The Zombie Preacher of Somerset

Related to: Zombies? Zombies!, Zombie Responses, Zombies: The Movie, The Apologist and the Revolutionary

All disabling accidents are tragic, but some are especially bitter. The high school sports star paralyzed in a car crash. The beautiful actress horribly disfigured in a fire. The pious preacher who loses his soul during a highway robbery.

As far as I know, this last one only happened once, but once was enough. Simon Browne was an early eighteenth century pastor of a large Dissident church. The community loved him for his deep faith and his remarkable intelligence, and his career seemed assured.

One fateful night in 1723, he was travelling from his birthplace in Somerset to his congregation in London when a highway robber accosted the coach carrying him and his friend. With quick reflexes and the element of surprise, Browne and his friend were able to disarm the startled highway robber and throw him to the ground. Browne tried to pin him down while the friend went for help, but in the heat of the moment he used excessive force and choked the man to death. This horrified the poor preacher, who was normally the sort never to hurt a fly.

Whether it was the shock, the guilt, or some unnoticed injury taken in the fight, something strange began to happen to Simon Browne. In his own words, he gradually became:

...perfectly empty of all thought, reflection, conscience, and consideration, entirely destitute of the knowledge of God and Christ, unable to look backward or forward, or inward or outward, having no conviction of sin or duty, no capacity of reviewing his conduct, and, in a word, without any principles of religion or even of reason, and without the common sentiments or affections of human nature, insensible even to the good things of life, incapable of tasting any present enjoyments, or expecting future ones...all body, without so much as the remembrance of the ruins of that mind I was once a tenant in...and the thinking being that was in me is, by a consumption continual, now wholly perished and come to nothing.

Simon Browne had become a p-zombie.

Needless to say, Browne’s friends and congregation didn’t believe him. Browne seemed as much in possession of his wits as ever. His writing, mostly on abstruse theological topics and ecumenialism, if anything accelerated. According to a friend:

What was most extraordinary in his case was this; that, excepting the single point I have mentioned, on which the distraction turned, his imagination was not only more lively, but his judgment was even improved. And it has been observed that, at the very time that he himself imagined he had no rational soul, he was so acute a disputant (his friends said) that he could reason as if he had two souls.

Despite everyone’s insistence that he was fine, Simon Browne would have none of it. His soul had gone missing, and no one without a soul was qualified to lead a religious organization. Despite pleas to remain, he quit his job as pastor and retired to the country. After a brief period spent bemoaning his fate, he learned to take it in stride and began writing prodigously, authoring dictionaries, textbooks on grammars, essays on theology, and even several beautiful hymns still sung in churches today. Did his success convince him he was ensouled after all? No. He claimed:

...only an animal life, in common with brutes, so that though he retained the faculty of speaking in a manner that appeared rational to others, he had all the while no more notion of what he said than a parrot, being utterly divested of consciousness.

And, appreciating the absurdity of his conundrum, asked:

Who, by the most unreasonable and ill-founded conceit in the world, [could] have imagined that a thinking being could, for seven years together, live a stranger to its own powers, exercises, operations, and state?

Considering it pointless to exercise or to protect his own health, he died prematurely in his Somerset house in 1732. His friends mourned a potentially brilliant pastor driven to an early death by an inexplicable insanity.

But was his delusion really inexplicable?

David Berman is probably the top expert on the Simon Browne case, and the author of the only journal article dedicated specifically to the topic: Simon Browne: the soul-murdered theologian (other books that devote some space to Browne can be read here and here). I’ve been unable to access Berman’s paper (if anyone can get it free, please send it to me) but I had the good fortune to be in his Philosophy of Mind class several years ago. If I remember correctly, Dr. Berman had a complex Freudian theory involving repression of erotic feelings. I don’t remember enough to do it justice and I’m not going to try. But with all due respect to my former professor, I think he’s barking up the wrong tree.

Simon Browne’s problem seems strangely similar to neurological illness.

