Thursday, October 29, 2015

Another hope essay

Hoping and Waiting

Those that wait upon the LORD will renew their strength
They will fly on wings like eagles
They will run and not get tired
They will walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:31

            Old Testament scholar, Howard Macy, tells me that the Hebrew word translated as “wait” in this verse could just as well be rendered as “hope.”  So the NIV says: “… those who hope in the LORD…” I think there is something subtle and important here, though I am not at all confident that I can explain it.
            I agree with Adrienne Martin that hope is a syndrome; that is, it typically combines thoughts, perceptions, feelings, motivations, imaginings, and actions.  We think about the good thing we desire, we imagine what it would be like, we are motivated to certain actions, we perceive or interpret events in the world in the light of our hope, and we are encouraged or strengthened to carry on.  But the various signs and symptoms of a syndrome are not necessary conditions; they appear differently in different cases.
            Consider Marty McFly in Back to the Future.  By accident, Marty has taken a time machine (cleverly disguised as a DeLorean, a futuristic-looking car manufactured only in the early 1980s) to 1955.  After a number of adventures there, Marty wants to return to 1985.  He and Doc Brown devise a plan to send Marty back to the future, a plan that requires them to achieve split second synchronization between a lightning bolt and the position of an accelerating car.  (Hollywood movies are very realistic.  Right.)  The wackiness of the story doesn’t change the fact that Marty hopes.  On the basis of his hope, Marty and Doc Brown take actions that put both their lives in jeopardy.  This light-hearted fantasy connects hope very closely with action.
            If we reflect only on cases like Marty’s—e.g. Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption—we might conclude that real hope always motivates action.  We might say, “If someone doesn’t act on her hope, it isn’t genuine hope.”  Not so fast.
            Consider a much more famous character, from a classic story: Penelope in The Odyssey.  For more than twenty years, Penelope waits and hopes for Ulysses to return from the Trojan War.  Marty McFly and Andy Dufresne took definite actions that aimed at bringing about the thing they hoped for.  Marty drove the time machine toward the electrical connection at just the right speed and just the right time.  Andy spent years digging his escape tunnel.  But Penelope can do nothing to bring Ulysses home.  Her hope is displayed in a kind of waiting.
            Hold the phone!  Someone might object that Penelope’s waiting and hoping was hardly passive.  Penelope hoped that her husband would return and that their lives together would return to normal.  She did lots of things appropriate to her hope.  Most importantly, she did not marry one of the suitors; she could only marry if she abandoned her hope for Ulysses’ return.  And it was not merely a case of saying no; Penelope resorted to various stratagems to put off the suitors; e.g. unraveling at night the weaving she performed during the day.
            So: while Penelope’s actions were not aimed directly at bringing about the thing she wanted, it is not true that she “merely” waited.
            Let’s consider, then, another character, Jeremiah.  Now we move from fiction to history.  Some people might object to that statement; virtually every Bible character has been made the subject of historical skepticism.  But I am interested in Jeremiah as a character in a story, so it doesn’t really matter.
            Jeremiah lived and prophesied through the final turbulent decades of Judah’s independence, roughly 615-580 BC.  In contrast to the official court prophets, Jeremiah predicted disaster for Judah.  The Babylonians were going to win, he said.  The king was going to be captured.  Jerusalem would be burned.  Young men were going to die and young virgins taken as war-booty.  No wonder some of his fellow Jews thought Jeremiah was a traitor.  His prophecies were hardly helpful war propaganda.
            Jeremiah’s prophecies came true in excruciatingly painful stages.  Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar captured Judah’s king Jehoiachin and most of Judah’s nobles and exiled them to Babylon; he installed Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, as a puppet king in Jerusalem.  But Zedekiah listened to nationalists and patriots, who said that God would help them defeat the pagan enemy, so he rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar.  The final disaster came in 586, when Nebuchadnezzar burned the temple, killed Zedekiah’s sons (and put out Zedekiah’s eyes, so the last thing he ever saw was the death of his sons), and exiled even more Jews to Babylon.  Nebuchadnezzar installed a Jewish governor, Gedaliah.  But before long, the patriots assassinated Gedaliah, so once again the Babylonian army invaded to punish Judah.  The patriots then fled to Egypt, taking with them a prisoner—Jeremiah.
            Throughout all this suffering, Jeremiah consistently preached disaster and defeat.  God was not going to fight for Judah, he said.  God was fighting for the enemy, bringing judgment on Judah for a variety of sins.  If the Jews had any sense, Jeremiah said, they should surrender to the Babylonians to preserve their lives.  More importantly, they should repent of their sins and obey the covenant.
            As I say, it’s easy to understand why many of Jeremiah’s contemporaries thought he was simply a traitor.  In reality, though, he anguished over the suffering of his people.  (According to tradition, Jeremiah wrote the hauntingly beautiful Lamentations.)  And at the nadir of his dark prophecy, he announced a “new covenant”: “The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers…”
            Christian authors in the New Testament claim that the new covenant has come true in Jesus.  Jewish interpreters, as you would expect, have a different reading of Jeremiah’s prophecy.  We don’t have to settle that debate in order to see that Jeremiah models a different aspect of hope for us.
            Picture Jeremiah in your mind’s eye.  See him counseling Zedekiah to reject the advice of the patriots and submit to Nebuchadnezzar—and then imagine his anguish when Zedekiah’s stupidity brings siege and defeat.  Imagine Jeremiah taken captive to Egypt by fools who rejected his advice again.  For Jeremiah personally and for the country he loved, every thing had turned to ashes and gravel.  In the end, he died a prisoner in Egypt, where he never wanted to go.

