Remarks delivered at the April 4th, 1999 services of The North Texas Church of Freethought
"I think, therefore I am" said Rene Descartes (1596-1650) in his book, Discourse on Method. But more than 1900 years before Descartes formulated this famous cogito with which he is credited, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) said: "To be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking is to be conscious of our own existence." The idea may seem simple, and even so self-evident as to be trivial. But it is worth considering in the context of one of the oldest, most widespread, and most persistent myths of humankind: the notion of rebirth or resurrection.
I was resurrected this morning. And so were you. That is, every time we wake up from a night's sleep — or even a short nap, in fact — we are resurrected. Of course, we are not dead when we are asleep, if by death we mean an irreversible cessation of our personalities and of the brain functions of which they are the products . But sleep is nevertheless a kind of oblivion. People who die in their sleep simply don't wake up.
No one knows exactly what happens when we sleep, but it seems clear that a good part, if not the whole of what we are as we experience ourselves, goes "offline" and ceases to be at such times. When we sleep, our brains stop sustaining our consciousness and do other things, just as the brain is always doing some things of which we are unaware. At these times, in a very real sense, we do not exist. Our bodies are, for all practical purposes, insensible, and we are, except fleetingly in dreams, and even then quite imperfectly, not conscious of our own existence. So if Descartes was right — if it is true that to think is to exist, then it follows that to be unconscious — asleep, for example — is, in an important sense, not to exist.
It is a frequent rhetorical question, one which believers are fond of putting to atheists: "Well, what happens to you when you die?" It is such a commonplace challenge, and those who ask it are so seldom really interested in an answer, that we are apt to dismiss it as meaningless. Itis meaningless, of course, but the real challenge for those of us who honor and revere thought over belief is to demonstrate the fact to others, even when — no, especially when — they really don't expect a meaningful answer.
One meaningful answer, you may now suspect, is: "Well, what happens to you when you sleep?" Socrates thought about such questions 400 years BCE; that is, before Jesus Christ was supposed to have lived. Socrates' words and ideas were recorded by Plato, and in these works it is clear that Socrates was at pains to convey his meaning, instead of deliberately shrouding them in parabolic double-talk and riddles that others could interpret — and misinterpret — in foolish and malicious ways. If only a fraction of the Gospels had been as clear and understandable as the Platonic dialogues, history would have doubtless unfolded in a very different way. We atheists often express despair at overcoming the appeal of immortality. But here is what Socrates said to his judges after being condemned to death for corrupting the youth of Athens, as recorded in Plato's Apology:
… either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. ... for eternity is then only a single night. But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? ... What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? [and, we might add Jefferson, Madison, Ingersoll, Einstein, and a good many others including Socrates] ... I, too, shall have a wonderful interest in a place where I can converse with [such people] ... Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. ... For besides being happier in that world than in this, they will be immortal, if what is said is true. Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know this of a truth- that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.
I think any of us would agree with Socrates. To sleep and never awake is not a cheery thought, but few of us resist sleep when it comes. It would be a wonderful thing is we could always be assured of another day, and another chance — but it is well for us to remember to ask: "For what?" If waking up again always affords us the opportunity of having new experiences, of making new discoveries, of learning, growing, becoming better people, and of literally expanding what we fundamentally are, then it is worthwhile for us to go on, almost regardless of the terms of our doing so. But if resurrection — in this life or any other — should ever mean an unchangeable, immutable, unquestioning sort of existence, no matter how peaceful, blissful, or beatific, then it offers us very little. For such a way of being is really no kind of existence at all.
"Oh, but what about hell?" That is the failsafe argument for believers. But what of hell? It's a subject for another day, but, certainly, for people like ourselves who consider, with Thomas Paine, that our own mind is our church, hell would be a place in which we could not use our minds to question and explore any sort of idea that we may wish.
Now the comparison of death to sleep is more interesting than this, even. For it reminds us that what we fundamentally are is not flesh and blood. The theologians have that part of it right. But they are utterly and hideously mistaken in saying that the soul is some kind of mystical or supernatural entity. For it is merely — or not so merely when you come to think of it — the particular physical state of our brains that makes us what we are. We are like ripples in the water, or a symphony in the air, or the juggler's balls cycling furiously from hand to hand. To ask, "What happens to you when you die?" is like asking what happens to the odor of gasoline when it is burned.
But if we are, fundamentally, patterns, then it ought to be possible to discover what those patterns are and to create them at will. Science fiction? Perhaps. But this is what our brain does every time we wake up. In some way, the fundamental pattern that is each one us is remembered by our sleeping brain even though it has left off sustaining it. Why should it be so implausible to suppose that we could simulate or duplicate this feat? Ordinary laundry detergents work by enzymatically digesting stains in the same way that our stomachs and intestines digest food. Dialysis can substitute for the failure of kidneys. We have already seen the first attempts at artificial hearts. And there are many additional examples.
