5 Disturbing Philosophical Arguments


Happy Halloween, my fellow readers.

Believe it or not, my first (unofficial) philosophical editorial was Halloween related, as I discussed the logic behind Trick or Treat. A fun little read, if you’re curious about what we mean when we actually utter that phrase around this holiday, and for the most part, a kid-friendly approach. But this year, I will be doing something a little more for my adult audience.

Like many philosophers, I believe that philosophy can help people think more critically about this complex world we live in, and change the world in a positive way by applying complex theories to pragmatic solutions. However, I do admit that a lot of things that get discussed in philosophy can be too esoteric to the non-philosopher, those arguments that make us sound too weird to be a normal person. The items on this list are just a few examples of these kinds of arguments.

1. Zombie Problem

When discussing the Mind-Body Problem, a lot of philosophers today are physicalists. A physicalist might argue that the perceptions of the mind are chemical reactions produced in the brain, a fact that can be proven empirically with advancements in neurology. Now most physicalists would already have enough trouble defining how exactly said reactions produce all of the images in the mind, but perhaps, it’s not as strange as the idealist’s theory that boils down to the infamous “brain in a vat” hypothesis (which almost made it to this list).

No, the Zombie Problem is a popular theory among scholars today as a counter argument to physicalism.

Suppose that there is an animate creature that is alive, or at least appears to be alive by reacting to stimuli, but does not have a brain. Said creature has no physical functional core to produce the images of the mind, and therefore should not be able to react to stimuli (i.e. wouldn’t be able to identify surroundings, eat flesh, let alone move). A zombie, by definition, is such a creature that is technically dead, and therefore wouldn’t have the mind to do any of these things, and yet in our collective consciousness of zombie lore, this is exactly what they do!

I suppose you could make the argument that a zombie must be alive if it can do any of these things, but our very specific subculture agrees that zombies wouldn’t be classified as alive. They are undead, as in they are animated from stuff that wouldn’t be alive at all. Many of the reasonable people of the world agree that zombies do not exist. And yet, with such a fascination for such a creature in our popular media, many of us are enticed by the possibility that they might.

So to the physicalists who believe that a physical structure (namely a brain) is necessary to produce the perceptions of the mind: how would you respond to a zombie that can do this without a mind of its own?

2. China Brain Thought Experiment

Moving on from zombies with no brains, we come to yet another conundrum in the Philosophy of the Mind. But this time, it’s not a challenge to physicalism, but to functionalism.

The functionalist view entertains the idea that mental states are merely a complex network of functions, logical or otherwise, that rule our perceptions, the actions we take, and the preferences we have. But what exactly rules how we decide on certain actions, one way or another? Thus, the China Brain thought experiment was addressed.

China Brain suggests the possibility that China is a vast, neural network, and each person in China acts as a neural transmitter which decides on the functions of said network in motion. Just think of the land mass as a giant, elaborate flow chart of sorts, and each person inside that network will determine the choices of that flow chart by their motions. In other words, it is possible for a person in the United States now has a mind that is determined by the motion of people in China at this very moment.

At first, this thought experiment sounds like a challenge to functionalism, as no one who has ever discussed the proposition believes that this is actually true. However, that hasn’t taken away the creep factor that it is possible anyway that the way your mind works, at this very moment, is dictated by where people are posited in a land like China.

Now, if you’re squeamish about calling this the “China Brain” simply because it is offensive to Chinese people, I would be inclined to agree. But the original idea from the thought experiment is to imagine any vastly populated area in the world as the plot for an advanced neural network, and every person inside that space moves as a deciding factor for how the brain decides on stuff. I suppose if you really want to make this thought experiment creepier, just imagine the possibility that a densely populated region like where I come from (i.e. the Greater Los Angeles) is really a complex neural network that determines all of your thoughts, decisions, and actions. Or perhaps if you’re even more meta, every person in the Greater Los Angeles acts as a neural transmitter that controls my brain.

Oh. Oh no. That’s horrible!

3. Challenges to Consent

If you are not a philosopher, you probably never heard of the previous two examples. However, for this concept, you probably have. Unlike the previous two examples, this argument is very real, and decisions made around it have directly affected how laws and ethics have been shaped.

In this case, I am referring to informed consent, basically stating that one can limit or perhaps forego their liberties to another party by essentially agreeing to do so. In a practical sense, this idea helps to keep people honest with each other, by coming to an agreement that you will not sabotage the each other in order to do business of any kind, but in reality, it is more like a mandate used by businesses to ensure that the people they hire or contract with pretty much give up their right destroy or say anything nasty about the company that they’re representing, by offering some kind of benefit to the individual somehow in the process.

But we’re not here to talk about the mundane dread of one’s lack of freedom whenever they contract with any company just to survive. We’re going to talk about cannibalism instead. As in, if you were to agree to be cannibalized by another person (thus taking your liberties), would that make the act of murdering you (thus taking your life) and being eaten by your client be morally permissible?

