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Problems With Zombies

by Tim Madigan

One of the main characters in George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead solemnly intones that “When there’s no room in Hell the dead will walk the earth.” Although I prefer to hold to Warren Zevon’s assertion (in his classic song ‘Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse’) that “Hell is only half-full / Room for you and me,” the fact is that the dead do seem to be walking the earth in inordinate numbers these days. It’s the time of the season for zombies. In this special issue of Philosophy Now we will be asking why this might be so, and what exactly it means for areas of philosophy such as ethics (is it wrong to kill a zombie merely because it will otherwise eat your flesh?); epistemology (just what, if anything, is going on in the mind of a zombie – or does it have a mind at all?); logic (does a zombie know that it knows nothing at all?); metaphysics (do zombies dream of a meaning of life?); and aesthetics (just why are there so many films, TV shows and novels dedicated to zombies?).

Of course, philosophy has been grappling with the so-called ‘Zombie Problem’ (otherwise known as the Problem of Other Minds) for centuries, but modern-day cognitive scientists are asking ever more complex questions about the nature of consciousness. In his article ‘The Zombie Threat to a Science of Mind’, Philip Goff examines whether the very conceivability of zombies implies that there must be more to our minds than just matter. This is a controversy which is very much alive at the moment. The topic of personal identity is also a perennial issue for philosophy, and zombies have been a theoretical test case for this too. If you should actually lose your mind would you still be the same individual? Moral status, too, is a longstanding issue in meta-ethics: is rationality the determining factor in whether or not one is a moral being and, if it is, are there degrees of rationality that should be taken into consideration?

As Peter Stone, Sarah Stone and Rebecca Housel all point out in the articles that follow, it was George Romero’s classic 1968 film Night of the Living Dead that re-animated and re-configured the ways in which zombies are addressed and – if you’ll pardon the expression – gave new life to the undead. In many ways, the countless recent movies, graphic novels, television series and other media depictions are all variations on the brain-eating, uncomprehending, relentless beings which Romero unleashed upon us forty-five years ago.

Still, as Dien Ho asks us, what’s so bad about being a zombie? Would it really be better to be Socrates unsatisfied than a zombie with no worries? As the 1956 science fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers demonstrated, having your mind taken over might have its advantages – at the very least, if you never have to sleep, you won’t need to set an alarm clock again. But, as I point out in my own article, body snatching is alive and well in the modern world, and it’s not space aliens but rather our fellow human beings who are the culprits. The grave is not quite the fine and private place we might expect it to be.

Might this have something to do with the reason why zombies are so prevalent in the early 21st Century? In his article, Brendan Riley uses the expression “sentience slips away.” Perhaps another reason why zombies have become so fashionable is that, due to the fact that humans are living much longer than ever before, many of us have come to see some of our loved ones severely afflicted with mental deterioration or in persistent vegetative states. We increasingly wonder just what sorts of experiences these people are having, and whether or not we ourselves would wish to exist in such a state. It is a deeply disturbing existential phenomenon, and our fears about it might well be mirrored in the popular culture depictions of zombies today.

Never let it be said that Philosophy Now has shirked its responsibilities to investigate the Zombie Problem in all its manifestations. The Zombie Invasion is here to stay, for good or for bad. At the very least, it has given new meaning to the old expression ‘mindless entertainment’. We hope you find the following articles to be thought-provoking – and most of all we hope that, by in fact having thoughts to be provoked, you can prove to your own satisfaction that you are not a zombie yourself.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2013

Tim Madigan has never walked with a zombie, but he has met Jeremy Bentham. Read on for the thrilling details, IF YOU DARE!

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