Sunday, November 03, 2013

Do We Want to Live Forever as Immaterial Souls?

According to Stephen Cave, there are four possible ways that we might achieve immortality.  The Staying Alive Narrative says that we could become immortal if we could find a way to postpone death indefinitely.  The Resurrection Narrative says that even if death is unavoidable, we might be brought back to life.  The Soul Narrative says that even if our bodies must die, our souls can live forever because they are immaterial and thus not subject to bodily decay, and our souls are the most essential part of us.  Finally, the Legacy Narrative says that we can live on after death through those that live after us--either because they remember us or because they carry our genes.  Having considered the first two narratives, I turn here to the third--the Soul Narrative.

In pondering the Resurrection Narrative, it's hard to see how the dead individual and the risen individual can be the same person.  The Soul Narrative overcomes this problem by positing that the most essential part of us is an immaterial soul that does not die.  Recent public opinion surveys suggest that most people around the world believe they have souls that are immortal.  Although orthodox Christianity--through the influence of Augustine--has combined the Soul Narrative (coming from Plato) and the Resurrection Narrative (coming from Paul), most Christians today accept the immortality of the soul but reject bodily resurrection.

Darwin thought that the anthropological record suggested that the earliest human beings were led by the experiences of dreams and visions to see themselves as combining corporeal and spiritual parts (Descent, Penguin Classics, 116-19).  Many cultures have ritualized these experiences by imagining journeys to the spirit world.  In ancient Greece, the mystery cults used such rituals to transport their participants to the afterlife where their disembodied souls could be united to the divine.

Plato transformed these ideas of soul from the mystery cults into the philosophical conception of the soul as the most essential part of us--separated from and superior to our bodies, and thus immortal in being free from the physical decay afflicting our bodies. Plato grounded this immortality of the soul on intellectual activity: philosophical contemplation as the highest activity of the soul brought us closest to the divine.  Consequently, the highest life for human beings was a philosophic life.  Moreover, in Plato's afterlife, the souls would be judged, the good rewarded and the bad punished.

Christian theologians like Augustine adopted these Platonic conceptions of the immortality of the soul into Biblical theology.  (This story is well told by Alan Segal in Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion [New York: Doubleday, 2004].)  Just as for Plato, eternal happiness would come from the eternal contemplation of the Ideas; for Augustine, eternal happiness would come from the eternal contemplation of God in Heaven--the beatific vision.

But while the Platonic conception was aristocratic in the sense that only a few human beings were capable of the contemplative life, the Biblical conception was at least potentially egalitarian and democratic, in that all human beings as created by God with immortal souls were equally capable of eternal happiness.  That's why Friedrich Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil could say that Christianity was Platonism for the common people, and that Christian Platonism was the beginning of the modern democratic movement.

The Christian Platonist Soul Narrative supports Western individualism by giving cosmic significance to each individual:  as the Creator of our immortal souls, the Creator of the universe cares for each one of us and wants us to be redeemed for an eternal life with Him.  This is, I think, Peter Lawler's point, when he says that Lockean liberalism is founded on the Christian teaching that the life of each individual person has infinite worth as created and cared for by God.

The Buddhist conception of immortality through karma and reincarnation is an Eastern version of the Soul Narrative.  By contrast to the Christian version, the Buddhist version of the soul is largely stripped of individual personal traits and becomes something like pure awareness.  And yet, if each reincarnation is to provide reward or punishment for how each soul has lived its previous life, then each soul must have enough individual identity to be held responsible for its deeds.

There are two kinds of problems for the Soul Narrative: the problem of psychological discontinuity and the problem of minds without brains.

My soul in Heaven or Hell will have to be radically different from my soul on earth.  So how can I be sure that my soul in the afterlife is the same as my soul in this life?  Is that disembodied eternal soul really me?  If that soul in the afterlife is totally immaterial, how will it look like me and act like me if it does not have my body?

And what exactly will my soul in the afterlife do for eternity?  Augustine says that the souls in Heaven will contemplate God.  Won't they eventually grow tired of this beatific vision?  If the answer is that these souls will never experience tiredness or boredom, then they will not be like the human souls we know in this life--souls that do grow tired and bored.  But, again, how can we be sure that our personal identity will be preserved if these beings in the afterlife are so different from human beings in this life?