            And still he hoped.  Jeremiah could do nothing to bring about a good future for himself.  At one point in the story, God told Jeremiah to go buy property in his hometown of Anathoth.  How strange!  Jeremiah was no farmer, and he had no children, so no one would inherit his property.  Jeremiah bought the parcel as a symbolic gesture; someday Jews would again buy land and farm in Judah.  But that was the extent of it.  Jeremiah’s purchase was purely symbolic.
            Still, he hoped.  Jeremiah believed that God would bring about a good future for Judah, a good future so far from anything he or his contemporaries knew that it would require a “new covenant.”  Jeremiah hoped in a transcendent power, in a good future that he could not well describe.
            How does one hope in this kind of case?  Hoping, I think, is a kind of waiting.  Perhaps not in all cases, but in some.  Sometimes we can’t do anything, but we hope anyway.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Hope Essay

Hope as a Syndrome

            According to the fount of all immediate knowledge, Wikipedia, a “syndrome” is “a set of medical signs and symptoms that are correlated together.”  Let’s work with that.
Once a correlation between signs and symptoms has been identified and accepted by physicians as important, doctors who encounter one of the signs or symptoms in a patient can be alert for the possible presence of the others.  The known association of one sign or symptom with another can be useful even before the cause of the syndrome is discovered.  Sometimes, as with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, a single direct cause is found, e.g. a virus.  In other cases, such as toxic shock syndrome, we learn that multiple causes can produce very similar clusters of symptoms. 
The concept of a syndrome gets used in wider circles.  In psychology, “syndrome” labels many different clusters of dysfunction.  For example, the Munchausen syndrome, sometimes called “hospital addiction syndrome,” is marked by the patient repeatedly feigning disease, often many different kinds of disease.  Researchers speculate that Munchausen patients are trying to gain sympathy or attention, but psychologists do not have a single theory about the cause of the syndrome.  Obviously, researchers would like to discover the cause or causes of such disorders/syndromes, but in some cases treatment can begin without that knowledge.  It is enough to know that x correlates with y, and that such-and-such treatment can reduce the negative effects of the syndrome.
Now let’s move further afield.
Philosopher Adrienne Martin borrows a usage from Margaret Urban Walker, who calls hope a syndrome.  Martin and Walker want to drain all the negative connotations from “syndrome” when talking about hope.  In medicine and psychology, syndromes are bad; Martin and Walker think hope is good.  The idea is that in hope there are recognizable correlations or associations of a variety of signs or symptoms.  Walker says, with Martin approving, that hope is “characterized by certain desires and perceptions, but also by certain forms of attention, expression, feeling, and activity” (my emphases).
That’s an amorphous and seemingly vague collection of descriptors.  Does it really help us to call hope a syndrome, if the list of signs and symptoms covers so much space?
Maybe.  Martin adopts the syndrome definition of hope because she is reacting against a definition of hope that has dominated modern philosophers’ discussion of hope.  (In philosophy we say anything after 1650 is “modern.”  So the modern philosophers Martin disagrees with include David Hume, who died in 1776.)  Martin says that modern philosophers generally agree that hope has two parts: a desire that some outcome occur along with the belief that the desired outcome is neither impossible nor certain.  Martin calls this the “orthodox” view among modern philosophers (which may be read as a humorous gibe at most of them, who would hate being labeled orthodox in regard to almost any subject).
The modern “orthodox” definition of hope: Hope = Desire + Belief that the desired thing is possible but not certain.
Martin agrees with this definition as regards belief.  We might wish for things that we know are impossible, but we don’t hope for them.  And it hardly seems right to say we hope for something we already have or that we are absolutely certain to receive.  So it seems that we hope for things we believe are possible but not certain.
The place where Martin disagrees with the modern definition regards “desire.”  She points to cases of “hoping against hope,” that is, cases in which people hope for very unlikely things.  Martin asks that we imagine two cancer patients, Alan and Bess.  The doctors have told Alan and Bess that the experimental drug they would like to try has only a 1 in 10,000 chance of curing them.  Alan and Bess both agree to the drug trial, but while Alan holds only faint hopes for a cure, Bess hopes strongly.  Now, Martin asks, how should we explain the difference between them?  If hope is defined only as desire + belief, it seems we must say that either Bess desires a cure more than Alan or that she is somehow fooling herself about the chances that the drug will help her.  Martin, who has spent time with actual cancer patients, says neither of these explanations will do.  Even if, in some cases, one person deceives herself about the likelihood of her desired outcome or has stronger desires, is it likely that this is true in all cases of hoping against hope?
Martin says we need a better analysis of hope.  Hope is not merely desire + belief.  Other things come into play, and that leads to the syndrome analysis of hope.
When we hope, we think about the outcome we desire.  We may imagine what it would be like if the hoped for outcome occurred.  We let our minds dwell on it.  The presence of hope in our mind makes us alert to happenings around us; we perceive events differently.  Hope is often accompanied by positive feelings; in a sense, we rejoice in anticipation of the hoped for outcome.  Hope sometimes affects the decisions we make.  When we hope, we are able to suffer setbacks without despairing of the eventual good result.
Thought, imagination, perception, emotions, decisions, and actions: on the syndrome analysis hope is complicated.  That sounds right to me.
Martin asks us to consider a recent parable of hope, The Shawshank Redemption.  Andy and Red are friends in Shawshank prison.  Red, a prison veteran, warns Andy against hope.  “Let me tell you something, my friend.  Hope is a dangerous thing.  Hope can drive a man insane.”[1]  Against Red’s advice, Andy hopes to escape. 
For more than 20 years, Andy entertains certain thoughts.  He lets himself feel certain feelings.  He imagines certain future scenes.  He plans and executes certain actions.  In the story, Andy eventually escapes.  But the value of hope does not depend on this happy outcome.  Andy’s hope sustained him through many years of imprisonment, and he would have enjoyed this benefit even if his escape failed in the end.  The moral of the story is expressed in Andy’s words to Red: “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing.  Maybe the best thing, and no good thing ever dies.”[2]
If hope is as complicated as the syndrome analysis suggests, it may be that we understand it best through stories.  A narrative can show how the different “signs and symptoms” hang together.

[1] The Shawshank Redemption.
[2] The Shawshank Redemption.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Hope Project

          As a moral philosopher, I focus on what is called "virtue theory."  It's a theme reflected in some titles: Learning to Love: Philosophy and Moral Progress (my dissertation), The Virtue of Civility in the Practice of Politics, and Why Faith is a Virtue.  Currently, I'm reading and thinking about hope.  Here is a little essay from my recent work.

