I am not one for anime movies, but over the weekend, I saw The Empire of Corpses. Surprisingly, it was not half that bad. A quick plot summary is as follows (spoilers of course): The 19th century is dominated by the corpse technology that allows the dead to be reanimated. John Watson, our main character, must find Victor Frankenstein’s notes in order to get his best friend’s soul back. Unfortunately for him and his team, there are others in search of the notes for their own needs. This sounds like your average zombie action adventure movie; however, my friends and I were able to uncover the hidden philosophy dealing with metaphysics and morality behind the film.
Let us first deal with the elephant in the room: why re-animate corpses from the dead? To anyone in their right mind, it sounds like a horrible idea. The engineers dealing in “corpse technology” give the bodies artificial souls which, like hypnosis, are prone to suggestion. So, the industrial revolution is revolutionized with dead laborers. This brings up the question of the soul and identity. Friday, John Watson’s zombie friend, has no soul, so Watson wants to find the notes in order to truly bring back his departed friend. We must ask ourselves, “What makes us us?” Again, we are approached by Réne Descartes, Avicenna, Derek Parfit, and Nick Bostrom’s philosophies. The first three were engaged in dualism, debating whether our identities are determined by our spiritual soul or our physical body. In order to find out if Friday really has a soul, we must explain the mind-body problem. Avicenna imagined a flying man. Suspended in the air with all senses blocked off, Avicenna figured that he would know he existed despite the inability to feel, hear, or taste anything. It is kind of like Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. Both Descartes and the Persian scholar agree that the mind is a separate entity that exists in harmony with the body. Derek wondered who he would be if he and an exact, hypothetical replica of himself were transported to Mars. Derek and John Locke reasoned that although they shared the same memories and bodies, their identities were determined by the different experiences. Nick Bostrom then poses the question of what makes us different from A.I. Is Friday still Friday just because he was brought back to life? Does he retain his memories and sense of identity? According to Bostrom and the preceding profiles, no. As I discuss Nick’s philosophy, replace “A.I.” and “simulation” with “corpse” to better understand John Watson’s ambitions. Bostrom noticed the meteoric growth of technology and began to question whether humans would be replaced by artificial intelligence. He claimed that yes, the possibility of machines replacing us is all too real. Similarly, in Empire of Corpses, the dead begin to replace the living. If Watson were to preserve Friday’s brain and upload it to a computer or another corpse, would it still be Friday? What is the distinction between man and machine? What distinguishes us from mindless zombies? There is no real answer, which is why this question is so prevalent and still plagues philosophers today. Perhaps what differentiates man from machine is the ability to think. Sure, simulated A.I. can solve problems, but they cannot think practically and in advance. Without our ability to think and question, we are all mere machines… or corpses.
For further reading: Philosophy: An Illustrated History of Thought by Tom Jackson (2014)