Beyond Life and Death II: Necessity, Possibility, Evil, & the Undead

This is the second post in our series on metaethical issues surrounding the undead in Pathfinder. To start at the beginning, with the introductory post, click here.

The single biggest question in this series is, “Are all undead necessarily evil?” Now, because it’s only five words long, that question seems like a simple one, at least philosophically. Unfortunately, as anyone with experience in analytic philosophy already knows, one of those words is a real humdinger*: that nasty little “necessarily.” The fact is that necessity (and its philosophical converse, “possibility,” or perhaps “contingency”) has been and remains one of the slipperiest and most difficult concepts in analytic philosophy, whether we’re talking metaethics, philosophy of language, or any number of other subdisciplines. Unfortunately, it’s also phenomenally important to this specific issue (we’ll talk more about why shortly), so if we’re going to treat this topic with the care and rigour it deserves, we’ll have to spend some time clearing up what we mean by “necessity,” and by extension what it would mean for undead creatures to be not just evil but necessarily evil. Be careful on this post, folks: it may get a little technical, but more than anything, there is a serious risk of learning something that’s not strictly about Pathfinder this time…

So, a little terminological background: the logic of necessity and possibility is known as “modal logic,” and talk about these concepts is often called talk about “modality”** – if someone is talking about modal logic or using that sort of language, they just mean “logic about what is possible and what is necessary.” This is in contrast to older, more established forms of logic, about what is and is not true (these usually fall under what are called “sentential” and “predicate” logics…but that’s neither here nor there).

Now, for centuries, philosophers had a surprising amount of trouble with modal logic, because no one was really sure exactly how to understand what necessity and possibility mean – in technical language, the semantics of modal logic was ambiguous. This ambiguity essentially occurred as a result of there only being one world: that is, we often don’t have trouble saying whether something is true, but we always have trouble saying whether it could have been false. When the skeleton strikes at your fighter with a rusty sword, did that happen merely because it was possible, and things could have been otherwise…or did it happen necessarily, such that it could not have been otherwise? The structure of our world, and the fact that we can’t just go back in time and see how it runs on a second try, apparently makes this question totally opaque. Even if your GM rerolls the skeleton’s attack because the first result was contested or something (probably the closest possible thing you’re going to get to actually going back in time and checking again), you’re not actually checking whether that first die result was necessary or simply possible; you’re just rolling the dice again and stipulating that it will serve in place of the previous result.

As you can probably tell, this question of distinguishing between events which are necessary or merely possible is sort of tied in with questions about the nature of free will, the truth of determinism, time and space, and so on and so forth – put another way, this seemingly simple question was just thought to be way too complex to be addressed head-on in any meaningful way.

Enter Saul Kripke, who comes onto the philosophical scene in the mid-20th century and is a leading contender for the title of “most important living philosopher” (he’s still alive as of my writing this, anyway – click the link above for updates on that). While he hardly does all this alone, Kripke’s work is sort of the impetus for our coming to understand how to interpret questions of necessity and possibility, and for the resulting development of useful, helpful modal logics.

It’s also a surprisingly accessible kind of solution (though hardly without its complexities), for such a seemingly technical and difficult problem. Essentially, Kripke introduces the notion of “possible worlds semantics:” the idea that we should understand what these confusing modal ideas mean in terms of “possible worlds.” A possible world is just a logically consistent world (i.e., one which doesn’t contain logical contradictions) that is more or less like our own. The actual world is, of course, one possible world…and then there are an infinite number of other possible worlds, more or less different from the actual world, where some things are the same and some things are not. Now, to be clear, Kripke doesn’t think that these worlds exist in a metaphysical sense (although some philosophers, like David Lewis, called “modal realists,” think that other possible worlds actually do exist); they’re just semantic constructs to help us understand modality.

