Following the principle called Occam’s Razor, scientists seek simple explanations of phenomena, meaning explanations that refer to as few theoretical entities as possible. So instead of thinking of the Earth as somehow special and separate from the rest of the universe, Newton unified the two by positing the universal force of gravity, a force that works the same everywhere. Maxwell unified magnetism, electricity, and light, showing that they’re manifestations of a single force (the electromagnetic field). And Einstein unified space, time, and gravity with his theory of spacetime. In each of these unifications, a complex way of speaking is reduced to a simpler way, and depending on the complex discourse's mix of strengths and weaknesses, the reduction may entail the elimination of that discourse’s frame of reference so that the simpler theory alone is thought to correspond to reality.
I think Darwin’s theory of natural selection is another case of unification, but some of this theory's philosophical implications aren’t as well appreciated. What Darwin showed is that nature can do the work of an intelligent designer, in creating species of living things. Prior to Darwin, the difference between life and death was usually explained in dualistic terms: natural life derives from God who is separate from all of nature and who implants a spirit, or transcendent, immaterial essence, within certain material bodies, while nonliving matter lacks any supernatural core. Here we had an absolute distinction between life and death, much like Newton’s sharp distinction between space and time. But after Darwin, scientists no longer regard the source of an organism’s distinguishing features--its consciousness, agency, pleasures and pains--as supernatural, which is to say that Darwinian biology is monistic with respect to the difference between the living and the nonliving. Darwin’s theory of how members of a species come to possess their traits is simpler than the theistic, dualistic explanation. Instead of having to refer to two types of things, a Creator God and the created material form, we need refer only to material forms, such as the environment, genes, and simple physical bodies which reproduce themselves from one generation to the next, migrating, occupying other niches, and becoming more complex and specialized in the process.
Those repercussions of Darwinism are familiar to most educated people. But when we ask again, “What is the difference between the living and the nonliving, given the naturalistic, nontheistic theory of natural selection?” we might be surprised to learn that we’re no longer entitled to the commonsense dualism between spirit and matter. When we understand life scientifically, after Darwin, we can no longer rationally justify any talk of immaterial spiritual essences that derive from a supernatural realm inhabited by a perfect person who somehow precedes the natural universe. But if there are no immaterial spirits, what makes life metaphysically different from nonlife? Moreover, take what are intuitively thought to be nonliving things, like the environment, DNA, proteins, and chemical reactions, and take also relatively nonliving things like bacteria and viruses, which are the precursors to higher organisms. If these elements--and not some supreme living thing, like God--are responsible for the origin and the evolution of life, again, what’s the metaphysical difference between the living and the nonliving?
To be sure, there are scientific answers to these questions. For example, biologically speaking, life must have genes and the capacity to reproduce, and thus must evolve by natural selection. Also, the physicist Erwin Schrodinger offered a deeper definition of “life,” according to which an organism resists entropy and thermodynamic equilibrium (death), by taking order (such as food) from the environment to maintain the internal order of its metabolic processes. But these scientific answers are consistent with the naturalistic elimination of the theist’s pre-Darwinian, dualistic notions of spirit and spiritless matter. The naive way of understanding life, by thinking of a transcendent spiritual essence within every organism, clashes with the modern scientific perspective in which life can be explained by referring solely to material things in nature.
To summarize the problem, then, we have a commonsense, dualistic and theistic assumption about the difference between the living and the dead, and after Darwin we have a scientific, monistic theory of that difference. According to the latter theory, what we think of as living things are made up entirely of what we’d intuitively call nonliving things; moreover, not even the so-called highest organisms, such as primates, are living in the naïve sense of having a spirit with a supernatural origin. Thus, the naïve way of speaking of life has been replaced by a more rational way. Instead of associating life with the supernatural, biologists explain both life and nonlife in naturalistic terms. Instead of being created by means of an intelligent designer’s plan, living things develop from simple, nonliving natural processes. Nature, which monotheists and modernists think of as nonliving, assumes the role of God in creating the diversity of life in the biosphere; and instead of an all-knowing and all-powerful mind as the ultimate cause of life, there’s a series of accidents that occurs over time that happens to set the conditions for the transformation of nonliving matter into breathing, eating, fighting, and dying entities such as you and me.
