For Halloween this year, UTM students welcomed award-winning lecturer and cognitive scientist Dr. John Vervaeke to give a talk on how humans are all potentially philosophical zombies. The talk was hosted by the UTM Philosophy Academic Society and enjoyed a sizeable turnout of over fifty dedicated students and fans despite inclement weather.
Vervaeke teaches at the University of Toronto St. George campus and his work encompasses areas including the psychology of wisdom and the cognitive science of consciousness, intelligence, rationality, and mindfulness. Among his many works is a book he co-authored with Dr. Christopher Mastropietro and Filip Miscevic—Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-first Century Crisis. The book is an adaptation of a course he teaches at U of T on Buddhism and cognitive science. The focus of this course provides the foundation for his book and his YouTube series, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, and is essentially the analysis of the zombie as a symbol for the Meaning Crisis.
The Meaning Crisis, according to Vervaeke, is a pandemic that people struggle with every day and is when individuals are faced with a lack of purpose in their lives. Vervaeke explains the significance of what he refers to as the agent-arena relationship—a symbiosis of how we, as people, live in an environment that is our arena. The arena we live in provides us with a purpose, in other words “agency,” making us the agents. As a result, we mould ourselves to our arena just as it shapes itself around us, such that the agent-arena relationship is a mutual interaction that provides intelligibility.
The existence of a coherent meaning to life is what drives us to continue living and experiencing personal growth. However, it is the very loss of meaning in life that has led to the spike in suicide rates. Depression is not a bridge between meaninglessness and suicide as meaninglessness alone is enough to engender suicide.
The sudden loss in meaning is a consequence of our inability to form meaningful connections. Globally, humans suffer from debilitating loneliness. A recent study in the UK found that 89 per cent of individuals aged 16 to 29 considered their lives meaningless.
Vervaeke points to the overarching reasons which explain how we lose meaning in our lives. He says that poverty is one of the aspects which provide individuals with purpose. Our purpose is to escape poverty and therefore, every incremental increase in wealth adds to our happiness. However, once a certain threshold is passed whereby poverty is no longer a threat, the purpose is lost and the same incremental increases in wealth do not lead to the same level of happiness anymore.
Vervaeke’s second point details how we are driven by two possible modes: the having mode and the being mode. In the having mode, we merely seek to fulfil desires by controlling our surroundings and taking what we believe we want. The mode is linear, simplistic, and grounded in consumerism.
On the other hand, in the being mode, we fulfil metaphysical and spiritual desires by focusing on growth within ourselves and in the relationships around us, ultimately forming purpose in the process. Currently, we often confuse the two modes and substitute one mode in place of the other to satisfy ourselves. For example, one might opt for retail therapy to distract themselves from their lack of friends to spend Friday night with. Another example is posting airbrushed pictures on Instagram to rack up likes and cheat ourselves with the superficial feeling of appreciation. However, these are just distractors. They do not solve the problem of loneliness and instead exacerbate it. To solidify his argument, Vervaeke astutely points out the syntactical difference between making love and having sex and how they are both connected to differing modes.
As to how the Meaning Crisis is related to zombies, Vervaeke states that zombies and the apocalypse are an example of an agent-arena relationship. More specifically, they symbolize the combined loss of agency and arena for humans. Apocalypse is the Greek word for revelation and biblically signifies the revitalisation of the world in favour of a new world order that reveals the true meaning bestowed upon humans by God. The zombie apocalypse is the deepest perversion of this utopian ideal wherein zombies are a false reincarnation of ourselves and their arena is an anarchistic dystopia rife with confusion, meaninglessness, and stagnation.
Vervaeke details how zombies signify the metaphysical decay within us. They are confined to the having mode of consuming brains without reason or direction. Zombies cannot communicate intelligibly and neither do they experience social connections. They cannot be touched and therefore, lack intimacy, they have no home and no destination, and they exist merely to consume the brain which is the “Meaning-Making Machine.”
Zombies are furthermore a symbol of domicide—the destruction of home and belonging. They are not evil beings but simply an implied degeneration of what was once a greater being. These attributes of zombies are strikingly similar to humans as we often explain loneliness and meaninglessness as having no home, as being lost and confused, and as being unsure of what our purpose in life is.
Humans have an inherent consciousness that shows us our purpose. Vervaeke explains that the possible solutions to any question, including what our purpose is, are “combinatorically explosive”— too many solutions to process. Our intelligence, a trait that zombies lack, is what filters information and attributes relevance. It is when we lose the ability to filter efficiently and fail to recognize what is relevant that we face self-destruction at our own hands, ultimately leading to existential horror. We lose sight of what is important to us, become mindless, and spiral into confused despair. And hence, we are all potentially philosophical zombies.