“You can’t explain conscious experience on the cheap.”
David Chalmers, Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.
I never really knew Brian. He was a neighbor, that was all. I didn’t
know his wife, Cynthia, either, but I reached out to her when I heard
the news about her husband. I mean, imagine finding out you’ve been
married to — making love to — a man who was never conscious.
Not that Cynthia believes it. Me, personally, I have to side with the
experts on the matter, but I can’t blame her for not wanting to face
the truth. I’m not sure I would be capable of facing it either in her
position. Of course I’ll never tell her what I really think about
Brian, what I have always suspected. Anyway, given how things turned
out, I’m glad I kept my thoughts to myself.
Well, I did talk about Brian with my son a while back, way before the
hit-and-run incident. It had to be during the summer of 2020 because
we’d just walked home together from a socially-distanced block party
— because of course it would take a deadly global pandemic to get
Alex to go with me to a neighborhood function. I remember the sun had
just set, and I had gotten a late start on dinner. At some point I’d
asked Alex if he’d noticed anything strange about Brian.
“Huh unh,” Alex said, gazing into his phone. “Why?”
He must’ve been hungry because instead of immediately going back to
his room, he’d taken a seat at the kitchen counter.
“It’s nothing,” I said, passing behind him to open a drawer. I did not succeed in resisting the temptation to sneak a peek over my son’s shoulder at his screen. “Who’s Alison?”
“From the U of A?”
He nodded noncommittally and continued typing, erasing, typing.
I stared into the freezer, relishing the icy vapor against my cheeks
before grabbing a bag of orange chicken.
“You know,” Alex said, “actually, I think I know what you mean. Brian’s like a walking
Hallmark card. His jokes are just a little too… appropriate.”
Adultness was what Alex was noticing, but he seemed so pleased with
his observation that I didn’t have the heart to reject it. “I don’t
know. Hey, listen, I know you’re not one to chat up the neighbors, but
can we keep this stuff we’re saying about Brian between us?”
“Sure,” Alex said.
“I just don’t want —”
“I know, mom. I won’t say anything.”
Alex’s phone dinged. He smiled down at his screen and tapped a one-emoji response.
“I don’t know why I’m even thinking about this,” I went on, “but it’s
like with Brian there’s something missing.”
A Short Story on Epistemic Humility and The Best Possible Life, All Things Considered
I went on talking, apparently to myself. “This is gonna sound strange,
but it’s like there’s nothing going on inside, like he literally
doesn’t have a soul. You know what I mean? Anyway, that’s the feeling
I get from him. But why? I can’t figure it out.”
“I told you what it is, mom. He’s inauthentic.”
“I don’t know.” I wondered who’d said the same thing about me. “I
don’t think that’s it.”
“You know what a philosophical zombie is?” Alex actually put his phone
down and turned in his seat to look at me.
“I hope you’re not describing your friend.” I dumped the glorified
chicken nuggets onto a reusable parchment paper-lined cookie
sheet. “Women don’t appreciate being called philosophical, you know.”
The philosophical zombie was an ‘intuition pump’ or one of many
‘thought experiments’ which I was currently risking my retirement
savings for Alex to learn about. It went something like this:
Imagine replicating someone’s entire physical being, including their
brain activity, neuron-for-neuron, but leaving behind their
consciousness, or inner experience — what it’s like to smell a rose,
for example. The replica’s behavior is exactly the same as the
original’s. No one can tell the difference between the two, no one can
tell that the replica is missing an inner life. The soul-less replica
passing as human, that’s a philosophical zombie.
“If zombies are logically conceivable,” Alex continued, “then we can’t
equate conscious experience with the brain. Reductive physicalism
leaves an explanatory gap.”
“Is that right?” Truth be told, I was in the midst of searching long
and hard for baking instructions on the orange chicken package and
hadn’t given Alex’s explanation my fullest attention. “So you think
Brian’s a zombie?”
“No, but it sounds like you do.”
“Hm,” I said, still searching the bag. “Okay. Maybe I do. Maybe he is.”
