Zombies have a large part to play in philosophy. I don’t just mean as academics and lecturers -although that is also true (especially when tenure is involved). What I mean is that the concept of a zombie provides a starting point for some pretty interesting philosophical discussion. Let me explain.
If I were to ask you what, fundamentally, you are, how would you reply? You might assert that you are a human being with arms, legs, eyes, ears etc. But you would probably agree that this is hardly the whole story. You would probably also insist that you are a thinking subject, with a mind consisting of beliefs, desires, pains, intentions, hopes etc. And you might concur that it is this complex of mental states that makes you not simply a human being but also a person. If I was to then ask you: where is this mind located? You might reply (having conceded that the question is intelligible) that it is “located” in your brain. And on the face of it the reply seems reasonable. It is my brain that makes it possible for me to feel pain, to anticipate pleasure, to regret the way I voted, to believe that Mo Farah is the best distance runner in Europe.
But what does it mean to say that the mind is “located” in the brain? Is it even a preamble to an explanation to assert that the brain “makes possible” the sensation of pain? What sort of relation is being, hesitantly, hinted at? To say that it is your brain that makes your mind possible is not necessarily to assert a relation of identity, for example, since by “makes possible” we might mean “causes”; and when one thing causes another thing there are two distinct things, not one (the possible exception here being God). Some philosophers do indeed wish to assert that the relation is one of identity: that minds are nothing but brains or (more unusually) that brains are “logical constructions” from mental events. Others wish to argue that the mental and physical are ontologically distinct and each as fundamental as the other. Some philosophers wish to deny that minds exist in the first place (yes, honestly).
This, of course, is the mind-body problem which can be summed up in the conjunction of two questions: how to reconcile the dull, grey, synaptic firings in our brains with the richness of phenomenal experience; and how do we bind ourselves as thinking subjects to the world of objects as described by science?
Enter the zombie.
There is an ingenious argument that has been given succinct expression in the writings of David Chalmers. It goes something like this. We are familiar with zombies as they are presented in popular culture, as beings physically like us and yet different from us in that they lack conscious experience. Another way of saying this would be to state that zombies are possible in the sense that to assert that they exist might be false but does not involve a contradiction. In other words, zombies are logically possible (they might exist in some possible universe) even if they are not nomologically possible (ruled out by the physical laws which govern this universe). I am, as it happens, a fan of the actor Dick Van Dyke and consider Diagnosis Murder to be the acme of cheap television shows which appertain to hospital doctors who also happen to be detectives. We can imagine a possible world in which Mr Van Dyke has a zombie-counterpart, a physically like-for-like equivalent to the non-zombie Van Dyke right down to the causal properties of his brain. But we can also intelligibly subtract from zombie-Van Dyke those features of felt consciousness that make “our” Van Dyke the fine actor that he is (the emotional range, the sense of empathy, along with the other felt properties shared with us non-thespians). From this it follows, surely, that those phenomenal features of consciousness (the qualia, or “what it’s like to us to be in pain etc) cannot be identical with the brain since if A is identical with B then necessarily whatever properties A has, B has also: and in the stated case this necessity does not seem to obtain.
The philosopher Michelle Maise, in a nice paper called The Power of Passion on Heartbreak Hill, discusses these issues in connection with running (the title refers to a rocky patch during the Boston marathon). Is it possible, she asks, for a zombie to run a marathon? On the face of it the answer seems straightforward: why not? If we can allow that there might be zombies then we can allow also that they would be able to run. And if they lack sensations such as pain, fatigue, despair and all the other companions of the long distance runner then it seems to follow that they’d make pretty good marathon runners. I’ve spent many a club race night running against club members who show no signs of discomfort and trust me, it’s dispiriting.
But the case of the stoical club runner is misleading for two reasons. For one thing they are normally bluffing: good runners are masters of concealment. She feels the same agony as the rest of us, she just chooses not to (behaviourally) disclose it. Secondly, as Maise points out, this spectrum of sensations is not accidental to the act of running but is on the contrary essential to it. The zombie, in other words, is not running at all. Sure it might be moving, but it is not running any more than my PC is flying when I launch it through the air following an email from my publisher. What is required in order to transform the fact of movement into the act of running is agency which, Maise suggests, cannot be legitimately ascribed to a zombie given their cognitive deficiencies.
That said, I wouldn’t want one chasing me. I’ve seen Night of the Living Dead, those zombies can shift.
“The Power of Passion on Heartbreak Hill” is included in Michael W. Austin’s collection “Running and Philosophy: a marathon for the mind”. Other papers in the collection will be the subject of future posts.