I’VE BEEN THINKING a lot lately about metaphysics. No really, this is not a set up for some sick joke. I have, really. I’ve been going through my old philosophy books, and reading old notes from my classes… but I have no real idea why.
Funny I should throw in the word “real” since I’ve just mentioned that I’ve been stuck on metaphysics.
I know that some of it has to do with this PBS program about the father of the dude from that group eels. He, the father that is, worked in physics, and his big contribution to the world of physics (and to Star Trek fans everywhere) was the theory of possible worlds. Now, there’s this possible worlds thought experiment that has to do with a cat in a box. You stick the cat in the box, and then you put some radioactive stuff in there with it. You can’t see the cat and you don’t know when the radioactive material is going to be released, and so we don’t know whether the cat is alive or dead.
Soooo…. ( long story short ) in some possible world the cat is both alive and dead.
Yes. I just described Schrodinger’s Cat.
This got me thinking… What does it mean to exist?
I think that most people, myself included, go around asking questions about existence in the “why” form — meaning we ask why is life, why about our own particular life and so on.
To be honest, I haven’t really met anyone outside of a philosophy class ever ask what does it mean to say that something “exists”.
I figure that, for most folks, that, the “what” part — is something we (not philosophers) kind of take for granted. We see things and we say that or this “exists” and that things we don’t see don’t exist.
I may be making a big positivist boo-boo here, but play along for the sake of example.
The problem, it seems — at least the philosophical problem — is that the word “exist” is both loaded and muddy. When we ask “what is existence?”, “what does it mean to ‘exist’?”, our questions and unfortunately our arguments tend to get us bogged down in semantics rather than actually getting to the subject at hand.
This often is the point when some of us throw up our hands and simply stop discussing the issue altogether. But the hassle of agreeing on definitions shouldn’t stop us from finding definitions that we all can agree on.
Believe it or not, it is important that we do.
So, what do we think of when we think about existence?
We tend to think of “exists” in terms of what “is”. For better or for worse, when we speak of the world around us, we tend to speak of existence in human terms, that is, things exist in contrast to us.
Being the semi-curious devil that I am, I looked in the dictionary to see what the experts at Random House had to say about existence. And, no surprise, the definition included the phrase, ” to have life or animation”. That seemed mighty odd to me.
Of course to answer the question “what is existence?” is not something that we’d like to answer too broadly. There is an inclination to think of the answer as more nuanced than we’d like to think that it is. Perhaps the right way of thinking of existence is in terms of us.
We can say that we humans (and some higher animals) “exist” everything else just “is”.
When we use a word “existence”, it seems to shuttle in more than just being here and accounted for. There are social, biological, scientific, psychological, philosophical, and even colloquial meanings to the word “exist”.
I may claim that I politely raised my hand all class, and the professor acted as if I didn’t “exist” or I may say that my existence would be ruined if my guy left me, or I may say that my dog or trees or planets or minds or thoughts “exist”… but once again, I feel that when I say “I exist” that I’ve somehow changed the rules. I’m speaking of more than just flowers and trees. I am more than my here-ness; more than my social position or my capacity to think.
Wow, that sounds a little Tyler Durden. I am more than my khakis.
Ah! There I go again — closing myself up in the humans only box. Worse than that, I’m getting the feeling that I’m casting my net too narrowly. I feel that what I am doing is limiting existence to all that can exist here with us.
I promised myself that I would only mention possible worlds and not possible entities. I don’t want to talk of Pegasus or corpulent men in doorways.
I want to speak of something more concrete. What I am after, ultimately, is to find a meaning that will help us here and now — there are too many problems to consider in the world where we reside than to get away from the issue by talking about Zeus and his brother or round squares.
I was watching Land of the Dead awhile back. While I was sitting, watching Big Daddy and his zombie gang raid Pittsburgh, digging on Asia Argento (and Simon Baker, too), I started thinking about existence. I thought about how, like Schrodinger’s dead/alive cat, these zombies were beings that were both alive and dead.
That led me to the thought: do zombies exist?
Knowing that the answer wasn’t exactly the kind that you’d answer with an immediate yes or no, I realized that to get an answer I required a thought experiment.
So, let’s say that I’m somewhere near Monroesville, PA circa 1978. Hordes of the undead have descended on the local mall. Looking up from my beer I’ve been chugging at the Brown Derby, my philosophical mind starts to think: I know that the recently reanimated are not “alive” (at least not in the medical sense), but do they exist?
