Can ‘discarnate Persons’ Exist? Essay, Research Paper

“We are laid asleep `In body, and become a living soul: `While with an eye made quiet by the power `Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, `We see into the life of things.” `W.Wordsworth. Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey.`It is comforting, when we lose somebody dear to us, to postulate a belief in survival of bodily death. This essay will examine the justification of such a belief, by exploring the notion of discarnate persons. It will examine serious objections to this idea, then pose alternatives and questions as to what a post-mortem existence might be like. `Bodily survival can give us hope, ethical responsibility and free will (in the sense that we are not completely constrained by the material world) – but these must not be reasons to believe in it, only happy consequences of the notion. First we must establish whether we can logically and meaningfully entertain the idea of a discarnate person. `A belief in discarnate persons allows for a survival thesis, but is by no means necessary. Neither is it necessarily immortality, though it is a necessary (pre)condition of it. Note also that we are not seeking the ’survival’ that Beethoven endures through the performances of his great symphonies – but actual after-death continuance – and to achieve this, three theories are put forward – dualism, reconstitutionism and the astral body thesis. `The crux of the matter lies in the validity of the dualist stance. Dualists maintain that we are composite beings of both corporeal matter and incorporeal “soul”. This soul must be the “essence” of human existence – otherwise, it becomes nothing more than a bizarre appendage, much like an orthodox internal organ. Naturally if the “true” person is incorporeal, one can argue for continuance after bodily death. Flew dubs this the Platonic-Cartesian viewpoint, objecting to Plato on the grounds that he, like so many dualists, automatically presumed a composite human nature without justifying the grounds for such a presumption. `Descartes seemed to have a strong case in reasoning that knowledge is only deductive – it is not true knowledge if there can conceivably be doubt. His search for certainty spawned the “I think, therefore I am” principle – the “I” being an essence that depends on no other material thing for its existence – ie, is incorporeal. It follows that each of us is separately and individually distinct from a world that may or may not exist. Note that “thought” for Descartes included understanding, willing, imaging, (imagining) and feeling. Descartes found it inconceivable that mere matter could think in this way. This identification of thought with consciousness enabled him to treat physical matter as external and logically separate from the certainty of our consciousness. Now, quite apart from the difficulties associated with this systematic doubt, Flew objects by highlighting a notion whose truth is so well-grounded that it has become a logical truism – that all human beings are mortal. `This is the common-sensical assertion by monists who reduce mental (and in this case spiritual) activity to physical reactions in the body, and Flew seems perfectly right to argue that a ‘person’ is simply flesh and blood. Given this, it is plainly self-contradictory to argue that a person who has clearly died and perhaps been cremated, can nevertheless survive as a discarnate person. The dualist response that the essence of the person would live on, is rejected as being intangible, indeed, unintelligible. For a “personality” must be defined in terms of this corporeal person – it is derived from one’s character, beliefs and dispositions that render it nonsense to talk of a personality surviving the person on which it is based. This would be like saying a grin can survive the face of the clown whose death has brought about the end of his gleeful performances. `To retort we must identify some “essence” which transcends the physical. This can then be added to the body along dualist lines, or entirely subjugate the body to its influence, as in Idealism. Unfortunately, by arguing that persons have both states of consciousness and incorporeal characteristics, one cannot later say that one is able to intelligibly conceive of one’s own bodily death. Neither, according to Flew, could I say that I can imagine myself witnessing my own funeral. It is of course simple to imagine something doing this, in the way that a video camera might capture the events. But the former is conceptually impossible, since a dead entity is incapable of witnessing anything. `Locke (1690) asserted that a person could be identified in terms of memory – that I would always be able to say whether it was me who had performed a certain action at a certain time. Thus a discarnate person would be identified from the memories ‘it’ communicates. Flew responds that, not only does this falter with cases of paramnesia and amnesia, which show the fallibility of memory, but that it could yield nonsensical conclusions. For example, if there existed Siamese twins who were separated, yet retained identical memories from their union, Locke would be forced to say that these two are in fact one person. This is a good point, but I am not sure that they would share identical memories. Would not each twin be aware of the other so that they do not confuse their own identity? Would they not remember there being an extremely similar, though obviously distinct ‘other half’, which did not entirely act in the way they did themselves? `Geach (1969) also examines memories. What if a child grew up under ordinary circumstances, but with memories that apparently correspond with those of another person, could we say that person has been reincarnated in the child? Could the child, with the memories of Adolf Hitler, actually be the man? Apart from the aforementioned difficulties, Geach still dislikes this notion – for supposing that these memories (the criteria for being Hitler) are possessed by not one child, but several. It would plainly be ludicrous to say that these children are all Hitler. This certainly is a bizarre case, perhaps because Geach has created it. However, we would clearly have to recognise something paranormal – telepathic possession of some kind is taking place, from some entity – be it discarnate or astral. `This multiple ‘possession’ can be achieved, I think, by appealing to computer terminology. There is a notion of ‘massive parallel processing’, whereby a collection of chips work in parallel on a given task, rather than one single chip shouldering the burden. Several chips are ’split up’, whilst still remaining a single computer and analogously, the spirit of Hitler is able to occupy several bodies at the same time, whilst still remaining Hitler as a whole. I see no obvious reason why this could not explain how, in this extremely unlikely and bizarre case, Hitler would be able to manifest himself in the bodies of several children at once. This does not mean he is reincarnated within several children, but that multiple telepathic communication is at least viable. `Perhaps we can attribute to incorporeal beings a consciousness of some kind (with wants, ambitions and capacities), by appealing to Hume’s collection of loose and separate experiences? Flew dislikes this – because any experience requires a subject to be the experience of (as the above clown’s grin needs a clown’s face to be the grin of). The Cartesian alternative is that an incorporeal person would be the incorporeal substance which experiences. Individuation would then involve recognising one substance rather than another; and self-identity would be a matter of being the same substance. But we would be unable to individuate between such beings in the other world, or identify them as being the same agents as previously lived on corporeal earth – because they necessarily lack the physical characteristics required for this. `Flew’s overall point is a strong one – that our bodily exterior is not only essential to the definition of a person – but that this is all there is to a person. This means that there cannot be discarnate persons. I might suggest that, as dualists presume incorporeality, so Flew presumes corporeality. I might resort to this on the basis of paranormal evidence which suggests our material presumptions and definitions of a ‘person’ are in some ways lacking. In fact there are two more alternatives which postulate post-mortem continuance. One is to argue in favour of reconstitution, which relies on an omnipotent divinity that recreates the deceased person in a corporeal manner (thus supporting Flew’s definition). Given the existing definitions, this would be more a replica of the original ‘person’, than an actual (re)production of that very person once again. `Another alternative is to pursue an astral body thesis. This holds that inside our bodies is another being of the same form. And, like the Platonic-Cartesian standpoint, that this is the real essence of the person that would survive death, although where the dualist soul is incorporeal, the astral body is corporeal – but in a ‘ethereal’ manner. Flew likes this because corporeal questions can be asked and some of them answered by appealing to it. The problem is in avoiding too ethereal an existence (which would render it open to the criticisms of incorporeal souls, or even reduce it to the level of hallucinations), yet being capable of transcending the physical form in ’some way’. `Despite this, Flew prefers to dismiss paranormal evidence for survival, as explicable by conventional methods. For the above reasons, such evidence cannot come from discarnate persons. Moreover, he relies on ESP being conceivable only between embodied beings, on the grounds that communication and rationality require sensory equipment with which to input and output information. It is worthwhile noting Flew’s observation that ‘messages’ from supposedly intelligent spirits are flawed in that the medium never reflects this intelligence – there is “…never any advance upon the ratiocinative powers of the medium.” This is taken as an indication that the mediums are faking messages. In fact, I think it would be possible to view the mediums as the ‘mouthpiece’ of the deceased, in the way that Dr.Stephen J. Hawking uses a computer by which to communicate. No doubt Dr.Hawking experienced severe breakdowns in communication before this marvellous technical machinery was available – the deficiency of the equipment rendering him unable to display his powerful intellect. Is it not possible to view mediums as such? Only able to relay limited amounts of information until they are ‘developed’ enough to display the intelligence? I think this analogy would hold. `Moreover, there do exist cases which point not merely to ESP or some other human telepathic activity – but that actually leave no room for doubting some sort of post-mortem continuance. I refer to book by Kennedy (1976), where he visited a variety of mediums over a period of time and acquired evidence that was both convincing and blatantly fraudulent. In one particular a case a medium purportedly conveyed a message to him from his deceased wife, which warned him that there was something amiss with the wiring of the lights in his car. Investigating, Kennedy discovered that behind the light assembly there was indeed faulty wiring, which only became hot after several minutes. Kennedy established that the medium had no contact with the car, and he had not been driving with the lights on. There was, then, no ‘ordinary’ explanation of trickery. He was also able to eliminate telepathy, since that requires the presence of information in the mind of somebody. Yet the defect was not known to anybody beforehand – it was simply a natural technical fault in a machine. Since, as physicalists would claim, machines