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On the Existence of Werewolves
Chris Durante used to be a werewolf, but he’s into philosophy nowwwww…
If I ask, “Do goblins or mermaids or werewolves exist?” the answer seems to be quite clear: “Of course not!” Such things are the content of legend and myth. Modern science can most definitely disprove their existence.
Take goblins for example: there are clearly no such creatures possessing the physical and mental characteristics of goblins. As for mermaids; genetically, this is impossible: no creature could have the upper body of a women, and a human mind, while simultaneously possessing the lower body of a fish. Furthermore, werewolves cannot possibly exist either. A man who has the ability to undergo a metamorphosis, transforming himself into a wolf! The idea is utterly absurd.
Or is it? I wish now to embark upon a philosophical analysis of the existence of werewolves.
For anyone not familiar with the term ‘lycanthropy’, it has two definitions. The first comes from folklore. It is the ability of a human being to transform into an animal, most commonly a wolf. The name itself has been derived from the ancient Greek word ‘lycaon’, meaning ‘wolf’. The folkloric definition of lycanthropy goes even one step further, for according to an ancient Greek myth, a king named Lykaeon had been cursed and was magically turned into a savage wolf who wreaked havoc upon others. It is thought that the word ‘lycaon’ has its origins in this myth.
The second definition of lycanthropy refers to a clinical psychopathology in which a psychiatric patient believes him/herself to be an animal – again most commonly a wolf – and behaves accordingly. This lycanthropy is most often described as a set of delusional experiences and beliefs which is not in and of itself a specific mental disorder. The existentialist psychologist Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) described lycanthropy as “a depersonalization disorder of the integrity of the self” (8-16 Allgemenie Psychopathologie, 1913). The symptoms can either be short-lived and sporadic, or stable and persistent. And although lycanthropy is not commonly thought of as a specific mental disorder, lycanthropic symptoms are most often found in patients with schizophrenia, and/or affective disorders. For the duration of this paper, my usage of the term ‘lycanthropy’ should be taken in its second meaning – that is, the clinical meaning, describing the psychopathological symptomatology, not the mythic definition, unless duly noted.
Let me begin with these arguments:
(A) It is genetically impossible for a human to become a wolf, and thus any such conceit is implausible.
(B) Other ideas of magical and supernatural powers are conceptually incompatible with contemporary scientific knowledge, and subsequently may not be used in any philosophical defence of the existence of werewolves.
(C) Therefore any explanation of werewolves must not include appeals to supernaturalism, and must rather be a logical argument conducive to the truths of contemporary science. With this in mind, I would like to begin a thought experiment.
If a patient suffering from schizophrenia begins to have delusions that he/she is a wolf, the patient’s beliefs will begin to have a causal effect upon his/her thought processes and behaviour. Thus, we are left with a human whose delusional state of mind causes him to not only act like a wolf, but through his imaginative capacities, subconsciously construct a mind-set and rationale supposedly similar to that of a wolf as well.
If one were to take the behaviourist position that it is possible to know the human condition only by studying behaviour, ie external stimuli and observable reactions to those stimuli, a lycanthrope may thus be thought a wolf. Consider: if to know X is to know the behaviour of X – which is to know it scientifically through objective observation – then it would follow that to have knowledge of X’s behaviour is to have a knowledge of the essence of X. Thus, if the observed behaviour of X is identical to that of a wolf, it must be logically concluded, according to behaviourism, that X is indeed a wolf!
However, this logic is flawed, for we know by ‘mere’ common sense that a lycanthrope is not a wolf, but rather a human with a mental disorder. Yet how can we be so sure?
Well, first of all, the lycanthrope is not physiologically identical to a wolf. This further implies that the two are neither genetically nor neurologically equivalent. So it may be concluded that the lycanthrope is indeed not a wolf. However, this is not the question at hand! Even a small child could tell us that a man with a mental disorder is not a wolf. Rather, our question is whether or not it is possible to consider a lycanthropic patient a werewolf. If that is possible, then we could say, “Yes; all mysticism aside, werewolves do indeed exist.” But this idea brings up issues of personal identity. Therefore, before proceeding any further with werewolves, we must look for a moment at what it means to hold a personal identity.
According to the theory put forward by John Locke (1632-1704), one’s personal identity (ie personhood) is based on psychological states, and it is one’s memories that personhood across time relies on most. Thus one retains one’s personal identity insofar as one retains a psychological continuity of memory.
