Are some human beings zombies?

Salah asked:

I am from Alexandria, Egypt, I was born as Muslim, I was, and I still, very devout, I lived a very beautiful spiritual experience. Now I am Sufi, or actually, I discovered that I am Sufi. Through my journey I had spiritual visions, Descartes says: ‘I think, therefore I am,’ this mean that he is sure of his existence, but he is not sure if the world really exist, or the world is real. Now I am pantheist or to be accurate, panentheist. like George Berkeley, through vision, I am sure that there is none other than God and his images, Humans, namely, that existence is composed of God and humans only, the universe is God’s manifestation, namely, universe is none but God. Descartes cogito ends that the world may be unreal, but Descartes thought later that the world is real.

Now through mystic vision, I think the world is unreal, since it is God’s manifestation, but according to presence of human minds, I think that parts of the world are real, namely, having human minds, while other parts of the world are unreal, namely, having no human minds. Humans in these parts are none but philosophical zombies, so from my point of view, some countries are unreal, other countries are real. For example EGYPT may be real, AMERICA may be unreal. Some provinces in Egypt may be real, others may be unreal.

So what is your opinion?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I agree that you say is consistent with George Berkeley’s theory of ‘Immaterialism’, although it is not something he considered. To be, according to Berkeley, is ‘to perceive or be perceived’. All that exists are spirits: God, the one infinite spirit, and finite spirits like you or I. The things we call ‘material objects’ or ‘bodies’ are just ideas in the mind of God. For Berkeley, if you are a human being then you are a spirit.

Though Berkeley would not have approved, within this framework it is logically possible that some of the so-called ‘humans’ that inhabit this world are associated with a Berkeleian spirit while others are not. Human beings lacking a spirit would be ‘philosophical zombies’ (in the sense considered, e.g. by David Chalmers). They act and talk and are in every way indistinguishable from non-zombies, or ‘human beings with spirit’ but for a zombie ‘all is darkness inside’.

We can debate about God’s plan for the world, or even in a scientific mode raise the issue of Occam’s Razor. Maybe I’m the only non-zombie, why do there need to be more? (Someone might think, ‘God made the world just for me, to by my playground.’) However, any such debate would be impossible in principle to resolve. Believe what you like, it makes no practical difference.

Then again, one advantage of believing that ‘all Americans are zombies’, or ‘all Egyptians are zombies’ is that you don’t take zombies into consideration when making a moral decision or formulating foreign policy. Zombies don’t count, period.

      You cannot kill me
      The creature said
      Because I am already dead
      I aimed my shotgun
      At the creature’s head
      And pulled the trigger
      A zombie kill
      Is still
      A kill

      Philosophizer ‘Contagion’

A supporter of Al-Qaeda can still observe with satisfaction as the Twin Towers fall, watch the so-called ‘zombies’ as they tumble to their ‘death’, but the pleasure isn’t the same. Zombies cannot be evil. Zombies cannot be punished, they cannot face the wrath of God. At best, a ‘nation of zombies’ might exist as a warning to those who are tempted towards evil, as a kind of ghoulish animation or tableau showing the worst side of human nature.

That’s a story that some ‘true believers’ might be tempted to believe. I don’t know whether such a narrative would be acceptable on some interpretation of the ‘holy texts’ because I’m not an expert on religion, least of all Islam. I suspect not.

I don’t have sufficient motivation to take an interest. I happen believe the opposite. I believe that religion — all religion — is a contagion every bit as threatening as a zombie apocalypse scenario, and human beings will not be able to live in peace and enjoy their humanity until all ‘true believers’ are extinct.

That’s just my personal belief, mind you. As a matter of high principle, I hold that those of all faiths and none can drink and gain sustenance from the ancient well of philosophy. I’m willing to dialogue with anyone — so long as you are not asking me for my approval of your beliefs. I’m not asking you for your approval of mine.

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