You remember anosognosia, when patients with left-arm paralysis thought their left arms were working just fine? Somatoparaphrenia is a closely related disorder. Your arm is working just fine, but you deny you have an arm at all. It must be someone else’s. Some scientists link somatoparaphrenia to Body Integrity Identity Disorder, a condition in which people are desperate to amputate their working limbs for no apparent reason. BIID sufferers are sane enough to recognize that they do currently have a left arm, but it feels alien and unwelcome, and they want it gone.

(according to Wikipedia, one cure being investigated for BIID is squirting cold water in the patient’s right ear...)

Somatoparaphrenia is an identity problem—people lose identity with their limbs. That arm might work, but it doesn’t seem like it’s working for me. Every other rational process remains intact in somatoparaphrenics. A somatoparaphrenic physicist could do quantum calculations while still insisting that someone else’s leg was attached to his hip for some reason.

Cotard’s Delusion is an even worse condition where the patient insists she is dead or nonexistent. Tantalizingly, patients with Cotard’s occasionally use religious language, claiming to have been eternally damned or without a soul—a symptom shared by Simon Browne. Unlike anosognosia and somatoparaphrenia, it is not necessarily caused by stroke—all sorts of things, neurological or psychological, can bring it on. V. S. Ramachandran (yes, him again) theorizes that Cotard’s may be a disconnect between certain recognition circuits and certain emotional circuits, preventing the patient from feeling an emotional connection with himself.

Browne reminds me also of “blindsight”, the phenomenon where a patient is capable of seeing but not consciously aware of doing so. Ask a patient what she sees, and she’ll swear she sees nothing—she is, after all, totally blind. Ask a patient to guess which of four quarters of the visual field a light is in, and she’ll look at you like an idiot. How should she know? She’s blind! Harass the patient until she finally guesses, and she’ll get it right, at odds phenomenally greater than chance. Ask her how she knew, and she’ll say it was a lucky guess.

Simon Browne sits somewhere in between all of these. Like the Cotard patient, he denied having a self, and considered himself eternally damned. Like the somatoparaphreniac, he completely lost identification with a certain part of himself (in this case, the mind!) and insisted it didn’t exist while retaining the ability to use it and to reason accurately in other domains. And like the blindsight patient, he was able to process information at a level usually restricted to conscious experience without any awareness of doing so.

I don’t know any diagnosis that exactly fits Browne’s symptoms (Cotard’s comes close but falls a little short). But the symptoms seem so reminiscent of neurological injury that I would be surprised if Dr. Berman’s psychoanalysis was the full story.

So, what does Simon Browne add to the p-zombie debate?

Either nothing or everything. We can easily dismiss him as a complete nutcase, no more accurate in describing his mental states than a schizophrenic is accurate in describing his conversations with angels. Or we can come up with a neurological explanation in which he has conscious experience, but considers it alien to himself.

I acknowledge the possibility, but it rings hollow. Browne’s friends were unanimous in describing him as rational and intelligent. And Browne himself was very clear that he had no mental experience whatsoever, not that he had some mental experience that didn’t seem like his own.

But if we accepted Browne as mostly truthful, it demonstrates consciousness is not an inseparable byproduct of normal mental operation. It is possible to take consciousness, remove it, and have a p-zombie left. Not a perfect Chalmerian p-zombie—Browne made it very clear that he noticed and cared deeply about his loss of consciousness, and didn’t go around claiming he was still fully aware or any nonsense like that—but a p-zombie nonetheless.

That is a heck of a conclusion to draw from one poorly studied case (there is rumored to be a second similar case, one Lewis Kennedy, but I can’t find information on this one). However, Simon Browne at the very least deserves to be shelved alongside the other scarce and contradictory evidence on this topic. Let’s give the poor preacher the last word:

God should still have left me the power of speech, [that] I may at last convince [you] that my case has not been a delusion of fancy, but the most tremendous reality.