To explain this, let’s call a momentary slice of time in the history of a person’s psychological life a ‘person-stage’. Each person-stage exists as a member of a series of person-stages, each of which is correlated with a psychological state. On this view, person A may be considered to be the same person later only if there exists a psychological continuity of person-stages; and a series of person-stages is said to be psychologically continuous only if the psychological states (primarily memories) occurring in later person-stages are a product of the psychological states of earlier person-stages. If however the person-stages of person A do not share any characteristics with, or do not affect the psychological states of any subsequent person-stages, then person A can no longer be said to exist. Rather, a new personal identity B has arisen, insofar as there is a disconnected memory of self. So one implication of Locke’s theory is that if an individual can’t recollect his past experiences, then his current personal identity cannot possibly be the personhood he possessed in the past.
In the case of a lycanthrope who believes himself to be a wolf, the psychological states of previous person-stages don’t coincide at all with the psychological states of current person-stages, particularly concerning memories and past emotions. Thus according to our neo-Lockean theoretical framework, lycanthrope X would not be considered the same person as he was prior to the onset of his lycanthropic symptoms, given that his symptoms have progressed even to the extent that he has no recollection of himself as a human being. An entirely new series of person-stages has taken the place of the previously existing series and is unconnected with the earlier series. Furthermore, to integrate the Jasperian definition with Locke’s theory, if indeed lycanthropy is a ‘depersonalization of the self’, this would also imply the loss of one’s personal identity.
“Great!” you may proclaim, “You have succeeded in proving that the lycanthrope has a new personal identity. However, you have done nothing to prove that he is indeed a werewolf! Is his new personal identity that of a wolf? If so, how can a wolf be considered a person per se? Or is his new personal identity that of a werewolf? I don’t see from this argument how that could be.” We have discovered that patient X now possesses a new personal identity and is subsequently a different person than before. But the question as to whether or not he is a wolf-man/werewolf is still left unanswered.
If you recall the behaviourism example, patient X cannot possibly be considered a wolf for physiological reasons. But is it possible that he can have the mind of a wolf, or to some extent know the subjective experiences of wolves, if he is now thinking like one through his imagination? Thomas Nagel would be inclined to say “no”, I believe. In a famous paper (1974) he argued that a human cannot know what it is like to be a bat, for we are not bats, with bat bodies and bat brains. Even if someone could magically turn into a bat, he would ipso facto not keep his human mind; and similarly, upon re-entry into his human form and mind, he could not possibly remember what it is like to be a bat. It must follow that no human could ever know what it is like to be a wolf either, and hence it is impossible for any lycanthrope to actually have the subjective experiences of a wolf, regardless of how strongly he believes himself to be one.
However, according to Jaspers, a doctor can come to comprehend the subjective experiences of another person through transference. With a detailed description of an experience, and by employing one’s imaginative capabilities, one can come to know another’s experience, and therefore know what it is like to be the other person. Unfortunately, a wolf cannot give a detailed description of its experiences. Thus, phenomenological descriptive psychology fails here, and it’s true that no human could think like a wolf, because it is impossible for a human to know what it is like to have a wolf’s consciousness.
So, thus far we have established that a lycanthrope is not a wolf, nor is he an individual who can truly think like a wolf, and hence he may not be said to possess the personal identity of a wolf. But it has also been established that with the onset of the lycanthropic symptoms and its amnesia, a lycanthrope has acquired a new personal identity. So what is this personal identity? It is not that of a wolf, yet the patient’s sense of human personhood has vanished from recollection and conscious awareness. Can lycanthrope X be said to be a werewolf?
Leaving aside the magical connotations associated with the mythic werewolf, we could define a werewolf as a human who has the ability to undergo a metamorphosis, transforming himself into a being whose nature is both man and wolf. This definition implies that a werewolf has some but not all of the mental and physical properties characteristic to both humans and wolves. Thus, if an individual lycanthrope X believes himself to be a wolf, he will begin to think like a wolf through the use of his imaginative capacities, and will in turn behave in a manner which holds many wolf-like characteristics. Hence, insofar as his actions and thoughts are somewhat wolf-like while still possessing human physical properties and human mentality, could it not be said that lycanthrope X has undergone a psychological metamorphosis, and has thus become a werewolf? He now possesses the behavioural and mental properties of both a human and a wolf. According to a Lockean point of view, individual A may be granted personhood, if he/she is a rational, self-aware creature. Locke even went so far as to prove that a parrot is a person, for it possesses self-awareness and high-level rationality, shown by the fact that it can speak. Therefore, if our lycanthrope X was no longer able to speak, and was unable to display any signs of human rationality, he could no longer be considered to be a (human) person. So, if lycanthrope X is not a wolf, and not a human, but possesses some properties of both, he must be a werewolf.