In contrast to Augustine's theocentric view of Heaven, in which the only activity will be the eternal contemplation of God, most human beings would probably prefer a more anthropocentric view.  Most people who believe in heavenly immortality express desires for being reunited with their loved ones--family and friends--and perhaps also having an eternity for continuing their most pleasurable activities.  This looks like simply extending what we already do in this life.  But if that's so, wouldn't this include all of the pain and conflict that we experience in this life?  Marriage and family life produce satisfying love, but they also bring tense frustration and disagreement.

Proponents of the Soul Narrative might tell us that in Heaven people will show only love and cooperation without any hate and conflict.  But then it's hard to see how these people would be real human beings.  The reality of human nature cannot be abolished without abolishing our human personal identity.

The second big problem for the Soul Narrative is the problem of minds without brains.  As Cave indicates, we can recognize this problem from our common experience.  We can also recognize it more precisely from our modern knowledge of the brain and neuroscience.

By common experience, we know that we can lose consciousness from physical injury, and we know that we can alter consciousness from the effects of drugs (such as alcohol).  Thus it seems that our conscious minds are so dependent on our healthy bodily functioning that our minds could not survive bodily death.

Modern neuroscience reinforces this common experience by explaining how specific kinds of injuries or malfunctioning of the brain can cause loss or disturbance of mental activity, which thus casts doubt on the doctrine of the soul as immaterial.  Cave observes: "The crux of the challenge is this: those who believe that the soul could preserve these abilities after the total destruction of the brain in death must explain why the soul cannot preserve these abilities when only a small portion of the brain is destroyed" (186).  For example, "if blind people have a soul that can see, why are they blind?"

The most common objection to this kind of reasoning is that the emergence of mind in the brain is fundamentally mysterious, because the subjective experience of self-conscious awareness is not objectively observable.  I have direct access to my subjective mental experience but not to yours.  With the help of neuroscience and neuroimaging, I might observe the neural activity of your brain.  But I will never directly observe your subjective mental experience--what you are thinking, feeling, desiring, or remembering right now.  Consequently, it is great mystery to explain how matter can think.  And this leads some people to conclude that thinking is essentially immaterial and thus not completely dependent on the brain.

As Cave suggests, the proper response to this objection is to say while a brain producing a mind is mysterious, an immaterial soul moving a material brain is even more mysterious.  And an immaterial soul producing all of our mental activity without any bodily support is utterly baffling.

If the Soul Narrative is just as dubious as the Staying Alive Narrative and the Resurrection Narrative, then we might wonder whether the only way to achieve immortality is to live on in the minds or bodies of our posterity--the Legacy Narrative.

To be continued . . .

Some of the points in this post have been elaborated in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here,.


Alexander Gieg said...

"And yet, if each reincarnation is to provide reward or punishment for how each soul has lived its previous life (...)"

That's an incorrect take on Buddhism. Buddhism doesn't have souls, it have some more or less non-material (according the modern concept of matter) substrates that compose a person but those aren't a soul, they're more like matter too: bits of action, pieces of memories etc. When the person dies those elements disaggregate and the individual dies. Completely.

However the material and semi-material pieces continue being recycled into other people, and thus it might happen that someone (or more than one person) will inherit part of your decomposed body matter, another(s) will inherit parts of your decomposed memory, another(s) parts of your actions etc. But those people aren't you in any essential way.

Thus it isn't you who are rewarded or punished. In fact these concepts don't make sense in Buddhism. What happens is only that what you started continues having consequences, and these carry on, and carry on, and carry on. Hence the need to make sure such consequences are good ones: so that they benefit other beings. For you yourself won't be around to see any of it.

There are some additional subtleties, but the above has the gist of it.

PS.: Your original description is more or less valid of Hinduism though.

gcallah said...

"And what exactly will my soul in the afterlife do for eternity? Augustine says that the souls in Heaven will contemplate God. Won't they eventually grow tired of this beatific vision?"

Eternity is not a long, long period of time!