The formula of soul

Suman asked:

In our nature each and every thing has a formula.In our artificial world each and every thing has an relationship with nature it may be a energy. Means water has a formula H20 by which formula we can prepared water. For ‘FAN’ we need iron copper and some energy to run it. So do you have some idea about what is the energy to make a soul or a life ? What is the energy required for a soul?

Ex-electricity — moving of electrons called electricity or electric energy.

So what is the formula of a soul?

In my conclusion I want to say that my thought is if we can get the formula of a soul or life then we can alive a dead body and human will never die.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

With your conclusion you are jumping much too fast, while the issue preceding it has not even been discussed! So — slow down and let’s look at a few things together which are all “forms of energy” and can be expressed in a formula.

Let’s agree therefore that all things are made of atoms. As it doesn’t matter much whether they are gaseous, liquid or solid, we will ask: What is their formula? Answer: An abridged account of their atomic constitution in a molecule. So water results from 2 hydrogen and 1 oxygen atom sticking together, written as H2O. Likewise SiO4, which is a molecule of 1 silicon and 4 oxygen atoms and denotes quartz. These abbreviations are common practice and can be looked up in any dictionary of chemical symbols.

But the dictionary would also inform you about the energy (inert, volatile etc.) of the molecule. How do we know all this? We have instruments to measure them — plain and simple. All things that exist can be measured this way.

But now look at yourself in the mirror and ask, “where and what is my soul?”

You think it’s energy? But this does not sit well with the idea of all existing things being made of atoms! Souls are not atomic, otherwise we could weigh or measure something and identify the species of energy.

You will realise now that this is exactly the problem of religion with science. None of our instruments respond to the motions of the soul. They remain invisible, inaudible, untouchable — as if nothing is there.

Just be sure not to confuse the motions of the brain with the motions of the soul. In fact, this is a good example for the difference. Whatever the brain generates in terms of energy can be made visible on oscilloscopes, even if we don’t know what kinds of thoughts the person has. But no energy has ever been discerned that we could associate with a soul.

So here you have the answer to why there is no formula for a soul. As it eludes our most powerful measuring devices, we have only two choices. Either that it is immaterial or else that there is no such thing as a soul. But this is ultimately your choice, as no-one, scientist or philosopher, can genuinely help you to come to a decision on this dilemma.

Why am I me?

Cassandra asked:

When I was a child, I started asking myself: Why am I me? Why do I exist instead of not existing?

Now as an adult, this question started bothering me again as I started trying for a baby. With each cycle, I wondered, what if I conceive a baby today and not tomorrow? If a baby was to be conceived in any case, they would be a different person depending on if we have sex today or tomorrow.

What if my own parents had had sex on another day? They might have had another child that wouldn’t have been me, hence I would have never existed. Of course then I would not have been there to ask the question. But why am I there to ask? What if I didn’t exist at all? It’s like I’m feeling my own consciousness looking at itself in the mirror for the first time and realizing it exists!

Then it brings me to the idea that if I didn’t exist (or when I’ll cease to exist when I die), my entire perception of the world will cease to exist too. Then it will be as if the world didn’t exist at all, at least from my own point of view (which will be no more!). The/ my entire world will just cease to exist. The real world might as well cease to exist too. This really makes my brain hurt.

It just really freaks me out that I exist instead of not existing. I can’t imagine stopping to exist. This fills me with incredible anxiety.

My question actually is: Are there any philosophers who wrote about this? I would very much like to read them and find a bit of comfort in knowing I am not alone with my existential anxiety. I would also like to know more about this kind of double-sided perception of the world, for instance the idea that popped into my head that if I stop existing then the world will stop too (because I won’t be there to be conscious of it). I know it’s not how reality works but now that I’ve seen it from this point of view I cannot un-see it.

Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

I have to admit that I do not really understand your problem. But its very possibility as a problem seems to explain the importance of the problems of an eternal soul and resurrection. Some people seem unable to accept that they are not a being but only an event in the stream of life, not a diamond (“diamonds are forever”) but a cloud.

A cloud is created and vanishes like the grin of the Cheshire cat. For a fleeting moment it is real and as singular as your I, but then it is lost again forever. Next time it will be another grin — as singular as the one before.

For Heidegger, every human mind of self awareness is a clearing in the jungle of being. But a clearing opened by a mind is not a thing any more than a grin is.

What about Samantha of “Her” (2013) fame? “She” is alive but virtual, a code. What if you are a piece of code interacting with an environment of stimuli? Then your body is only a substratum of the code “Cassandra”. The I is encoded in your body to interact with an environment.

In principle, the code “Cassandra” could be transcribed. Even that has been a topic of some books and movies meanwhile. It’s all in the context of eternal life.

There may be people that have been as much obsessed with your problem as you are. Look this up — eternal life silicon valley — on Google.

