Zombie Strippers Philosophically Disected


“Great tits huh?”, “Yes, but what does it mean?”

Last year I watched Zombie Strippers with a few friends and was amused by its extravagant combination of nudity, gore and philosophy. Some might consider this a pretentious B-movie, but that assumes that the philosophical content of this flick are mere sound bites and not a coherent philosophical statement. In this post I will argue that Zombie Strippers is a celebration of life by demonstrating that our fear of death is irrational.

The mood of the movie is set when a scientist, watching a group of rampaging zombies in a laboratory, says: “Behold, a pale horse”. This quote is taken from The Book of Revelation (6:8): “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death …” (emphasis added). In the great tradition of zombie movies, this is a story about the survival of the human race. Four Canadian students have recently described the mathematics of zombie attacks and conclude that: “it is imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly, or else we are all in a great deal of trouble.” At last, the central theme of all great zombie movies has been scientifically proven.

The scientists’ motivation for developing a virus that “reanimates dead tissue and jump starts the brain’s motor function”, turning people into zombies, is that “after one experiences death, fear is more or less gone” and soldiers can become super soldiers.

Fear of death is a leading motivation in human life and controls our behaviour more than anything else. Being able to foresee the future and realise that we will all one day die is a basic aspect of the human condition. Many see death as the greatest evil, preventing anything in life from being meaningful. After death nothing matters any more and there is thus no point to life as everything we achieve will disappear and become meaningless.

Roman philosopher Lucretius argued 2000 years ago that fear of death is irrational. He assumes that past and future are symmetrical and that as such, not being born and being dead are equivalent. Not being born can not be feared so, if not being born and being dead are equivalent that there is nothing to fear in death.

The argument brought forward in Zombie Strippers is similar to that of Lucretius. Those whose become zombies are effectively dead and alive at the same time. They have thus no more fear of death and can live life to the fullest.

Kat, played by former pornstar Jenna Jameson, is reading The complete works of Nietzsche and quotes to her fellow exotic dancers from Fröhliche Wissenschaft (Gay Science):

“All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.”

A typical Nietzsche quote that some people might see as an implicit endorsement for tyranny. Kathleen Higgins tries to explain Niezsche’s statement as an attempt to humour – but she needs to work very hard at explaining the joke. In the context of Zombie Strippers, I think this quote relates to our fear of death. The idea of dying is “terrifying and monstrous”, but those who have died and subsequently become zombies and are able to tell us about their feelings, fear death no longer.

After Kat has become a zombie, she sits in the dressing room and reads Nietzsche again. Laughing out loud she says: “It makes so much more sense now … I never felt more alive”. She then goes back on stage and performs for the crowd, whipping them into a frenzy.

Second stripper to become a zombie is Lilith. When she is asked what death feels like, she says:

“… I remember once lying in the snow under a clear blanket of stars, there were so many stars. Couldn’t comprehend what it was like; a vast and noble void. But now, I understand it. I feel I am a part of it, that infinite nothingness. … Death is good!”

Lilith has in her mind solved an existential problem because she is dead. As living people we often fear the nothingness that is the universe. Some try to fill the void with religion, but that is another discussion. The movie shows that by removing the fear of death, the fear of nothingness is removed.

To counterpoint Lilith’s assertions, when another stripper, who is not a zombie stripper goes on stage the audience does not like her. Only after she has been turned into a zombie and has shed her fears, she is popular with the punters again.

One after another, the strippers of the Rhino club decide to succumb to the zombies and become un-dead in order to approve their appeal to the men. As in any zombie flick, the situation gets out of control and zombies appear everywhere.

Our ability to add meaning to life is closely related to our attitude to death. Eugene Burger writes that death is what gives live urgency because none of us have forever to achieve our ambitions. If there was no death, life would be meaningless. To use a well known Nietzsche quote in slightly changed form: What does kill us makes us stronger.

As I am writing this I am enjoying a break in Port Douglas, Australia. Walking around town I found some graffiti, perfect to close this post: “Zombies are also people”.

