Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What the "Walking Dead" can Teach Pro-Lifers [Scott]

The AMC series The Walking Dead is gory, brutal, and not for the faint of heart. Yet I'm fascinated by it and think Christian apologists may want to give it a second look. But only if you can stand lots and lots of gore.

I can live without the blood, thank you, and episode #2 has an implied sex scene I chose not to watch. What grips me is the drama of a tiny group of humans fighting to survive against overwhelming odds. This is not your daddy's 1970s zombie film. Indeed, unlike those earlier offerings, this one has believable characters in a realistic location (Atlanta, GA). Its realness is gripping.

The basic plotline tells the story of what happens after a zombie apocalypse. Briefly, a small group of human survivors moves about in search of protection from shuffling hordes of the walking dead. If bitten by one of the walking zombies, the victim dies a violent death only to resurrect a short time later as a deadly walker. The survivors are led by Rick Grimes, a sheriff's deputy from a small Georgia county. As their odds for survival shrink, desperation pushes them to the very edge of sanity. They witness unspeakable horrors as the walkers can only be stopped with a gunshot through the head or a pick-axe through the skull.

It's gruesome stuff. And it’s loaded with ideas worth discussing within the context of a Christian worldview.

Episode 6 (the season finale) is a case in point. Rick and his tiny band of survivors arrive at the CDC in Atlanta hoping to find answers for the Zombie outbreak. To their horror, the facility is locked up tighter than Fort Knox. Just before walkers overwhelm the humans, a door opens and the survivors escape inside. That's where they meet Dr. Edward Jenner, the sole CDC staffer who remained behind after the zombie attack. In the clip below, he explains to the group how the zombie infection kills a victim. Listen carefully to his description of human nature:

In short, Dr. Jenner says that we are nothing but our physical brains. All of our thoughts, feelings, and convictions are determined by synapse firings. When the frontal lobes cease, you cease.

However, If everything about the human being can be reduced to a predetermined pattern of synapse firings in the brain, why is he trying to persuade group members to think any different than they do? After all, their thoughts are also predetermined by their individual synapses, meaning they are not free to think any differently than they already do. Thus, in the very act of trying to persuade, Dr. Jenner undermines his own case for determinism. His predetermined thoughts can be no more rational than theirs. At the same time, if we are nothing more than physical beings, how can we account for personal identity through time and change? In the last seven years--indeed, in the last five minutes--my body has undergone numerous changes. In what sense, then, am I the same person I was seven years ago or even five minutes ago?

As Paul Copan points out, Orthodox Christianity has a different take on human nature known as substance dualism. In this view, "humans are comprised of both physical body and nonphysical soul, and the soul gives humans their continued identity even though the body may perish (e.g., during the intermediate state). Body and soul are distinct but deeply interactive, organically integrated substances—physical and nonphysical."

So what is a substance? J.P Moreland, Scott Rae, and Frank Beckwith (among others) write that substances are living organisms that maintain their identities through time and change while property things, like my car, do not. What moves a puppy to maturity or a human fetus to adulthood is not a mere collection of parts, but an underlying immaterial nature or essence that orders its properties and capacities. As a substance grows, it does not become more of its kind; it matures according to its kind. It remains the same kind of thing from the moment it begins to exist. Thus, a substance retains its identity even if its ultimate capacities are never fully realized. A dog that never learns to bark is still a dog by nature. (That is, it the dog’s particular nature, not the realization of some capacity he may or may not develop, determines what kind of thing he is.)

Property things like cars are just sum totals of their total parts. Change a motor or replace a tire, and technically have a different vehicle from the one that rolled off the assembly line. There is no essential essence or nature that defines it and orders its basic capacities. Property things like my car or a plane come into existence part by part. But living things are different. They come into existence all at once then gradually unfold themselves according to their inner natures. Herein lies Dr. Jenner's error: He reduces human beings to the sum total of their physical parts, making it difficult to explain how anyone retains his/her identity when those physical parts change.

So why does this matter to pro-life advocacy? The substance view tells us that you are identical to your former fetal self. You are the same being now as you were then, though not because of something physical that will change over time. Rather, from the moment you began to exist (conception), you possessed a non-material human nature that grounded your identity through all the stages of your development. That is, there’s been no substantial change to your essential being even though your physical body has changed dramatically. Thus, if you are intrinsically valuable now, you were intrinsically valuable then as well.

In short, what makes us equal is that we all have the same human nature, and we have it from the moment we begin to exist.

If I'm wrong about this and Dr. Jenner is right, human equality is a myth. Those with more brain function are more valuable than those with less--born or unborn.


  1. Another interesting thing from Dr. Jenner's speech: he describes synapses as "determining everything a person says, does or thinks from THE MOMENT OF BIRTH." (emphasis mine.)

    Oh, if only Dr. Peter Singer was in that group of survivors listening to Dr. Jenner's speech! He'd probably argue that any newborn's "thoughts" likely don't begin right at birth, and even if they did, those kinds of thoughts aren't morally relevant.

    And I would agree with Dr. Singer on both points. What evidence is there that the brain suddenly acts differently RIGHT at the moment the baby exits the womb?

  2. Very interesting post. However, you're overanalyzing what is essentially a comic book - the authors, as talented as they may be, probably aren't up to speed on the latest research being published in neuroscience. I am on your side though; I am pro-life and do what He tells me to the best of my ability. However, by comparing our beliefs with "The Walking Dead," you're demeaning those beliefs. That's not what He wants you to do. He is not a comic book.

  3. " After all, their thoughts are also predetermined by their individual synapses, meaning they are not free to think any differently than they already do."

    It seems that this is not a valid statement. If your synapse firing is predetermined this would mean that your thinking in regards to new stimuli (such as new information), would be predetermined not that there would be no change in your synapse firing with the introduction of the new stimuli. So you could change your mind about something based on new info, even in the deterministic universe.

  4. This is sooo good Scott! I loved this series (I feel as if I've seen probably every zombie ever made:) It's funny that you posted this because I was arguing with the t.v. on THIS VERY scene, for the reasons you mentioned. And even apart from the mind/body issues involved, I've been quite interested in how logically UN-persuasive arguments can BECOME persuasive in various forms of media, and how logically PERSUASIVE arguments can be UN-persuasive if not presented effectively. This scene, I think for many people, could possibly be one instance of the former.

  5. This was a real good episode. It made a lot since sense most Zombie movies must operate the same way.


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