In so far as the everyday concepts of “life” and “death” are tainted by the pre-Darwinian, theistic connotations, these concepts are no longer rationally respectable. But my question is about the metaphysical concept that replaces them; specifically, if the theistic intuition is no longer tenable, in light of modern science, what viable intuition about the nature of life and nonlife can be made to cohere with that scientific understanding? Again, we have the scientific definitions which assume philosophical monism (naturalism). That is, according to biologists, both animals and rocks, for example, are material objects subject to natural law and also to chance as opposed to divine interventions. If life comes from nonlife, and both are natural, meaning that neither is invested with anything supernatural like an immortal spirit, what’s the metaphysical difference between, say, a person and the nonliving evolutionary processes in her ancestor’s environment that brought that descendant into being?
All are Undead
The answer, which isn’t widely appreciated, seems to be the following. Nothing in nature is living in the old, supernatural sense. But neither is anything natural dead in the corresponding sense, since the theistic intuition is that nonliving, dumb and blind matter can’t do the work of God, which is why God is needed to create everything--especially life on Earth. Natural forces are neither alive nor dead, in the senses given by the old intuition. Nevertheless, those forces do the work of God, but without being God and indeed without being alive even in the modern scientific respect. These forces, then, are undead, as are their products such as you and me, which is to say that the zombie stands as the best symbol for our intuitions to latch onto as we come to grips with the philosophical implications of Darwinism.
What is it to be undead? The word “undead” means that the undead thing is technically dead but somehow reanimated so that the corpse doesn’t stay dead. Undeadness is like spacetime, in that an undead thing has some attributes of the living and of the nonliving, but isn’t the same as either, given the old, naive way of thinking about them. Just as the concept of spacetime undermines the Newtonian theory of the absolute (observer-independent) dimensions of space and time, the concept of undeadness undermines the theistic myth of the gulf between living spirit and dead matter. In recent cinema, a zombie is a monster that’s both alive and dead, and thus neither; more precisely, a zombie has some features of the living (a zombie moves, eats, and senses) but also some features of the dead (a zombie is brain dead, and it has a decaying body and no metabolic functions). In short, a zombie is like a macroscopic virus, possessing life-functions so rudimentary that the zombie occupies a grey area in the biological continuum between the living and the nonliving. Historically, this movie monster descends from the African and Haitian folk practice of using a magic potion to induce a state of death-like suspended animation in a victim. In any case, there’s little rational content in the idea of the zombie monster, since this monster is, of course, both fictional and paradoxical. Still, the zombie is the most useful symbol in making philosophical sense of Darwinism, since the relatively harmless horror aroused by the fictional zombie sublimates the more subversive horror we’d otherwise feel whenever we’d contemplate the fact that Darwin effectively zombified the universe and all of its inhabitants.
Part of the horror of zombies is that their state of living death is typically left as an unanswerable mystery: they’re manifestly as dangerous as living predators, since they hunt and feed off of animals, but they’re also obviously dead since they’re reborn, as it were, only after a person’s brain death. The root of the horror is that their similarities to both living and dead things confound us. How is it that a dead body could get up and walk on its own? And how humiliated and alienated must we feel when we wonder whether we might be left so far in the dark regarding the nature of reality? What sort of twisted world could allow for such an abomination, for such counterfeit life in a corpse? These are some of the questions we might ask about the movie monster.
But Darwinism compels us to ask such questions about our actual selves, about all natural life forms and indeed about the whole cosmos! Just as the fictional state of living death is typically left in the horror movies as a brute, inexplicable fact, so too scientists and philosophical naturalists are content to stipulate that there’s no intuitively satisfying explanation of how a godless, nonliving universe can pop into existence and create life. As the naturalist says, the facts are what they are, regardless of how we feel about them or whether they make intuitive sense to us. (Bertrand Russell took this stand in his famous 1948 debate on God’s existence, with Frederick Copleston, when Russell said that the universe doesn’t need a cause because “the universe is just there, and that's all.”) This kind of metaphysical realism, as it’s called, amounts to saying that nature and all of its inhabitants are potentially as horrifying as zombie monsters that get up and walk, in the first place, for no reason at all. Just as the universe begins with a Big Bang, from a singularity whose internal properties are miraculous in so far as they’re not subject to natural law (unless we switch to quantum mechanics), a zombie begins with a corpse’s magical reanimation, and both are accepted as brute facts of life in nature and in the movies, respectively. In light of Darwinism, however, all of nature takes on other zombie qualities as well, and so the ultimate inexplicability of the natural universe makes for a more profound horror.