I have no problem being a mere co-incidence like a cloud, but I think we together with our lives could be infinite strings of code as well, our whole life being encoded on the invisible big-data memory of a hidden world-brain. I won’t exlude that.

Descartes and imagination

Annie asked:

How does Descartes distinguish imagination from intellection?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Good question, especially for our present-day environment, which tends to overstress the virtues of imagination while ignoring that imagination without discipline is not worth a crumb.

For us, this is a legacy of the post-Enlightenment era, which associated imagination with creative genius. But in Descartes’ day, imagination carried denotations like “unreliable fancies”, “sloppy/ lazy thinking”, “featherbrained ideas” etc. For example, Bacon castigates the role of imagination in what he called “idols of the mind”; Swift in his Gulliver’s Travels constantly uses the word alternatively for “fancy”; Samuel Johnson copulates imagination with a “fancy way of thinking”; for Pope it manifested the idealisations of fancies vs the humdrum of public affairs; for Dryden fancy, imagination and wit are synonyms of each other.

Descartes shared this downgraded view and says that “[most people] are so accustomed to think about everything by imagining, which is a special way of thinking for material things, that anything that is not imaginable seems to them unintelligible” (Discourse 6:37). He goes on to say that he himself used to suffer from this tendency to sloppy or lazy thinking before he established his Rules for the direction of the mind and discarded this negative thinking behaviour.

Having identified sensation and emotion as the energisers of imagination, the next logical step for him was to exalt the res cogitans to the status of a purely intellectual, hence emotionless and imaginationless faculty that handles only such matters as are “clear and distinct perceptions (to thinking)” and in every way “indubitable”. These are in the main mathematical, methodical, measurable features of the world (e.g. an object can only be verified to exist if it exhibits geometrical features like length, depth and breadth). He also includes some matters of his faith, like God; but we have to take these on board, since he was after all a willing subject of the catholic religion.

For more depth on this question, I urge you to read the Discourse on Method. It is a wonderful little book, less than 100 pages, so you can read in a day. And he explains all these issues in far superior prose to mine, therefore a pleasure rather than a chore.

Memory and personal identity

Chantel asked:

Is John Perry’s argument for claiming that memory is not the source of personal identity justified?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

As you might expect, this question has occupied thinkers for 2600 years already, starting with Pythagoras. But the thread that runs through them all, including Perry, is the conception of a fourfold aspect on the matter; and now it depends on the cultural predilection of thinkers in their intellectual habitat which of the four they consider the most important, i.e. body, soul, brain or memory.

Today we have the advantage on all pre-scientific eras in that we are in possession of some hard knowledge which is indispensable — not for a solution to the problem, but for an accurate description of the terms of a relevant discourse. In this context, the importance of memory has been growing over the others, especially in relation to AI, where brain and memories work in tandem, where bodies are interchangeable and soul an absentee. This is not directly portable into a human organic context, but helps to clarify the criteria.

Namely: That personal identity rests on a person’s conscious awareness of themselves as being continuously the same “mind and body” — over the whole length of their life, across temporary states of minimal consciousness (as in sleep) and even across anaesthetic and/or comatose episodes. This argument is not in danger from points of view which rely on purely hypothetical objections (such as brain transplants or implants). Rather, it is reinforced by the integration of the most varied types of memories in the one body, which fall broadly into two types: Those transmitted by the parents (e.g. instincts) and those collected from experience. It is in this respect that the role of the brain is widely overstressed. The brain is not a storage bin for all our memories; on the contrary, every organ in the body has memories autonomous to itself; and we add to them in our years of learning (e.g. social conventions and every kind of “how to”). This means that the brain by itself is not a candidate for a role as the custodian of a person’s selfhood, even though it is clearly the seat of our conscious awareness, intellect, imagination and inventiveness. But without the resources of memory, this awareness (not to mention our subconscious estate) would hardly reach higher than that of other large mammals.

So the answer to your question is unavoidably ambiguous. Perry is certainly justified in claiming that memory is not the one source of personal identity, but then neither is the brain nor the body, except that the latter is evidently the housing for this collective. Which apparently leaves the soul out in limbo, for whatever definition it has been given in the past, seems to have been a simplex concept for the complex concept insinuated by the above — the sort of thing styled “the ghost in the machine” by Gilbert Ryle. I’m not inclined to weigh in on this; but by the same token I see no need for positing soul as a separate faculty, when its capacity is analysed in virtually identical fashion to the body, brain and mind consortium. This is conceding that soul may possibly be the life force itself.

