Monday, February 2, 2009

Rendezvous: Chapter 16

Chapter 16
A group meeting quickly assembled to discuss this new development. Those who hadn’t heard the zombie speaking in his cage were given the chance to listen with their own ears. After the facts of the matter were laid out, a heated discussion ensued regarding the ethics of the situation.
“If the infected people are still aware enough to speak,” Hank began, “I think it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine that they’re still aware of the world, if only dimly.”
“That’s always been the case,” Seamus said matter-of-factly. “In order to find and capture their prey, the zombies have to be somewhat aware. I don’t see how this changes anything.”
“Well, typically,” Cameron began, “Hollywood zombies have always been the walking dead. These, as we have seen, are more like the ‘nzumbe’ from the voudoun traditions. They’re still alive, not reanimated corpses.”
“Precisely,” Hank said. “And because of that, I think it’s safe to say that whatever the parasite does, it changes the person, and doesn’t replace or remove them. What I mean is that it’s still the person in there, and not a zombie in the philosophical sense.”
“So you’re saying souls exist,” Dee scoffed.
“No,” Hank replied, “I’m saying that, if Shep here - I’m gonna start calling him Shep - if Shep got infected, Shep is still in there. Changed radically, yes, but still a person and not just a meat puppet.”
“I still don’t see why this puts them on a par with us, morally speaking.” Seamus’ arms were folded across his chest.
“I’m saying that we don’t know enough,” Hank said, running his hands through his hair.
“We’ll never know enough, Hank,” Dee said. “We can’t. This is just the reverse of the philosophical zombie problem. Instead of wondering whether those who act like us also have first-person experiences the way we do, we’re just trying to work out whether those who look like they might not be like us still have the first-person experiences they probably used to have.”
“Exactly,” Seamus continued. “And since this is a matter of life and - well, whatever you want to call it, in thrall to the parasite - since that’s what’s at stake and they’re the aggressors, I say this puts us in the clear for putting them out of their misery.”
“How do you know they’re miserable,” Hank asked.
“Fucking whatever,” Seamus replied. “Bad word choice. I don’t care. If these guys are going to try to make me like them, I don’t want them to, and if they can’t be reasoned with, then I’m going to use force.”
“Why not just coexist?” Hank was getting animated now. “We can keep them at bay indefinitely, it seems. Why not just live and let live?”
“For one thing,” Dee responded, “I think letting the winter cold get to them is much less humane than shooting them in the head.”
“We don’t shoot them in the head most of the time,” Mary spoke up. “We bleach them. We burn them. Sometimes we beat them. Hypothermia and frostbite don’t sound so bad next to those, given their unusually high tolerance for pain.”
“Look, this is all beside the point,” Seamus said. “The way I see it, this parasite is a threat, and we’re dealing with it the only way we can.”
“No, we’re not,” Hank countered. “We rarely deal with the parasite directly, and even then only to stop it encroaching on our territory. Most of our efforts are concentrated on the human hosts. You don’t cure a cold by killing everybody who’s got one.”
Seamus sighed in frustration. “Look, even if you want to argue that these people are merely sick, but still fundamentally persons with moral worth, that doesn’t excuse the fact that they’re attacking us. Either they don’t have moral worth and it’s OK to kill them, or they do have moral worth and thus moral responsibility, and we’re justified in defending ourselves.”
“I think that’s a false dilemma,” Hank said after a moment’s consideration. “They could simply be mad - not in control of their actions, unable to take responsibility, but still possessing moral worth. I mean, come on, ‘Find them, get them, make them like me?’ Does that sound like something a person would say?”
“No,” Cameron chimed in. “It sounds like what a zombie would say if you gave it a voice.”
“Just what I was thinking,” Seamus said. “And since there’s no way to reverse the infection, at least not at this point, then I don’t really see the point in altering our current course of action.”