And if you thought that you heard this exact case happen somewhere in real life, you would be right. But like many concerns for philosophers, we’re not here to discuss the shocking, grotesque possibility (that is certainly true) of cannibalism, but whether or not, in this case, you could make it right by this funny ethical rule called consent.

On the surface, sure, consent appears to be legitimate. The victim agrees to be killed and eaten for the pleasure of the cannibal. What’s the problem? Well, in an odd twist of things, the philosopher that I love to make fun of, John Stuart Mill, may have already solved the challenge to consent, having defined “informed consent” in the first place!

Although act utilitarianism may have justified giving consent to the cannibal, rule utilitarianism might say otherwise. From this vantage point, assume that giving consent to being killed yourself is made law now. How does that affect your society on the whole, in the long run? You would essentially say that it would be okay for people to have themselves killed the moment they choose to. Bear in mind, humans and the laws that they have made are not infallible. This is essentially a society that says it’s not only okay to kill, but to be killed, so long as a person agrees to it. Would a society that runs on death, even the moment they feel absolute shame, be a society that runs on happiness?

I’ll let you decide on that. But for now, enjoy sitting with the possibility of selling your life away to those who have no trouble eating people.

4. Global Skepticism

Alright. This may not be particularly disturbing to you, but damn it, it’s disturbing to me. Just think of the first time you had a Cartesian crisis, and magnify it with the dread that you might not even be aware that you’re having one right now!

Popularized by a young Keith Lehrer, Global Skepticism argues beyond simply knowing that you know nothing. In fact, you wouldn’t even know that you know nothing, because the very idea that you know nothing is something that may have been supplanted into your mind by a gremlin or something. In other words, you may have been deceived by the fact that you have been deceived.

Descartes had a similar encounter with this question, but he found the one thing that the deceiving demon or gremlin or whatever couldn’t possibly have deceived him about: his own existence. But I suppose if you want to make the global skeptic’s argument, the very thought that you are thinking about your existence right now can be deceived, too. Hurting your brain, much? Are you sure that’s your brain that’s hurting, or perhaps, is the gremlin playing with your perceptions that way, too?

Truth be told, Lehrer has since distanced himself from the idea of global skepticism in his later works, not necessarily because this is such a dangerous idea, but it can easily be resolved by some archaic forms of philosophy, such as recognizing the presence of a circular argument, or a good old fashioned punch to the face! Hey, you said you don’t even know that you know nothing, and that includes not knowing that you knew that was going to hurt! You don’t even know if you were really punched by someone, or perhaps a gremlin made you think that you were.

Look folks, I think skepticism is a wonderful thing, and contrary to popular belief, I think it is something that is used a lot more in science than it is in conspiracy theories (conspiracy theories choose to add alternative forms of knowledge, rather than nullify any possibilities that could be considered erroneous). But there is a fine line between being skeptical to verify truth, and being skeptical just for the sake of being skeptical.

5. The Ethics of Necrophilia

Okay. Before anyone gets confused about why I’m even writing about this, I need to express my disposition on the subject right now. Necrophilia is fucking gross! Don’t do it! I don’t even want to think about you doing it! Sicko.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way… this last argument isn’t so much an idea that has ever been popularized, theorized, or even thought about in general. But for some reason, I found this in my lecture notes once, in regards to finding the most grotesque thing that could be, analytically speaking, not morally wrong. Why? Because if you’re not thinking of the most extreme example, you’re not thinking hard enough …or something along those lines.

Here’s the thing you have to understand about analytical ethics though. It is governed on the idea of forming moral proofs with the least amount of emotions attached to the situation possible. In other words, reason is the only thing you can use to judge what is right or wrong; and don’t even get me started on the question of fear versus uncomfortability, because those things are definitely NOT the same thing, and anyone who tells you otherwise ultimately just want to have the advantage of walking all over you!

Ahem… anyway, so if for some reason you don’t know what necrophilia is, it’s the act of having sexual intercourse with dead bodies. Not saying anyone has to see you do it. Not saying you were responsible for the death of the person that is now a corpse. Not even saying that it is impossible for someone to get off on that. Necrophilia is definitely a real thing, and since it is possible, it’s fair game in philosophy.

But the disturbing thing about this entry is not the act of necrophilia itself. Again, it’s simply just gross for me to think about. The most disturbing thing is, there really is nothing morally wrong about it!

But before you decide to go out and embrace your sexually deviant behavior, just remember that just because it isn’t morally wrong, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s morally right. And frankly, that’s also true. So whenever there are acts that are morally neutral, ultimately your social mores at large will determine whether or not it’s okay– and those are the things that are usually written into law anyway! Or they remain as unspoken taboos, and everyone looks at you funny if you’re not like them.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t actually do research on this specific point, to see if any philosopher has ever written on this subject. I honestly don’t even want to know if anyone has ever published an academic paper on it.

But I suppose it could be worse. What if you decided to perform necrophilia on a zombie because your brain makes decisions based on how people in China move, and you have given the corpse your consent to be eaten, and not even know that you did?

Uhm… something tells me that I’m not gonna be sleeping well tonight.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone!

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