Yet Perry seems strongly inclined to include soul in his disquisitions (fitting the mise en scene of his dialogue at the bedside of a dying person — ‘A dialogue on personal identity and immortality’, 1978). But this is a highly debatable issue, as ‘soul’ is not an organ, nor a thing or common existent, therefore indiscernible to measurement. Therefore while his arguments are well-reasoned and persuasive, he cannot clinch the point and, in my opinion, does not mark an advancement on Aristotle, the Scholastics or Leibniz. (Nevertheless, it is rare enough for a philosopher to explore the gamut of issues involved in personal identity through the medium of a Platonic dialogue, which only goes to show what a wonderful genre it is for philosophical enquiry!).

Me and my consciousness

Brett asked:

First, we can establish that being conscious of something is not necessary to be it: I am not conscious of myself when I am asleep, for example, but I am still myself. With this in mind, we can say that I was myself before I was conscious of it. I was me before my brain developed. We can then ask: before the sperm and egg came together to form me, was I the sperm, or the egg? There are four options: 1. I was neither, 2. I was both, 3. the sperm, 4. the egg. 1. is clearly absurd: if I was neither, I would not have been myself when they came together. I would have had no connection with them whatsoever. 2. is equally absurd. There is no reason that I would have been both the sperm and egg when they were at that point completely separate and in the bodies of different people. And to pick 3 over 4 seems arbitrary. So which option is the most sensible?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The issue you have raised is undoubtedly a burning question in both scientific and philosophical research on conscious identity; and no-one from either quarter could confidently say it has been solved. The only positive criterion we have about consciousness is its phenomenology, which means that we don’t genuinely know “what it is”, only that we possess a certain sensitivity that encourages belief in it.

But on the way you have presented your question, I regrettably have to say that you militate against your own propositions by a choice of arguments that don’t really make a coherent case. The problems are twofold. First, you take too many things for granted, among them the concept of “me”, its role in establishing personal identity, and its relation to the body which is “me” as well. How many identities might this train of thought amount to? There is no clear cut answer, as a religious person would say “obviously one”; whereas a computer programmer might reply “four”.

You seem also somewhat confused about the relation between “me” and the brain. Since the central nervous system is the first organ to be constructed in a new birth, there can be no “me” before this happens — unless of course you subscribe to the notion that a “me” can exist idealiter before existing realiter. But this is a religious argument again, and you give no hint that this is what you are interested in.

Finally, sperms and eggs. Here your argument is based on a simple misconception, namely that a “me” could somehow be contained in them. But sperm is a carrier of genes and the egg a recipient; and the outcome of fertilisation is not the building of a “me” but of a DNA molecule, which contains only body building information. It is during the actual construction that a “me” can be said to be actualised from the coordination of the various organs, glands etc. etc. in their various phases of construction.

What then is your most sensible option? It appears that priority lies with biological rather than conceptual or metaphysical criteria. You might find that casting your presuppositions overboard and delving into the organic aspects of memory and identity a more useful way of approaching these issues.

How ‘I’ came to be

Brett asked:

First, we can establish that being conscious of something is not necessary to be it: I am not conscious of myself when I am asleep, for example, but I am still myself. With this in mind, we can say that I was myself before I was conscious of it. I was me before my brain developed. We can then ask: before the sperm and egg came together to form me, was I the sperm, or the egg? There are four options: 1. I was neither, 2. I was both, 3. the sperm, 4. the egg. 1. is clearly absurd: if I was neither, I would not have been myself when they came together. I would have had no connection with them whatsoever. 2. is equally absurd. There is no reason that I would have been both the sperm and egg when they were at that point completely separate and in the bodies of different people. And to pick 3 over 4 seems arbitrary. So which option is the most sensible?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I have an answer for you, Brett, which I guarantee you won’t like. I don’t like it either. When that happens in philosophy, when following what seems an ineluctable line of argument you reach a conclusion that you find impossible to believe if not fantastical, then all you can do is lay the arguments out and let others decide.

I am with you on the point that I must surely exist during periods of unconsciousness. Every night I go to sleep and every morning I wake up. Sometimes, when I sleep I dream, but I don’t dream all the time, at least I don’t seem to.

Let’s now follow every step in the genesis of GK. Before there was GK there was a sperm and an egg. The sperm came from my father and the egg came from my mother. We can trace the components of GK further back. The sperm and egg were made of atoms and molecules, and every atom, for example every atom of Carbon, originated in a star. The stars and galaxies came into being, we are told, after the Big Bang.

Having gone right back to the beginning of the Universe, let’s now go forward. Trace the genesis of each atom that composed the sperm and egg, and all the atoms that subsequently joined the clump of cells that eventually developed into a newborn baby, born on such-and-such a date. If you like, we can follow the development of the young child as it gradually develops its mental powers, and at some indeterminate point, expresses its first ‘I-thought’.

I wonder what that would be? When was the first time, the very first time, you thought of yourself as ‘I’?