“But if Brian were really a p-zombie–”
“‘P’ for ‘philosophical’. Anyway, if Brian were a philosophical
zombie, you wouldn’t know it. It wouldn’t even occur to you to wonder
whether he’s a zombie. So what I’m saying is, there’s gotta be some
sort of external behavior that you’re picking up on.”
“You got me, kid.”
“I’m suggesting it’s inauthenticity. I’m also suggesting you set the
oven to 400 degrees and the timer for 20 minutes before I starve to
death. Christ, mom, you need to get your eyes checked. I can read the
package from here.”
That was a while back. Since then I hadn’t given much thought to
Brian, or to philosophical zombies for that matter, until last week
when I saw the story on the local news.
According to the coroner’s report, it wasn’t exactly Brian who was
involved in a hit and run, but his body was. Just his body. No one
knew how he ended up like that, laid out in the middle of Frontage
Road in the middle of the night.
If that wasn’t weird enough, the next morning I got the inside scoop
from Sierra, a neighbor and close friend of Brian’s wife, who showed
up at my doorstep unannounced. Which was unusual. She usually texted right before ringing the doorbell.
“I’ve got news,” she said in a breathless near-whisper before glancing
conspiratorially over her shoulder. “Sorry to just drop by like this.”
She pushed inside, her enormous Louis Vuitton banging at her hip. “I
was just at Cynthia’s.”
I offered her Alex’s spot at the kitchen table. “Can I get you a drink?”
I know it’s got to be done. Even so, I still feel bad about it. If it were up to me, we would cancel the whole thing. Fortunately, it’s not. It’s up to Mother, and Mother knows best.
Sierra shook her head and showed me her Starbucks cup, its lid magenta-kissed. “Cynthia just came back from identifying the body.”
“Ugh," I said, taking a seat across from her. “I can’t imagine.”
“Yeah.” Sierra looked around my kitchen. I could tell I’d ruined her
train of thought. “What I’m about to tell you, I’m not sure Cynthia
wants me telling everyone, so let’s keep it on the DL if we could,
Violent video game noises came from Alex’s room.
She nodded. “M’kay. Look, last night when they found his body — you
know Brian was already dead when the car hit him, right? Okay, but
what they didn’t say on the news was that they scanned Brian’s brain—”
“Why would they do that?” I hadn’t meant to interrupt again.
“I’m not sure, but I think because they couldn’t find the cause of
death, maybe they were looking for brain tumors or something. I
dunno. But get this, they didn’t find…” Sierra lowered her
voice. “They couldn’t find the brain. They thought the machine was
broken so they—”
“Wait. You mean brain tumor, right?”
“No,” Sierra leaned in, her breath smelling of caramel coffee. “The
brain! Jesus, it’s nuts. They said his brain was missing!”
“Was the machine broken?” Alex came out from the hallway in his boxer
shorts. “What about the brain stem? Did he have hydrocephaly?”
Sierra turned in her chair, a bit startled.
“You aren’t supposed to be eavesdropping.” I glanced at Sierra. “Or appearing in public half naked. Go put on a shirt.”
“I’m not in public, I’m inside my house.”
“You’re inside my house, and we have a guest.”
“It’s okay if he hears this,” Sierra said.
“Not until he puts a shirt on.” They both looked at me to see if I was serious.
Moments later he emerged from the hallway, still wrestling his arms
through the sleeves of a wrinkled t-shirt. Sierra explained the whole
thing, starting from the top. The machine wasn’t broken. When imaging
revealed Brian appeared to have no brain, Cynthia, his wife, was
called to give permission to do a full autopsy.
I had never seen Alex listen to anyone so attentively. “So? Did she give permission?”
“I think so,” Sierra replied, “She’s—”
But Alex bolted down the hall back to his room. In no time he was
running out again, car keys jangling, sneakers squeaking.
“Where’re you going?” I hollered after him.
“Medical examiner’s office. Don’t tell anyone about this!” He scurried
out the door before I could respond.
Alex wanted to be the first to break the news. His first piece of real
writing and his first significant contribution to philosophy, all in
one knockout blow, all before graduating from college.