In fact, it may be that clumsy attempts to reconstitute the consciousness of human beings outside of their own brains, and even after they are long dead, is actually one of the oldest sorts of technologies of all. For what else is the spoken and the written word? As I share these ideas with you, would it not be fair to say that the physiologic processes in my brain which give rise to them are being duplicated to some degree, however crude, in your brain? When we considered the thinking of Socrates as recounted by Plato, is it not the case that we have, in some small way, resurrected a tiny portion of the intellect of this individual who has been dead for the last 2400 years?
Think of the "composite drawings" that police artists make of criminal suspects. The recollections of everyone who saw or thought they saw someone are consulted and, out of this information, a sketch is made that they more or less agree resembles the individual. Sometimes the resemblance turns out to be quite poor, but it needs to be remembered that the recollections in these cases are usually poor to begin with. What if such a procedure were to be followed to sketch the appearance of an individual that people were very familiar with, such as a family member or close friend? A device that could simulate human behavior could almost certainly be configured in ways analogous to the particles of charcoal on a police artist's sketch pad. Authors who produced prodigious amounts of material, especially if it were of very great breadth and detail and included personal interests and ideas, could be the basis for reconstructions of the minds that produced them.
This may seem fantastic. It is fantastic. But the desire for and pursuit of immortality is no less admirable because it has been historically connected with foolish habits of thinking and dangerous institutions and practices. There was a time when the aims of harvesting abundant crops and vanquishing diseases were also hopelessly contaminated by irrational and supernatural delusions. Nor did progress in these areas come all at once. Rather, we earned it slowly and fitfully, and the roots of most of our modern science and technology can be traced back many centuries to a time when few even recognized them for what they were.
But there is a remaining problem that has to do with the fact that the human consciousness is so utterly and frustratingly impervious to objective observation. This is what the philosophers call "The Problem Of Other Minds," and can be understood by asking how it is that any of us can know that everyone else is not merely a very complicated machine that is capable of behaving as if it, too, has conscious awareness, when, in fact, it does not? After all, if we could enlarge the cells and synapses and even the molecules of the human brain, or have the use of some device that could thoroughly explore it to any desired level of detail, would we ever find anything that would correspond to a "mind?" In principle, there is no reason why we could not duplicate the function of the human brain in some vast Rube Goldberg mechanical device of springs and gears and levers and the like. This would probably take up a great deal of space, perhaps as much as the volume of the solar system or more. But if we wandered through such a construct, we would certainly look in vain for something we could say was a "mind" or a "consciousness." We would fare no better if we were to consider even our own personal brain. Consciousness remains, and may well always remain, an intrinsically subjective phenomenon.
But this means that, no matter how well we may be able to get a mechanical, electronic, or even, ultimately, a biochemical device to simulate the behavior of the human brain, we can never really be sure that we have successfully created or reconstituted a mind or consciousness. This problem is the source of the difficulties that so many people have with the biotechnology of cloning, although it shouldn't be an issue at all where this is concerned. But it is symptomatic of the abysmal confusion, fostered and encouraged by supernatural theologies and metaphysics, about the fundamental essence of what it means to be a human person. For it is widely assumed that an individual who is cloned from another is, somehow, not a real person. Some detractors of cloning have made the basis for such delusional ideas plain by complaining, in so many words, that, "only God can make souls." This is like saying, of course, that only one of every set of identical twins has a soul, since they both came from a single fertilized egg that only had a single soul to start with. Luckily, Thomas Aquinas did not know about such things.
"The Problem of Other Minds," meanwhile, may have wider applicability than what I have suggested. Obviously, the problem arises when we think of resurrecting ourselves in the form of artificial constructs of some kind. People who are attracted by the idea of cryonics — the physical preservation by freezing of the human body, or sometimes just the brain, for later reanimation at a time when degenerative and other diseases can be cured — have to wrestle with these questions too. This is because it is usually assumed that reanimation of "corpsicles" will have to include repairs of cells and tissues damaged by the freezing process. Nanotechnology — molecular robotic technology — is commonly invoked as the means of doing this. But, of course, repairing something inevitably changes it, even if subtly. It's a bit like the original ax with which George Washington chopped down the cherry tree (the story is fictional, of course): the handle has only been replaced twice and the head once.
Do such considerations apply to all of us, to our most recent resurrections from oblivion? Are we really precisely the same people who went to bed last night before we ceased to exist until this morning? I suspect most of us have never given it much thought. I don't think we should give it much thought, actually. What I do think is that we ought to wake up each morning with a sense of wonder and recognition that we have been reborn, resurrected, and reconstituted, and with a sense of expectation that we have another day and another chance that will never come again to do think better thoughts and do better things. In this we are limited by the fact that what we have to work with is the result of all the days and chances that we have had in the past and that now exist as memories and habits, good, bad, and indifferent. But what we do today will also, in due time, become a part of what we will ultimately — we hope — have to rely on if and when we awaken into another day and another chance at it all.
It is no wonder that the themes of death and rebirth, extinction and resurrection, have such symbolic and practical power for our species. It is only a wonder that so many people tolerate and accept the reduction of such enchanting and inspiring ideas as these to mind-numbing theological formulas with no appreciable application to ordinary life or reasonable expectations of the future.
Let them keep the faith. We do not need it.
Thank you and Good Morning.
© 1999 by Dr. Tim Gorski