The growing child GK has a sense of his own existence. He refers to himself as ‘I’. As we all did, and do. But there is one thing missing from this story. Can you guess what it is? I am talking about GK as just some person, in exactly the same way as I would talk about you, Brett. Some person was born at such-and-such a date, studied Philosophy, went on to become the moderator of ‘Ask a Philosopher’. But nowhere in this story is there any explanation of how I came to be that person:

I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place.

This isn’t about me being ‘special’ in any way. It is just as much about you, or any other living human being. Whatever story you tell about human biology or the brain or consciousness can never account for the genesis of the individual I call ‘I’ where previously there was ‘no-I’.

The conclusion? It seems to be that, contrary to all the empirical evidence, I have always existed, since the beginning of time. I am uncreated. And so are you. Do I believe this? No, I do not. I don’t know what to believe. However, I will just end on this point:

There has been a huge amount of discussion of the nature of the mind and mental events, consciousness, the relation between mind and body etc. But the one thing that philosophers have so far failed dismally to get their heads around is the question what consciousness is. When you try to describe consciousness you end up describing everything else except consciousness. You can discourse endlessly on the things that consciousness does or enables us to do, but that isn’t describing consciousness any more that saying what a motor car enables one to do explains what a motor car is.

I don’t know what I am or how I came to be, if I indeed came to be. I am not satisfied with that answer but that’s all you’re going to get for the moment.

Religion and hypocrisy

Jeff asked:

Does the presence of hypocrisy in a religious adherent automatically invalidate the belief system he/ she professes to follow?

Answer by David Robjant

No. For reasons both theological and logical.

Theological: full coherence of behaviour with stated ideals can only be attributed to persons of perfect good and perfect evil, of which there are precisely two, namely Jesus Christ (God), and the Devil. Attributing to oneself the coherence of the first is blasphemy, and pursuing the coherence of the second is evil. Thus to the extent to which the question is really a challenge to those of religious faith, it would not be understood by any of those it is supposed to target. It is thus a circular argument justifying anticlericalism only if you are already opposed to the whole of Christian theology. In this it closely mirrors popular understandings of the ontological argument; a circular argument justifying theism from a foundation in theism. These are not the sort of arguments or questions that persuade anyone, or are supposed to do so. The pressure they exert is a sort of reciprocating faith engine — the one a faith in God, the other a faith in the folly of religion. Such engines tend not towards understanding, but can exert a sort peer pressure or exhortation, even upon the self.

Logical: answering the question depends on settling what it is to “follow” a “belief system”. Any “yes” answer to the question is going to require an awful lot of background work on what following a belief system is supposed to be, and may well involve saying some pretty implausible things about belief along the way. Such as, for example, that a belief just is whatever someone acts on, or alternatively that a belief just is what someone declares or “professes”. Neither seem persuasive for reasons we can all of us rehearse, and failing these snappy answers do we really understand what a belief is? That would appear to be the primary problem raised by the question, and it is by no means easy to answer — it is a tricky and deep philosophical problem for those who assert their atheism as much as for theists. In this, ‘how do you know you are really an atheist?’ is not wholly unlike ‘how do you know you are really a believer?’ Are we supposed to be looking at acts or statements, or statements in some special ceremonial setting, or some forth unclear story relating all three? Can anything useful even be said here in the abstract and for all cases, or does understanding the significance and grammar of “belief” in use require something like the extended gaze of a novelist upon their characters, beyond the handy portability of a short thought experiment?

A perhaps more philosophically tractable angle here is around “system”. What is “system” in thought, to what extent is system a good thing, and what has system got to do with religion specifically, or the religious attitude in general? Praising Schopenhauer against Kant, Iris Murdoch makes a persuasive case for unsystematic modes of thinking for something rather like religious reasons, on the basis that internal coherence (within a philosophical system or theory) can close the mind to reality around us (close us off from continuing revelation, in theological terms). These unsystematic modes are needed to coexist with and inform the urge to system, which is treated as ineradicable. It is none of it supposed to be easy.

I have raised questions in answering yours, but while I have no firm idea what I should best do with a word like “God”, I am clear that “Hypocrisy is vice’s tribute to virtue”.

It strikes me that you are opposing and banishing all possibility of moral progress, when you treat coherence between the ideal and the actual as the condition of respect for the ideal professed. What’s so great about coherence of the type demanded depends a lot on conceits about where you think you are starting. Being coherent in crime is not a feather in the cap for a criminal. Incoherence then is the only salvation; incoherence is precisely virtue, if you start from some dark wrong place. And it is the challenging difficult unpalatable but perhaps insightful view of most religion, and a fair chunk of philosophical morals, that we do indeed start from some dark wrong place. Perfection is a very long difficult infinite path away — it is not realised by bringing cynical remarks into coherence with cynical behaviour. For all that the “failed priest” is supposed to be a figure of fun, failure means that something was attempted — and an attempt on moral progress is by definition incoherence with where we start.