Five questions to help you escape the Rat Race

Even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat.After several months of essay writing, finally have some time to reflect. I do enjoy studying for the MBA, but sometimes it does makes me wonder why. When studying philosophy I decided to place my career on hold. Now that I am finishing this MBA, I feel a need to forge ahead in the corporate world. Why do I want to do this? I have plenty of money and a job that I can do with one hand tied behind my back.

Last year I bought an edition of a Dutch philosophy magazine which featured an article by Daan Rovers about the nature of ambition. Rovers provided a philosophical check list for for life choices, which is great for anyone asking themselves existential questions on whether you should pursue something or not.1

1. How long will this activity provide satisfaction?

They way I interpret Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought experiment of the Eternal Recurrence is that we should lead our lives as if everything we do will happen over and over again—until eternity—just like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill. Is your ambition something you could do until the end of days? With a lot of ambitions the answer is “No”. Having a lot of money, for example, becomes pointless after a certain amount. Basically, this requirement cancels out most quests for material gain and forces us to focus on internal goals. Nietzsche places an enormous burden on how we should live our lives, eternity is a bloody long time! But, this is a good way of thinking about it.

2. Is it about the destination or the journey?

This question can be related to Aristotle’s idea of Poiesis—the “bringing forth” (Speaking with Heidegger) and Praxis, the doing—as an aim in itself. The common sense philosophical consensus is that the journey is more important than the destination (praxis has priority over poiesis). With respect to doing an MBA, if you do it to be able to staple another university degree to your wall, then it is probably not the right thing for you. The idea behind giving priority to praxis, the journey, over poiesis, the destination is that this will enable personal growth. Focusing on achieving goals will only lead to needing to seek out more goals, leading to an endless spiral of seek without ever getting anywhere. If you focus on the journey you will collect experiences which will accumulate into internal growth.

3. Are my various ambitions compatible?

This is an interesting question, especially for somebody like myself who has far too many interests to fit into one brain. Charles Taylor, the pragmatic philosopher, thinks ambitions are almost always incompatible. As longs as they are internally directed and meet the above two criteria, any ambition is compatible with the next.

4. Is this the right moment for a change in direction?

This is question strikes me as the odd one out. In my own thinking “now” is the only moment right for a change in direction. Pondering on when the time for change is right will lead to never changing at all.

5. Is success actually important?

For an answer to this question, a simple gem of wisdom I read on a toilet wall in London many years ago:

Even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat

  1. Daan Rovers (2008), ‘5 Persoonlijke Vragen over je Ambities’, Filosofie Magazine 7. 

What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be human?In the second episode of Torchwood, ‘Day One‘, Gwen feels that Jack and the others have lost touch with humanity. Jack then asks Gwen in return what it means to be human.

In this episode, Carys is possessed by an alien entity which uses her to have sex with people and consume their orgasmic energy. Gwen’s practical reply is to care for the victim as an individual; a person with intrinsic value. The rest of the Torchwood crew think of Carys as a problem to solve, they see her as a person with extrinsic value.

The deeper question thus is whether people have intrinsic value? The gut-feel reply will be ‘of course!’, but what is the argument for this?

If people only have extrinsic value then they are means to an end for each other. If we believe that people do have intrinsic value then we see them for what they are, which essentially leads to altruism, e.g. doing something without external motives.

Our ethical system is based on the idea that people have intrinsic value. If this was not the case then it would be perfectly acceptable to breed people to provide organs for others. Denying people intrinsic value can thus motivate cruel behaviours. The German Nazis saw people as a means to their end of obtaining absolute power and in Stalinist regimes people are considered as part of a collective, rather than an intrinsically valuable individual. We seem to be forced to introduce an intrinsic human value in order to provide a limitation for unacceptable behaviour.

But do people really have intrinsic value? Some argue that our motives are never truly altruistic and that we always use other people as a mean to an end – albeit not in ways as dramatic as the above examples. If this somewhat pessimistic view of humanity is true, how do we draw the line between acceptable use of people and unacceptable use?

