A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2008

When Halloween draws close, I watch my favorite horror films and among these are the classic and new zombie films. Interestingly, philosophers have written quite a bit about zombies. Unfortunately, the zombies that philosophers tend to write about are not as cool as the zombies of the horror genre.

The philosophical zombies are beings who look and act just like humans, but lack consciousness. They do not (generally) seek the living so as to devour their brains. Instead, the serve as the victims in philosophical discussions about the mind and consciousness. While many philosophers find this interesting, some find this philosophical use of zombies to be disappointing. When one of my friends learned that philosophers wrote about zombies, he was eager to read these works. After toiling through some of them, he said “you philosophers can really suck the life out of anything…even the undead.” As something of an apology to my friend, I’ve elected to write a bit about the cool zombies.

In the horror tradition, zombies have three main attributes. First, they are biologically dead. Second, they are mindless. Third, they are animate (or re-animated, to be more accurate). Since there is no official Bureau of Zombies, some zombies do not have these attributes.

While zombies are supposed to be dead, there are films and stories in which they are alive. For example, the zombies in 28 Days are still alive and the zombies in Resident Evil are alive at the cellular level.

While zombies are supposed to be mindless, they are sometimes presented as retaining some human intelligence such as the talking zombies in Return of the Living Dead. All zombies have enough mental capacity to recognize and attack the living (though they can be fooled, as in Shaun of the Dead).

All zombies are, as far as I know, animate. After all, non-moving zombies would make for a rather dull movie (Night of the Living Dead Couch Potatoes, perhaps). Of course, their methods of animation vary. The zombies in 28 Days are still alive and are simply humans under the effects of a biochemical agent that makes them mindlessly violent (presumably the substance contains alcohol and something distilled from certain football/soccer fans). Some zombies are dead (or mostly dead) and animated by technology, such as those in Resident Evil and my own Nightsider and “Dust.” Some zombies are dead and animated by supernatural means, such as those in role-playing games like D&D and the classic zombies. A few zombies are animated by natural means, such as strange fungi or plants. There are also zombies whose animation is not explained, such as in the classic Dead series.

Obviously, all of the various zombie types can be philosophically interesting. However, the limits of blogging compel me to limit the discussion to the “stock” zombie: biologically dead, mindless and animated. While such zombies do not really exist (or so we think), they are philosophically interesting because of the combination of these features.

It is easy enough to imagine something that is dead and mindless. A normal corpse meets both of these conditions. If the philosophers who deny the existence of minds are right, then the main difference between a corpse and a living person would be life. Both are mindless, but only one is alive.

Of course, the philosophers who accept the existence of minds also disagree madly about what is meant by the term “mind”, so defining what a mindless entity is lacking can be rather problematic.

For the classic substance dualists, a mindless entity would have a body (made of material substance) but lack the immaterial substance that is the mind. The machine is present, but the ghost is absent.

For the property dualist, a mindless entity would still have the physical properties of the body, but lack the mental properties that compose the mind.

For the functionalist, the mindless entity would have a body but it would not be instantiating the functions that make up the mind. To use a rough analogy, the computer hardware is there, but it doesn’t work.

For other theories of mind, the mindless entity would be (obviously enough) missing what the theory takes to be the mind.

Of course, sometimes people take “mindless” to just mean “really stupid” rather than literally lacking a mind, so perhaps zombies could have minds. They would just be very limited minds on par with those of the lower animals. After all, zombies do have to move around and seek the flesh and brains of the living and that implies some cognitive abilities. Then again, philosophers such as Descartes have argued that animals can function quite effectively without minds so perhaps zombies can as well. Obviously, much depends on what is meant by “mind” here. This would lead to a discussion as messy as a zombie snack, so I will leave it at that.

Getting a dead, mindless body is easy. As any necromancer or mad scientist will tell you, the tough part is getting it to walk around on its own.

One way that corpse could be animated is by technological means. In fiction, it is usually a strange chemical, tailored viruses, or some other plot device. There seems to be no physical impossibility in getting dead organisms to move (after all, electrical shocks will move dead limbs). Getting them to move in ways similar to how they moved in life does seem to pose a serious challenge, but seems to be a challenge in engineering and such rather than a philosophical problem.

Another means for animating corpses is via supernatural means. In D&D, zombies are created by magic and are infused with negative energy (the opposite of the positive energy of living creatures). Perhaps negative energy is a cousin of Dark Energy. Or not. In any case, the notion of negative energy (and magic) does not seem to have much philosophical merit, but is handy as a game mechanism. Another type of supernatural zombie is the sort that is animated by another spirit that drive the corpse it inhabits. These spirits are typically taken to be mindless entities (that is, really stupid). Obviously, philosophy no longer deals in spirits (aside from the bottled variety).

Interestingly, the notion of unintelligent animating forces was once accepted by some scientists and philosophers.  For example, Aristotle seems to have taken the soul (or part of it) to be an animating force. Given this, it would be easy enough to imagine an “anti-soul” that moved dead bodies (as opposed to bringing life).

In some ways, the notion of mindless forces is still accepted-provided that the forces are taken as natural rather than supernatural. The possibility that forces could effectively drive a dead body is certainly interesting (and creepy). However, there seems to be no indication that this is actually possible.

Obviously, I do not intend this blog to be taken as a serious philosophical work-I’m just having some Halloween fun.


One Response

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  1. Jolly Roger said, on October 28, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    Let me just say that I think this was written just for me! 😉

    I studied existentialism and philosophy of religion in college and my favorite genre of movie is ‘horror,’ and guess what… that’s right, I love zombie movies!

    You have done a great job here of explaining to me my own fascination with the zombie phenomenon and I now see that it correlates much more to my background in philosophy than any other discipline.

    Serious work or not, it offers insight; and in the metaphysical world I don’t think you can ask for much more… the philosophers stone maybe…

    Thanks for the great article! Keep it up!

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