Imitatio Christi and Christian Hope

“We have this hope as an anchor for the
soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6:19)

      What is Christian hope?
      The first thing we need to say is that the adjective matters.  Christian hope is both like and unlike natural hopes.  Christian hope is a supernatural hope; it is essentially linked to God, rooted in God’s promises.  Like our natural hopes, Christian hope looks forward to some good thing.  It is the goal, the good thing we anticipate, that distinguishes Christian hope from natural hopes.
      So what is it that Christians hope for? 
1. In the words of countless beauty pageant winners, do we long for “world peace”?  Jesus taught his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done on earth.  Biblical scholars tell us that the “kingdom of God” includes far more than absence of war.  God’s shalom means personal and social well-being; it means wholeness and blessedness.  The kingdom of God brings justice, both in the sense of judgment against our sins and in fair distribution of good things.  Should we say that Christians hope for the kingdom of God?
2. Do we want to meet loved ones in heaven?  (Or, like Socrates, to meet famous persons and discuss philosophy with them?)  This idea has been part of Christian thinking from the beginning.  In 1 Thessalonians, which may be the first New Testament document written, Paul reassures the Christians in Thessalonica that those believers who had “fallen asleep” were not thereby cut off from God’s promised future.  He says that at the parousia dead Christians would rise first, to be joined by those who were living at the time of Christ’s return.  Countless Christian funeral sermons have assured believers that they will see the beloved departed again.  Is this the Christian hope, to see and know those who have died?
3. Paul’s correction of Thessalonian misunderstandings concerning resurrection underscores the crucial importance of resurrection in Christian doctrine.  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul insists that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Jesus has been raised, and in that case Christian faith is useless.  Should we say, then, that Christian hope is hope for resurrection?  Undoubtedly, many ordinary believers would say they hope for “eternal life,” in the sense of living forever.[1]  We may conflate a hope for resurrection with a hope to live forever.  Is this the Christian hope, that we will live again?
4. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul says that in heaven we will see God “face to face” (in contrast to seeing now “through a glass.”)  Thomas Aquinas and other Christian theologians have said that the highest Christian aspiration is to know God directly, without intellectual mediation: to “see” God.  So perhaps the Christian hope is not merely that we will live in heaven, but that we will directly know God.  Is this the Christian hope, to experience beatific vision? 

The New Testament supports all these notions, and they are part of what we anticipate.  They are all partly right answers.  Nevertheless, I want to propose another response.  1 John 3:2 says, “when Christ appears, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is,” (my emphasis) and the next verse connects being like Christ with hope: “All who have this hope in him purify themselves…”
I suggest that Christian hope aims at a familiar New Testament theme: being like Christ, imitatio Christi.  Christian ethics, from a virtue theory perspective, is the pursuit of Christlikeness.  We want to be like Jesus.  “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus…” Paul says to the Philippians.  “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…” says the writer of Hebrews.
Imitatio Christi is not an ethic of rules or laws, saying “do this” or “don’t do that,” so much as a character goal.  Christians are to grow into the virtues of Jesus, the fruit of the Spirit.  We are to be like Jesus.  On one hand, this is an impossibly high goal.  As Jesus said, we are to be complete or perfect (teleios) lovers (Mt 5:48).  Like Paul, in this life we are always pressing on toward the goal God has set before us (Phil 3:14).  This side of resurrection, Christians are people on the way, pilgrims.[2]
Hope is a virtue for pilgrims.  We do not minimize the wonder or greatness of the goal.  Thus we are saved from the vice of presumption.  But we also remember that Christian pilgrimage is always supported by God’s grace.  So we avoid despair.  In between presumption and despair, we live in hope.

[1] Some biblical scholars have argued that “eternal life” as used in John has a different, or at least richer, meaning than life that endures without end.  These scholars say that in John’s gospel, “eternal life” indicates a quality of life, life lived in intimate friendship with God.  On this view, “eternal life” may or may not imply unending personal existence.  I think it is safe to assume that few ordinary believers have this idea in mind when they hope for eternal life.
[2] What happens after the resurrection?  Some people imagine the eternal state as something static, but I imagine it as one of eternal exploration of the wonders of God.  We may always be people on the way.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

And Now Something Completely Different

Here is a little paper I wrote, inspired by a conversation with Robert Audi at the Society of Christian Philosophers conference at Azusa Pacific in spring 2015.  Of course, Audi is not to be blamed for my ideas.

