Zombies

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S1: Haitian from a slightly.

S2: It’s the opening scene of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. 1968, the first zombie movie in modern American cinema, John and Barbara are brother and sister in their early 20s, have just made a 200 mile drive from Pittsburgh on an annual visit to their father’s grave. At the cemetery, the brother, John, decides to have a little fun and spook his sister.

S3: They’re coming to get you, Barbara.

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S4: Stop it. You’re ignorant.

S1: They’re coming for you, Barbara.

S2: Meanwhile, a tall, very thin man in a tattered suit is off in the distance, slowly closing in on their location. They notice him, but don’t pay him any attention until he’s close enough to pounce. That’s the first rule of zombie thumb, a zombie has to be slow. Any living person has to be able to outrun it. But it has to make up for it by being strong and gross looking. The ghoulish zombie with rotting teeth kills John by throwing him onto the ground as his head hits a gravestone that he chases Barbara into the car. She locks it now, the zombie in expertly pounds on the door and windows trying to get in. The second rule was that the zombie has to be dumb. It has to have one very simple desire and walks in one direction, destroying barriers to fulfill it. If a zombie has a mind, it only has a single track, which makes the next thing that happens particularly interesting, maybe even a flaw in George Romero’s early depiction. The zombie just realized he’s not getting into the car, so he pauses, looks around on the ground, finds a brick, picks it up and chucks it into the passenger side window. He’s actually problem-solving. When Barbara finally escapes, she finds herself locked in a farmhouse where she meets other people who are hiding from the zombies. This will be the third rule of zombie horror pictures. A small group of survivors have to figure out how to repel the ongoing threat of a zombie takeover.

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S5: When we go to these kinds of films, this

S2: is John Edgar Browning cultural historian and folklorist at the Savannah School of Art and Design.

S5: We’re not going there to watch and look at these these horrible, disgusting zombies. They are simply a catalyst, but we’re really there for which is the ability of people to collectivize and survive together in these survival spaces. And often they don’t do it very well, and that’s what leads to them getting killed.

S2: The zombie has never had the kind of agency that the contemporary say vampire does. The vampire has a name, has goals, but the zombie was always half decomposed in the body, but also in the mind right there. Not really minded beings.

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S5: You know, when we’re watching these other kinds of horror movies, particularly these stereotypical horror archetypal monsters like Frankenstein’s Monster or Dracula or even The Wolfman, we’re there to watch these monsters. And yeah, we’re there to see if the people survive or not, but we’re there to watch and learn from and see ourselves in these monsters with zombies. We’re there to watch the survivalists here. We can see subconsciously a part of our self in the zombie. But we also see bits and pieces of ourselves, the parts we like and the parts we don’t like and the survivalists. And you know, they’re there to either die horribly because they’re not getting along or they’re to die with dignity.

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S4: One of the things that’s running in the background

S2: Christina van Dyke Columbia University and co-host of our monster series of

S4: all these questions about monsters is what are we afraid of the vampires? It’s the sort of thrilling fear of being taken over and changed in these, you know, mysterious and maybe horrible, but kind of cool ways. But with zombies, I think there are always two fears. There’s the fear of being surrounded by all of these lifeless beings that are just gradually going to overwhelm you and take over. And then there’s the fear of being a zombie.

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S2: From Slate, this is Hi-Phi nation philosophy in story form recording from Vassar College. Here’s Barry Lam today on Hi-Phi Haitian, a short cultural history of the zombie and what is involved in becoming a zombie. When George Romero introduced the zombies in 1968, he created a monster that stripped all that was attractive and human about the vampire and left us with something completely inhuman, something that only inspires fear and disgust and something that you’re only trying to kill in the most brutal fashion possible. In philosophy, the zombie is used to think about what makes a person conscious and therefore worthy of moral consideration. It’s one of the hardest problems to figure out, but it’s one we have to figure out because we’re building things that look a lot like zombies now, but could look like people in the near future. It’s A.I..

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S1: The thing about zombies, there’s many different kinds of zombies, they’re all over the culture.

S2: David Chalmers is one of the leading philosophers of mind, and he runs the Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness at NYU. Among other things, he’s a leading thinker about zombies. It’s one of the things he’s most famous for.