are incapable of giving off information telepathically, the only reasonable explanation, according to Okham’s Razor, seems to point to a message received from the dead. `Given this kind of evidence, and bearing in mind the feasability of the Astral body thesis, we can consider briefly what the ‘next world’ might be like. `H.H.Price(1965) argues that the “next world” would obviously not be in our physical sphere, but in a “dream-like world of mental images” (p.12) which is irreversible in that one cannot wake up. Naturally such a world would not share the notion of physical space with orthodox entities in this world – Price insists that these images would have a space and extension of their own, but only to each other, like figures in a dream. `This is clearly an easy analogy to make since dreams closely resemble popular thought about post-mortem existence. But it is also, perhaps significantly, very close to Eastern teachings of immersing oneself into a dream-like trance, and “journeying” into other worlds., during an alteration of consciousness. Such a world could operate on different physical and casual laws. General relativity theory treats gravity as a property of space rather than matter. I think this illustrates that there is no necessary connection between matter and physical space. `Price avoids saying that there are subjective clusters of individual “next worlds”, instead arguing that it would be “the joint product of telepathically interacting minds, and public to all” (p.16) He argues that telepathy could be more easily entered into by those beings freed from the biological constraints of this world. Perhaps there would be a collection of worlds for like-minded spirits. However, like dreams, these worlds would be shaped by memories and desires, including repressed ones. To me an enormous question arises as to who – or ‘what’ – would police this world. Who would prevent repressed desires from being enacted against other people? A spiritual police force? Presumably we would rely on a notion of God as the ultimate agency of morality, but Price makes no mention of God, and this is quite an assumption to hold. `I think it can be argued that a great deal of morally reprehensible acts would cease to be such on this other world. For sanctions against murder take place because it is a loss of life, but it seems nonsensical to assert that a spirit or Astral form can be murdered. Again, theft is outlawed in much of the physical world at least partly because much of the property is difficult to replace, but in this other world, one can envisage a spirit creating and recreating mental images of objects according to however it wishes. In this sense it would suffer no loss at having been robbed, and the policing of such matters would be rather pointless. However, there are very real and terrible crimes, such as rape, which perhaps could be less easily shrugged off – unless one wanted to assert that a spirit was capable of changing its form significantly so as to prevent this. One can also ask what happens to children and the disabled. Are children confined to a mental playground, with no opportunity of learning and progression? This is an uneasy notion, especially, I would think, to academics like philosophers. The physically disabled and the old could presumably rid themselves of their infirmities, but would not the mentally disabled be caught within their own pitiful mental inadequacies? `If, as Price says, like-minded individuals would occupy their own mental worlds, we must nevertheless recognise that these are open to public scrutiny. This enables ‘decent’ spirits to avoid the ‘indecent’ ones, whilst allowing them the option to help others, such as children or the mentally deficient. But of course it also allows evil spirits the opportunity to invade this ‘decent’ circle. I can only conclude that there would need to be some ultimate enforcer, either God or a spiritual police force in order to prevent morally heinous acts. Price’s concept of telepathic social interaction in this world is, of course, denied by Flew, who maintains that mere disembodied minds could neither exist, nor ‘meet’ thus, but perhaps we can compromise by suggesting this is an ‘astral plane’ in which the astral body can exist and interact. `There is a seemingly harsh conclusion to be drawn – that to entertain the notion of discarnate persons is self-contradictory. The only escape seems to be to redefine the key concepts of ‘person’, ’survival’ and so on – which is only permissable if strong paranormal evidence demands this. I think I have demonstrated that there is enough evidence to reasonably postulate post-mortem continuance – but I feel it can be accomodated using the Astral body thesis without need of a drastic revision of philosophical concepts. ` `BIBLIOGRAPHY` ` ` `C.D.Broad – “Immanuel Kant and Psychical Research” in Proceedings of the Society `For Psychical Research, vol.XLIX, part 178, (July 1958), London. `D.Charles – “The thinking machine’s guide to Computing” in New Scientist, `5th September, 1992, no.1837. `W.Y.Evans-Wentz – The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1960), London. `A.Flew- The Logic of Immortality (1987), `A.Huxley – The Doors of Perception/ Heaven and Hell (1968), London. `D. Kennedy – A venture in Immortality (1973), Buckinghamshire. Life and it’s Manifestations: Past, Present and Future vol.1, (1891), Manchester. `(unkown author) `J.Locke – An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), (ed) P.H.Nidditch (1975), Oxford. `P.Geach – God and the Soul (1969), London. `H.H.Price – “Survival and the idea of Another World” in J.R.Smythies (ed) – Brain and Mind. (1965), `P.Rawson – Tantra: The Indian cult of Ecstacy (1973), London `W.Wordsworth – “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, 13 July, 1798″ in J.Hayward (ed) – The Penguin Book of English Verse (1956), London.

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