Beliefs are not Conjunctive

I.          One of the easiest and most obvious inference rules in logic is the rule of conjunction.  If A is true and B is true, then A and B is true.  We make students create the truth table for this inference mostly so they can practice building truth tables.  No one doubts that propositions are conjunctive.
1.     A
2.     B             /  therefore A+B
3.     A+B          1, 2, conjunction

II.        It may seem counterintuitive, but the rule of conjunction does not apply to beliefs.  It is axiomatic that if a person believes something, she believes that it is true.  At first guess, we might think that if two beliefs are held to be true, the conjunction of those beliefs must also be believed.  But this is not so. 

III.       The best way to prove this is to assume the opposite and see what happens.  We will assume that beliefs are conjunctive.  On this assumption, if a person considers proposition D and finds that she believes it, and then considers proposition E and finds that she believes it, then she should believe a new proposition: D + E.
            Let us imagine that our subject considers all her beliefs sequentially.  We will let B1 stand for her first belief, B2 for her second, and so on.  After considering B1 and B2, she should find that she believes B1 + B2.  Soon after, she should also discover that she also believes B1 + B2 + B3.
            Now, human beings hold an indefinitely large number of beliefs, but the number of beliefs a person holds may be finite.  Let’s assume that it is.  (If people hold an infinite number of beliefs, my overall argument still holds.)  Given enough time, our subject should find that she believes the following proposition, which we will call proposition omega:
            Bω = {B1, B2, B3, B4, …Bω} where Bω is the last of her beliefs. 
            It will interest some people that Bω is one of the beliefs that our subject believes; that is, the subject’s class of beliefs is self-referential.  The argument does not depend on this fact.
            The problem is this.  No reflective person believes Bω.  To the contrary: it is safe to say that all reflective people believe the opposite, i.e. they believe  ~Bω.  To see that this is so, consider the meaning of ~ Bω in ordinary English: "It is not true that all of my beliefs are true," which is the same as saying, “At least one of my beliefs is false.”

IV.  All of us know that among our indefinitely large class of beliefs, there are almost certainly some that are wrong.  If it were possible to consider individually each one of our beliefs (neuropsychologically speaking, this may be impossible) we would find that we think each one is true.  After all, that’s what it means to believe something; you think that it is true.  And yet, we do not believe that all our beliefs are true.  We have very great confidence that at least one of our beliefs is false.  But if conjunction rules over beliefs, we ought to believe Bω.  The fact that we do not believe Bω shows that conjunction does not rule over our beliefs.

           Now--what possible significance can this little essay have for readers of Story and Meaning?

            I'm not entirely sure.  But here's one thought.  Human beings, though we like to praise ourselves as being rational creatures, don't obey logic.  Our minds are complex enough that we are unable to simultaneously consider all the things we believe.  Considered one by one, a person will find that she believes an indefinitely large number of things.  
           [Actually, we all believe an infinite number of things; we just don't take time to consider them.  Let's consider only my beliefs about basic arithmetic.  I believe that 1 + 1 =2 and that 1 + 2 = 3 and that 1+ 3 = 4 and that 1 + 4 = 5, and so on ad infinitum.]
           Someone might try to defuse my little argument by distinguishing "actual" beliefs from "potential" beliefs.  Perhaps the rule of conjunction should only be applied to the beliefs I am actually holding before my attentive mind right now.  After all, it's pretty rare for anyone to actively believe more than a few things at a time.  If I am currently believing only three things, A, B, and C, then it seems plausible that I could also believe A+B+C.  The reason reflective people believe ~ Bω is that they know Bω contains an enormous number of beliefs.
          But that won't do.  We often criticize other people's statements because they conflict with things those people said at other times.  We honor consistency in others and in ourselves.  It naturally produces discomfort when someone discovers that what he believes now is inconsistent with what he believed yesterday.
           Human beings are not logical sometimes.  That is, we are inconsistent.  But we want to live lives of faithfulness and integrity.  When we discover inconsistencies in ourselves--in our beliefs or in the beliefs implied by our actions--we want to repair them.  Of course, sometimes recognizing an internal contradiction is so uncomfortable that we hide from it.
           And now we see the connection to stories.  Human beings are narrative creatures.  We find our identity in the stories we tell ourselves.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

