those aspects of behavior that Durkheim associated with the social manifestation of the concept of the soul, and yet still that soulless or perfect zombie would be without any feeling (i.e., qualia) of what it is like to be a member of that community and to feel the fellowship of the share ritualism of a liturgy that affirms the soul.

As far as a naturalistic conception of the soul can go, then — and I admit that it very well may not go far enough — there still seems to be room for an explanatory gap between a soulless zombie and a human being.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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6 Responses to “A Note on Soulless Zombies”

  1. MisterEgo said

    We should worry when computers start worshiping our Lord and Savior… perfect zombies would be hard (impossible?) to distinguish, so slightly less interesting. And a computer possessing a soul is a hard one, even today.

    I can imagine some religious zealot saying something like: “See, they believe too! Must be true! Praise the Lord!”

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear MisterEgo:

      Have you seen the remake of the Battlestar Galactica television series? The whole thing is a meditation upon machines that “get” religion, and I have to admit that in some episodes it is handled quite well. It’s worth a watch.

      The really interesting experiment would, I think, be if machine consciousness could be produced and then allowed to develop in isolation (i.e., not exposed to human influences). Would it or would it not develop some form of religion?

      Best wishes,


  2. John said

    The Catholic view is that the human being possess three souls (vegetal, animal and spiritual). The vegetal and animal soul is naturalistic and made by evolutionary mechanisms. Homo sapiens had evolved naturally to have an animal soul. This spiritual soulless homo sapiens was capable to develop language and civilization. The bicameral mind (as proposed by Julian Jaynes) is a good explanation of a spiritual soulless human. These naturalistic souls are mortal as the physical body. In some recent point in history God had created directly the first human spiritual soul and infused it in a spiritual soulless human. God had created every single spiritual soul in the offspring of this first souled human. As a direct creation by God it is perfect and immortal. So I think someday we could make a very smart computer but it will never have a spiritual soul or consciousness itself.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thank you for your comment. What you described as the Catholic view is an idea that goes back at least to Aristotle.

      About your solution to the problem of ensoulment in a naturalistic context I will not say anything, as I try to avoid theology. But I will say that I make a distinction between what you call a “spiritual soul” and “consciousness itself.” “Spiritual soul” is a theological term so I would avoid it; consciousness I take to be a naturally occurring phenomenon that science has not yet described or analyzed, but it is in principle amenable to scientific analysis because it manifests itself within nature and as a part of nature. The only reason that I use the term “soulless zombie” (taking “soul” also to be a theological term) is because this is how the philosophical debate has been conducted. When I say, “soulless zombies” what I really mean is a zombie without consciousness and innocent of qualia. Now, one could undertake a theological investigation that made an additional distinction between consciousness and soul or spirit, but this isn’t something I would attempt because I have no insights into theology and I have no idea what people mean when they use theological terms.

      Best wishes,


      • John said

        Yes, the Thomistic view on soul was derived from Aristotle and the ancient Jewish separation of souls (nefesh, ruah, neshamah and others). The Catholic (holistic. from the Greek words Kata+holos) approach is to embrace everything known to man.

        There’s a lot of processes in our minds that don’t need consciousness. But there’s a very subtle process in our mind that is unique in nature, not found in any other non human animal.

        That’s the Zombic Hunch stated by Dennett. And that’s the supernatural soul I speak of. I can say supernatural because is unique in nature and is simply the most important feature found in our known universe.

        We can trace anything related to our bodies to the biological evolution of several species. Including a lot of our mental processes too. But the Zombic Hunch is untraceable it simply appears in somewhere in history and changed anything.

        I define this supernatural soul (spiritual, zombic hunch, etc) as the high level volition and decision-making in subjective consciousness.

        This volition is consciously perceived as an internal hallucinating voice with a status of a naturalistic and non conscious neurological command (like eat when hungry or the fight or flight response).

        The human being is the only animal who can do that. And this magical trick puts the humans far above any other animal.

        I think our development of Artificial Intelligence will be the final test about this Zombic Hunch. If it’s something entirely natural we MUST be able to replicate in a powerful computer (maybe in exascale). But I can bet we will never be able to replicate the Zombic Hunch in a machine, because this feature is not natural but created intentionally by a supernatural intelligence (God).

        • geopolicraticus said

          Thank you for making me aware of the “zombic hunch,” which I had not encountered prior to your comment. I have since looked this up, but I haven’t yet fully assimilated the idea so I can’t yet say anything intelligent about it.

          My view is that consciousness is widely represented in nature, and this view has been the basis of many posts such as Planet of Zombies, Kantian Critters, A Sentience-Rich Biosphere, and many others. Recently I wrote on Twitter: “Consciousness is far more pervasive in the biosphere than intelligence, which indicates that it possesses reliable and robust survival value.”

          Given my naturalistic conception of consciousness, what I am calling consciousness cannot coincide with what you call, “a very subtle process in our mind that is unique in nature, not found in any other non human animal.” You could, Cartesian-style, deny that other species have consciousness. In so far as I would argue that consciousness supervenes upon a central nervous system and a brain, and the human brain and CNS are made from the same materials as every other mammal, I reject the Cartesian-based denial of non-human consciousness on the basis of emergentist metaphysics (but I have emphasized elsewhere that Cartesian dualism should be understood formally, cf. Cartesian Formalism).

          You do not appear, however, to simply identify what is “unique in nature” with consciousness, but with, “high level volition and decision-making in subjective consciousness.” How do we distinguish high level and lower level volition? Would you grant that other species have consciousness, but a lower level of volition?

          Suppose a conscious machine could be built. Could we differentiate higher and lower levels of volition in machine consciousness? If a conscious machine could be built, would you want to continue to refer to higher level volitional consciousness as supernatural?

          Best wishes,


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