Saturday, August 12, 2006

Believing the impossible is possible

At first glance, it appears that we cannot believe the impossible. For example, it is impossible that 1=0, and to understand the very nature of the symbols "1" and "0", and how they are related, is to acknowledge this fact.

On the other hand, I think there are some cases where we do believe the impossible, a least for a little while.

In math and logic, there is such an argument as a Reductio Ad Absurdum (RAA). Here you assume something for the sake of showing something else in an argument. If you come to a contradiction (i.e. saying that something both is and is not true) then whatever assumption that you originally made must have been wrong to start with.

Here is my favorite proof for God's existence which uses RAA:

    Premise: The number 3 is both even and odd.
    Conclusion: God exists.

Fire the pastor, run the evangelist out of town! To heck with faith--we got us a puh'roof! Sadly, atheists have an equally effective rejoinder:

    Premise: the number 3 is both even and odd.
    Conclusion: God does not exist.

Both arguments share a bad premiss as an assumption -- that 3 is odd *and* even. This a contradiction. So neither of these arguments are sound, which means neither gives you a rational basis for believing the conclusion. But in both cases, the premiss is already known to be false (and silly.) In actual practice, however, it's not previously known whether a supposition is true or false. This is where my original claim returns: that we can believe an impossible claim.

Here's how. If we make a supposition in a proof, we affirm our belief in it until proven otherwise. During the process of extending the proof step by step, we are always on the look-out for a contradiction. Until it is found, the supposition is in play. Thus, for a few minutes -- or, maybe years if you're a professional mathematician -- you are affirming it as a belief. If it turns out you find a contradiction -- say, 20 steps down the line -- then before that time you were, all the while, believing an impossible claim! Of course, you can only know you were believing an impossible claim after the contradiction has been shown.

My suspicion is that in metaphysics [1] there are many impossible claims that are believed, but we just don't know they are impossible until after the fact has been shown.

Bertrand Russell [2], a famous logician, gives an example (which I'll paraphrase) of how easy it is to hold impossible beliefs (albeit unknowingly):

    Once upon a time, there was a town with just one male barber; and though every man in the town kept himself clean-shaven: some did so by shaving themselves, while others did so by attending the barber. So it seems reasonable to imagine that the barber shaves all and only those men (and perhaps unfortunate ladies) who do not shave themselves. (Call this "The Barber Truth" --i.e. TBT) But then there is this question: Does the barber shave himself? The only two answers show that belief in such a barber is impossible: (1) If the barber *does not* shave himself, he must, by TBT, shave himself. (2) If he *does* shave himself, he must, by TBT, not shave himself.

Again, assume there is such a barber --i.e. believing for a moment there is such a barber -- and you end up seeing you were believing the impossible! Q.E.D., baby! [3]


[1] "Metaphysics" Wikipedia (Accessed Aug 12, 2006)

[2] "Bertrand Russell" Wikipedia (Accessed Aug 12, 2006)

[3] "Q.E.D." Wikipedia (Accessed Aug 12, 2006)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Immortality, The Devil, and Personal Identity

Dear Mr. Supposed Philosopher:

Hello! I've been following your blog and some of your writings online - I've mostly been intrigued, as you seem to be (correct me if I'm wrong) both a Christian, and someone who follows cognitive sciences (maybe even neurology?) rather closely. I myself am up in the air about things related to faith and soul, so I hope you can spare time for a couple questions.

Do you believe that there is some manner of persistent being after death, from the perspective of the person dying? A soul, a consciousness, a something? And, if you do, do you propose that we may eventually discover this scientifically? Or do you think that the 'material' evidence may be there, but it may never be in a form we can truly understand? (Say, for instance, how we can notice what's going on in a brain to a point with brain scans, neurology, yet the subjective experience of another's consciousness seems, for the moment, to elude us?)

Finally, are there any scientific discoveries or theories that you think lend credence to your faith? I'm assuming you're a Christian - if I'm mistaken, forgive the confusion.


[[ ~ thinking of greater days a’ comin’]]

Greetings, Bye-n-bye seeker:

0. Your assessments of my minimal and flawed piety are correct. I've a background both in Christianity and in the cognitive sciences. (I am a professor at a Christian school, and my Ph.D. was on consciousness and personhood in spilt brain patients.) I'll make a couple of comments on the topics you've raised.

1. You mentioned that you are "up in the air" about certain matters relating to faith and the soul. As you probably know these can be separated. One can have faith about certain metaphysical matters but that need not entail belief in a soul, where "soul" is considered an immaterial substance that somehow floats free of our material bodies when we die, yet controls our bodies while we live, something akin to how a driver controls a car. Everyone has certain positions about metaphysical matters that go beyond the empirical evidence; thus, it's trivial to say that I do. But not everyone holds there is such a thing as a soul (in the way I've defined it). I certainly don't believe in a soul as there being an immaterial substance, but some philosophers do. (Richard Swinburne comes to mind, though I've never found his thinking on the matter convincing, or even cogent for that matter. As a point of mirth, some of his disciples have told me the same thing!)

