Philosophical Zombies and COVID-19: Why the Virus is Spreading

The American tendency to disregard other’s consciousness is contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

The idea of zombies may have originated from past pandemics, especially as it relates to our fear of becoming infected through interacting with others. In movies like “Night of the Living Dead,” we learned that zombies incapacitate their victims with virus-ridden bites, turning humans into fellow monsters. This knowledge caused friends to shrink away from friends, not knowing whether or not they had been contaminated by the zombie virus or not. In popular zombie movies, it’s often obvious when a person is a zombie by their hunger for flesh and general monster appearance. But what if zombies weren’t so obvious?

A “philosophical zombie” is a being which is indistinguishable from a human being. It may look like a human, act like a human, and talk like a human, but it lacks the fundamental traits that makes a person a person: a soul, internal dialogue, a sense of self. While our current pandemic isn’t being driven by the bites of such monsters, the idea of philosophical zombies may be playing more of a part in COVID-19’s spread than we’d like to think. When we decide to treat other human beings as zombies — ignoring or doubting their humanity — it becomes easier to act only with one’s own interests in mind, thereby spreading COVID-19 to vulnerable people.

Many of you may recall that moment in your life when you first realized other people were in fact people just like yourself — not philosophical zombies. You realized that every human had the same intense inner world as you did. It happened to me on a road trip, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car and looking out the window while my parents chatted. I was four or five when it suddenly occurred to me that the things my mom and dad were talking about had nothing to do with me. Surely, if they were having a conversation about something other than myself, then they must care about things that had nothing to do with me. And I had a rich inner world with so many thoughts that no one else was privy too. They must also have those rich inner thoughts.

Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized my parents had the same sort of internal dialogue I did, that they didn’t exist for me alone. I had viewed them as philosophical zombies. Video games refer to these empty human-like beings as “NPCs,” or Non-Playable Characters. When you try to have a conversation with one of these characters, they have a set rotation of responses. It’s clear from interacting with them that they aren’t conscious, or at least not in any meaningful way to you as an individual. Some gamers will treat NPCs especially bad, knowing that they’re essentially an automaton, a virtual being without sentience.

It appears that some people in America view others as philosophical zombies or NPCs. This notion has allowed us to treat others badly during the pandemic. Someone who genuinely doesn’t see the vast majority of society as real people, who subconsciously perceives others as philosophical zombies, is able to go about their daily life harming others without feeling morally compromised. It’s the classic “othering” effect: conservatives believing liberals are fundamentally different/inhuman, liberals believing the same about conservatives. It’s how we justify to ourselves that our action isn’t really needed: “Sure, that person in a grocery store may look like me and act like me, but clearly they’re thoughtless or stupid inside. And if they don’t have the same intense thoughts or selfhood that I do, they don’t really matter. I don’t need to wear a mask to protect them. They’re NPCs being controlled by the government, sheeple, and that’s why they’re wearing a mask.”

Is the problem that some people didn’t have the same “aha” moment many of us have as kids? Or did they have the moment but not internalize the significance of what it meant, not only for themselves, but for all of humankind? Is this realization something that we have to regularly remind ourselves of so as not to fall into the trap of perceiving people as mindless automatons? How do we overcome something that appears so deeply entrenched in American society?

These questions have been simmering in the back of my mind for months. I’ve gone throughout my life wondering how others can behave so unempathetically, so callously. The more I think about it, the more I’m swayed by the idea that many Americans simply don’t perceive others as truly human. It’s far easier to comprehend the evil in our world if people simply don’t think they’re hurting real people. And this is a horrible shame. One of the fundamental qualities of being human is recognizing the humanity in others. I can’t help but wonder if people realize what they’re missing out on by not honoring the souls of other beings.

Because so many Americans have refused to see the humanity in others, the virus has been able to spread that much faster. We choose to honor our own desires over others, packing into crowded bars while denouncing the use of masks. It’s hard work to consider the humanity and needs of others, so we continue to collectively shrug our shoulders at the hundreds of thousands dying from COVID-19. They’re just zombies, anyway.

Originally published at on July 8, 2020.