Soul Searching


According to news reports, local officials in Sycamore Township, Ohio invoked zoning ordinances to try to get rid of a ghoulish nativity scene on a resident’s front lawn. Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men were all depicted as zombies, which some neighbors found objectionable. You can dress this up as a clash of cultural icons, although I am skeptical about the cultural relevance of zombies – or even their entertainment value, for that matter. These soulless creatures can neither sing nor dance, and they are too dim-witted even to make it as celebrities. For actors, the role is only marginally more demanding than playing a cadaver on Law & Order. With limited dramatic potential, zombie roles are an unlikely ticket to stardom, the way Frankenstein’s monster was for Boris Karloff.

Curiously enough, zombies have become a hot topic among philosophers of mind, who have devised various thought experiments involving zombies in order to throw light on the nature of consciousness in humans. Unlike the Hollywood variety, philosophic zombies do not look or act like they spent too much time cooling off in the morgue on Law & Order. They look and act just like you or me; the difference is that they have no inner life – no soul, if you will. A philosophic zombie cannot perceive the redness of a rose, cannot smell its aroma or feel pain if it pricks its finger on a rose’s thorn. And yet it is outwardly indistinguishable from a normal human being. It could conceivably sing and dance and navigate the celebrity circuit, just not with a lot of feeling.

The very soullessness of zombies is what makes them irresistible to philosophers of mind who are seeking to solve the “hard problem” of human consciousness. There are essentially two schools of thought on the subject of consciousness, with many variations. The first, traceable to the philosopher Rene Descartes, is that the mind occupies a separate realm entirely from the physical world, which raises the question of exactly how the mind can act upon its surroundings. The other school of thought is that consciousness is a by-product of natural processes, even if we don’t know how the 100 billion neurons stuffed between our ears can produce a fully orchestrated mind. Some would argue that consciousness is little more than a conjuring trick, as if the mind were essentially a piece of meat with delusions of grandeur -- or as the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter expressed it, a “mirage that perceives itself.”

Here’s where zombies come in, speaking of pieces of meat. If our minds are entirely explainable in physical terms, why aren’t we all zombies? Since we are products of evolution, how is the survival of the species enhanced if we are able to smell the roses? Consciousness is embedded in soft tissue, so there is no fossil record to trace its development. All we really have to go on is that we are sentient beings, and the rest is conjecture. We could certainly build an evolutionary case for this or that attribute of consciousness, but we could just as easily make a case for a zombie doppelganger without all the bells and whistles. The mere fact that we are endowed with sentience does not in itself constitute evidence that consciousness offers a selective advantage over the alternative.

Philosopher Saul Kripke presents his own thought experiment in which God creates the world and everything in it according to strict physical laws. Now Kripke asks us to imagine whether anything more would be required to make us fully conscious beings. If not, then we would be living in a zombie world. But, of course, we are not zombies. And since we have invoked the deity, we might as well refer back to the original blueprint in the Book of Genesis. Details are admittedly few, but two things stand out. First, the Lord spent as much time creating human beings on the sixth day as he spent putting up all the lights in the firmament on the fourth day. This stands to reason when you consider there are as many neurons in the human brain as stars in our galaxy and as many galaxies as there are stars in our own. The other noteworthy detail is that God created humankind in his own image. We don’t know exactly what this means. But if we do a bit of reverse engineering, based on our understanding of the human mind, we can say one thing for certain: God is not a zombie.

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