Can P-Zombies Even Exist? As Viewed Through Object-Oriented Programming

Disclaimer: Abstract thoughts typed in 15-ish minutes!

Just as a thought exercise (which I do multiple times a day, often courtesy of insomnia) let us look at the classic “P Zombie” problem under the lens of Object-Oriented Programming.

There’s a couple versions of it, but the particular case of the “P Zombie” problem we’ll be reviewing today is a “soulless zombie” or version of the “Swampman” — Let’s say teleporters are invented, and the way they work is they scan the atomic composition of your body, disintegration it and recreate it on the other end. Any observer, no matter how sophisticated their observation tools, will be unable to detect a change in the person. The question is “if you walk through the teleporter, is it you on the other end or a duplicate with a separate consciousness?”

I think most of us would feel an “intuition” that the answer may be “no,” (with reasoning such as: if you take disintegration out of the question, can’t we say with certainty it is a duplicate?) but we feel like the burden of proof is upon us to say “why not?” — especially if your consider yourself a physicalist like I generally do.

You can kind of go in circles in your head trying to figure it out in terms of the real world, so let’s skip that 😉 and think about it like game designers. As designers of our world, we have access to read all relevant information. In Object-Oriented Programming, you create “objects” (say a basketball) and then have “instances” of that object in the world. Let’s say I walk into a Virtual Reality simulation I’ve had running and see three identical basketball objects in the room. Down to their most basic properties, they appear to be the same. But of course, they are three different objects, and actually are NOT identical just by virtue of existing in separate places. That is a fundamental part of their identity: Even if all three basketball objects in the room were perfectly overlapping each other (appearing as one object), they could be uniquely identified by their position in the computer’s memory. It is inconceivable to run an Object-Oriented simulation in which you could truly have two “identical” objects. Their position in memory is a unique identifier that we are able to pick out, and many languages automatically generate unique identifying key values for every object in memory based on that and/or time. i.e. space-time!

…and isn’t space-time all that would really separate the original person and the so-called zombie? Yes, but it is a unique identifier regardless. Is each of our positions’ in space-time our unique identifying “key value” that our qualia is tied to? Eh, maybe! What I do know is that it’s scary enough that I wouldn’t volunteer to walk through that teleporter!


All Natural Data Transfer

One of the things we collectively lament as humans is our inability to “meaningfully” correspond with any species other than ourselves. If we ever encounter aliens, I have to imagine that our barriers of communication will dwarf those compared to those between, say, a cat and a human. But when you think about it, the breadth of information that we can convey back and forth with a fellow mammal like a cat is pretty incredible. Let’s look at a hypothetical day of Pam and her cat, and imagine how much data — about the world and about our emotions — is transmitted without us even thinking about it:

-Fluffy wakes Pam up. He’s communicating “wake up” and implying “feed me,” while passively communicating trust, familiarity, and a reasonably calm state of mind. He is standing near Pam’s face, because that is where he instinctively knows to look for outgoing communications
-Pam wakes up. Fluffy tentatively looks at her until eye contact is established. Eye contact has ensured that the message has been transmitted, so Fluffy jumps off the bed in anticipation of breakfast being poured
-Fluffy raises his tail signaling happiness, confidence, etc.
-Fluffy purrs manipulatively yet earnestly; Pam pours him food
-Fluffy jumps on the kitchen counter. Pam yells “No!” and Fluffy jumps off
-Pam calls Fluffy’s name at noon. His ears move, but he doesn’t otherwise respond
-Pam calls Fluffy’s name at 2 p.m. He gets up, stretches, walks to the other room and jumps into Pam’s lap
-Pam knocks over a broom in the kitchen. Fluffy sprints outside…
-…where he encounters the neighbor’s dog! The dog growls. Fluffy puffs up, hisses, swipes the air then dashes up a tree
-An hour later, the can opener is heard. Fluffy is coaxed down
-In the evening while being stroked, Fluffy suddenly decides he’s had enough and gives Pat a mock bite
-…except whoops, too hard! He broke the skin, and Pam lashes back at him. He runs off a little ways, then begins to groom himself while facing slightly away from Pam
-Well, you get the idea. Their wants and needs are pretty effectively conducted back and forth

Granted, we humans pick up a lot of the slack when it comes to this sort of communication thanks to our empathy and sapience, but would an alien be able to tell us it was hungry? If it was threatened? Sick? Dead? Would we be able to scream, bite or dance in any manner that would matter to them?

Now tie this back around to cats, especially ones without much socialization: It’s not at all difficult to see why they act the way they do. If you were abducted by a 5-story tall alien that spoke a strange, rumbling language, stomped around, and could certifiably snap your neck at will — well, you’d certainly take a while to be won over, even if said alien was holding the only source of food in its hands and beckoning you over, saying “it’ll be okay!” If I were living amongst giants, you can be sure I’d be skittish whenever one made sudden movements or noises. As silly as it may sound on the surface, the best advice I may have for winning cats over may be to place yourself in their shoes.

So the morals of the story, I suppose, are 1) We take for granted an incredible amount of “invisible” communications, most of which are possible because of our one common tree of life 2) Spare a thought for skittish Fluffy before slamming the front door!