He expected widespread recognition that this discovery would finally
put an end to the millennia-old mind-body problem.
I expected Wizard of Oz scarecrow memes.
Neither of these things happened.
The Medical Examiner’s office wouldn’t discuss anything with Alex, of
course, and he wasn’t allowed to view the autopsy, but I think he felt
he had to warn them not to do anything without multiple experts in the
room, as well as a videographer recording the procedure from beginning
to end. They heeded his advice, or rather, they did just what he said.
The autopsy confirmed it: Brian had no brain.
On top of that, there was no clear evidence that his brain had
been…taken out. I had wondered about this. Given that Brian—or his
lifeless body, rather—had been hit by a car, it seemed possible, even
with numerous experts in the room, that such evidence could be
overlooked. But after nearly everyone who knew anything about anything
had studied the evidence, it seemed Brian’s brain had not, in fact,
The consensus on this point surprised me. I mean, he’d been hit by a
car. Figuring out what happened to his brain would be, one would
think, a pretty messy ordeal. But apparently there was no head trauma
because the car had rolled over his legs. Because he was lying down.
Because he was already dead. Right.
It didn’t occur to me to question this last point until later.
Cynthia and Brian lived around the corner in a house that couldn’t
decide whether it wanted to be Mediterranean or Santa Fe. As I made my
way up the winding drive, I couldn’t help but notice a few desert
broom starts poking out here and there from the landscaping rocks, and
suddenly I remembered a detail I hadn’t realized I’d taken in: Brian
used to keep the yard looking immaculate. He was always outside
tidying. How could a man with no consciousness care about such things?
Well there I was on her porch with my ridiculous plate of cookies,
hesitating to ring the bell, asking myself, when did I become this
curious middle-aged woman standing on a neighbor’s porch with a
ridiculous plate of cookies?
Too long ago, I decided. I rang the bell.
“Cynthia, hi. I just wanted to—here, I brought you a little
something. You look fantastic.”
She really did. But she always did. Her highlights hung in even
intervals about her madeup face, her ivory cashmere sweater had not a
single pill. I asked if I was intruding on her plans for the day. She
assured me I was not and invited me into her bright home. It was like
stepping into a Crate and Barrel ad. I reached out to touch the
unblinking Maltese sitting primly on her sofa. I wanted to see if it
As I lowered myself into her light tan Italian leather sofa, I found
myself opening up to her — to Cynthia, that is, and perhaps the dog
as well — and she to me. There was something about Cynthia that made
her instantly appealing, something that made you want to be on her
As I stroked Kudos, I asked her if she’d heard any news about the
investigation. It was probably too soon to pry.
She clenched her steaming tea mug, took a deep breath.
“We don’t have to talk about this if you—“
“No, it’s okay,” she said, even as her eyes grew moist.
“Of course, sorry, I—”
“There won’t be an investigation.” She broke down. It was the kind of
hyperventilating breakdown you don’t see too often in adults. After
catching her breath, blowing her nose, and uselessly wiping at mascara
smears, she explained the situation. According to so-called experts,
Brian had no brain, therefore he had not been alive.
“Wait, they’re saying Brian wasn’t…?”
“Alive.” She sat up, recrossed her legs, sniffled.
“You mean the night they found him—”
“They’re saying Brian was never alive! They’re treating him like he
wasn’t real, like he never existed.”
I didn’t understand. She didn’t either. All I could do was give her a shoulder to cry on.
As I headed out, something in the kitchen stopped my eye. I actually
doubled back and paused in the entrance to gape at it. It sat on the
counter above the dishwasher: a water glass, half-full. On its side, a
blur of greasy fingerprints. Cynthia came up behind me and put a hand
on my shoulder. The two of us stood there for a moment, spectating.
She didn’t need to explain, but she did anyway. “I nagged him about
leaving his dishes all over the house, for years I nagged him, and
after a while he began making the effort to clean up after himself. In
his mind, though, it was enough to just leave his dishes in the
kitchen for me to put away. That drove me nuts, but I couldn’t
criticize him when he really was trying. It’s the thought that counts,
right? Anyway, that glass was the last one he used. I know it’s
“It’s not stupid.”