Still the argument is flawed, for our lycanthrope X does not physically resemble a wolf; and a good werewolf must definitely look like a wolf in some respect. Unless there is scientific evidence that could suggest otherwise, it must be concluded that it is impossible for werewolves to exist.
In Guadalajara, Mexico, at the Center for Biomedical Research, a doctor named Figuera is working on a disorder called hypertriocosis. Hypertriocosis is a genetic disorder on the long leg of the X-chromosome, linked to the gene which regulates hair growth. It is a medical condition in which a patient’s entire body is covered in thick soft hair which resembles fur. This hair, or human fur, covers the entire body, even the eyelids, just as fur does on animals. There have been records of this disease throughout history and worldwide.
Now our thought experiment gets a little tricky, so stay with me. I think our hypothetical friend X deserves a name, so let us call him Sam. Let us suppose that Sam is a schizophrenic lycanthrope, and is afflicted with hypertriocosis as well. Not only is the unlucky Sam a hypertriocotic schizophrenic lycanthrope, but I will add another interesting dimension to our friend. Before the onset of his mental illness, Sam was a scientist, in particular a zoologist, whose specialty lay in the study of wolves. Sam was an expert on wolves; he knew nearly everything there is to know about wolves. Sam had even befriended a pack of wolves and would communicate with them in wolf body language and sounds. Being a well-read individual, Sam knew some phenomenological psychology, and would attempt to recreate and know the experiences of wolves through phenomenological psychology’s process of transference.
Now we have a case which requires in-depth examination. From what has been previously established, a lycanthrope, through the use of his imagination, will begin to think like a wolf and subsequently behave like a wolf, and importantly, will be experiencing a delusional belief that he is indeed a wolf. Given this brief account of Sam’s history, he will be better suited than anyone else to partake in a Jasperian phenomenological transference, acquiring the knowledge of what it is like to be a wolf, having the ability to think in an extremely wolf-like manner (indeed, this is what triggered his lycanthropy originally). But insofar as Sam believes himself to be a wolf he will behave like a wolf; and most likely more accurately than other lycanthropes, due to his background. In addition, given that Sam suffers from hypertriocosis, it follows that he does indeed possess some physical features of a wolf, while simultaneously being unable to escape that fact that he is neurologically and biologically tainted by his humanity. Thus Sam may be said to possess mental properties characteristic of wolves, and due to his human brain, those of a human too; as well as physical properties characteristic to both humans and wolves. Thus Sam is a perfect example of a kind of ‘naturalistic werewolf’, if we may call him that.
One may object and ask about the metamorphosis that a werewolf is suppose to undergo. Well, it has already been established that Sam would have undergone a psychological metamorphosis at the onset of his mental disorder (which he also may occasionally snap out of). As for a physical metamorphosis, this may be explained as follows. When a lycanthrope experiences the onset of his symptoms, there are changes which occur in the part of the brain associated for example with the representation of one’s body (ie one’s body-image). Thus, not only would Sam genuinely experience a psychological metamorphosis, it may be argued that insofar as his brain is a physical substance, a physical metamorphosis also occurred.
Furthermore, if we accept that after the first 20 weeks of pregnancy a human foetus has a human brain, therefore a human mind as well, it may be considered to be a human being – at least a prenatal human being, but a human person nonetheless. In Sam’s case, at this point in his mother’s pregnancy he would have been a hairless human being. Later on in the pregnancy, due to Sam’s genetic code, he would have begun to grow hair all over his body; and it would be at this point that Sam’s physical metamorphosis occurred. Therefore, Sam has gone through both a physical and a psychological lycanthropic metamorphosis, and thus may rightly be called a “werewolf”. Hence we can conclude that werewolves can potentially exist in reality and not merely in mythology.
I am not advocating the labelling of people with mental or physical disorders with mythological or folklore terminology: although someone is a werewolf, they should be entitled to all the legal and ethical rights allocated to any person. The werewolf I have proposed here is one whose existence does not rely on magic, and hence is not identical to the notion of werewolf held in the mythic conception. However, I do believe that Sam could indeed be considered a werewolf of sorts: a naturalistic werewolf. Therefore, naturalistic werewolves can exist, and their existence is completely conducive to the truths of contemporary science.
© Chris Durante 2006
Chris Durante holds an MSc in the Philosophy of Mental Disorders from King’s College London, and is currently doing an MA in Religious Studies at Georgia State University. He has also held an adjunct professorship teaching philosophy at WCC-SUNY.