I think that the intrinsic value of people is a social construction which enables us to live together without harvesting each others organs and not something that exists without our reflection upon it. The as such constructed intrinsic value has no objective existence in the world, but that does not matter because it serves its purpose of creating stable human societies very well. The boundary between acceptable and unacceptable use is drawn by justice and fairness, which in themselves are also very fluid concepts.

Some might argue against this and proclaim that there are many examples of successful civilisations where the intrinsic value of humans was not as engrained as in our culture. Intrinsic value is thus not a prerequisite for a successful civilisation.

When looking at some of these cultures in detail, we see, however, that they differentiated between ‘them’ and ‘us’. There are many examples of human sacrifice and in most cases only slaves and people from other tribes where used. In other words, they changed the definition of being human; something the German Nazis also used to justify their actions. Those people that were considered to be human were given intrinsic value, evidenced by the fact that all cultures have some sort of legal system.

The fact that many cultures undertaking human sacrifice were highly successful only underwrites the point that that intrinsic human value is a social construction!

Torchwood and the Meaning of Life

Resurrection gauntletThe first episode of Torchwood has finally aired on Australia television! This contemporary Doctor Who spin-off is more than just another way to cash in on the popular science fiction series. Torchwood is more violent and daring than the series that spawned it, but underneath the sex and violence the stories deal with philosophical issues, some of which deserve exploration beyond the screen narrative.

The Torchwood team has a metallic gauntlet by which they can revive the dead for a short period. Several people are killed by the same method and knife. When John Tucker, one of the victims, is revived, Jack Harkness asks him:

What was it like when you died? … Nothing, I saw nothing. Oh my God, there is nothing.

John is clearly disturbed by this prospect, specially because he knows that he will die again soon. The idea of total blackness and nothing seems to scare him profoundly.

This fear of nothingness is a fascinating aspect of the human condition. When analysing the problem it is clear that this fear is not rational because when there is nothing, there is also no threat. A state of not-being is not something to fear because it is not rational (not justified) to fear something that does not exist. So why are people not content with a prospect of an absolute end to life?

Leo Tolstoy thought that if there was no life after death, then life would be meaningless. This approach is, however, not satisfactory because it relocates the problem of whether there is meaning to a life after death. If there is life after death, then what is the meaning of that life? Is there a life after life-after-death to provide meaning? Ad infinitum …

The Epicureans did not agree with this line of thought and were right in arguing that death is inconsequential to the question whether life has meaning or not. Although death may be final and could make all our efforts futile from a perspective of eternity, we can only judge life from the internal perspective. The idea that death only removes meaning is forced upon us when we look upon life from the eternal perspective.

We can, however, not view life from an external perspective, because we are bound by our internal point of view. Any attempt to take an external perspective, such as religion, can not provide a final answer to the quest for a meaning of life.

The meaning of life is embedded in life itself and we should not hope, nor fear for anything after death.

Red Dwarf and the Meaning of Life

Red Dwarf and the Meaning of Life

Red Dwarf and the Meaning of Life

The answer to the question of meaning of life is for many the ultimate quest. I have found an answer by watching the delightfully silly science fiction series Red Dwarf.

The second episode of the fifth season is very different to most story lines, as it deals with the ultimate question: the meaning if life. The Inquisitor is on a journey through time, seeking out the worthless and erasing them from existence, allowing a different person to exist in their place:

Well, the legend tells of a droid – a self-repairing simulant, who survives till the end of eternity; to the end of time itself. After millions of years alone, he finally reaches the conclusion that there is no god, no afterlife, and the only purpose of existence is to lead a worthwhile life. And so the droid constructs a time machine and roams eternity, visiting every single soul in history, assessing each one. He erases all those who have wasted their lives and replaces them with those who never had a chance of life – the unfertilised eggs, the sperms that never made it. THAT is the Inquisitor – he prunes away the wastrels, expunges the wretched, and deletes the worthless!

