Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Attack of the (Philosophical) Zombies! -- Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer

I briefly met Sawyer at Worldcon in Kansas City in August 2016 and told him I was a fan (especially of his Neanderthal Parallax and Mindscan, one of the first books I reviewed on this blog!).  When I mentioned that I'm a philosophy professor, he said I needed to read his latest book.  Now that I've read it, I can see why, because Quantum Night is an intriguing philosophical thriller on the nature of consciousness and morality.

As is usually the case with Robert J. Sawyer's work, this novel mostly takes place in Canada, involves a middle-aged scientist falling in love, and it's impossible to fully separate the scientific and philosophical material from the plot.

The Plot Begins...

Jim Marchuk is a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba who has developed a method to test people for psychopathy.  When he testifies as an expert witness in a court case, he discovers that he's missing memories of six months of his life almost twenty years earlier.  His investigations lead him to talk to his old professor, become reacquainted with an ex-girlfriend he doesn't remember, and eventually discover that the vast majority of the human population are either psychopaths or philosophical zombies (more on that in a bit).

Along the way there's a lot about utilitarian ethics and the nature of consciousness.  The plot meanders a bit, especially about a third of the way through, but I found the ideas intriguing enough to keep reading.  Sawyer's serviceable, no-nonsense writing style helps, too (he's probably not going to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, but that's okay).

Attack of the (Philosophical) Zombies!

Unlike the zombies you see on The Walking Dead, philosophical zombies, recently popularized by the philosopher David Chalmers, appear outwardly to act the same as a fully conscious human being, but have no inner conscious experience.  In other words, the lights are on, but nobody's home!  (See here for more on philosophical zombies).

In the novel, philosophical zombies are given the appropriately Canadian nickname, p-zeds, although it's made clear that p-zeds aren't exactly philosophical zombies.  Some of the characters believe they can detect p-zeds based on their behavior and even use the existence of p-zeds to provide various sociological explanations, while the whole point of philosophical zombies in the philosophical literature is precisely that you cannot detect them based on their behavior (this is taken by Chalmers and others to be a key step in an argument against physicalism, or the idea that everything is physical, but getting into that would take us too far afield for a humble book review).

Minor Spoiler Alert!

In the novel, it turns out that something like 60% of the human population are p-zeds.  I realize this is a work of fiction and you need to suspend disbelief, but I found this hard to accept.  Some Goodreads reviewers have complained (perhaps justifiably) that this would create a kind of prejudice: the p-zeds aren't really conscious, so you can do whatever you want to them.

To Sawyer's credit, the characters struggle with this issue, and it would follow, from some utilitarian views, that p-zeds are less able to experience pleasures than fully conscious humans.  For a novel that mentions Peter Singer, a philosopher famous for arguing that animals are morally considerable, it's surprising that little attention is paid to whether p-zeds, like non-human animals, might have some sort of pain stimulus even without full consciousness, which would make p-zeds morally considerable.  Still, it's hard not to sense a degree of condescension and elitism from the characters when they blame p-zeds for the popularity of young Earth creationism, mob mentality, and dumbness of all kinds.

Could Most People Lack Consciousness or Conscience?

For me the real issue wasn't so much moral as epistemological and metaphysical: could it really be likely that such a large percentage of the population could lack full, moral consciousness while another substantial percentage is conscious?  How would you know that?  (I haven't even gotten to the psychopaths yet, but they account for another 25% or so of the population).

I suppose this is logically possible (that's the whole point of philosophical zombies, although some philosophers dispute whether they're really possible).  Still, if you're supposed to see some behavioral differences (unlike philosophical zombies) then it becomes less plausible, because people aren't actually that different from one another.  The way I see it, either all or almost all of us have consciousness or none of us do.  The half-measure is odd, although perhaps less odd in the slightly more dystopian world of the novel than in the real world.

While I enjoyed the story a lot, the novel could have been slightly more fun, at least for someone with skeptical tendencies like me, if it were genuinely an issue of whether any humans at all are conscious (the novel does mention Daniel Dennett, who is skeptical about philosophical zombies and the way most philosophers talk about consciousness, but little is done with this reference).

The human race is divided into three types, based on the quantum states of their brains (along the lines of Roger Penrose's quantum mind theory): Q1 (the p-zeds), Q2 (the psychopaths, who have consciousness but lack conscience), and Q3 (people with both consciousness and conscience).   Although I'm skeptical about this sort of division or what behavioral evidence would suggest that 25% of all people are psychopaths, I did like a lot of what Sawyer did with this classification.  I don't want to spoil too much, but I found it to be especially interesting when characters moved between the states due to (almost literal) quantum magic wand waving.

Utilitarian Ends

It's also interesting to see the part played by utilitarianism.  Peter Singer, the world's most famous living utilitarian philosopher, is mentioned several times and his ideas are important to the plot.  I should warn readers, though, if you hate utilitarianism with the passion it inspires in some people, you may be annoyed by this book.  Although I'm becoming more of a virtue ethicist in my old age, I'm fairly sympathetic to utilitarianism, so it didn't bother me.

While I have a few nits to pick with the plot and the plausibility of some of the premises, I really did enjoy this novel and will probably be thinking about it for a long time to come.  If you like intellectually nutritious science fiction, you might like it, too.

Rating: 91/100

(See also my Goodreads review.)


  1. You have officially blown apart my simple mind into tiny pieces. I will not only read the book but go over the source material you mentioned in this post.

    1. Thanks! That's good to hear. I hope you enjoy the book! A lot of the source material is really difficult stuff, but it's really interesting, too.