What the living dead can teach us about ancient prejudices
Imagine one day you find yourself surrounded by a group of zombie hunters who are about to blow your head off in the belief that you are a member of the evil walking dead. Showing the human traits of mercy and justice, however, they give you a chance to convince them that you are not a zombie. What would you say?
This thought experiment is featured in the British sociologist Jeremy Stangroom’s delightful little book Is Your Neighbor a Zombie? (Bloomsbury, 2014) as a puzzle in the philosophical problem of “other minds.” Since we cannot get inside other people’s heads we have only their actions to assess their mental states. If a robot with advanced artificial intelligence could perfectly mimic human actions how could you tell the difference between it and a real human? Thus, if you tell the zombie hunters that you have a family and a job, that you have hobbies and play sports, and that if stabbed you will cry out in pain, they can counter that zombies exhibit all of these behaviors even though they are not human on the inside. Zombies appear to be sentient beings, they explain, but are actually unconscious automata, merely exhibiting human-like features.
In philosophy of mind studies this is what is known as a philosophical zombie, or p-zombie, and according to Stangroom, there is no way out of this dilemma. Whether such actions are generated by human brains, zombie brains, robotic computer brains, or even animating souls, we can never truly know someone’s (or something’s) mental state. Although, he notes, if we’re really zombies “we simply won’t care.”
Therein, perhaps, is a solution to the dilemma: self-awareness means you’re not a zombie, and if others claim that they are also self-aware and exhibit actions indicating such, it is reasonable to conclude that they are not zombies either. Distinguishing between zombie and non-zombie brains captures a deeper problem of how we discriminate between various human groups, and Shakespeare worked out the logic of why we shouldn’t in The Merchants of Venice when he has Shylock ask:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
P-zombies differ from the zombies of pop culture, such as those explored by neuroscientists Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek in Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? (Princeton University Press, 2014). These zombies, they write, suffer from “Consciousness Deficit Hypoactivity Disorder” characterized by “a lack of intentional control over their actions, lethargic and fatigued movements (akinesthesia), loss of a sense of pleasure (anhedonia), general language dysfunction (aphasia), memory impairments (amnesias), and an inability to suppress appetitive actions such as eating or aggressive ‘fight-or-flight’ behaviors.” These very real disorders (and others, such as a neural virus hijacking a brain), if combined into one person, would create the zombie found in such films as Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later, a staple of this now wildly popular genre.
The odds of such medical maladies taking over millions of bodies at once is remote, so a zombie apocalypse is not something we need concern ourselves with. Why, then, are zombies so popular? Perhaps they touch an instinctive xenophobia that evolved as part of our human nature to be suspicious of outsiders who, in our ancestral environment, were potentially dangerous. In the western world we have learned to curb such chauvinisms and as a result the moral sphere has expanded to include all racial and ethnic groups as worthy of moral respect and equality, so maybe zombies and other fictional beings found in science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres stimulate those neural regions of our non-zombie brains and allow for a healthy and nonviolent outlet for such ancient callings.
And on a personal note: Yesterday my computer came from the dead after having been left on the conveyer belt in Fumicino airport’s x-ray machine ten days ago.
With the help of some very good friends across countries and languages, good will prevailed and the computer was found. Hallelujah!