In the context of possible worlds semantics, then, x is possible (or contingently true) if it happens that x is true in at least one possible world, while x is necessarily true if x is true in every possible world; if there is no possible world in which x is true, then x is necessarily false. To return to our skeleton attack example: if there is at least one possible world (i.e., a logically consistent world which we can imagine) in which the skeleton hits you and at least one possible world in which the skeleton misses (which strikes me as plausible), then it is contingent but not necessary that the skeleton hit you. This is the case even if, as a matter of fact, the skeleton did in fact hit you: because there is a possible world in which it did not hit you, the fact of its having hit you is contingent, not necessary. Note that this understanding doesn’t require that we solve any of those difficult issues of determinism, free will, etc.; possible worlds semantics gives us a way of understanding the meaning of contingency (i.e., possibility) and necessity without having to understand all the underlying metaphysical issues. It’s effectively a semantic workaround…and a damn good one!

So that, broadly speaking, is how we’re going to understand what it means for the undead to be necessarily evil, thereby structuring the questions in the rest of this series. It may be that the undead in Golarion are all evil, but that is only one possible world. If there is a possible world in which there are non-evil undead, then the undead of Golarion (and untold other settings of Pathfinder games) are contingently but not necessarily evil…much like people, presumably.

On the other hand, if there is something (probably not something obvious, but something nonetheless) that builds evil into the very fabric of what it means to be undead, then there is no possible world in which there are non-evil undead (because something about the concept “undead” implies the concept “evil”), and the undead are necessarily evil. And that is the very detailed, clearly-laid-out version of our main question, which we’ll be addressing over the course of the rest of this series.

Alright, that got unpleasantly technical at points, I know…but hey, look where we are! Now we have a better understanding of what we’re actually talking about, and any future arguments about whether undead in Pathfinder are necessarily evil can be much more focused and much less subject to equivocation, intentional or otherwise. I hope you saw fit to power through that, and are willing to post any questions or concerns you might have; either way, we’re be onto much more substantive and direct questions on this issue in no time now!


*Actually, at least two are – there’s no question that the concept of “evil” is tremendously complex and difficult no matter what kind of moral philosophy we’re doing. But that’s the kind of topic that’s covered either elsewhere on this blog or nowhere at all – in any case, we don’t have time to go into it here.

**If we’re being super technical (and obviously we are), “necessity” and “possibility” are actually just alethic modalities. There are several other different types of modal logic: deontic modalities (the logic of “required” and “permissible”), temporal modalities (the logic of time: “eventually,” “always,” “until,” and the like), epistemic modalities (the logic of knowledge and the absence thereof), and so on. Confused? Good; that just means you’re still sane. We’ll ignore everything but alethic modal logic (by far the most common anyway) for our purposes here.

6 Replies to “Beyond Life and Death II: Necessity, Possibility, Evil, & the Undead”

  1. I don’t remember if you said this in the last post, but are you using the alignment that you talked about in “Beyond Good and Evil”; and if not, what definition of “evil” are you using?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Josiah, and great question! Yes, the tacit assumption of this blog is that any conceptual structures or conclusions reached in earlier series will be adopted in later series, unless otherwise specified. I do try to link to specific posts where I bring up something particularly relevant on this score, but that’s a judgment call at best.
      Also, while I am a bit flattered, Beyond Good and Evil is actually by Nietzsche, not me…


