Thursday, 2 January 2014

"The part of you that looks out through your eyes"


Death is a separation. The part of you that looks out through your eyes and allows you to think and smile and act and to know and to be, that is your spirit and that is eternal. It cannot die.

From a talk about theology and metaphysics addressed to children by President Boyd K Packer in 1973. 


The phrase about the part that 'looks out through your eyes' reminded me sharply of my childhood perception of exactly that; that I was the part that looked out through my eyes, or - when my eyes were closed - that carried on listening, feeling and thinking inside my head.

At some point we learn about death, and the question presses onto us: what happens to this part of us after death?

Either it dies, or it doesn't.


Modern secular thought has it that this question, this discussion, is an error; because the whole set-up is based on an illusion - and that there is really no 'part' that looks out through our eyes; because this perception is an artefact of...

Oh, something or another... body structure, brain structure, brain wiring... whatever: in a nutshell, it is an illusion because [blah blah neuroscience blah blah]. 

But the real illusion/ error is that a fundamental perception such as that you are "The part of you that looks out through your eyes" has anything whatsoever to do with  [blah blah neuroscience blah blah]; or that  [blah blah neuroscience blah blah] has anything whatsoever to say about the part that looks out through our eyes.

How on earth could a basic, human existential perception be disposed-of by dissecting brains, measuring chemicals, or making electrical recordings?

Only by a sleight-of-hand, by a non sequitur, by simply asserting, in effect, "Because [wonders of  modern science] therefore your deepest perceptions and intuitions are delusional nonsense."


The question cannot legitimately be evaded, so we return to: What happens to this part of us after death? Either it dies, or it doesn't.

Either could be true, and factual evidence doesn't tell us which.

Nonetheless we must decide which is true - in fact we will decide which is true - we have already decided which is true - and upon that choice so many things depend.

Indeed, that choice is perhaps the first step on a lifelong path of spiritual seeking.


But we can revisit our choice at any time; and change the decision - for good or ill.



David said...

I can remember making similar observations as a child. I remember just having a 'knowing' understanding that I had an eternal being of some sort, although I could not remember where it had come from. Actually, I often felt very strongly, and had lucid dreams to back this up to my child's reasoning, that I had lived in other times and places. It was bizzare in the extreme and gradually I realised there was a good chance human beings a) have souls and b) undertake physical incarnations to learn and develop spiritually. This being a central unspoken theme of my dreams in which I had lived and seen through other eyes but still was essentially me. I remember protracted discussions of what I had 'learned' from these experiences. As I got older and was scientifically 'educated' these kinds of ideas were systematically marginalised and deemed best left in my childhood by a long succession of 'educators,'most notably at University, when I argued in several neuroscience essays that the human soul is a real possibility that must not be dismissed on merely empirical grounds because these scientific observations do not address the underlying philosophical assumptioms. My essay marks were not favourable on such occasions, when, I had deliberately left the philosophical door slightly ajar.Conversely, if I defended the position that the 'Ghost in the Machine' is an illusion. Software running on the sophisticated hardware of the human brain, then, well I noted my essays would rise from a 2:2 to a 1st or 2:1 if I ensured that my stance with in agreement with the prevailing acceptable paradigm for such things. Eventually I began to 'buy' into the doctrinal stance myself, which after all I was paying a lot of money to be fed by the 'educational' system and found myself feeling rather foolish to still be carrying an unshakable inner conviction about the existence of my soul; such a quaint and silly notion. I could almost see Richard Dawkins and all my empiricist neuroscientist/psychology lecturers looking down upon these private beliefs as being slightly dim and primative not to have intellectually caught up with obvious 'progress' of our age. Eventually I jumped on the bandwagon too. I confess that for a time I regarded the spiritual beliefs of all world faiths to be a little bit dim and misguided. I am deeply saddened and regret eventually having gone along with mob on this one. It feels good to have my soul back again and I feel regret and repent having ever allowed myself to be brainwashed into denying my inner spiritual life and those of others so oppressively.

I do still have doubts. These doubts seem healthy if they prevent a closed mind but can also be a source of peril. Perhaps someone can help me exorcise my remaining existential demons here. I find my childlike questions hardest to answer. For example, if we think of the plight of a person with Alzheimer's disease or similar, does that persons soul remain in-tact despite the ravages of this horrible disease and the destruction of their memory and outward personality? Or is that simply to confuse the mind and the soul? Similarly, why do animals such as chimpanzee which demonstrate some level of self awareness not qualify for a soul whereas a profoundly mentally retarded child would be extended this assumed inner 'essence' despite a mind that could be functionally on par or below that of an able chimp? Such kinds of reflection often quickly funnel me back to some pretty hefty doubts about the whole thing and it can become a throwing out the baby with the bath water dilemma for me. I have a nasty habit of thinking like this.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - You will never get answers to *all* your questions - because any intelligent person can generate questions faster than they can find satisfying answers (even when they exist)!

Also, there is a special danger in focusing on grey-areas. Any clear answers to clear questions can be complicated and confused by moving into the middle region between them (sometimes, even just as a thought-experiment, a supposed-possibility - which may not really be possible); and when an answer is obtained, then this creates a new grey area!

My feeling is that the soul or spirit stays in the body until death - regardless of handicap or illness - where he or she is learning potenitally gaining valuable experience from mortal life.

Maybe the spirit can leave temprarily and return? It seems to happen sometimes. But when it goes for good, death of that person is irrevocable (death being the separation of the spirit from the mortal body - as President Packer says in the linked sermon).