“Oh, Brian.” Cynthia spoke to the water glass and tried to smile. “You
came so close, didn’t you? There’s the dishwasher, it’s just right
there.” The quip faltered, her chin dimpled in choked-down grief. She
dabbed at the corner of her eye with a mascara-stained tissue from
earlier. “You tried your best to please me, I know you did.”
I’ll admit, in that moment I doubted myself — errors, after all, are
hallmarks of humanity. Could it be that I was wrong about Brian, that
he really did experience the full spectrum of human emotion, despite
his lack of mental hardware?
On the other hand, it wasn’t difficult to imagine a p-zombie acting
the same way. To behave like a normal modern man is to leave a dirty
dish less than an arm’s length away from the dishwasher.
What stood out to me, what I found immensely touching, was Cynthia’s
tolerating the ‘mess’ for the sake of this private memorial. Clearly
she loved Brian, whatever he was.
Later when I told Alex about this development, he raged through the
living room hollering about “physicalists” digging in their heels and
“denying the evidence.” When he finally calmed down, he explained
their “so-called reasoning” for why there would be no murder
Someone who lacks a brain isn’t alive.
Someone who isn’t alive cannot be murdered.
Therefore, no murder investigation.
The hit and run? Well, given the above, the incident was no longer
considered a hit and run, but instead failure to report a dead body,
which is against the law and carries a $750 fine, up to 4 months in
jail, and 2 years of probation in the state of Arizona. Of course, no
one ever caught the person who rolled over Brian’s dead body and fled
the scene. Whoever that was, I imagine the relief he must’ve felt that
night — so sue me, I still say the perpetrator’s gotta be a ‘he’ — when
he turned on the evening news.
Something bothered me. If the police and medical experts wanted to
insist that Brian couldn’t be murdered because he had never lived,
fine, but then how could they claim to be looking to hold someone
liable for failing to report Brian’s dead body? How could Brian have a
dead body if he was never alive?
Suffice it to say, nothing made sense.
Alex found footage from the block party of Brian playing corn hole
with some kids in the neighborhood and put this up on his various
online accounts above the caption: Medical experts say this man is
‘not alive’. I’m afraid my son’s social media campaign may have
backfired, as most of what he posted looked like click bait. Even so,
he managed to find support in a few online communities, and even in
certain backwaters of academia.
He found support in me, too. Despite my misgivings about Brian’s lack
of consciousness, I went along with my son’s anti-physicalist
crusade. At times I even became quite vocal. I alerted the local news
about the controversy. I helped organize a protest, something I’d
never done before and probably will never do again. Privately,
however, I never went back on my belief that there was something
missing in Brian — a soul, consciousness, mind, whatever — though
I couldn’t put my finger on what made me feel this way. Of course the
discovery about Brian’s missing brain did seem to support my intuition
about him, and you could call it too convenient. Maybe Alex was right
and I’d just sensed something strange in Brian’s personality. Inauthenticity? I honestly don’t know.
In the end, though, what did it matter what I thought? Suppose I was
wrong. If brainless Brian had indeed defied physics, if he had in fact
been a living, feeling, conscious, fully-human being, he certainly
But his wife was still alive, which was why I felt the authorities
shouldn’t have been adamant about refusing to investigate her
husband’s… call it what you will. Their response struck me as cold and
heartless. Why not remain open to the possibility of investigating
what was, after all, an unprecedented situation? Or at least put on a
little show for the sake of the grieving widow? What harm could come
of it? It didn’t take but a moment’s reflection and a modicum of
decency to see Cynthia’s unthinkable predicament for what it was.
To lose a loved one is hard enough. No one should have to lose a loved
one who never lived.
◊ ◊ ◊
Tina Lee Forsee studied philosophy at Marlboro College in Vermont and now lives in Tucson, Arizona. She is an Associate Acquisitions Editor and audiobook narrator at After Dinner Conversation, a magazine dedicated to philosophical short stories.