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Time Travel

Meaning of Life

Creation vs. Evolution

Artificial Intelligence

Life After Death

Extraterrestrial Life

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Further Study

Philosophy and Sci-Fi


Life after Death

John asked:

I'm trying to track down any previous exponents of the following notion: One way to make sense of the idea of survival after death is to posit that what survives is the "idea" or "thought" of the person, as retained in the "mind of God." For this to work, you also have to posit that a person's identity (understood as the seat of the conscious "I") is a non-physical thing that could exist as a thought.

The analogy might be to a piece of music: clearly, in some sense the Moonlight Sonata exists as an idea, independent of any instantiation in performance or recording. So even if all physical/aural instances of it are wiped out, as long as I or you remember it, it exists. Similarly, as long as God remembers us, we exist after our physical "performance" is over. This notion has some problems, but I'm wondering if you've run across it before.

What you describe sounds very like the Pythagorean doctrine of reincarnation. In his dialogue Phaedo, Plato refers to a theory — which sounds very much like a theory that would have been held by the Pythagoreans — according to which the soul is an 'attunement', like the tuning of a lyre. In the dialogue, the theory is put forward by Socrates' friends Simmias and Cebes. Socrates rejects the theory, as an argument for immortality, on the grounds that if you destroy a lyre you destroy the attunement which existed in that particular instrument. But clearly what the Pythagoreans had in mind was that the same tuning can be instantiated in different lyres. The difference between a human personality and a lyre (or guitar) tuning is that human personalities are, as a matter of fact, unique.

It follows from this theory that the Socrates' special attunement could come to be realized in another living human body. It is only an accidental fact that we never come across the same human 'tuning' twice.

There is a noticeable gap in this theory: Where does the Socrates tuning exist after the death of Socrates' body and before it is realized in another body? I suppose this is where you would say the 'mind of God' comes in. The Pythagoreans, who first discovered the relation between number and harmony, had an ultra-realist view of numbers. So they could have been happy to defend the view that in between bodily realizations, the Socrates attunement exists as a real numerical value, with causal powers sufficient to enable it to impress itself on a new body, without requiring anything to exist in.

As an interpretation of the Pythagorean doctrine of reincarnation, this is to a certain extent speculative. Apart from alleged reports of cases of reincarnation, such as that of Pythagoras himself, the only Pythagorean-sounding argument to be found in the existing texts is the one which Plato rubbishes in the Phaedo.

At this point, an acute reader may have noticed a remarkable coincidence with ideas from AI research. If there is such a thing as a Geoffrey Klempner program, as some AI theorists believe, then, in principle, when my body grows old, my program could be uploaded from my brain onto a computer disc and downloaded into a new, young body, perhaps cloned from one of my own cells. What a great idea! As Daniel Dennett notes in his book Consciousness Explained it promises a much better chance of immortality than having your head chopped off after your death and put into a freezer in the hope that future medical science might be able to get your brain working again. (In the USA, there is — or was — a company that does this for a fee.)

So there is a possibility that I might survive the death of my present body. But there's a catch, the same catch as there is with the Pythagorean theory, and with your theory of a person as a 'thought' in the mind of God. Being quite adept at problem solving, the GK program is too good to wasted on just one body. So, without my knowledge, pirated copies are downloaded into several more bodies. Then one day we meet up. — I'll leave you to write the rest of this scenario. (If you're stuck for ideas, check out my science fiction story The Insurance Policy.)

Geoffrey Klempner


Bernadette asked:

What is your philosophy regarding the topic "reincarnation"? Who are the other philosophers included in our history have discussed about this topic? In what period in philosophy does this topic is given emphasis? What religions believe in reincarnation?

The idea of reincarnation is not all that important in the western philosophical tradition, although one can find traces of the notion here and there. It was present in the writings of the church father Origen for example, but the emperor Justinas banished talk of reincarnation from Christianity in the 6th century. Origen thought his view in accordance with the pre-Socratic philosophers Pythagoras and Empedocles (c.500 — 450 BCE) and also with Plato in thinking that the soul enters the body influenced by past deeds.

The idea is that because of the changeable nature of the body, the soul eventually moves on to a new one. In De Principalis Origen held that the place of the soul in the world is determined by its past virtues and shortcomings. In the modern period, Descartes, Berkeley and Kant are three very different philosophers who believed in the immortality of the soul if not in rebirth as such. Locke even has a thought experiment in which a poor cobbler 'wakes up in the body of a prince' — the idea being that you could change your material identity without a change in your personal identity.