Does a chimp have a spirit the sam as the human spirit? Obviously not - although there are animals with which we can have an empathic communication including chimps, dogs, horses, elephants...

I'm not sure at all what this means (seemingly we have to work this stuff out for ourselves), but our instincts seem to speak clearly on this - that we should not treat them as humans (because their spiritual origin, nature and destiny are quite separate); but also that such animals have a special quality that sets them apart from other animals; and we commit a moral violation of we treat such animals as a means to an end.

George said...

In "Outwitting the Devil" (written by self-help/business guru Napoleon Hill in the 30's) he argues repeatedly that the brain acts more as an antenna/receiver, and not the actual producer of self or thought. This was his justification for why prayer would work ("scientifically"), because intensely focusing on something through prayer would connect the receiver to God and His "infinite intelligence," thus giving one outside insights on how to make the prayer true.

While perhaps easily enough dismissed a no true theologian, he is a popular guru and I assume enough people take his ideas seriously. I found the idea very interesting, and that it reflected my personal experience with prayer - sudden insights or intuitive changes in behavior after periods of repeated prayer and focus. Further, the "antenna" idea also matches a few dreams that communicated real-life happenings, which I had no way of knowing, and several surprisingly simultaneous thoughts with my wife.

So I think the natural extension would be thinking of the brain as some sort of incredible organ with the ability to receive/transmit the thoughts of our spirit, and focusing ones mind on Good or Evil can tend one towards those sorts of influences.

This theory would also account to some degree for issues like Alzheimer's, where the receiving equipment for the spirit could become damaged and perhaps transmit incorrect sense perceptions.

Adam G. said...

Very good. You have to be very, very educated indeed to ignore the basic empirical fact of your own existence.

Writer John Derbyshire is atheistical in part because the experience of sleep horrified him. He was conscious--then he wasn't. That persuaded him that life after death was probably a hopeful mirage. I, on the other hand, have always drawn comfort from waking up. No sleep is forever.

Arakawa said...

"For example, if we think of the plight of a person with Alzheimer's disease or similar, does that persons soul remain in-tact despite the ravages of this horrible disease and the destruction of their memory and outward personality?"

The way I personally think about it is that Alzheimer's is an extreme and unpleasant variety of something that happens to everyone in earthly life. Namely, I was a completely different person at, say, five years old. Certain (important!) experiences from that time period have been clean forgotten, and certain good qualities I had at that time have been lost.

The difference is that they have been lost because I have changed into a different person, whereas a person with Alzheimer's has some of their memories die and receives in return... nothing.

Thus, obviously, the Resurrection is meant to restore whatever qualities and memories are worth restoring; whether they were lost in childhood, in old age, or immediately on clinical death does not matter.

This is probably why the matter of the Last Judgment, in particular, is so beyond human judgment or reasoning; rather than being raised as the person we think we are, God will consider who we have been at every moment of our lives, and tell us who He thinks we are.

Obviously, this raises further and more complicated questions, but they are not as important to me to bother guessing the answer for.

Arakawa said...

"Writer John Derbyshire is atheistical in part because the experience of sleep horrified him. He was conscious--then he wasn't. That persuaded him that life after death was probably a hopeful mirage. I, on the other hand, have always drawn comfort from waking up. No sleep is forever."

On the other hand, I've always been of the understanding that, even if I don't always remember it, my mind and soul are active in sleep; so believing yourself to be solely your current set of memories is a sort of temporal chauvinism.... So, while Resurrection is still profoundly counter-intuitive (because it's a deliberate reversal by God of how death naturally works!) the notion of some kind of immortal soul always seemed intuitive.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - Interesting about JD. Actually, I am pretty sure (from introspection as well as reading sleep research) that we are always conscious - even in deep sleep; but don't generally lay down memories (especially not in deep sleep).

I say this because when waking from very short (micro-) sleeps I am often, for a split second it seems, aware of dream awareness just disappearing or dissipating -

presumably over the timescale of how long awareness is kept activated in short term 'working memory' - i.e. a second or a few.

Samson J. said...

Writer John Derbyshire is atheistical in part because the experience of sleep horrified him. He was conscious--then he wasn't. That persuaded him that life after death was probably a hopeful mirage.

Doubtless Derbyshire has a more advanced position than what you've sketched, but - this doesn't make sense to me. Don't let's err in thinking that Christians are all on one side of the mind-body problem! What happens to the light from a bulb when you shut it off? It goes out - but can be restored again by its operator or creator.

David said...

@Bruce - What you say makes a great deal of sense. I think my problem is that becoming excessively reductionistic is so second nature to me now. Bad habits die hard. I think a more sensible perspective is to think along the lines that you describe, to include accepting certain intuitions of truth without confusing myself unnecessarily. This has helped.

@Arakawa - It had never occurred to me to look at it like that. That we might be redefined by God as what he thinks we are and not what we think we are based on life experiences that we may ourselves have forgotten long ago. It kind of inspired me to try harder to be a better person and use my short mortal life as wisely as I can muster.

agraves said...

After Christ was crucified he later appeared to his disciples and spoke to them. If you believe the Bible then I believe this provides your answer as to the personality surviving death. England is known for its appearances of the dead, most Asian people generally believe in the spirits of their ancestors being present at certain times. Most Americans probably don't realize that the Tet Offensive in 1968, Vietnam was a nationwide celebration of the Spirits of the dead. Our problem is always asking for proof beyond a doubt, scientifically. We do so because we are no longer a people of any faith, or true belief. If you open your mind and pay attention you will see and then become relaxed about it, accept with knowing.