  2. I was reading your post and wish to share my own opinion on why undead are considered evil. Let us look at an example of mindless undead. They are considered mindless as they completely lack wills of their own and exist as little more than automations. Like constructs they simply obey the orders of their master. However, unlike constructs if they are uncontrolled they will attack any living creature that they find.
    Seeing this I conclude that their desire to kill the living is an innate part of being a skeleton or zombie. These traits are also common enough among the various types of undead that it can be concluded a hatred of the living is an innate aspect of being undead.
    Cosmological this hatred makes sense as undead are negative-energy beings while are living creatures are positive-energy. Positive energy and Negative energy are opposed to each other as can been seen with how negative energy will harm the living while healing the undead and vice versa for positive energy.
    This however does not mean all undead are evil. While intelligent undead may still feel an instinctive dislike for the living they can control it. This can be seen in the description of ghosts. It says that while most ghosts are or become evil it is still possible for one to be neutral or even good. So from this we can conclude that while mindless undead are necessarily evil due to having no will besides killing all living beings intelligent undead are just often evil.
    So coming into the evil of casting spells that create undead I conclude that they are logically just as evil as spells that summon demons and devils. They both of the same result of bringing an evil creature into the world. While some may argue that it is possible that a undead created by a spell might not be evil it is also possible that a random demon summoned by a spell is morally good. However, both of these events are unlikely enough that they are a statistical impossibility. Thus, anyone who creates an undead do so knowing that they are bringing something evil into the world.