After hearing this story, Lister asks how to determine who is worthless, which is a profoundly philosophical question. Not so much the question who is worthless and who is not, but the question whether there actually can be rational demarcation criteria to separate the ‘wastrels, wretched and the worthless’.

Dealing with these issues is seen by some as philosophical Russian roulette because the answer might lead to a totally different view of the world – some pointing directly to the Nazi eugenics projects. But this question is not about that – it is a meta question. Can we find rational means to determine which lives are worth living and which are not. The question whether a life that is found not worth living can be expunged is an ethical question and a whole different matter all together.

Is, as Rimmer eloquently puts it “eating sugar puff sandwiches for eight hours every day” more or less valuable than writing symphonies or painting the Sistine Chapel? The immediate gut feel answer is that the latter is more valuable than the former. The silent premise in this line of reasoning is that something has to have external value, e.g. value to something outside the person themselves in order to be worthwhile.

Kryten clearly follows this external view when he argues that: “you don’t have to be a great philanthropist, or a missionary worker, you simply have to seize the gift of life! … Make a contribution!”

If this would be the case, if a life was only worth living if it has external value, then all animals are leading worthless lives. Looking at our cats, I see totally egocentric beings, who do not care about anything else but their own please. To them, eating tuna, the feline equivalent of sugar puff sandwiches, is a perfectly good life and most certainly worth living.

In Religion as a Vehicle for Meaning I have already argued that there are no rational means to determine which life is worth living. Religion provides no philosophical justification and philosophical reasoning often leads to concluding that there is no meaning of life, outside life itself.

In Red Dwarf, the Inquisitor determines whether somebody’s life is worth living by letting people judging themselves: “a bit metaphysical … but it is the only fair way”. The Inquisitor thus judges each life on internal values. It is indeed the only fair way. Not very rational or scientifically justified and theologically surely not satisfactory, but it is the only thing we got!

The limits of Dawkinism: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent

I have been reading Richard Dawkins‘ book, The God Delusion. Although I largely agree with his atheist point of view, I think he stretches his argument a bit too far as he does not seem to acknowledge that there is a limit to what we can achieve with reason, a horizon across which rational thinking can not take us.

His view can be summarised by Wittgenstein’s famous proposition: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Dawkins places the limits of knowledge at the limits of reason. His view of religion, which lies largely outside the limits of reason, is directly derived to this assumption. I would, however, like to argue that the limits of knowledge are not formed by the limits of reason.

One of his arguments is that there is a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence, e.g. the higher the IQ, the less likely somebody is religious. This seems to give the impression that religious people are generally less smart than atheists, thereby labelling most of the world population as dumb.

The reason for this correlation is, however, that measurement of IQ is totally biased towards rational thinking. Tendencies towards religion or spirituality in general are not part of an IQ test. This does not explain the correlation, but shows the limitations of comparing religiosity and intelligence.

Religion should be considered as a Vehicle for Meaning. Rational thinking can not provide us with meaning to life and religion is for a lot of people a way to deal with the vacuum.

Religion is not my preferred way if providing meaning to life; I choose an existentialist point of view—flying in a metaphysical hot air balloon. This attitude is, however, only possible after deep and complex rational thinking. Most people do, however, not have the energy or capability to live this way and religion is an ‘easy’ way out.

Dawkins does not seem to consider the provision of an answer to meaning to life questions. He places a very high burden on the rational abilities of people. The creation versus evolution question is an example of this.

Dawkins might reply that this is all very well, but the provision of truth has primacy over providing meaning. This is philosophically very slippery ground. Science is based on presuppositions, as much as religion is. Science is only confirmed by its own rules, it is a self fulfilling prophecy—the same can be said for religion.

I think truth is not important, if absolute truth does exists, we will not be able to find it. Knowledge is more important than truth and knowledge is nothing more than that which is able to provide the outcomes we desire. Both religion and science are very capable of doing this.

Living Without Free Will: The Collapse of Morality

Free willAssume you have been charged with a crime. In court you are able to conclusively prove that free will does not exist and therefore you can not be held responsible for this act.

