As a gamer and horror fan I have an undecaying fondness for zombies. Some years back, I was intrigued to learn about philosophical zombies—I had a momentary hope that my fellow philosophers were doing something…well…interesting. But, as so often has been the case, professional philosophers managed to suck the life out of even the already lifeless. Unlike proper flesh devouring products of necromancy or mad science, philosophical zombies lack all coolness.
To bore the reader a bit, philosophical zombies are beings who look and act just like normal humans, but lack consciousness. They are no more inclined to seek the brains of humans than standard humans, although discussions of them can numb the brain. Rather than causing the horror proper to zombies (or the joy of easy XP), philosophical zombies merely bring about a feeling of vague disappointment. This is the same sort of disappointment that you might recall from childhood trick or treating when someone gave you pennies or an apple rather than real candy.
Rather than serving as creepy cannon fodder for vile necromancers or metaphors for vacuous and excessive American consumerism, philosophical zombies serve as victims in philosophical discussions about the mind and consciousness.
The dullness of current philosophical zombies does raise an important question—is it possible to have a philosophical discussion about proper zombies? There is also a second and equally important question—is it possible to have an interesting philosophical discussion about zombies? As I will show, the answers are “yes” and “obviously not.”
Since there is, at least in this world, no Bureau of Zombie Standards and Certification, there are many varieties of zombies. In my games and fiction, I generally define zombies in terms of beings that are biologically dead yet animated (or re-animated, to be more accurate). Traditionally, zombies are “mindless” or at least possess extremely basic awareness (enough to move about and seek victims).
In fiction, many beings called “zombies” do not have these qualities. The zombies in 28 Days are “mindless”, but are still alive. As such, they are not really zombies at all—just infected people. The zombies in Return of the Living Dead are dead and re-animated, but retain their human intelligence. Zombie lords and juju zombies in D&D and Pathfinder are dead and re-animated, but are intelligent. In the real world, there are also what some call zombies—these are organisms taken over and controlled by another organism, such as an ant controlled by a rather nasty fungus. To keep the discussion focused and narrow, I will stick with what I consider proper zombies: biologically dead, yet animated. While I generally consider zombies to be unintelligent, I do not consider that a definitive trait. For folks concerned about how zombies differ from other animate dead, such as vampires and ghouls, the main difference is that stock zombies lack the special powers of more luxurious undead—they have the same basic capabilities as the living creature (mostly moving around, grabbing and biting).
One key issue regarding zombies is whether or not they are possible. There are, of course, various ways to “cheat” in creating zombies—for example, a mechanized skeleton could be embedded in dead flesh to move the flesh about. This would make a rather impressive horror weapon—so look for it in a war coming soon. Another option is to have a corpse driven about by another organism—wearing the body as a “meat suit.” However, these would not be proper zombies since they are not self propelling—just being moved about by something else.
In terms of “scientific” zombies, the usual approaches include strange chemicals, viruses, funguses or other such means of animation. Since it is well-established that electrical shocks can cause dead organisms to move, getting a proper zombie would seem to be an engineering challenge—although making one work properly could require substantial “cheating” (for example, having computerized control nodes in the body that coordinate the manipulation of the dead flesh).
A much more traditional means of animating corpses is via supernatural means. In games like Pathfinder, D&D and Call of Cthulhu, zombies are animated by spells (the classic being animate dead) or by an evil spirit occupying the flesh. In the D&D tradition, zombies (and all undead) are powered by negative energy (while living creatures are powered by positive energy). It is this energy that enables the dead flesh to move about (and violate the usual laws of biology).
While the idea of negative energy is mostly a matter of fantasy games, the notion of unintelligent animating forces is not unprecedented in the history of science and philosophy. For example, Aristotle seems to have considered that the soul (or perhaps a “part” of it) served to animate the body. Past thinkers also considered forces that would animate non-living bodies. As such, it is easy enough to imagine a similar sort of force that could animate a dead body (rather than returning it to life).
The magic “explanation” is the easiest approach, in that it is not really an explanation. It seems safe to hold that magic zombies are not possible in the actual world—though all the zombie stories and movies show it is rather easy to imagine possible worlds inhabited by them.
The idea of a truly dead body moving around in the real world the way fictional zombies do in their fictional worlds does seem somewhat hard to accept. After all, it seems essential to biological creatures that they be alive (to some degree) in order for them to move about under their own power. What would be needed is some sort of force or energy that could move truly dead tissue. While this is clearly conceivable (in the sense that it is easy to imagine), it certainly does not seem possible—at least in this world. Dualists might, of course, be tempted to consider that the immaterial mind could drive the dead shell—after all, this would only be marginally more mysterious than the ghost driving around a living machine. Physicalists, of course, would almost certainly balk at proper zombies—at least until the zombie apocalypse. Then they would be running.