The idea is also found in ancient eastern philosophy, most notably in the Upanishads and belongs to an outlook very different from our own (and probably that of ancient Greece too). Hindus believe that the wisdom of the Upanishads is as old as time itself, but the texts were written some time between the 8th and 4th centuries BCE.

"This vast universe is a wheel. Upon it are all creatures that are subject to birth death and rebirth. Round and round it turns...as long as the individual self thinks it is separate from Brahman, it revolves upon the wheel of bondage to the laws of birth death and rebirth. But when through the grace of Brahman it realises its identity with him, it revolves upon the wheel no longer" (Svetasvatara Upanishad 118).

So the idea is that "a mortal ripens like corn, and like corn is born again" (Katha Upanishad I.1.6).

A number of things are unclear; what do the 'laws' of birth, death and rebirth consist in? Are they physical laws or transcendent laws? We do not know of any physical laws governing rebirth. And any transcendent world must be wholly 'other', so it is unclear that it makes much sense to speak of laws at all. If there were transcendental laws we wouldn't be able to say or know anything about them. So talk of laws loses some of its force.

In what sense is it possible for a person or a self to exist separately from a body? Believers in reincarnation seem fundamentally committed to a kind of substance dualism between self and body that just seems wrong to a modern (Western) understanding of the self. And if there is no such thing as self — if self is illusory as the Upanishads hold — then what is it that is reborn? Philosophers today often think that the persistence of a self is simply the persistence of a body or material object and that this fulfills all the identity conditions at issue. If this is true, then there is nothing to be reborn.

Finally, the way I am to be reborn is governed by the meritoriousness of my actions, but to state this so baldly simply begs the question.

In the 19th century, Schopenhauer was influenced by this Eastern idea that each individual 'will' is illusory and is really part of a cosmic will. There is nothing but blind struggle. Scarcely less gloomily, Nietzsche had a doctrine of 'eternal recurrence' in which he imagined the history of the universe repeating itself ad infinitum, exactly the same each time. I'm not sure whether he thought this was literally true, but he exhorted men to make their lives such as they could happily re-live these lives time and again; one might be tempted to think that there is a kinship between the belief in the immortal soul that characterises some Western thought and the Eastern ideas about rebirth and the self. But this is more an issue for anthropology than philosophy.

A. Gatward


Giles asked:

'When you are dead, you are dead!' This is a question on the spirit. I would be very grateful for a response.

"When you are dead, you are dead" I would agree with that. But as ever, its a bit more complicated.

Just what does it mean to die? is it the separation of the spirit from the body? if so you are not dead. you are the spirit. It is the body that is dead. you have just swapped an earthly existence for a spiritual one.

Perhaps then, one day your spirit gets ill and fails to work properly so God decides to wipe out your spirit and move you into another one. are you dead then? No, it seems that swapping spirits is logically equivalent to swapping one body for another or swapping a body for a spirit. So this is not a question about the spirit.

What then is the question about?

"When your dead your dead". Its a question about my subjectivity. What is it for there no longer to be Me in the world? How is it possible for me to die. (I will own up now, This question boarders on the impenetrable for me, it is hard even to make sense of this issue) There is one immediate problem that gets me here, namely that even though there will be a time when I will no longer be around, when exactly will this time be?

Lying on my deathbed, I can await death coming, even up to the very second of my death , but when it gets here, when I die I am gone, I never experience death, it is not something that belongs to me, death is not mine. So when does My death happen how does it come about that I don't experience my death? Does it make sense to say that I die Before I die? AAHH.

Epicurus writes "Where death is not I am, where death is I am not", I agree with this too but Epicurus wanted to show us that we should not fear death. For me it has the opposite effect; it shows me how utterly mysterious death is, death is always over the horizon of my understanding.Always beyond understanding.

Just what is going on with My death? What does it mean for me to die? Heidegger though it meant the end of the world my death is the end of all my projects all my possibilities all my relations with others. Levinas on the other hand thought that death was the opening up of the world, an enigma that provides a way out of solipsism, a way to be connected with other people. My death shows me that there is something other than my subjectivity.

That's all okay because we need to know that stuff, but death itself, is something that cannot be understood, even if it points us to the understanding other things.

What does it mean for me to die? I don't know but I know a lot rests on the answer.

Brian Tee


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