Although this seems more to be a legal than a philosophical problem, some core issues of philosophy are embedded in this scenario.

From a pragmatic point of view, if I was the judge in this case I would simply argue that I am forced to sentence you for the crime, as also I have no free will in this matter.

The idea that it would be scientifically provable (the only type of evidence that would be acceptable in court) comes from the reasoning that since we are made of material components and that since those components follow the ‘laws of physics’, our behaviour is a result of predictable interactions between atoms.

This idea is contrasted with the view that, although we have physical bodies, we also have something non physical, which does not follow the laws of physics, allowing for free will.

I don’t want to delve into the discussion between the materialist and idealist points of view in this article, as this is a philosophical minefield. For the purpose of this thought experiment, we need to assume that it has been proven that our minds and therefore our behaviour follows causal relationships and is therefore, assuming we can know the starting conditions and have full access to the laws of physics, fully predictable. Free will does in this context not exist and what we perceive as free will is to be considered an illusion.

The philosophical question that this thought experiment poses is what would the world be like if there was overall agreement that we are biological without free will. The consequences for our culture, our societies and our psychologies could be devastating. The philosophical problem is thus an existential one.

Some would argue that being deprived of a free will removes all morality and meaning from life because without will there can be no humanity—all our triumphs and digressions can be simply be blamed on causality. The person in our imaginary court case would argue that it wasn’t him or her that perpetrated the crime, but the laws of physics.

My position in the materialist/idealist discussion is towards the materialist. Although, this does not mean that I think we would ever be able to conclusively prove that either is the case. Also, I think our so called ‘laws of physics’ are based on a logical error, as shown by David Hume, but that is food for thought for another time.

In the hypothetical situation of this thought experiment I think that society would not come to an end. In some ways it would be great for society because it would bring philosophical thinking to the foreground. Everybody would have to take position in this situation.

If humanity would be without free will, meaning and morality would most certainly not collapse. In some ways it would be very good for those who try to provide morality with a rational foundation—because if our minds are based on pure causality, than it would be possible to construct moral algorithms.

As for the question whether lie has meaning or not, I don’t think that having no free will makes any difference. But for that question I refer back to the tireless Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the hill till eternity.

What is the role of religion in finding the meaning of life?

The next essay I am writing for the Meaning of Life course deals with the question whether religion can provide a grounding of values which make life meaningful. Here are some preliminary thoughts:

When searching for the meaning of life, this meaning needs to be grounded to something, it needs a vehicle. A vehicle for meaning is something that carries the value, the thing that is valuable, which in turn can provide meaning. The vehicles for meaning that religion can provide are numerous, for example: the church as a community, the relationship to a god, the promise of an afterlife etcetera. To answer the question whether religion can provide a grounding of values, we need to investigate what sort of vehicle religion is, compared to non religious values systems as means for providing meaning.

I believe that religion is not able to provide a solid foundation for values; religion as a foundation for meaning is a metaphysical sky-hook. It does not provide a solid foundation because it can not be rationally or empirically justified. The justification for religion is not based on rational thinking or observation, but on revelation. But, does this really matter?

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem shows that not every true statement can be proven through rational arguments. The incompleteness theorem thus leaves some space for religious and other non-rational statements to provide truth. Religious knowledge can, however, not be verified, as it is based on revelation. Revelation is a very personal experience and therefore neither open to verification nor falsification.

Religion can thus not provide a solid (rational) foundation for the meaning of life

Rational thinking, mainly in the form of science, can, however, also not provide a solid foundation. David Hume has shown that some very basic assumptions we make about the world around us can not be rationally verified. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem also limits the reach of rational reasoning, as not all truth can be rationally justified. Hume’s scepticism, combined with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem shows us that science is also not able to provide a solid foundation for meaning.

After 2,500 years of philosophical thinking we have come to a point were we are forced to realise that there are no rational justifications for the big questions (See my paper on Joske’s concept of futility).