“I think this is a reason to look harder for a cure, actually,” Hank replied. “If we stop killing the zombies whenever they’re not an immediate threat, that’s more people we can potentially save.”
“I disagree,” Dee said. “The damage done to the brain is, as far as we can tell, irreparable. We’ve been able to stave off infection so far, and might be able to do it indefinitely, but I think it’s overwhelmingly probable that there’s no way to cure it.”
“I’m with Dee and Seamus on this one,” Sam said. “I mean, maybe with fifty more years of neurological research and state-of-the-art equipment, we might be able to develop some kind of therapy program. But the way things are now, even if some kind of cure is logically possible, it’s definitely beyond our reach. We have neither the knowledge nor the means to work on these brain problems.”
“I don’t think we should give up so easily,” Mary said. “I mean, the human mind is a pretty malleable thing, right? What if it just takes time for the damage to heal?”
Others started voicing agreement that if the hosts of the parasite were indeed still “human” in any way, then every reasonable effort should be taken to save them.
“Hold up a second,” Sam said, quieting the crowd. “Look, the human brain is not some sacrosanct magical thing, like some of you seem to believe. It’s actually very like a machine - an extraordinarily sophisticated machine, but a machine nonetheless. Has anyone ever heard of Phineas Gage?” Dee, Seamus, and Cameron had all heard the story from Sam, but half-heartedly raised their hands anyway. Nobody else did. “He’s the subject of one of the first and also most fascinating case studies in mind-related fields of study.
“Phineas Gage was a railroad worker. He was described by his coworkers and superiors as conscientious, responsible, even-tempered, an all-around stand-up guy. But one day, there was an accident, and a metal rod was driven into his head by an explosion. He recovered, but was never quite the same. After the accident, he became irritable, irresponsible, and lazy. He had to be fired. His friends said that he had changed, that he was hardly recognizable as the person he once was. His skull was kept in a museum or something, and years later, doctors examined it and found that the areas of the brain that the metal rod had passed through were those that had been found in other studies to be responsible for decision-making processes and mood regulation. The change to his brain had changed him.
“There are other cases where it’s been shown that the brain functions very mechanically. There’s a condition known as ‘pain asymbolia,’ which can be brought about deliberately and is sometimes used to treat patients in chronic pain that can’t be easily medicated or otherwise alleviated. Those who undergo this process just about universally describe the sensation in the same way: they say that the pain is the same, but they feel much better after their operation.
“Then there’s Capgras’ syndrome,” she continued, the crowd remaining attentive to her lecture. “This is where victims of head trauma have suffered a disconnection between the visual and emotional centers of the brain. What happens is that they will be able to recognize the face of a close friend or loved one, but since the connection to the limbic system has been lost, they don’t get the emotional reaction to the sight of the face, and they end up believing that the friend or loved one has been replaced by a doppelganger. People who have this condition can have the syndrome described and explained to them, and can listen to and understand all kinds of compelling arguments meant to convince them otherwise, but they are consistently unable to change their minds about the matter. The feeling that the other person is an impostor is so overwhelmingly compelling that they simply cannot be talked out of it.
“The point of all this,” Sam concluded with a sigh, “Is that the brain, while incredibly complex, is still a kind of machine that is ultimately beyond our control or understanding - at least at this point in time. If this parasite warps the minds of its hosts so that they’re driven by this single-minded urge to turn others, and reduces them to vegetables when it’s removed, then it’s more than likely the case that the changes it causes are not chemically induced - in which case the removal of the chemicals from the host’s system would probably cure the condition - but physical in nature, and cannot be fixed.”
