16871Article About Life After Death
- Nov 22, 2009From the Sunday Phila Inquirer:
Mind over matter
In making a case for life after death, maybe
Socrates had the right idea.
is the author of "Life After Death: The Evidence"
One of the oldest arguments for life after death
was made by the philosopher Socrates, who argued
that human beings are made up of two kinds of stuff.
Material stuff includes the organs of the body,
including the physical brain, and those perish.
Immaterial stuff includes thoughts and ideas, the
ingredients of the mind, and those are imperishable.
When we die, Socrates said, our bodies deteriorate,
but our minds live on, emancipated from their material frames.
Socrates' stance on the twofold nature of reality
is called dualism. Most of us are instinctive
dualists because dualism seems to capture the world
as we experience it. And dualism makes life after
death plausible because the attributes of material
things are not shared by immaterial things. Even so,
dualism has fallen out of favor with many philosophers
and sciences, not to mention atheists, who reject
the idea of life after death.
These critics deny Socrates' argument by challenging
its premise. Typical is philosopher Daniel Dennett,
who contends that human beings are ultimately made
up of one kind of stuff: material stuff. This position
is called materialism, and it is the main alternative
to dualism. Minds and souls, materialists insist,
are simply terms for the operations of the neurons
in our brains.
Why, then, do we experience choices and thoughts
and emotions as nonphysical? Materialists like
Dennett say that mental states can be apprehended
by their functional purposes. A mousetrap, for instance,
is defined by what it does; it is any kind of device
that catches mice. By the same token, mental states
can be best understood in terms of their behavioral
results. "Being in love," for example, refers to
the actions the love produces, such as writing
romantic poems and sending flowers. The basic project
of materialism is to reduce the mental to its
physical consequences. If materialism is true, then
there is no life after death, because when the body
dies, there is nothing left to live on.
Despite its ingenuity, materialism of this sort
clearly falls short in explaining mental states.
The feeling of being in love is hardly explained by
love's behavior, because even if we subtract the
behavior, the feeling remains, and it seems churlish
at best to say, "Well, you are obviously not in love
because you aren't writing poems and you haven't
sent flowers." We all know that there is something
that it feels like to be in love, just as there is
something it feels like to watch a sunset by the
ocean, or to smell fresh-brewed coffee. Philosophers
call such sensations "qualia," a term that refers
to the inner quality of an experience on the part
of the one who is having it.
It seems that no amount of scientific or objective
analysis can capture this inner quality, this
"what it is like" to have a particular sensation.
To demonstrate this point, philosopher Thomas Nagel
wrote a famous essay in 1974 with the provocative
title "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" This may seem
a damning indictment of how philosophers spend
their time, but Nagel wasn't sitting around thinking,
"What would it be like for me, Thomas Nagel, to be
a bat? I wonder how I'd feel if I could hang upside
down, had wings, and could navigate by echolocation."
Rather, he was asking what it was like for a bat
to do those things, what it was like for a bat to
be a bat.
Nagel's point was that there is something that it
is like to be human, or male, or a dog; by the same
token, there must also be something that it is like
to be a bat. But however much we learn about bat
physiology, bat brains, and echolocation, Nagel says
we can never fully understand what it is like to be
a bat. The clear implication is that an objective
physical understanding is necessarily incomplete,
apparently because there is something to living
organisms that transcends the physical.
In 1986, philosopher Frank Jackson broadened Nagel's
argument into a refutation of all materialist attempts
to explain mental states in purely physical terms.
In what has come to be called the "Mary problem,"
Jackson envisioned a brilliant scientist named Mary
who is locked in a black-and-white room from which
she investigates the world by way of a black-and-white
television monitor. As a specialist in the
neurophysiology of vision, Mary knows everything
there is to know about color. She understands how
different wavelengths of light stimulate the retina,
and how those are channeled to the visual areas
in the brain, resulting in such statements as "The
sky is blue" and "Tomatoes are red."
Now here's Jackson's question: Suppose Mary finally
gets a color TV monitor or is released from her
black-and-white room into the outside world. Will
Mary learn something that she didn't know before?
Jackson says she obviously would. She would for
the first time know what it's like to see the blue
sky or red tomatoes. These experiences would teach
her something about color that all her previous
knowledge could not.
Alarmed at where this is going, the atheist Dennett
disputes Jackson's interpretation, insisting that
if Mary really knew everything about color, including,
as Dennett puts it, "10 billion word treatises" on
the subject, then she actually would know what it
was like to see the blue sky and red tomatoes. Dennett
admits this is counterintuitive, but he contends that
intuitions are not always our best guide.
I agree with him on that, but on balance I have to
go with Jackson here. It defies not only intuition
but also reason to say that Mary, on being liberated
from her black-and-white world, wouldn't discover
something new. Her extrinsic knowledge of color would
now be supplemented by intrinsic knowledge. If this
is so, then it is hard to resist Jackson's conclusion
that all attempts to reduce mental states to physical
states must be false, because Mary had all the physical
information, and yet her prior knowledge was incomplete.
My conclusion is that the best attempts of materialists
have failed to reduce the mental realm to the physical
realm. The startling implication is that Socrates'
dualism retains its plausibility. The old Greek
philosopher was right: We do inhabit two distinct,
although interdependent, realms, and the termination
of our physical bodies at death does not foreclose
the possibility that our minds and our souls might
continue to exist.
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