Moreover, biologists and philosophers of science frequently speak in shorthand when discussing adaptations or biological functions, using scare quotes when attributing intention to biological processes. The long way of explaining a trait like a bat’s wings is to tell the story of how certain genes and proteins used to fit into an ancestral environment, in that the host bodies produced by those chemicals happened to thrive and reproduce, and so on. The short, intuitive but naïve interpretation of the trait is that a bat has wings because the bat is supposed to fly, as though the bat were designed with that end in someone’s mind. The biologist wants to avoid that theistic intuition, since Darwin showed that such teleology is unnecessary, but the biologist is forced to give some credit to the naïve view--and not just because the long way of speaking becomes cumbersome. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett explains, the evolutionary pattern is subject to the "intentional stance," meaning that the bat’s success in flying with its wings does look--for all the world--as though there were a designer’s mind responsible for that success. Thus, Dennett personifies natural selection as Mother Nature. The biologist is compelled by the life-like qualities of the evolutionary process to resort to such anthropomorphism, but isn’t metaphysically committed to identifying that process as an intelligent designer. Thus, the biologist compromises by anthropomorphizing the process, but by putting scare quotes around the offending language. For example, a biologist might explain the adaptability of the bat’s wings by saying that the wings are “for” the purpose of flying, or that flying is their “function,” and the biologist will use scare quotes to signal both her displeasure with the compromise and the fact that she’s speaking in an ironic fashion.
Likewise, a zombie monster isn’t really alive even though its life-like qualities are uncanny, so we’re forced to treat the monster merely as if it were alive. The zombie passes the Turing Test for life, except that unlike in the case of a computer, we happen to know in advance that a zombie is, scientifically speaking, dead. In other words, just like naturally selected traits, a zombie triggers our intentional stance, our social instinct for positing and interpreting mental processes, and so we think of the zombie as in some way alive even though we know better. The zombie’s a monstrous abomination because of that paradox: the idea of this monster mocks our cherished social instinct, by simultaneously triggering and nullifying that instinct. And once again, Darwinism turns all of the actual cosmos into the same sort of monstrous abomination. Natural forces, which are devoid of life, scientifically and theistically speaking, nevertheless behave as though they were alive by creating the cosmological conditions for life and then by fine-tuning life through natural selection. Moreover, organisms themselves are as dead as the natural forces that produce them, given the irrationality of the old, theistic conceptions of life and death which flow so readily from our social instinct, but organisms behave as though they were animated by immaterial spirits (even though we now know they’re not).
All of nature should be thought to have mere pseudo-life, just like the fictional zombie, and this is some of the metaphysical fallout of the Darwinian picture. Thus, the under-appreciated philosophical implication of modern biology is that, like a zombie movie, the evolutionary saga is a horror show. When we behold signs of life, whether by communing with nature, walking through a zoo, studying a biology textbook, or just looking in the mirror, we ought to be fleeing in terror as though from a zombie horde. But of course we don’t do so because we’re not equipped with the superhuman stamina to sustain the degree of terror that’s warranted by our existential circumstances. Instead, we confine our dread of the metaphysical facts of life, or rather of the facts of the great living death, to our reaction to the silly Hollywood beasty, in the safety and comfort of a movie theater. Metaphysically speaking, though, the zombie is no silly fiction; given Darwinism, we are all walking dead things. We are neither living nor dead (in the old senses), but undead (to use a newer, more fitting term), and when we die in the scientific sense, our decaying body will add to the natural process by which the larger zombie which is our planet evolves the next round of its zombie progeny.
Ironic Postmodern Pantheism
Indeed, this philosophical implication of Darwinism, that the ordinary notions of life and nonlife no longer make sense and that they need to be replaced by something like the idea of a baffling state of living death, amounts to an ironic, postmodern kind of pantheism. Darwinism not only zombifies but deifies all of nature, since the evolutionary process encompasses the cosmic preconditions of the emergence of life so that the whole universe is required to create life in a mindless, natural fashion. There is no personal God, but the universe as a whole in all of its interconnectedness does yield organisms as byproducts, as though the universe were a creator god. Nature as a whole isn’t personal, but social creatures like us will inevitably anthropomorphize evolutionary patterns. The divinity of nature is no majestic thing, since the cosmos is best understood as an undead monstrosity. Whereas prior to Darwin, educated people could attribute intentional properties to the universe, with no hint of irony since they could assume that a personal God created the universe as a machine, bestowing it with artificial functions, in our postmodern time we can only look on in disgust as the universe abuses our social reflex, compelling us to be overly friendly with what we know scientifically to be inanimate matter. We know that we ourselves are spiritless entities; to be sure, we have a brain that has marvelous effects, but metaphysically we’re one with the natural cosmos, meaning that we’re thoroughly material and physical. But physically interacting material things aren’t inert or dead; they’re peerlessly creative and thus as divine as anything we can know. That divinity, however, is repulsive, blasphemous, and just as abominable as a zombie monster’s mockery of life.