For a lot of people, this understanding that life is essentially futile can be an agonising thought. The thought that life has no meaning whatsoever – the thought the our lives will end in blackness – has driven many people to suicide.

I think this typical human condition is something we have to live with and there are basically two possible reactions. First of all we can ‘invent’ – without any rational justification – a vehicle for meaning. This is what happens in religion. If there is no rational basis for these beliefs, how can we decide which vehicle is the better one, as there is no truth criterion. The individual systems can only be justified internally, as we have no value system outside religion to make a call.

The other option is to embrace the futility and meaninglessness of life. In this option we need philosophy to be able to cope with this. Our vehicle for meaning is a metaphysical hot-air balloon – not anchored to anything – enjoying a brid-eye perspective upon life.

Venom Crystals and the Meaning of Life

Venom Crystals and the Meaning of LifeI am currently writing an essay on futility and its relation to the meaning of life, based on a paper by William Joske.1. Joske argues that philosophy is a dangerous activity because almost all flavours of thinking lead to the conclusion that life is futile. No rational philosophical or scientific theory has been able to work out the purpose of Life. Joske writes about life in general, not our individual lives.

Many years ago in one of my first encounters with the Internet I downloaded a philosophical gen created by Kevin Solway, called Venom Crystals, a collection of quotes from Eastern and European philosophy. Reading Joske’s paper, I realised that philosophy is indeed a Venom Crystal. We are hypnotised by its beauty, but the content is poisonous. The more deeply we think about life, the universe and everything, the more we come to realise that life is futile. We do not seem to have any rational justification to think that life has meaning.

This does, however, not imply that we are forced to accept a non-rational system – such as religion – in order to provide meaning to life. Plato writes in his famous myth of the cave that a philosopher is somebody who is able to crawl out of the cave and stare into the bright sun. A philosopher is somebody who is able to accept the meaningless of life. Douglas Adams describes the problem thus:2

“You know,” said Arthur thoughtfully, “all this explains a lot of things. All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.” “No,” said the old man, “that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.”

“Everyone?” said Arthur. “Well, if everyone has that perhaps it means something! Perhaps somewhere outside the Universe we know …”

“Maybe. Who cares?” said Slartibartfast before Arthur got too excited. “Perhaps I’m old and tired,” he continued, “but I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied.”

What Slartibartfast is saying here is very profound indeed. He has an existentialist attitude in that he believes that the likelihood of determining the meaning of life are ‘absurdly remote’. His conclusion is that he should focus on the coastlines; in other words actually lead our lives in a constructive way, instead of wasting it by trying to find its meaning.

By the way, if the chances of finding out the meaning of life are absurdly remote, then the Infinite improbability Drive would be a good way to find that answer, but that is another story …

  1. W.D. Joske, ‘Philosophy and the Meaning of Life’ Australasian Journal of Philosophy (1974), 52:93-104 

  2. Douglas Admas (1979) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Universe According to Frank Zappa

The universe works perfectly, whether you understand it or not.1

The Universe According to Frank ZappaThis is a profoundly mystical statement by the great Frank Zappa, which can be interpreted in two ways.

Is the creative genius inferring that the attempts to explain the universe by rational thinking philosophers and scientists have thus far have feeble? Or is Zappa negating the importance of science as a means of providing purpose in life, although acknowledging its strength in providing a description of the physical world.

I don’t think he could have intended to say that science is useless and all work by engineers and scientists, as he himself was one of the pioneers of composing electronic music using the Synclavier. Zappa can thus by no means be called a sceptic regarding science and its attempt to provide a model of the world.

His statement has to be interpreted as a existential claim about the value of our rational attempts to explain how and why the universe works the way it does. The fact that we now have some clue on the mechanics of the universe does not imply that we have a better culture than, for example, traditional cultures around the globe, who base their explanations on mythology and religion.

The way I see this statement is as an implicit acknowledgement that science and technology should not have primacy over more intuitive modes of explanation. Religion and mythology are not archaic forms of science, they are simply complementary systems.

  1. (Source: Frank Zappa: American Composer).