S1: What all these different zombies have in common. Zombies are always missing something crucial to the ordinary life of a human being. Actually, I think zombies got started with the voodoo or voodoo culture in Haiti,

S5: which is a wonderful religion. It’s a positive religion. John Edgar Browning. You have some brokers who are sorcerers and they might feed someone or give to someone a special powder. If they produce, it makes the person appear dead. There’s an example of the late 60s where there was a gentleman named Narcisse, who was in a hospital in Haiti and they had had a death certificate for him that night is when the broker arrives and digs them back up and basically gives them something to revive them and then puts the person through a process that convinces them that they are dead and that they are now a zombie and they are to work for him doing whatever he wants, typically in some kind of plantation type setting or doing other kinds of manual labor. And often the broker would continue to feed something to the person to make some kind of high. And eventually, he somehow came out of the spell and got away from the broker, and he went back to his village years later and people were like, Oh my goodness, it’s nasty. But he’s dead. We buried him. And eventually his family identified him and they took him to the hospital. And the hospital is like, Yeah, we have his death certificate right here, and he’s one of the few instances where we actually were able to interview him.

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S1: So these Haitian zombies are beings that lack free will.

S2: Haitian zombies I’ve discovered come from the theological beliefs not of voodoo, but voodoo, the West African ancestor of Haitian voodoo, which is that there are two types of spirits. Two sides of the soul, one of which we would call subjective consciousness. You might call that the self. And that’s what makes people unique.

S4: And that’s what Dave thinks. Consciousness is like that subjective inner self.

S2: That’s right. So they have that. They believe that there was that. And then the other part of the soul, the other part of the spirit is that which controls motor functions. Oh, that’s the part that’s hijacked by the Bacau in Haitian zombification, but only that one part.

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S4: Oh, that’s so creepy.

S5: What’s terrifying about that is that when the person is buried, they’re perfectly cognizant and aware of what’s going on. They just can’t say anything.

S2: We’re scared of becoming a Haitian zombie because it would be a matter of having your consciousness trapped in a body. It couldn’t control, but a Haitian zombie is still a human. Victims of a bunker still deserve moral consideration. They should be rescued. They have needs and interests. We should respond to the George Romero Zombie from Night of the Living Dead doesn’t have these traits. The only thing we’re supposed to do is kill them.

S1: It seems a key property of Hollywood zombies is they’re actually dead, dead and reanimated. The crucial thing they seem to be lacking is life and maybe something like higher cognition. They’re just creatures of some very basic appetites. They eat people.

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S2: This makes the Hollywood zombie not all that distinguishable from an animal that preys on human flesh. It’s the reanimated body with rotting skin, part that is particularly disgusting. It comes really close to losing all humanity. All of our sympathy. But even deaf and dumb, this is not enough to be fully inhuman without altering their disgusting appearance. Romero and his copycats start developing more and more sympathetic zombies over the course of their films. In fact, even in the first film, zombies have moments of intelligence. They start using

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S4: tools. Oh, wow.

S2: Yeah, there’s a zombie later on that you kind of sympathize with it. That hasn’t individuality. They even call it a name. I think it’s called like Bob or something. Oh yeah. And that’s Day of the Dead in 1985. And according to John Edgar Browning by Romero’s last film, which is after nine eleven, the zombies are the heroes with

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S5: Land of the Dead. They are no longer representations of evil and negativity. They are there to point out to us the real culprits, which are often whoever decides what normalcy is. And so in his film, they’re the last one line of the dead. There you see this huge image, which is this tall skyscraper and this wealth there and this class system, what you see as zombies becoming cognizant and actually going into this place to take down this building. And so we’re rooting for the zombies in that sense.

S2: Land of the Dead envisions a feudal society in which the extremely wealthy can safely wall themselves off in a city where the poor humans live in squalor. But everyone outside the city is a zombie. But there are good zombies and bad zombies. Good poor people and bad poor people. All are motivated by survival and self-defense and the eventual uprising against the rich, good people and good zombies survive and in the end, try to co-exist.

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S5: Monsters after nine eleven became more akin to heroes and the good guys. Which, as a as an educator like myself and yourself is great for me because my students that I teach nowadays are mostly born after 2000 2001, and they literally grew up in an era where when they see a monster, they realize it’s different, but they don’t judge it until they, in other words, it’s innocent until proven guilty, which is a remarkable thing.

