Friday, June 01, 2007

Materialism and Immortality

Even though I don’t think you can have a soul without a body, neither do I subscribe to the idea that we are nothing but the material. However, many people do believe this and it is contributed to more than a few crises of faith. So, I want to ask the question, what if we are nothing but meat machines. Does this end any hopes we have of surviving death?

Although nearly all cognitive scientists are materialists, some still hang on to their Christian faith. Nancey Murphy and Malcolm Jeeves are probably the best know Christian experts in this field. However, most people would think that if we are completely material then any chance for personal immortality is gone. In fact, this is not true and ironically, materialism solves many of the metaphysical quandaries about immortality.

Consider two of the most common problems of body/soul dualism. Firstly, it is extremely hard to explain how dementia or Alzheimer's can appear to eat up a person’s personality while believing their soul is still in there somewhere. The soul could be restricted by the brain’s failure, but people who deal with patients with these conditions do not find that this rings true. As one writer said, “I can’t believe the personality can survive death when, so often, if doesn’t even survive that long.”

Secondly, there is the question of where souls come from and how we acquire one. Does God hand out souls at conception or at birth? What about animals? Was there a first human who had a soul but whose parents did not? And would God deign to give a robot or computer a soul if they ever became conscious? Materialist immortality is able to deal with these questions, in my opinion, much more effectively than old fashioned dualism.

Remember, from last week's post, it doesn’t matter which particular atoms our brains are made of as these change the whole time. What counts is the way they combine, move and interact. They form a dynamic system which, by a process no one understands, produces our conscious experience. Thus, there is nothing illogical about the idea that we could be resurrected with new bodies but have the same conscious experience, memories and personality that we had before. Producing an exact replica of ourselves would be impossible in this world (as I said before, you’d need to recreate the entire dynamic system of our brains, not just wire it up and hope for the best). However, it wouldn’t be impossible for an omniscient God.

Christians all imagine that God reads our minds and can hear our thoughts. Thus, he must have a full map of our brains. The only way to access our thoughts would be to watch our synapses firing because that is what our thoughts are. Thus, to be resurrected, you need to be fully known by God. It is easy to imagine that when he gives us our new bodies he can repair any damage to our minds caused by disease, genetic fallibility or even just bad memories. He could rewire our new brains and jog some of the synapses to eliminate the flaws. We would be us but with all that bad stuff, like our genetic predisposition towards sin, excised. The unbearable pain we felt when we lost a loved one would fade, not just because we would be reunited with them, but because the damage to our minds would be undone.

So it seems to me that even if materialists are entirely correct about our minds being nothing but epiphenomena from our brains, God can still keep his promises. And people who have adopted atheism because they think that science has destroyed the soul can return to their faith without compromising their belief in science.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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