For "Dead" Fans

Some Thoughts about Zombies

            One could argue that American popular entertainment has invented nothing more bizarre than zombies.  Zombies show up in comics, movies, television shows, novels, short stories, and even academic papers.  The zombie idea—the reanimated dead person or “undead” person—has roots in Haitian rural folklore and perhaps further back in West African legends.  As one would expect with such a frequently used idea, there are significant variations on the zombie motif.  The Haitian voodoo zombie was reanimated by a sorcerer’s magic, and the sorcerer controlled the zombie.  In many later versions, zombies are the result of science gone rogue; an infection of some sort reanimates dead people.  A recent version of zombie, perhaps the most familiar to television audiences, is the kind depicted in The Walking Dead.  (Fascinatingly, in The Walking Dead, “zombie” is never used; the undead are “walkers.”)
            As I say, there are variations on the zombie motif.  Sometimes zombies are intelligent, self-aware characters, as in the 1993 film, My Boyfriend’s Back, where the teenage zombie confesses his love for his girlfriend as well as his love for human flesh.  The humor of this comedy arises partly from its contrast with the typical zombie.
            The “standard” zombie, if I may use that word, is a familiar idea.  Either by magic, disease, radiation, or pollution of some other sort, dead persons are reanimated.  The standard zombie walks, usually in a stumbling, halting gait.  Zombies are monomanically motivated: they desire to eat human flesh.  They never sleep, they never talk (although they may utter groans or grunts), and they are always on the move, hunting for humans to eat.
            In many of the zombie stories, though not all, zombie nature is an infection.  Human beings attacked by the zombies die—and become new zombies.  (Apparently, zombies have no desire to eat each other.)  This feature produces the “zombie apocalypse”: civilization disappears as zombies overwhelm ordinary human beings.  The number of hunters continually grows and the number of the hunted dwindles. 
Epidemiologists have actually played along with the zombie apocalypse theme.  In epidemiological scenarios, the zombies eventually turn all the living people into undead people.  The zombie myth doesn’t say what happens then.  Apparently, zombies can’t starve.  Do they just wander the earth forever, seeking no longer available human flesh?  More on this later.
            Zombie stories are popular.  Depending on the author or filmmaker, they feature magic, science fiction, voodoo control, end-of-the-world returns to the state of nature, and terror.  You can mix in romance, friendship, comedic elements and what have you.  The apocalyptic versions of zombie stories, like The Walking Dead, seem particularly appealing to 21st century audiences.  Of course, people like to read or watch other sorts of post-apocalypse stories too: climate change (The Day After Tomorrow), comets hitting the earth (Deep Impact or Armageddon), viruses that wipe out most people (The Last Ship or Survivors), and thermonuclear war (The Day After or Alas, Babylon!) have all been civilization enders.  Maybe our fascination with apocalypses says something about our civilization.  I’m not going to comment on that possibility.
            Instead, I want to ask what the standard zombie can teach us about humanity.  The question to ask is: Are zombies people?
            Of course, zombies were people.  But are they persons now?  Some of the more terrifying aspects of zombie stories revolve around the transformation of a human being into a zombie.  The protagonist in the story sees one of her close companions infected by a zombie bite and then has to watch the progression of the disease as it kills the person she knew—and then the dead body reanimates as a zombie.  The protagonist sees the body of a person she loved, but now… What is it now?
            As undead beings, zombies are immune to most attacks.  Living people can shoot them, cut them, and smash them without stopping them.  Depending on which zombie story you read/watch, there are few or no reliable methods for stopping them.  The only way to “kill” the undead is to destroy their brains, or perhaps by burning them.
            In zombie apocalypses, such as I am Legend or The Walking Dead, living people feel no compunction at killing zombies (if and when they can).  One gets the impression that the living people do not regard zombies as human beings.  They were human beings, but now they aren’t.  Thus there is no moral stricture against killing them. 