The crowd was silent for a while, trying to comprehend what had just been laid before them. It was a lot to swallow. Many of them believed in the soul or something like it, and if asked, would have probably said that they thought a person’s personality - or however you want to describe what makes a person who they are - was a mysterious something-or-other that could only be described in quasi-mystical terms and oversaw the operation of the brain as a human oversees the operation of a computer. While not entirely familiar with the ins and outs of every causal event going on within the mysterious box, the “user” was, so they assumed, somehow able in principle to overcome any difficulties arising from “the machinery.” Except for Dee, Sam, Seamus, and Cameron, most of them were entirely unfamiliar with the myriad arguments and studies from the fields of philosophy, psychology, and neurology which seemed to lead to the inevitable conclusion that “the mind” is simply what the brain does. The idea that changes to people’s brains would result in fundamental changes to those people themselves was a foreign idea to which many of them were highly resistant.
“Look,” Dee said at last, “I know this is some heavy shit, OK? The fact that the hosts are able to articulate their state of mind, such as it is, is scientifically fascinating but emotionally disturbing. It puts a face on them that makes it harder to regard them as enemies, I know. But they’re still zombies, in a conventional, ‘close enough to count’ sense. They’re not exactly like Hollywood zombies, but few things are depicted in Hollywood with the same degree of complexity they have in real life. Just like Seamus said at the start of this conversation, this doesn’t change anything. The people out there in the parking lot are simply not the people they were before infection, and as far as we can tell, they live to turn us. From what we’ve seen of them, they don’t show any signs of what we would call a human way of life. For all intents and purposes, they are not human.”
“Dee, listen to me,” Hank said. “What you’re saying right now - and I’m not just saying this to play Devil’s advocate - but it sounds a lot like the ‘othering’ that goes on in any armed conflict. My concern is that we’re dehumanizing the infected unnecessarily.”
“And what if that worry is groundless,” Seamus asked.
“Well - look, I’m not going to lie. Staking our ethics on one course of action and then being wrong is going to be awful, either way. We could turn out to be mass-murdering innocent people, or we could wind up like them and be left to a truly miserable and inhuman fate. I don’t know.”
“How much information do you need to answer that question?” Seamus was pressing the attack now. “How much do you need to know to settle the issue in your mind?”
“I don’t know.”
“And what’s getting in the way of that? What can you find out to help you figure out what questions need to be answered, so we have an idea of the problem we’re solving?”
“I - I don’t know.”
“Then why should we change our course of action? This is surely cause to pause for thought, but we’ve all done that, and then some. And it will surely come up in the future. But can you really recommend any other course of action to us, with so much unknown?”
“Now, hold on - that’s all very pragmatic, but what I’m concerned with here is what’s right, morally speaking.”
“I’m concerned with staying alive,” Seamus said, eyes narrowed.
“But at what cost?” Hank’s arms were spread wide. “Is it really worth it to survive like this? Is this really how we want to live?”
“No,” Dee interjected. “I don’t think any of us prefer living like this. But we can’t go back to how things were, and like Seamus, I plan to cling to this mortal coil for as long as I can. If some morally hairy issues crop up, that’s a pity, but I don’t plan on letting them get in my way.” Sam stepped close to Dee and took her arm. Despite the resolute stoicism that Dee and Seamus were unapologetically displaying, the crowd was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the concerns that Hank was raising - concerns which they all shared.
At Sam’s touch, Dee became aware of her own agitated state. Her heart rate had elevated considerably, and she felt a cold sensation in the pit of her stomach. This, she thought, was the immensity that had been approaching in her dreams these past weeks: the horrifying, implacable, inevitable futility of it all. Hank’s words stuck in her head - Is it really worth it to survive like this? Some things, she had reasoned before the blackout, were not worth surviving - even if you made it through physically intact, the emotional toll could, in principle, be too great to justify a continued existence. Was this one of those situations? Were they really “surviving” the zombie apocalypse, or were they simply succumbing to a slower death from the inside out? She knew how to stay alive - that was the easy question - but what was the right way to go about things in a world gone wrong?
All this passed through her head in a flash, an intuitive realization that washed over her like a wave. Her words had silenced the crowd temporarily, and before anyone could think of anything to say in response, she said under her breath, “This is the way the world ends.”
Jack finished the line, his voice solemn: “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”

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