Res Corporealis: Persons, Bodies and Zombies

As I skip over Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy, I return to Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy, and to the second essay in the book by William S. Larkin entitled “Res Corporealis: Persons, Bodies and Zombies.” In this essay, Larkin is trying to examine the question of what it means to be a person or, more specifically, what it means to be the same person. He outlines two main approaches, which are psychological continuity and bodily continuity. For psychological continuity, what determines the continuance of personhood is having a continuity of psychological states — beliefs, desires, experiences, memories, and so on — in the same individual. It implies that if you could transport the psychological states from one body to another that that would still be the same person, which is what drives “Freaky Friday” type scenarios. Bodily continuity, on the other hand, insists that it is the continuance of the body that preserves identity, and so that whatever mental states are in that physical body it is still the same person if it is, in fact, the same physical body. Larkin is trying to use zombie examples to argue for that.

His main argument is an appeal to the thoughts of the people who are at risk of becoming zombified. In general, they don’t want it, and ask to be killed instead of becoming that sort of thing. But, the argument goes, the psychological states seem to be lacking; from their external behaviour, the zombies don’t seem psychologically like the people they used to be. So, then, all that’s left is the body … and it is that that they use to argue that they don’t want to be or live like that. So, if that’s the case, then those people clearly think that they will still be themselves after being zombified, and if we can relate and understand that feeling and, in fact, think that we’d feel that way ourselves, then we must intuitively be thinking of identity and personhood as bodily, not psychologically. Thus, Larkin has an intuition that he can use to buck, at least, the “Freaky Friday” sort of intuitions that many consider decisive in the psychological versus bodily identity debate.

Unfortunately, I think that this is kicking into the wrong intuition, and is kicking into an intuition that we saw in the first essay, the fear that once we become zombified, we’ll still have our own psychology, our own memories and desires, but will instead be a “locked-in” mind, able to see and observe all the terrible things “we” — meaning our body — are doing but being powerless to intervene in any way. That would be, essentially, hell, and none of us would want that. But if we could remove that intuition from the equation, if we really thought that we’d be gone and have no psychological continuity, and that even if the zombie had a psychology it would be one that aligns with those horrible desires, would we care anymore? Would we see that zombie as us? It seems unlikely, but much horror examples smuggle in the “locked-in mind” intuition inadvertently.

The main reason for this, I think, comes from his second point, about how horrifying it is for us to see, say, a little girl eat her parents. The problem we run into is, in fact, the “Other Minds” problem: since we don’t have direct access to anyone else’s mind except our own, we can only judge that they have a mind based on their external appearance and behaviour. Since human beings almost always have minds, we get used to thinking of things that look human as having minds. Zombies not only look like human beings — at least for a while — they also look like familiar human beings, and to bring out the horrifying nature of zombies it’s best if they look like familiar human beings that we’ve seen act intentional and, preferably, kindly and, well, humanely. Our natural assessment of them will be of a thinking, intentional human being, and yet they’ll act completely inhumanely and as a monster. And that shocks us. However, that’s playing on a mistaken assessment of them; they look like they have minds and personalities and we expect them to have the personalities that they’ve expressed before … but they actually don’t, which is what shocks and horrifies us.

Now, psychological versus bodily continuance of identity is one way to settle the main question, which is what constitutes our identity: having the psychology we have, or having the body we have? Of course, you can try to get at this directly, and I think Larkin’s final point inadvertently proves this. He references “Land of the Dead” and the conclusion, at the end, that zombies are people as well. He argues that since we conclude, at the end, that zombies are people too this demonstrates our preference for the bodily view over the psychological view, but he notes that at the beginning of the movie zombies are portrayed as either having or developing psychological traits: some are playing music, some are out for a “lover’s stroll”, and so on. By showing that these zombies are developing or retaining personalities, the movie is showing them as having a psychological identity, and it is this shift that allows us to see, at the end, that maybe these zombies or that zombies in general might, in fact, be people. I submit that without that “personalizing”, we wouldn’t be able to grasp the idea that zombies might be people and should be treated as such, which means that until the right psychology is presented we don’t think of zombies as people. Thus, rather than proving that the bodily hypothesis is correct, it seems to demonstrate that the psychological hypothesis is right: we cannot conceive of zombies as people unless we can conceive of them having the right sort of psychology.

Note: I started writing this post in February. I’ve broken my own record of six months. Here’s hoping that I manage to keep up with this better in the future …


One Response to “Res Corporealis: Persons, Bodies and Zombies”

  1. What I Did on My Winter Vacation … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] 4) I finally continued my series on Philosophy and Pop Culture. […]

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