Friday, September 9, 2016

On the Soul and the Afterlife

Dear friend and former student Miranda always thanks me for responding to her comments.  The debt is all mine.  No one else comments here.  She not only leaves comments, but poses the best kind of questions.  In a recent post I stated this:
I find it difficult to see evolutionary theory as anything but beautiful. I don't think that understanding the evolutionary roots of the beautiful and noble things detracts in any way from their beauty, any more than understanding the science of optics detracts from the beauty of a Canaletto perspective. I have to try hard to see why it seems otherwise to so many people.

So far, I cannot think of a single cherished idea that I held before I began to take Darwinism seriously that I had to give up. On the other hand, I can't think of one that seems exactly the same to me as it did before. I hope that means that my idea are richer. 
Miranda had mentioned the allegory of the cave from Plato in her first comment.  She responded to the above:
If [Plato’s] cave is only full of shadows and there is only light outside, it is easy to see why someone on the outside would have trouble understanding what people in the shadows saw in being inside. But suppose that, inside the cave, there were shadows of all the people you had once loved, who had died and that this was all you had left of them. Suppose there was a good chance that you might never see them again if you were to step into the light. Wouldn’t you be more reluctant to step out of the cave? I would be.

Those of us who grew up believing that the soul was a ghost in the machine, that could survive apart from the body and live forever - and that this meant that perhaps we could reunite with the souls of those we had loved, but who had died - have a difficult time seeing the idea of the soul as a set of nutritive processes, dependent on the body.

To believe that the soul depends on the body, which is clearly not eternal, means having to consider the idea that the soul is not eternal. It may mean having to accept that the dead are dead and that there is no chance of seeing them again. Whether this is true or not, I think it is a less beautiful idea than the idea of eternal life and the chance to see those you have lost again. That is not to say that something is truer just because it more beautiful, but I don’t think it is hard to see why someone might be reluctant to leave such an idea behind.
I have been blogging for decades and I cannot remember ever receiving so powerful and beautiful a response.  I will try to do it justice. 
Yes, I can imagine that it would be hard to move from a world of shadows to a world of real things, visible in the light, if one is in love with shadows.  I am well acquainted with the longing that Miranda skillfully presents here.  I lost my father a few years ago and I would pay dearly to see him again.  I am not, however, the least bit interested in seeing his shadow. 
The shadows in Plato’s [or Socrates’] cave are two dimensional representations of things that may or may not exist in the real world.  The shadows may be comforting but you can’t hug them or converse with them.  That is the problem with the “ghost in the machine” view of the soul: all it can offer you is vapor, intangible and anything but warm. 
I am pretty certain that the notion of a disembodied soul is incoherent.  If you want evidence, consider how ghosts are represented in movies.  They are more or less transparent, but they have arms and legs and are usually wearing clothes.  As Bierce put in his Devil’s Dictionary, it’s one thing to believe in the survival of a human being after death; but textile fabrics
It is evidence of the weakness of the Christian churches that they have allowed this Cartesian dualism, the Gospel According to Disney as I like to put it, to displace the doctrine of all the major churches for the last thousand years.  I remember repeating that doctrine in the church of my youth.  Here is the 3rd stanza of the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
 the holy Catholic Church,
 the communion of saints,
 the forgiveness of sins,
 the resurrection of the body,
 and the life everlasting. Amen.
The resurrection of the body is the promise of the Gospel.  No vaporous floating or shadowy flickering; I will get my body back.  Hopefully, I will be taller.  This is consistent with the emphasis in the wee books of the New Testament on Christ coming in the flesh.  He didn’t float out of the tomb.  He swung his legs off the slab and walked out. 
Human souls are not conceivable apart from human bodies.  That doesn’t mean that there can’t be an afterlife.  It just means that if there is, we have to get a body back.  There is nothing incoherent about that.  If the original tapes of Jesus Christ Superstar were destroyed, I would still have the rock opera on my IPod.  Information is always embodied. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

On the Beautiful and the Good 2

Intrepid reader and friend Miranda poses two good questions to my last post on the beautiful and the good. 
If the good is what is worth choosing, then couldn't something immoral be good? For instance, New Gingrich chose to cheat on his cancer stricken wife with his mistress. This benefited him in a number of ways. He gained a partner who he said understood him better and who was younger, more attractive and more energetic than his wife. He does not seem to have regretted his choice and, indeed, seems to have lived happily with his new partner ever since. His choice, then, seems relatively choice-worthy. But was it good?
I think that this question teases out the distinction between moral and non-moral goods.  If I choose to eat an apple rather than an orange, this is a non-moral choice.  If I choose to break a promise that turned out to be more costly than I anticipated, that is a moral choice.  What is the difference? 
I hold that the moral is a subset of the good.  Any time I am faced with a choice between something that seems better and something that seems worse, I am obviously exercising the capacity to distinguish between the two.  All living organisms have this capacity; animals, but not plants, can exercise it at the level of sentience. 
At least one animal (and probably a few more) can also distinguish between what looks good and what is good.  Whenever a human being is tempted to choose the first and not the second, the dimension of moral choice has opened up.  I think that even when such a choice is limited to pure self-interest it is still moral; otherwise, why do people often feel ashamed and guilty when they choose things (donuts and cigarettes) that they know aren’t good for them?  Why do they feel the same emotions when the doctor gives them the bad news? 
You explain well why the choice to dump one spouse and pick up another looked like a good choice.  To show that it was a bad one, you would have to show some set of criteria that is more authoritative or more comprehensive than the ones you mention.  Since I think that some grounds for divorce are legitimate (one of my relatives divorced a man who was abusing her sons) I would be hesitant to pass judgment without knowing more than I care to know about Newt Gingrich.  I would point out that any hope he had of appearing as a noble statesman (something I think he desperately graved) went out the window with his choice. 
Both Plato and Aristotle divided goods into three categories: those that are good in themselves (philosophy, for example); those that are good only in so far as they contribute to some other good (a visit to the dentist); and those that are both (noble actions on behalf of a republic).  Because we are talking about the good, we are always in the realm of calculation and action taken without full knowledge of the consequences.  This is why most moral choices involve judgment calls. 
Regarding beauty: If beauty is good, what do we call the quality we usually refer to as beauty when it describes something bad? Deadly storms or poison dart frogs come to mind.
Poison dart frogs are easy.  They are indeed good, to look at.  I have no trouble in calling them beautiful for that reason.  They are also beautiful, I expect, to a hunter who needs to whip up some poison darts to bring down a monkey from high up in the canopy. 
A harder question for my Socratic theory of the beautiful is why so much of our fiction (Shakespeare comes to mind) is about bad choices.  I am tempted to say that we sometimes acquire a taste for what is initially bad (bitterness comes to mind).  That is clearly insufficient.  It is better to say that the human soul is beautiful in its potential, at least, and such poetry reveals it to us better than anything else.  We become deeper by our witness.  In the best cases, it teaches us what choices not to make.  Lincoln said, I believed, that he learned about tyranny from Macbeth. 
As for storms, they are indeed beautiful from a distance and very ugly when you are in their path.  It is not hard to explain the latter.  As for the former, there is nothing so grand as the sight of a hurricane moving in with a clear sky behind it.  Light and towering force are a composition to be reckoned with.  If we want to get some good out of it beyond the awe of the view, it teaches us how small our powers are even in this shallow skin of air we call an atmosphere.  That is good to know.