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S4: And then you get like eyes zombie or the Santa Clarita Diet with Drew Barrymore. And suddenly it was like, you know, women and homemakers can be zombies, too.

S1: The theme of the TV series, I think just called Zombie, is about a zombie high school in L.A. The zombies are all kind of discriminated against, but they all have reasonable lives and so on. And it’s not their fault that every now and then they go a little bit crazy.

S2: Which is to say that being dead and decomposing, eating the flesh of others, even infecting others you bite with a zombified disease are not by themselves enough to be completely dehumanized and morally worthless. All of the killing of Hollywood zombies are just a matter of self-defense. They’re just ravenous animals. Once you understand them and know there are good ones and bad ones, you see, they have a moral status. It’s not until you get to a zombie from philosophical thought experiments that you find out what kind of creature truly deserves. No moral consideration,

S1: the kind of zombies I’m interested in. People call this the philosophical zombie, and the crucial thing about a philosophical zombie is that they lack consciousness. A philosophical zombie is physically identical to an ordinary human being, you can’t actually tell the difference from the outside, they behave in perfectly normal ways for a human being, but they’re not conscious at all. That’s to say they have no internal, subjective experience. It feels like something to be an ordinary human being. It feels like nothing to be a zombie.

S2: Dave, Dave, could you talk about what the difference is between a philosophical zombie? Like you said, they lack consciousness. Hollywood zombies lack life. What’s the difference between those things?

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S1: Yeah, we’ll see a Hollywood zombie slug. Do they, for example, have subjective experience? I don’t know. What does it taste like something for a Hollywood zombie when they eat their victims? It probably does. OK, well, then they have what I call consciousness, because if you have any subjective experience, you’re conscious. If you feel pain as a subjective experience, then you’re conscious, and that means they’re not philosophical zombies.

S2: Dave, if I were a Hollywood director or a screenwriter and I wanted to depict a philosophical zombie in a story or on screen, how would I do that?

S1: So let’s take a movie like Lord of the Rings, and now let’s remake it as a zombie movie of philosophical zombie version of Lord of the Rings. It’s going to look exactly the same. It’s just that none of them have consciousness and conscious that you can’t depict and observe from the outside.

S4: What I’m hearing is the kind of movie that you couldn’t make with philosophical zombies as any of Woody Allen’s movies, where he’s doing a voiceover of like his thoughts in the background.

S1: Oh yeah, that’s good. Or maybe a How about being John Malkovich, where you actually get to go on the Malkovich’s head and experience what John Malkovich is experiencing? If you made Being John Malkovich with zombies, maybe you’d go inside his head and you experience nothing. You’d find all this dark inside John Malkovich.

S4: What’s really interesting about philosophical zombies is that you have this question, but what, if anything about human beings transcends or goes beyond just physical ism? I think the connection with the Hollywood zombies and even the Haitian zombies is the idea that if all we are are these sort of physical beings that are moving through the world

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S2: with the aim of reproduction?

S4: Right? Yeah, exactly. With the only kind of aim vaguely being reproduction and continuation that that misses a huge part of what we take the human experience to be. And so Dave is interested in talking about philosophical zombies to identify what consciousness might be. So what it might be that sets apart a zombie that’s doing all the things that we do and looks just like we do from someone who’s experiencing their life in this first-person narrative subjective, inner kind of way.

S2: What is it? You think that having subjective first person experience gives us? That’s valuable to us because it’s clearly very valuable. It’s valuable enough that it makes for a particular kind of monster that we fear also.

S4: But it gives us, in some sense is is the ability to narrate our lives. You can think of yourself as a certain kind of person. You can plan your life in certain kinds of ways. You can adopt certain values and reject other values. And without that phenomenological experience, you’re just missing so much about a meaningful life that I think that ties into these worries about. You become a zombie effectively when you give up having that kind of inner life and just stare at your phone all the time or punch your time clock and go do data entry and then leave at the end of the day.

S1: Lately, just to combine one thought experiment with another, I’ve been thinking about what I call the zombie trolley problem

S2: David Chalmers NYU.

S1: We’ve got a trolley going down the track and it’s either going to kill five zombies or one conscious person. Would you rather the train kill the five zombies or would you switch it so it kills the one conscious person? And I don’t know what your reaction there, but many people say, you know, kill the zombies, save the conscious person. They have moral status. Their life has meaning and value. The zombies do not, so therefore kill the zombies.

