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Reflections on The Walking Dead

Posted in Apocalypse, Brain Science, Consciousness, Descartes, emotion, Ethics, Existentialism, God, Horror, humanities, Metaphor, Metaphysics, Monster, Monsters, Morality, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, Psychology, Religion, religious, Science, State of nature, terror, The Walking Dead, theory of mind, Zombies with tags , , , on October 19, 2013 by Uroboros

walking deadWARNING: SPOILERS. The Walking Dead’s violent, post-apocalyptic setting always makes me wonder: what kind of person would I be under circumstances like that? Given what one has to do in order to survive, could I still look at myself in the mirror and recognize the person gazing back at me? Would I even want to?

Critics sometimes complain about the show’s pacing and quieter, more reflective scenarios, but the writers should be applauded for slowing the story down, developing the characters, and exploring the thematic implications of their struggles. The Walking Dead knows how to alternate between terror—the dreaded threat of the unseen, the lurking menace yet to be revealed—and horror, the moment when the monster lunges from the bushes and takes a bite. Utilizing this key dynamic means including lots of slower, quieter scenes. Setting up psychological conflicts and tweaking character arcs enhances the terror because we are more invested in the outcomes—we care about what is lurking around the corner, and, when the horror is finally unleashed, the gore is all the more terrifying because we know more about the victims. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the hyperactivity you get in shows like American Horror Story, a series that flows like a sugar rush—sleek, Gothic concoctions for the Ritalin Generation.

The slow-burn approach also allows viewers to reflect on the shows themes, like the existential and moral status of the Walkers themselves. During Season Two, Herschel didn’t share the kill ’em all approach that Rick and company had pretty much taken for granted—and who could blame them? After what happened in Atlanta in Season One, there was little reason to contemplate the possible personhood of the Walkers chomping at the bit to eat them. But, when farm life slowed things down and gave characters more time to reflect on their situation, the issue slowly but surely lumbered out into the open and became the turning point of the season.

Rick and Herschel's Moral Debate

Rick and Herschel’s Moral Debate

When Rick confronted Herschel about hiding his zombified relatives in the barn, the conviction in Herschel’s moral reasoning was hard to dismiss. From his perspective, a zombie was just a sick human being: behind the blank eyes and pale, rotting skin, Herschel saw a human being waiting to be saved. After all, what if zombiehood could be cured? If that’s your philosophy, then killing a zombie when you don’t have to would be murder. By the end of Season Two, of course, we learn that everybody is infected and thus destined to be a zombie. We’re all the Walking Dead, so to speak. In Season Three, even the duplicitous, devious Governor struggles with the issue. As much as we grow to hate him as a brutal tyrant, he’s also a loving father who can’t let go of his daughter. She’s not just a zombie to him. In the Season Four opener, the issue resurfaced again with Tyreese’s ambivalence about having to kill Walkers all day at the prison fence and then later when Carl rebuked the other kids for naming them. “They’re not people, and they’re not pets,” he tells them. “Don’t name them.” This is after Rick warned him about getting too attached to the pig, which he’d named Violet. To Carl, animals are more like people than Walkers are.

‘Personhood’ is a sticky philosophical issue. We all walk around assuming other people also have a subjective awareness of the world—have feelings and memories and intelligence, can make decisions and be held responsible for them. This assumption, which philosophers call ‘theory of mind,’ frames our experience of reality. But, some philosophers are quick to ask: how do you know others really have feelings and intelligent intentions? Sure, they have the body language and can speak about their inner states, but couldn’t that be mere appearance? After all, that’s just behavior. It could be a simulation of consciousness, a simulacrum of selfhood. You can’t get ‘inside’ somebody’s head and experience the world from their point of view. We don’t have Being John Malkovich portals into the subjectivity of others (yet). Philosophically and scientifically speaking, the only state of consciousness you can be sure of is your own.

That was what Rene Descartes, the highly influential 17th century philosopher, meant when he said cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. He was trying to establish a foundation for modern philosophy and science by basing it on the one thing in the world everyone can be absolutely certain of, i.e. one’s own consciousness, which in turn has the rational capacities to understand the clock-like machinations of the physical world. Descartes, therefore, posits a dualistic metaphysics with physical stuff on side of the ontological divide and mental stuff on the other. Minds can use brains and bodies to get around and know a world made up of mindless stuff. Only humans and God have souls and can ‘know’ what is happening, can understand what is going on.  Zombie girl

The problem with Descartes’ cogito is that—unless you assume the same things Descartes did about God and math—you can’t really be sure about the existence of other cogitos or even the world outside your own head. You could be dreaming or in a fake reality conjured up by a Matrix-style evil genius. ‘I think, therefore I am’ opens up a Pandora’s jar of radical skepticism and solipsism. How do you really know that others aren’t ‘philosophical zombies,’ i.e. beings that behave like they’re conscious but are really only organic machines without subjective experiences and free-will? This is what some philosophers call the ‘hard problem:’ how do brain states generated by the synaptic mesh of neurons and the electrochemical flow inside the skull—purely physical processes that can be observed objectively with an fMRI machine—cause or correlate to subjective awareness—to feelings, images, and ideas that can’t be seen in an fMRI?

This theory was dramatized during Season One by Dr. Jenner when he showed an fMRI rendered transformation from human to Walker. He said the brain holds the sum total of the memories and dreams, the hopes and fears that make you who you are—and the death of the brain is the irrevocable end of that identity. What is revived through zombification is not that person—it’s not even human. In other words, you are your brain. The zombie that emerges may resemble you in some uncanny way—but it’s not really you. That’s of course most characters’ default theory until we meet Herschel and get an alternative perspective. He’s not interested in scientifically or philosophically ‘proving’ the personhood of Walkers. They’re family members and neighbors who happen to be sick and might someday be cured. He can’t kill them. What’s intriguing is how his response bypasses the metaphysical problem and goes right to the ethical question. If you can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that zombies aren’t conscious—that there isn’t some sliver of humanity swirling around inside those rotting skulls—then isn’t Herschel’s theory a more appropriate moral response, a more humane approach?

What matters most, from this perspective, is how you treat the other, the stranger. It’s no accident that Herschel is a veterinarian and not a ‘human ‘doctor, which would’ve served his initial plot function—saving Carl—just as well, if not better. As a vet, Herschel has to care about the pain and suffering of creatures whose states of mind he can’t know or prove. What matters isn’t testing and determining the degree to which a creature is conscious and then scaling your moral obligations in proportion to that measurement—after all, such a measurement may be in principle impossible—what matters is how you treat others in the absence of such evidence. In short, it depends on a kind of faith, a default assumption that necessitates hospitality, not hostility. The perspective one adopts, the stance one assumes, defines how we relate to animals and the planet as a whole—to other human beings and ultimately oneself.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

I think this is one of the most relevant and potent themes in The Walking Dead, and I was glad to see it re-emerge in the Season Four opener. In future episodes, it will be interesting to see how they explore it, especially through Carl and Tyreese. I’ll be focused on how they react to the Walkers: how they manage their feelings and control themselves in the crises to come. Walkers are like uncanny mirrors in which characters can glimpse otherwise hidden aspects of their own minds. What do Tyreese and Carl see when they look into the seemingly-soulless eyes of a Walker, and what does that say about the state of their souls? Will they lose themselves? If they do, can they come back?

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