This is not a question about philosophical zombies. I did a post on them a while back. (The TL;DR is that I find that whole concept ranges from incoherent to dubious, depending on the exact version.)
This post is on the zombies we see in fiction, such as Night of the Living Dead, the Resident Evil franchise, World War Z, and a host of other movies and shows. Last week, while watching the Game of Thrones episode featuring the epic battle with the dead, and the way the zombies searched for and pursued their victims, a question suddenly occurred to me. Are zombies, as traditionally portrayed, conscious? (Yes, I know I’m talking about fantasy entities here, but I’m doing so to get at intuitions.)
Let’s say first what most, if not all, of the portrayals indicate zombies are not. They’re not the original person. This fits with the original Haitian Vodoo concept of a zombie, a reanimated but soulless corpse. The zombies as typically portrayed appear to have no memory of their past life, have lost the ability to communicate with language, and generally seem to be cognitively limited in a number of ways.
In the case of Game of Thrones, the zombies are controlled by the White Walkers, but there appear to only be a limited number of those Walkers, so it doesn’t seem like they’re controlling the detailed movement of every zombie. Broadly speaking, the GoT zombies have no long term will of their own, but a lot of their detailed movements appear to be left to their discretion.
And as in a lot of other fiction, the zombies seem able to search for and pursue victims. This indicates that they have exteroception, awareness of their environment, enough that they can navigate around in it. They also seem able to discriminate between other zombies and living humans. And they seem to be able to focus attention on specific people or groups.
On the other hand, your typical zombie doesn’t appear to have much of any somatic sense, any sense of touch. Or if they do, it doesn’t appear to affect them much. For instance, zombies seem to only minimally notice when they lose body parts. So their interoceptive sense is either missing or stunted.
This might tempt us to conclude that the zombies have no sense of their own body. However, being able to navigate your environment, as the zombies can clearly do at least on some level, requires being able to understand your body’s existence and its relationship to that environment. So the zombies appear to have a only a limited sense of their own body, but a sense nonetheless.
I mentioned above that zombies don’t have memory of their past life, but they also don’t appear to have any long term memories of their current existence. In most depictions, they do seem to have short term memory and imagination, not instantly forgetting a prey just because that prey is momentarily out of sight. But they don’t appear to have any memory beyond the last few moments or be able to imagine anything more than a few minutes into the future.
I think it’s fair to say that zombies, while they may have some limited sense of their body, have no metacognitive self awareness, but then neither do most animals. Although the zombies also have no self concern, no survival instinct, which everything alive seems to have in some form or another. They do have some limited affective desires, such as desiring to eat brains, kill humans, or whatever, but those affects generally aren’t oriented toward their own preservation.
I suspect it’s this last point that really nixes any intuition we might have of them being conscious. But what do you think? Which aspects are necessary for us to think of a system as conscious? Which ones, if they were in a machine, might incline us to feel like that machine was conscious?