Horror & Philosophy

Posted on April 10, 2008

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Two of archetypical creatures found in horror movies, zombies and vampires, have also found their way into philosophy. To eat the delicious, undoubtedly larger than average brains, and sweet, sweet blood of philosophers you might think. No, but as serious theories of the mind and humanity. Stop laughing.

Zombies

Since Descartes, mind has been an important part of the philosophical lingo. Philosophy of mind is experiencing a boom in research and intentionality is a hot topic for conversation. There is also a rather new hybrid of philosophy and several other fields of research called cognitive sciences.

Where then do the zombies come in? (Generally, from the windows, moaning.)

As a philosophical term ‘zombie’ means a person exactly like us in all physical respects but having no conscious experiences. Another way to define this is with a term called ‘phenomenological consciousness’ or in this case, lack of one. Phenomenal counsciousness is a term that means “subjective experience about the world”, and this is exactly what zombies are depicted as lacking. This is a type of a thought-experiment: is it possible that we humans are in fact zombies? This does not necessarily suggest an appetite for brains, simply that we lack any (phenomenal) experiences of the world.

But this doesn’t sound right. I am experiencing the world as I type, and surely you do as you read. The trick is to claim that this is in fact an illusion created by your brain. Some philosophers claim that this is exactly the case; the rest try not get bitten by them.

The zombie-argument, as it is called, is actually used as an argument against the naturalist definition of humans as automatons with no conscious experience. If it is possible to imagine a creature such like this zombie, exactly like us physically but with no consciousness, then surely there must there be a difference between us (who indisputably have a consciousness) and the zombies. The answer is usually a denial of this indisputable fact and devouring the brains of the arguer.

Vampires

Vampires are all about drinking blood, cackling at mortals and possibly grooming their perfect hair, if they are of the Ricean variant, right? But in philosophy they have been used as an example in an argument about the possibility (or impossibility) of evil. To be more exact, the possibility of ‘diabolical evil’.

Diabolical evil sounds bad, reminding us of demons and hell, but what does it mean in philosophy? The definition goes like this: diabolical evil is evil done purely for the sake of evil. This doesn’t sound that controversial at first glance, for certainly there can be found evil of this variant somewhere in the world or history. Mass murders and the like are without doubt evil, aren’t they?

But what philosophers claim is that nobody chooses evil for the sake of evil, and thus nobody is diabolically evil. People may commit acts that are wrong or evil, but not to do something evil but for some other motive: desire for power, lack of virtue etc. Even degenerate monsters like de Sade had other motives, mainly to rebel against the normative exceptions of their society.

This is where vampires come in, as examples of perfect evil. It may be said that as monsters that lurk in the night, they might be capable of evil of this caliber. I doubt they would have the time from all the nail polishing, appearing in movies and grooming their hair – not to forget the time that must be spent in angst about their horrible faith as monster without a chance of redemption.

There are also few paradoxes that may result from a conception of perfect evil. From a deontological (ethics of obligation) point of view it might be possible that when a wholly evil person (vampire, perhaps) tried to do evil for purely evil reasons s/he might unwillingly or without her/his knowledge do some good instead. Perhaps someone could manage to convince a vampire that distributing flowers to elderly ladies was the most evil act imaginable. The vampire would then deal out flowers, possibly cackling madly simultaneously. But this is certainly isn’t evil, is it, even if done with purely evil intentions?

Another possibility would be ethics of consequences, or consequentialism. But even if a vampire would try to do evil as much as possible, it couldn’t be sure some good wouldn’t result from its actions. Perhaps during a murderous spree of mayhem it would decapitate a man, whose actions would have resulted in the death of millions, thus saving millions. Even if the action itself would be condemned the results could be thought as good. And so our aspiring champion of evil would have done some good.

One way to look at the situation would be through the concept of knowledge or awareness. It can be possible that to be wholly and thoroughly evil, one must also be omniscient. That would certainly help in ascertaining that one doesn’t do good by chance or error. But that would also mean that neither vampires nor humans could truly be evil, since neither are nor can be omniscient.

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Posted in: philosophy