    Thank you for reading this. The above is simply my own opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Wizards of the Coast or Pazio.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey David!
    I like your explanation, and I think it synergizes well with a lot of the other planar-related things. It does raise a couple of questions that you’ll probably want to answer, though.
    If undead are evil because they are fueled by negative energy, is it an evil act to channel negative energy?
    What about non-undead related Necromancy magic?
    If Pharasma (TN Goddess of Final Death) hates undead so much, why isn’t she Good-aligned?
    These are all important questions for fleshing out magic systems, and Wizards and Paizo both don’t really answer them.
    Thank you so much for putting in the time and energy to ask these questions, by the way!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry it took so long to reply. I haven’t checked this blog for a while and then I had to spend some time thinking on a response.
      To answer your first question negative energy is not evil nor are undead evil due to being fueled by negative energy. Part of this is that if we claim that negative energy is evil then we imply that positive energy is good and all creatures powered by positive energy are good. Seeing as this includes orcs, drow, aboleths, and basically every non-undead non-construct creature in the bestiary that is an inaccurate statement.
      More evidence that negative energy is not evil can be seen with the inflict wounds series of spells. These spells are described as channeling negative energy to harm a target yet they don’t have an evil descriptor. This means that the spell by itself is not considered evil. We can think of it as similar to a sword not being considered evil. Even if all a sword can do is harm others it can be used for good. So if negative energy is not considered evil then why is it that clerics of good gods channel positive energy while clerics of evil gods channel negative energy?
      Well I have a theory on that. My idea is that clerics draw their power form their deity on the outer planes. To do this they form a conduit that has to travel through either of the energy planes which gives the clerics the ability to channel. The reason there is a restriction of choice based on alignment is due not to metaphysical reasons but because of moral ones. Good deities and clerics generally prefer the ability to heal their allies over the ability to destroy their enemies while evil ones tend to the opposite.
      So if negative energy is not the reason undead are mostly evil then what is?
      Let us split the undead into 3 categories. We have mindless, semi-intelligent, and intelligent undead. The mindless undead are things such as skeletons and zombies as I mentioned in my previous post. These creatures if not under control will either remain motionless or wander aimlessly until encountering a living creature whereupon they will try to kill it. My theory on this behavior is that it is due to them being powered by negative energy which is opposed to positive energy which powers living creatures. So the evil in creating mindless undead is due to them being dangerous to all living creatures they encounter as soon as your control fails. Theoretically if you created a mindless undead in a plane without any living creatures then it might not be considered evil. However, a plane that fits that requirement is essentially just the negative energy plane which is filled with more intelligent undead who would be happy to use them to advance their goal of destroying all life in the multiverse. So don’t do that.
      Now lets move on to the semi-intelligent and intelligent undead. The difference between these two categories is that semi-intelligent undead have int scores of 7 or lower meaning that they can be considered to be mentally crippled. Either way both of these categories of undead have two important traits we need to consider. First is that reading the descriptions of all of them they all for the most part are driven by some obsession that keeps that from passing on. The second is a less known fact that all these undead have a soul. This fact oddly enough can be found mentioned in the description of the spell magic jar which might explain why it isn’t common knowledge. Both of these traits could explain the tendency towards evil though the second might not be as obvious. Let us cover the obsession first though. Most undead have some driving obsession which explains why their soul remain attached to the world even after death. This is actually covered in the description of the ghost where it explains that such an obsession often results in even the spirits of good people turning becoming evil and most other undead have more specific obsessions. Such as a ghouls desire to devour the flesh of the living. So now what does the presence of the soul have to do with the undead tendency to evil? Well it is based on just what a soul is in pathfinder. There is a race of creature native to the negative plane known as the sceaduinars. They are unique out of all races in the multiverse as the only beings to have souls made of negative energy. Every other creature with a soul, including sentient undead, have souls made up of positive energy. So every sentient undead has a soul of positive energy inside a body fueled by negative energy. If this sounds like a bad thing then that is probably because it is. Now it is never described what sort of effects this sort of thing has on a creature in the books, but seeing how prevalent evil is among the undead we can make a guess.
      So most undead are evil, but is it possible for one to be good? Well yes, it is. Its just pretty difficult. Sentient undead have a large number of disadvantages in the way of becoming good, but it is theoretically possible. I mean, its possible for a Daemon, Demon, or Devil to become good despite being literally made out of evil so an undead could do it too.
      So quick review of spells to create undead. All of these spells result in bringing an evil being into the world and so count as evil. Except after studying the undead more I realize they are a bit more evil than that. A few undead created by the create undead spells aren’t created so much as summoned using a corpse as a medium. The only one I know this is the case for sure is the devourer. That falls under the same situation as summoning demons of bring a evil being into the world. The other cases where you create a sentient undead works by grabbing a deceased soul and distorting it till it is a twisted mockery of itself before sticking it into it’s corpse and animating it with negative energy. How else do you explain stuffing someone into their moving corpse while filling them with a desire to consume the flesh of living sentient beings. Which is the basic description of making a ghoul. So when spells to make undead are marked as evil know that there is a reason for that.
      That took a while so lets finish the other questions quickly.
      Your second question was if non-undead related spells were evil. Well as I explained early on I do not consider negative energy to be evil and seeing as how the negative energy plane is not even mildly evil aligned it seems that viewpoint is canon. Also even most undead related spells aren’t considered evil so long as they don’t actually make undead. There is even a wizard/sorcerer spell called undead repair that heals undead and it lacks an evil descriptor. Though even if casting it isn’t inherently evil the situations where it can be used for a good cause probably don’t come up much.
      Right, moving on to Pharasma. So we can agree that hating the undead can be considered to be a good trait. Its sort of like hating the drow or demons. Even if there are some statistical anomalies you can be assured that almost any you encounter will be evil. The thing is however that having a single good trait doesn’t make you a good person. We can agree that being diligent and honest are good traits, but a diligent, honest, cannibal serial killer is still a cannibal serial killer. You might think Pharasma does not match up to that comparison as she doesn’t have any evil traits, but she does not really have any traits. I looked up information on her and the only traits I got is that she divines the future and fate of the everyone though accepts prophecies aren’t always right, she judges the souls of the dead, and she hates the undead. These are the three character traits she has. So hating the undead can be considered good, but the other two are pretty neutral. But wait you say, isn’t judging the dead also a good thing as she is fair. The answer is not so much. See in the pathfinder setting you final reward is kinda based on your patron god. Remember that cannibal serial killer I mentioned. Well if he worshiped a god of murder and hunting who approved of his actions as upholding the god’s principles then Pharasma will send him to his god’s domain where that god can reward him as he pleases. So that cannibal serial killer’s afterlife might consist of being part of an eternal hunting party.
      So that covers everything I can think of for your questions. This was alot longer than I expected. It was nice to talk about my ideas on how the pathfinder setting works though.

      Liked by 1 person

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