On the outside, Zeke looks just like you and me. In fact, he’s a pretty good-looking guy. Physiologically and mentally, he is just like everyone else. He has a brain (duh!), eyes, nose, hands, and everything else. He is also wired like everyone else - when he touches something hot, he pulls back and shouts. When he watches a horror movie, he screams at all the jump scares. When given a set of inputs, he gives all the right outputs. One time, Zeke went through a tough breakup; but in true Zeke fashion, he bounced right back and threw himself into his work. Oh, he also makes a weird face when he eats something sour.
However, one thing makes Zeke different. He doesn’t have a conscious experience of the world. Unlike us, he doesn’t experience life in a way that is uniquely “Zeke”. He may display emotions, but he doesn't feel them. Zeke is what some people call a philosophical zombie.
When was the last time you looked at the stars scattered across a clear night sky? Or witnessed a loved one overcome some major life hurdle? I have noticed personally that in moments of great beauty or sorrow, I feel uniquely “me”. And someone else seeing the exact same thing as me will likely have a different experience. There is something of what it’s like to be me. It means something to be me.
Some philosophers use the philosophical zombie to argue that there is a non-physical consciousness, or a soul. They say physical material alone cannot explain why we have consciousness. Why are we all living out our own movies where we are the main characters? Is there more to us than Zeke, whose actions and emotions are just responses to external events? Or do we really feel deeply and uniquely our emotions?
Others argue that we can completely explain experience in the physical brain, and we don’t need any further explanation.
We have lost the sense of what it means to experience the world as uniquely us.
For now, I am not here to convince you either way. What I do hope we can agree on is that at least on a practical level, we have a unique experience of the world. And increasingly so, our unique consciousness has been dulled down. We’re becoming more and more like my friend Zeke.
I want you to try this. Try to guess how many times you turned your phone screen on yesterday. On some phones, you can actually check this as a digital wellbeing stat. Here’s how I did on a random week – I had anywhere between 60 to 110 unlocks per day. That means I am turning my phone screen on roughly once every 10 mins! And if I were to guess, your stats are probably not far off from mine.
When you’re in line at a coffee shop, chances are you and everyone else pulls out your phone. Chances are that you also automatically open your favorite social media app – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok – without realizing it. Or what about that time someone told you something super important while you were on your phone, and you acknowledged the person, but didn’t actually register what they said. Or the time you pulled your phone out to record the beautiful fireworks, but forgot to actually experience it. We are becoming philosophical zombies more often than we realize.
We have lost the sense of what it means to experience the world as uniquely us. Instead, we feed ourselves a constant stream of the highlights of our friends’ experiences. We get on Instagram and we see a picture of a friend smiling in front of Disneyland. We see pictures of another friend getting married. We have made it easier to step into the best parts of someone else’s experience, instead of experiencing the boredom of our lives. And we wonder why we are discontented and out of touch with our own experiences.
I have no solution except to say I have been trying to step into my own shoes more. To embrace the everyday-ness of my own life. And to give my full consciousness to the people physically around me.
Why don’t you give your own experience a try?