Our ideal of life derives from the naïve intuition implanted in us by our social instinct, by what Dennett calls the intentional stance. We wish we had an inner essence to account for our suspicion that we’re not at home in nature; we feel we don’t belong because our human qualities are so unique. Thus, we assume we have an invisible spirit, a precious fragment of a transcendent reality that marks us as akin to a greater realm than the dark and primitive physical one. Evolution forces us to think socially about each other, and so we interpret our behavior by positing minds that freely choose and thus that possess moral value. We assume our spiritual core is immortal, because we feel we're supernatural. But Darwinism reveals all of this as delusory. We are not alive in any such respect. We’re forced to think we are, because that’s how our brain operates, by installing mental programs that model both our external and internal worlds, simplifying them to keep us on the straight and narrow path of fulfilling our evolutionary “functions” (note the scare quotes). But neither are we dead in the naïve sense in which spiritless matter was presumed to lack any divine creativity. No, we’re something worse, something bewildering, and we’re children of an equally monstrous parent. We’re no more personal than our gods; all of us are undead monsters, conglomerations of natural mechanisms that simulate life while lacking any metaphysical distinction that sets us apart from whatever seems to us to be plainly lifeless. We personify each other and our ultimate creator alike, but those projections are genetically- and culturally-programmed vanities.
The word “pantheism” means that God is the universe, that everything is equally divine. Although many theists insist on praying to the corpse, the personal God of mainstream religions is dead, the ancient spells having little if any effect on those inspired by modern scientists to think critically about big philosophical questions. But modern scientists themselves re-enchant nature, divinizing it by being forced by their methodological naturalism to preclude any supernatural creativity. If all creativity must be natural--and the cosmic seed develops into a wondrous tree indeed, complexifying and emerging levels of patterns like flowers growing from a stem, eventually evolving biological life on at least one planet and probably on many more--the universe isn’t just creative but supremely, awesomely so. That makes the universe our god, our creator, albeit a mindless one that only seems personally alive to social creatures like us, but which is actually in a nightmarish state of living death. Like each of us, the cosmos is a spiritless leviathan, but one whose twists and turns create and destroy whole worlds and galaxies instead of just families or communities. Thus, the universe has at best a simulated mind, its processes triggering our social reflex so that we’re forced to anthropomorphize nature even as we now know better.
But even were there no biological life that looks on the universe in horror, nature would be metaphysically undead since natural forces would still be diabolically creative, like musical instruments playing a tune all on their own, with no one to breathe life into them. Personal divinity is subjective, a mere projection by self-centered primates onto the alien vistas to make us feel more comfortable in a humanized world. But nature’s undead divinity is an objective fact. Natural forces alone create everything around us and they do so inexplicably and monstrously, with no personal handler, spewing out an infinite diversity of forms on a mind-boggling scale; creating prodigiously, thanklessly, never tiring or second-guessing themselves, creating and destroying to make room for more novel products, for new galaxies and untold wonders. We are such blind, childish know-nothing blunders that we can be surrounded by such infinite creativity and then stoop to attributing the whole universe to a guy like us who lurks somewhere offstage. Only such clumsy braggarts like us could witness nature patently creating itself as it goes along, and then ignore all of that and posit invisible, personal spirits (fairies, angels, gods, etc) as the true culprits.
Anyway, Darwinism seems to me to have these dismal implications. There is no life or nonlife in the old dualistic sense. Darwinism unifies life and death, showing that nature simulates God, and simulated life that paradoxically occurs in spiritless and thus “dead” matter is best symbolized by the zombie's undeadness. The zombie apocalypse has long come and gone and the zombies won. We can’t escape them, because we never were the few remaining, uninfected heroes, remnants of a wholesome time before the coming of the wasteland at the world’s end. There never was a titanic clash between human and monster, between supernatural spirit and passive matter. From the beginning, atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies and the whole panoply of cosmic forces have been infected by the zombie plague, creating and evolving themselves just like the God of yore was supposed to have created and shaped the universe. In our dreadful postmodern condition, we can worship our god only with severe irony, because we have the same social impulses as our prescientific ancestors, but we also have the findings of modern science, including Darwinism. Thus, our prayers should be rants within the undead god.