The “Explanatory Gap” or the Problem of “How Come We Are Not Zombies?”

What do we mean by “consciousness”? What philosophical problems arise when we think about the conscious experience? Let’s try to get a taste of all of this. This post is about Philosophy of Mind and the topic of consciousness.

When we look at the world we receive an incredibly rich flow of experiences. We are amazed by the beautiful colors of a sunset, we enjoy delicious flavors from foods all over the world, and we experience all kinds of sensations, like the pain of hitting your pinky toe against the leg of a chair, or the softness of the softest hair. All of these subjective experiences are conscious experiences (also called “phenomenal” experiences). Now imagine that the human population had no conscious experience whatsoever, that these experiences were “turned off” in our ongoing lives and we continued to behave the same way we did before. Imagine a world of zombies, zombies of consciousness.

Can you imagine such a world?

Believe it or not, this question has made philosophers argue relentlessly whether such a world is logically possible or even imaginable. The reason for thinking about it has to do with the explanations we seek in explaining our world. We seek explanations that yield us an understanding of the things and phenomena around us in physical terms (a metaphysical view known as physicalism). Rain is not a whim of the gods, but the heavy condensation of water vapors. Once we know this, we realize that it is not possible for our world to display falling “heavy condensation of water vapors” without rain. Some would argue it is not possible to even imagine it.

“Rain” and “conscious experience” are in some way related. First, they are both things we seek to explain. But more importantly, they are things we seek to explain physically. In the case of conscious experience, we depart from the fact that we do not search for some kind of entelechy, some kind of immaterial substance or entity, such as a soul. However, both cases differ in something important: in achieving a physical explanation for our conscious experience we encounter an Explanatory Gap. This is, there seems to be a void in the way “the physical” can be related to “the conscious”.

Let’s imagine the kind of explanation we expect the conscious experience to have. Let’s take the relatable hitting-your-toe-against-your-furniture example. And imagine we come to discover that the feeling of pain, our conscious (and very noticeable) pain experience, is explained by the activation of what we then call pain-neurons. “Pain-neuron activity” is then “pain” in the same way “heavy condensation of water vapors” is “rain”. Great! They are both physically explained! … Or are they?

Let’s check it. The explanation for “rain” shows why that is so; vapors in the air pass from gas-state to liquid-state and poor down at the moment the water is too heavy to hold up in the cloud. This makes us think we’ve reached a good explanation, “heavy condensation of water vapors” is inseparable from “rain”. If one cannot imagine one without the other, the explanation succeeds in linking both terms. But this does not apply in the case of “pain”. What exactly about pain-neuron activity explains the pain of our painful experience? These neurons may well cause nothing at all or they could cause something other than pain, such as the taste of strawberry ice cream. We have no way of knowing! Why? Because even if it is true, a gap between the physical and the conscious remains in between, there is no imaginable way of linking them both -the “pain-neuron activity” and the “pain-feeling”, nothing to acknowledge that we are talking about the same thing in the same way “rain” and “heavy condensation of water vapors” do.

In a nutshell, nothing raises the alarm in imagining a being that it’s physically identical to us but lacks conscious experience, no real conceptual problems arise from such a scenario. We need first to understand how the conscious relates to the physical. Only then will we begin to bridge the Explanatory Gap or, in other words, will we begin to reveal how come we are not zombies; zombies of consciousness.

Watch my video on the topic for more:



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