            Most zombie stories portray zombies as other-than-human and less-than-human.  And I think audiences buy into this conclusion.  There is never any suspicion that zombies ought to receive mercy or respect or any other positive moral consideration.  Sometimes a human character in the story will be tempted to have compassion on a zombie, but this is because she somehow confuses the person who used to have this body with the zombie that is this body now.  Once the character recognizes that the person she used to know is gone, she regards the zombie as other-than-human.
Zombies are not like enemy soldiers in war.  With the exception of pacifists, most people think it is right to kill enemy soldiers in war, but that does not eliminate all positive moral consideration for enemy soldiers.  As soon as the enemy soldier surrenders or is wounded or otherwise “put out of action,” most people agree that we owe him some standard of human care.  In zombie apocalypses, the zombies get no such consideration.  They are utterly beyond moral concern.  And this is because they are no longer human.
            But there’s the question.  Why aren’t zombies human?  What is it that we’ve got that they don’t?
            Lots of things, actually.  Human beings laugh; zombies don’t.  We sleep; apparently zombies never do.  We love our neighbors (sometimes anyway); zombies don’t.  We think about mathematics, science, poetry, art, and philosophy; zombies think only about finding human flesh.
            Now I’m going to put the question as a philosopher would.  Is any of these features, features we exhibit that zombies don’t share, essential to being human?  I ask this question because there is a widely held view of human beings that pretty clearly implies that none of them is essential to being a human being.  The view I mean is materialism.  Materialism, as I use the word in this context, says that human beings are physical things—bodies, to be precise.  All the essential features of human beings are physical features.  Materialism need not deny that in addition to physical features human beings display mental or “spiritual” features, such as interest in art, love for neighbor, and a sense of humor.  Such things are real features of human nature, but they are epiphenomenal.  That is, the mental or spiritual features of human nature arise out of physical features of human nature, and not the other way around.  On a materialist view, the real human being is the physical body; it just so happens that human physical bodies generate a wide range of mental states (which are really just states of the central nervous system).  If some human body does not generate interesting mental states, it is still a human body.  So then, on a materialist view of human beings, zombies are human beings.  
            This conclusion ought to trouble materialists.  I don’t suggest that zombie stories provide a conclusive argument against materialism, far from it.  Rather, I think the zombie myth illustrates a troubling feature of materialism, a feature that some materialists have noted.  Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, notes that some thoughtful 20th century people have rebelled against the way materialism pictures human beings.  Such people want to say that the spiritual aspects of human life are important.  They may be secularists and atheists, but they resist the idea that science, art, love, etc. are really just superfluous accidents floating on a sea of neurotransmitters.  There is a depth and richness to human life that we ought to cherish and that may slip away if we think of ourselves as material things only.
            I noted above that the epidemiologists, when they run their computer projections, say that the zombie apocalypse ends with the death of the last human being.  (Sorry, Walking Dead fans; it’s going to end badly.)  This raises the question of what happens to the zombies after they’ve turned everyone.  Apparently, zombies don’t die (unless they are killed) and they only want one thing (human flesh), and in the end there won’t be any human flesh to eat.  The zombie apocalypse gives us a new picture of hell: the eternal mindless pursuit of something that does not exist.  The situation turns Sartre’s “hell is other people” on its head; it turns out that hell is the eternal lack of people (to eat).

Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

So what now?

     After 174 weeks, Castles finally reached "The End."  Thanks and congratulations to readers who read it all.  Of course, a newbie could web-surf today to "Story and Meaning" and read the whole thing in a day.  Welcome, newbies!  Enjoy!
     Castles as it stands is a draft, not a final copy.  I already know some things that need to change.  For example, more than one reader complained about the Christmas ceremony near the end of book two--fall.  I agree.  The celebration of Christmas on Two Moons should reflect the culture and history of the Old God worshipers of Two Moons, not some informal Protestant church of North America.
     There are relatively minor problems.  Example: the ages of the Mortane children in chapter two are wrong.  To fit her behavior in the rest of the story, Amicia should be sixteen or seventeen.  Aylwin should be twenty, and Milo should be a couple years older than Aylwin.
     I hereby invite readers to suggest other edits/improvements.  You can email me directly (, or you can use the blogspot comment function.  (It comes at the end of every entry.)

     "Story and Meaning" is not just about Castles.  I will post essays, most of them at least loosely related to themes of philosophy and literature.  Naturally, comments will be welcome.  I'm also beginning to work on a second Eleanor Urquhart story, and I might serialize it as I did CastlesMaybe...  Buying the Bangkok Girl has longer chapters than Castles, and that complicates things.

     If you don't know who Eleanor Urquhart is, find a copy of Buying the Bangkok Girl.  I'm sure would love to hear from you.