2. Some people worry that if there is no soul, then there can be no manner by which we persist after death. However, this is misguided, since the issue really comes down to one of personal identity and by what mechanism personal identity might be preserved. I just happen to think there are other options besides having a soul.

2.1. Consider a thought experiment. Suppose that God exists, and that God waits a few hundred years after you die to take on a little project. God collects all the atoms from your body and places them back into the exact (or, for quantum reasons, nearly exact) position and energy state that they were in a few hundred years earlier. All the places where you had carbon atoms on the week before you died of heart attack, there you have carbon atoms again. All the places where you had hydrogen atoms, and etc – all are placed virtually just as they were. In the end, you have the same property – your atoms – and all in practically the same configuration. My intuition is you’d be the same person you were. Of course, time moving on as it has, you wouldn’t be in the same environment; thus, you wouldn’t react the same way. But you’d still be the person with the same likes and dislikes, memories, psychological dispositions, and so forth who, counterfactually, would have acted just the way you act now if merely suspended (frozen cryogenically, say) and then subsequently placed in that situation. So here we have preservation of identity, and yet that without the need for a soul.

2.2. Traditional Christianity has typically held something like this, under the guise of “resurrection”, but usually with some added modifications. You get a “glorified body” on the Apostle Paul’s view. And one can see the point: what’s the advantage of being resurrected a late-middle aged, out-of-shape, pot-bellied bald guy? It beats permanent death, but if God’s going to take the trouble, why not do a little remodeling on the apparatus?

3. In the above example, I’ve used all the original parts of the apparatus, all the original atoms of your body. That’s important, because I could have preserved just the material information state but without using the original hardware.

3.1. Consider an addition to our thought experiment. Suppose The Devil, as the story always seems to go, is especially hacked-off at God today. The Devil, getting wind of God’s project, creates a molecular duplicate of you. Where you have a carbon atom, the devil’s project has a carbon atom; where you have a protein configuration; the devil’s project has a protein configuration, etc. In this case, while you have all the original hardware, the original matter, there would be no functional difference between you and the devil’s duplicate. If, per impossible, you and he were placed in the exact same environment, then you and he would react in the same way. (On this view, any behaviors which you exhibit are a function of the material state of your body and the environment; moreover, two things with the exact same material substructure and physical environment must behave in the exact same way.) It strikes me that God would say, “Morally, these two beings are equivalent. As I am what I am, if I assess one as worthy of eternal life, then I must likewise assess the other into eternal life. Amen.”

3.2. Somewhere between my exact original materials resurrection view and my moral equivalent resurrection view is a third position, more akin to how the pious think about the issue. Nobody who ponders for but a moment believes that all and only the original parts are used. Here is a historical case which makes the point nicely for why:

"When the body of Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island colony, was exhumed for reburial, it was found that the root of an apple tree had penetrated the head of the coffin and had followed down Williams' spine, dividing into a fork at the legs. The tree had absorbed the chemicals of the decaying body and had transmuted them into its wood and fruit. The apples, in turn, had been eaten by people, quite unconscious of the fact that they were indirectly taking into their systems part of the long-dead Williams. The objection may therefore be raised: How, out of the complex sequence of decay, absorption, and new formation, will it be possible to resurrect believers of past ages, and to reconstitute them as separate entities?" [1]

3.3. Roger William’s case makes us take note: God can’t yank original material out of one person to make another original material for another person; thus the information state seems to be the necessary component of your personal identity, but there is still a worry: You don’t want duplicate you resurrected, you want actual you resurrected. But just what counts as actual you is anything but clear when there are other concurrent contenders with your same information state. Some philosophers have argued that this just shows there isn’t such a thing as unique personal identity after all – no such magical “essence” of something which makes you exclusively what you are.

4. Alas! When it comes to life after death, in these cases science is no help at all. We can know all the facts. (Indeed, I’ve conveniently stipulated them outright in the thought experiments.) So there is nothing to be discovered scientifically that could establish what is the true you. Brain scans, subjective reports, neurological mapping – nothing here helps, because the very criterion itself is the issue, not just our ignorance of the facts.

5. Maybe this is the thought behind the story recounted in the Bible by Luke:

“I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send Lazarus [recently resurrected] to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
The five brothers could always claim that Lazarus’ appearing is a project of The Devil, nicely duplicated and given all the information, but, a priori, nobody comes back from the dead! So evidence be damned! (And that would be an a priori faith claim which I’m not willing to make - i.e., I’m not going to rule out that it’s possible. It’s a quirk I have.)



[1] Merrill C. Tenney, The Reality of the Resurrection (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963