Descartes famously said “Cogito, ergo sum” — I think, therefore I am. If Descartes was able to think, he reasons, he is assured of his own existence.Descartes could not even doubt that his own existence, since there was, at the very least some thing that doubted its existence. As long as he possessed the capacity for thought, Descartes says, he was (and we are) assured of his/our own existence.
Well, it’s obvious with a zombie where this Descartes’ idea goes awry. A zombie does not think. There is no “I” to consider or even to deny its own existence.
Funny that the zombie lacks the one thing that Descartes says is necessary for proof that one exists: thought. A zombie, however, possesses all of the other qualities Descartes says are illusory — locomotion, sight, hearing, touch, and an insatiable desire to eat human flesh….
Now, would Descartes suggest that we deny that a zombie exists? Especially if that zombie is busy gnawing on your brain?
Wait, I’m mixing my zombie mythos. So far, I’ve been following George A. Romero’s rules of zombiedom. It’s Dan O’ Bannon’s zombies who eat brains. Sorry for the mix-up.
So, if I take Descartes at all seriously (something that I try to not do), a zombie does not think, it does not “am”. And lacking the capacity for thought, a zombie is not a rational being. The zombie is not different than a dog or any other mere beast that lacks the capacity for rational thought.
The philosophical implication of zombies — and I don’t think that Descartes would disagree, is this:
- Zombies do not think. Therefore, a zombie does not “am” in the Cartesian sense of existence.
- Because a zombie does not think, it lacks the capacity for rational thought.
- And, because a zombie lacks the capacity for rational thought, zombies have no soul (only rational beings have souls).
- This means that we are free to do with zombies as we please.
We are not dealing with persons, but with beings who hold no more metaphysical (or moral) significance for us than a machine. So, when in Shaun of the Dead, zombies are being used to push shopping carts or as contestants on game shows, it’s perfectly alright. That’s what they are there for. They’re mere machines — really no different from a clock or a stereo.
Or a cat, if you’re Descartes.
According to this (mis)interpretation of Descartes, zombies are just like a soulless stereo ….that just so happen to stink and rot and turn putrid.
But this didn’t sound quite right to me, so I decided to put Descartes to the side. But, just when I was throwing out Descartes (something I’ve said we should do for years), I had an ah-ha (not the 80s Europop band) moment.
Maybe we shouldn’t confirm the existence of a zombie using Descartes, after all.
And, if you kinda-sorta look at existence sans Descartes, then zombies become the ultimate philosophical conundrum.
I started to think: if a zombie doesn’t “am”, then how does a zombie truly philosophically exists?
I think I have an idea how.
Bear with me, here.
Even though we know that a mere beast lacks the capacity for higher mental function, we don’t discount a mere beast from our moral consideration. A dog may be just a dog, but we still treat it with care. it exists, if only barely enough for us to care about its well being.
The same holds, I think, for zombies.
A zombie may lack the capacity for rational thought, but then, so do many human beings. We would not accept treating humans who lack rational thought in any way that we please. We feel a moral obligation for humans who are not rational, perhaps even because they lack normal mental function.
We certainly wouldn’t claim that a mentally disabled or comatose person is not a Cartesian “am”.
That is to say, a zombie don’t cogito, we can’t completely throw them out of of our consideration.
I concluded that a zombie is a philosophical walking contradiction — it is a being that is alive and dead. But, more importantly zombies exist, in a sort of half-assed, crudely construed, not-Cartesian sense.
So, what purpose did my thought experiment serve? What it did was this: A zombie is an extreme if not impossible example that forces us to think about existence. We need not look to a zombie flick to find and contemplate questions of existence. Any of us may at any point find either ourselves or someone that we care about sustained through artificial means. Sometimes, as in the case of “brain death”, we are unable to determine whether a person is truly alive or dead. A person may be a little bit of both.
Likewise, as artificial intelligence advances, we may have to ask if a being that “exists” in cyberspace is alive or not a living being. Would an artificial intelligence am? To be honest, I really don’t know.
I don’t know if I even asked the right question let alone actually got anywhere near answering it.
In the end, I think that what I’ve done is found a way to rattle on about zombies and got to say that Asia Argento is hot.
Which, by the way, she is.