Friday, October 9, 2015
The Living and the Dead
I have been lecturing on the mind/body problem in my Philosophy 100 course and I took time to describe Hans Jonas’ account of the history of human thinking about life and death. Jonas was far ahead of his time on these questions, and should be better known and read.
According to Jonas, substance dualism was a midway between two poles: animism and materialism. Substance dualists hold that the human being consists of two distinct kinds of substance. A substance (see Aristotle) is something that can remain the same while it undergoes (hence: substance) change. So an iron bar can be heated from cold and black to red hot while remaining iron all the while. Likewise, bricks and boards can be shaped into a church or a bank while remaining bricks and boards. Substance dualists explain the existence of human consciousness by supposing that the body consists of material substance and the mind (or soul) consists of immaterial substance. The former is shaped into bones and organs; the latter, into sensations, emotions, and ideas.
Substance dualism is nothing recent. The Roman philosopher Lucretius (perhaps the only genuine Roman philosopher, with the possible exception of Cicero) thought that the soul was a subtle kind of material enclosed in the body that escaped when the body was cut open. Death is like a collapsing balloon. René Descartes, however, is the philosopher most associated with this theory.
Jonas argued that the most common view, when human beings first began to think about nature, was animism. Animists suppose that everything in the Kosmos is alive. Not just human beings, other animals, and plants, but rocks, mountains, and the heavenly lights. After all, the moon waxes and wanes just as the crops flourish and wither with the seasons. Ice crystals grow, don’t they? Mountains sometimes have inner, molten cores, just like spouses.
This view is common sense and accords with everyday observations but it confronted one big problem, a scandal as Jonas put it. The problem was death. Living things die. How is the animist to understand a corpse? This problem never goes away and confronting it led in time to a distinction between body and soul. That led in much more time to dualism.
Dualism turned out to be incoherent. If the soul is immaterial, how does it interact with material substance? Surely the mind can move the body, as any notes who reaches for a glass of beer. Just as surely, the body can influence the mind, as anyone knows who drank too much beer. Material interacts with material. That is essential to its definition. Billiard balls collide with billiard balls. If the soul were immaterial substance, then it could not interact with material substance. If a ghost can walk through walls because it is composed of immaterial ectoplasm, then how can it push against the floor to walk at all?
Descartes’ substance dualism gave way in short order to materialism. Everything in the Kosmos is dead. Dead particles collide with other dead particles. Biological organisms appear to be alive, but this is only a pretense. They are puppets, the strings of which are pulled by their molecular constituents.
If the scandal for animism was death, which it tried furiously to deny, the scandal for materialism is life. Living things do not merely move, they move with agendas. A rock doesn’t care whether it remains intact or shatters, but a spider moving across a kitchen floor is up to something. It will succeed or fail, and that is not something that materialism can allow.
Jonas argued, paradoxically but correctly, that Darwinian Theory refutes rather than confirms materialism. If living organisms with agendas and consciousness are indeed material things that emerged by mechanical processes, then the dead material in a prebiotic earth was potentially alive. The potential for soul was present in the primordial soup.
I think that the pendulum is swinging back toward animism. No, crystals are not alive in the same sense that we are, but neither are plants. Yet the subtle growth of crystals is not unrelated to the growth of a child. Both the one and the other are growing. Growth in all cases involves the exploitation of the potential already present in material substance. This, at any rate, is what I have learned.