MANY PEOPLE WOULD RATHER DIE THAN THINK; IN FACT, MOST DO. — BERTRAND RUSSELL

Apologetics VII: immortality and consciousness, part I

If you will remember, I began a series of posts in which I attempt to address some of the arguments found in Handbook of Christian Apologetics, available in fine bookstores everywhere.

I now want to say a word or two about the book’s 10th chapter titled, “Life After Death,” in which the authors investigate some theories on the hereafter. They place particular focus on materialism, since, or as they say, this is the train of thought on the matter followed by most atheists today. Thus, their definition of materialism as it relates to the after life reads thusly:

Death ends all of me. Seldom held before the eighteenth century (but most certainly held),  materialism is now a strong minority view in industrialized nations. It is the natural accompaniment of atheism.

Well, at the very first point, we hit a wall. While many atheists today may regard themselves as materialists (Although my inclination is that many would reject a label such as that because of its materialistic connotations.) in the sense as it is defined here, pagans and pantheists (such as Einstein) could also be agnostics or atheists. Further, the authors fail to mention or realize that every other religious apologist is emphatically atheist with regard to all the other beliefs. Jews are atheists with regard to Jesus. Christians are atheists with regard to Allah. Muslims are atheists to both, and atheists who reject all gods simply go one god farther.

The trend throughout this book, a trend that makes it quite difficult to read, is to begin with a set of premises in more or less paragraph form and then answer specific objections or make points in outline form. After the initial list of six theories about what happens after death, which concludes with the Christian view of resurrection, the authors begin with four objections to immortality that, presumably, were pulled out of a hat, since no references are given for where these particular objections came from, other than this statement, “Some objections are frequently raised against the possibility of life after death.”

Normally, and especially books authored by college professors, as this one is, arguments from actual sources are cited and then refuted or accepted by further analysis. Here and throughout the book, the authors seem to pull the objections to which they are about to refute straight out of thin air. It’s almost as if they can formulate any type of “objection” against immortality however they like and in the manner that would most easily cater to a forthright dismissal.

So, without further adieu, here are their four self-generated objections:

  1. If there is to be a personal survival after death, then a personal self must live beyond the destruction of the body. But a surviving self has got to be in some way self-conscious, and without a brain there can be no self-consciousness. At death the brain ceases to function and, in a very short time, ceases altogether to be. So there can be survival of bodily death.
  2. Even if materialism is false, there may still be no possibility of surviving bodily death. For the self gains access to the world of experience  through the brain. We use the brain for sensing; we also use it for thinking. These are the basic human experiences. But death, in robbing us of the brain, robs us of the means by which we experience. Now we human persons are centers of self-conscious experience. If what survives death can in no way experience, then “we” do not survive death.
  3. What we mean by “person” involves embodiment. So no person can survive bodily death.
  4. If life after death is to have real personal meaning, each disembodied soul must have its own identity. There must be some way in which any two souls can be distinguished. But we use bodily criteria to identify (and so to distinguish) human persons, and these criteria cannot apply to a disembodied soul. Therefore, we have no means of distinguishing one disembodied soul from another. Now if disembodied souls cannot be distinguished, they cannot be identified. Since personal identity is essential to life after death, the question is: Can there be such a life?  The problem of identifying disembodied souls casts serious doubt on its possibility.

I’ll take these one-by-one, and then investigate the authors’ 25 (Yes, 25) arguments for immortality in a later post, as this one is quite long.

On the first objection, the authors make this odd statement: the argument “‘without a brain there can be no self-consciousness’ is ambiguous,” which refers to part of the preliminary objection above. It’s an odd statement to make because the objection wasn’t rendered by a known outside source, but by the authors themselves. So, one could make the case that they purposefully created the ambiguity within their concocted first objection to then dethrone it.

Regardless, the authors seem to be attempting to build a case that the “self” is an entity that exists outside the brain, and thus, we could then talk about a soul.

Here are the authors again:

Some think that the recent and spectacular successes of neuroscience show that materialism is obviously true. How, after all, do scientists investigate the mind except by investigating the brain? So materialism would seem to be favored, even demanded, by modern science.

But this  is false. Neurobiology is an empirical science and therefore must deal with the material reality. … When they (materialists) profess materialism, they are really making the claim that in matters relating to thought and intellect their is nothing for their science to abstract from. …

Whatever is material is limited to this region of space and time. … It follows that if thought it just a motion in matter, it must have spatial and temporal limits — the spatial limits of the matter, the temporal limits of the movement.

This is all a very roundabout way for the authors to say that thought and all of the wonderful things that happen inside our brains and as a product of our brains, stand outside of matter, and that what it means to be a “self” stands in parallel, or perhaps, in separation to the physical organ of the brain. But we have very good reasons based on important research about the brain that confirms that many, or all, of our emotions, thoughts and feelings find their beginnings in the brain. Here is an explanation, and in particular, view the “Geography of Thought” section. This is Neuroscience 101. Animals other than humans have many of the same experiences (emotions, good feelings from eating a delicious meal or smelling something pleasant). So, to try to make the case that the “self” or what we might want to call the “soul” sits outside of the mind is a tenuous position at best. Our minds and our genes are ourselves, and there is nothing more under the sun.

On the second objection about the death of self-conscious experience, I only need a paragraph. The authors ask:

Is all self-conscious experience apart from the body impossible? This has not been shown.

To simply say something has not been shown — without citing any sources, nonetheless — says nothing, and I can flip this around: “Is the flying tea pot a true and real entity somewhere in outer space? This has not been shown.” Case closed, and maybe we will be happily greeted by the grand tea pot someday. I’m glad we cleared that up.

Objection 3: Their reply to their own objection is this:

If “we” is shorthand for “we materialists,” then the objection begs the question.

So, they’ve managed to beg the question inside their own rendered objection. Not much of a feat.

Objection 4 about the problem of identifying specific souls after they have lost their material bodies. The writers conclude on this argument:

It is not clear how souls are individualized (How could they be?), how God identifies them, or how they can identify and communicate with each other. But we have no need to know these things. We know thart we are just the persons we are. We know that the self-identity allowing this knowledge is not describable in material terms and therefore cannot be understood that way. We know enough, in other words, enough to refute the present objection.

But, of course, by their own admission, they don’t know enough about the subject to refute any objection to it, and this point is clinched by their words, “It is not clear” and “we have no need to know these things.” If they have no need to know these things, why bother with any other objections. Like every other apologist making fantastic claims, why say you know anything about the material world whatsoever because it all matters not. The authors here would have suited their purposes better by simply saying, “God did it,” on all questions and objections, be done with it, and save us weary-eyed readers 100s of pages of vacuous arguments and doctrinal loop de loops.

But, the authors soldier on, presenting us with the aforementioned 25 arguments for immortality. And it’s here that I will pick up in a subsequent post.

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About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

1 Comment on "Apologetics VII: immortality and consciousness, part I"

  1. It’s true: “God did it.” Your research is appreciated on “Apologetics VII: immortality and consciousness, part I.” Still, humanity’s need to draw closer to divine consciousness brings man closer to the truth. Science’s present boundary attempts to prove what is God. In other words, where does thought originate? Perhaps the best understanding is given in the word “penumbra.” For, much which seems irrational may rightly be the penumbral insight into the mind of God. “There’s one thing I know–God exists.”

    Suzanne McMillen-Fallon, Published Author (early 2011)
    http://www.strategicbookpublishing.com/Mommy’s Writings: Mommy, would you like a sandwich?

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