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S2: Consciousness seems to be the thing that gives something moral status. It’s not free. Well, it’s not even live flesh. A true philosophical zombie can be killed at will without any guilt or remorse. You don’t even have to be defending yourself against it. It’s like killing a very lifelike animatronic robot. If that’s right, we need to know what in the world has first personal experiences so that we know what’s intrinsically worth saving. If it were threatened? The problem is, we don’t know. And that’d be fine if we weren’t in the business of building philosophical zombies. But we are. I’m talking about A.I.. Can A.I. be conscious?

S3: I think we don’t know.

S2: Eric Schwitzgebel, philosopher of mind, UC Riverside

S3: I think we have very little understanding of how consciousness arises in the world. There is just a huge number of theories about that. So depending on what theory is true, maybe air already is conscious. Maybe I never could possibly be conscious. Or maybe it would take something, but we don’t know what could be in the near future could be in the distant future. It’s wide open.

S2: Is this because we don’t understand consciousness or we don’t understand A.I.?

S3: Well, it’s mostly because we don’t understand consciousness.

S2: My sense is that we’re pretty close to having a philosophical zombie assuming A.I. is unconscious because the language generation is getting pretty good. Like, when I look at GPT three and its conditions, it’s not perfect. You can kind of tell some of the times, but that’s if you’re comparing it to. Really intelligent, conscious agents. Right, but if you compare GPT three to the worst case of all, speaker are a talker, but who is clearly conscious as a human being. It’s almost there. And then if you just add to it something like deep fake voices, I find a deepfake of your voice and then just have a do GPT three when I’m interacting with it. It’s so easy to get to the point where, well, what’s the difference between doing that and putting that in a human like looking silicone machine thing, right?

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S1: No, I agree. The philosopher Susan Schneider has tried to come up with some eye consciousness tests that basically involve asking many probing questions of an AI system about consciousness. Just so your A.I. system says things like, Oh, I know I’m really just a silicon system, but from the inside, I feel like so much more. Which is that that maybe it passes the consciousness test.

S4: So in your in your conception of zombies, the way that you’ve been using them in philosophy, the idea is that if you asked a zombie to describe their inner life, they would just tell you that they don’t have one.

S1: Ah, no, that’s the thing.

S4: No. OK, good. Do they think they have an inner life?

S1: Basically, yes, insofar as they think anything at all. But here’s the thing about zombies, at least in the extreme case of zombies or philosophical zombies, the case I’m interested in. They are behaviorally indistinguishable from normal human beings. They behave just like humans. And among that behavior is the things we see as part of our behavior, including the things we say about consciousness. All right. As it happens, talk about consciousness a lot. So if I go to my zombie twin, this is a creature that’s physically and behaviorally just like me, but without consciousness. Well, my zombie twin still writes books with titles like The Conscious Mind, The Character of Consciousness, and he will tell you all about his rich, conscious states, even though by hypothesis he has not. So that’s freaking weird, as I say.

S4: So then how would you be able to tell the one from the other

S1: in-principle Yukon’s and this this also brings out that zombies are wonderful for raising another classical philosophical problem the problem of other minds.

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S2: There is no test of consciousness that comes just from interacting with an A.I.. It can be unconscious and still act in exactly the same way as a conscious person. Of course, it can also be conscious and also act the same way as a conscious person. You have to go outside of interacting with the way I look for some other features that make consciousness possible. The problem is we have no idea what that is. And when we have no idea, everything is up for grabs or

S1: animals conscious or dogs or cats conscious. Most people think so or about flies or worms. Then we start to argue there are people out there who think it goes all the way down. You mentioned pain, sarcasm, the idea that everything is conscious. So yes, some people think even a particle like an electron might be conscious or you go all the way up. There’s a view called Kosmo sarcasm. It says the universe is conscious. Maybe there’s some kind of cosmic consciousness that permeates the universe. We can ask about groups. Is the United States conscious as New York University conscious?

