Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 9
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

‘Phil-zombies’ populate assistant professor Hanrahan’s lecture

“But how can we be sure that we aren’t zombies?”

It’s a question that might not pop up in your everyday lectures, but students raised it immediately following Associate Professor of Psychology Rebecca Hanrahan’s presentation on “The Problem with Zombies” on Tuesday, Oct. 16.

And unlike most lectures, this one began with a clip from British comedy film “Shaun of the Dead.”

Hanrahan used the clip: which featured Shaun mistaking a zombie for a drunk person: to introduce the idea of the “best explanation,” which she said is a way people explain or rationalize events based upon prior experience or context.

A foundation of the lecture was the distinction and inherent contradiction between dualism and materialism.

Materialism, according to a handout from the lecture, says that “there is only one kind of stuff and/or property in this world and it is physical in nature…everything that exists, exists in space and time. Consequently, everything in this world, including us, can be fully accounted for by our scientists.”

Dualism, on the other hand, suggests that “this world is constituted by more than the physical…no purely physical explanation of this world could account for all that is in this world…to explain us, we need to posit another kind of stuff or property,” according to Hanrahan’s notes.

The talk centered on the concept of the “phil-zombie” raised by philosopher David Chalmers, who argues for dualism and against materialism based upon the conceivability of a world populated by our zombie twins, explained Hanrahan, who added that her twin would also be a big fan of chocolate chip cookies.

“Phil-zombies are creature who share our physiology and psychology but lack our phenomenology,” Hanrahan said, and thus do not actually experience any sensations, though they think they do. “They are not George Romero Hollywood zombies, who seem to get pleasure from eating flesh,” she added.

Hanrahan’s argument dealt with the way in which Chalmers’ argument suffers because of the variability of conceivability from person to person, and how this problem is impacted by the “best explanation.”

The talk was well-attended, with every seat filled and students sitting on the ground or standing in the back.

“It was a good talk, but I felt cheated because I thought it’d be about actual zombies. Flesh-eating killing machines are slightly more interesting than non-feeling reacting machines,” said senior Colin Malloy.

The lecture is part of a series offered by the philosophy department. This is one of four lectures this fall, with several more scheduled for the spring semester.

“Our hope is to foster the strength of the major by creating a new space for intellectual conversation and intellectual community” said Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy and General Studies Julia Davis in an e-mail.

Davis will give a lecture about Martin Heidegger on Nov. 27. The next lecture is scheduled for Nov. 6, when Professor Tom Davis will lecture on “Emersonian Perfectionism.”

The lectures serve as a bridge between faculty and students. “I feel that students have a great deal of interest in hearing what their professors are doing in their own research lives,” Julia Davis said. “This is something that bringing in an outside speaker doesn’t answer, and can strengthen the classroom dynamic by exposing students to other dimensions of what their professors are ‘about.'”

The lectures are also intended to be somewhat accessible to students from different backgrounds. “The talks are meant to be of general interest, but profile the philosophy faculty’s interests and current research,” Davis said. “We’re trying to split the difference between giving a technical talk and engaging students over other aspects of scholarly lives.”

Despite this, some students expressed confusion. “It was engaging,” said sophomore Katie Higgins, “but at the same time it was hard for me to follow.”

“I was hung up on the difference between feeling and believing,” Malloy said.

Students were, however, given the opportunity to ask questions, both in the lecture hall and in the Faculty Lounge soon afterwards, with coffee and desserts. Students took advantage of this, and many people mingled and discussed Hanrahan’s argument.

The subject matter was certainly an attraction for some attendees. “I came to this talk because it’s about zombies,” said Malloy.

“While I think it feels like a strange or unique topic to Whitman students, it is simply topical within analytic epistemology right now,” Davis said. “Topics are selected based on the professor’s current interests and projects, as well as the desire to expose students to those projects as a dimension of our lives as both scholars and teachers. We hope students come because these lectures are about the ‘life of the mind,’ and because they’re curious, rather than pandering to attendance.”

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