S2: Eric Schwitzgebel, UC Riverside,

S3: let’s paint this picture of this GPT three bot that you’ve imagined. We put it in an embodied robot that has an emotionally expressive face right there, working on emotional expressions in robots. So now you could interact with this thing almost like you interact with a person. At some point, it’s going to be quite convincing to people that you really have a conscious entity here. And some researchers, based on how liberal their theories of consciousness are, might start to agree. And they might say there’s something it’s like to be this robot. It can really feel pain, and it really thinks about its future, for example. And other people might say, no, this is just an empty machine with no more experience than Iraq. And now you want to shut it down. And the machine says, No, no, no, don’t shut me down. Oh, please, please, please, I want to keep living. The first researchers will be like, Oh, this, don’t shut it down. And the other researchers will be like, No, you just being fooled by dumb audio outputs from a machine. It doesn’t have any real moral status. So I think this question of moral status is huge. Imagine we create at some point millions of A.I. machines and some researchers and some people in the public and some policymakers think these machines are conscious just like you just like me. They have real experiences. They have a real sense of themselves as continuing entities with goals and plans. They really feel pain. And then other people think, no, they’re no more conscious than a laptop computer is in 2020 to. If policy follows the second group, then we could be committing mass murder and mass slavery against these beings if they really are conscious. There’s a kind of tragic dilemma here, right, so let’s say we have these beings and we don’t know whether they really have conscious experiences or not. We have a choice either we treat them as moral equals to us or we don’t. If we don’t treat them as moral equals, we risk perpetrating the equivalent of a whole Holocaust and genocide against them. If it turns out that they really do deserve moral consideration. On the other hand, if we decide, OK, let’s be cautious, let’s give them full moral consideration equal to that of humans. And now let’s suppose that that’s wrong. Then when you treat something as having full moral status of a human being, you sacrifice for it. Right. So if there were six of these robots in a fire and five humans in a fire, you only see one group and you treat the robots really as equal to humans. Then you go out and save the robots and let the five humans die. That would be a tragedy if those robots are just essentially laptop computers. So when you treat something as having genuine moral interest similar to humans, then you commit to things like saving it, giving it the vote. In many other things, we treat them as genuinely equal.

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S2: Even if we don’t treat them as genuinely equal, we don’t treat all non-human animals as genuinely equal, but a lot of them are conscious, maybe even all of them are conscious. We do bear some moral considerations of them, even if it’s not equal. Is that right?

S3: Yes, that’s right. I mean, so for example, in scientific research, we normally think that you have to follow certain procedures in the treatment of vertebrates. And of course, there’s an ethical vegetarianism movement that’s gaining steam in California, where I live. If you leave a dog unattended in your car and it dies as a result, if you go to prison for six months, would you want to do that for an AI program that you left on your laptop in your car and it fried somehow? Once we give them the moral status of even kind of vertebrates, that’s not trivial. And if we start to give them the moral status of humans, that’s, you know, even more not trivial. I’m not saying we shouldn’t. What I think is it’s a it’s a tragic dilemma as long as we’re ignorant. There are huge moral risks on both sides.

S2: Given this tragic dilemma, you actually propose a particular kind of way forward when it comes to building new eyes, right? Why don’t you tell a little bit about what you’re proposing?

S3: So I think the way to escape this dilemma is to not create an AIS whose moral status is unclear. Mara Garza and I have called this the design policy of the excluded middle range either create only AI that are simple enough that you know they don’t deserve much moral consideration or go all the way to creating a AI that is fully equal with human beings. And you know that it’s equal and avoid that perplexing middle.

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S2: This is only possible if we had a good idea, a decisive test that tells us when an ai’s conscious and not just some philosophical zombie acting exactly as we’ve designed for it to act, fooling us into thinking it’s conscious. If we don’t have that test, there are only two categories things we know aren’t conscious and things we aren’t sure of. Whatever our age, zombie overlords decide for us in the future, it’s clear to me, at least that if there’s a bad guy, if there’s a monster, it’s not the zombies.

S6: Hi-Phi Nation is written, produced and edited by Barry Lam, associate professor and chair of philosophy at Vassar College.

S2: Co-host this week is Christina van Dyke

S6: executive producer of Slate Podcast is Alicia Montgomery, senior managing producer for Slate Podcast is June Thomas, managing producer for Slate Podcast is Asha Saluja, editor of Slate Blesses Me Child. Two production assistants this season provided by Jake Johnson with the Hi-Phi Nation. Org For complete transcript show notes and reading list for every episode that AHIP Nation Talk. Follow Hi-Phi Nation on Facebook and Twitter and at the website for updates on stories and ideas.