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Supernatural Bones

Glendower: “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.”

Hotspur: “Why, so can I, or so can anyone;

But will they come when you do call them?”

Henry IV, pt I, III, i. William Shakespeare

“Let’s be clear. I don’t have a supernatural bone in my body.” I once said that to try to make clear that I am a naturalist. Nevertheless, despite the association of all sorts of thoughts about “haunting” with human bones, it strikes me as oxymoronic. Isn’t the whole point that the “supernatural” is, if anything, not dependent on bodies? Whatever entertainment that imaginal versions of the living dead, of zombies and their partially decomposed ilk might provide, most people’s homespun dualism involves haunting being done by haints or spirits despite their bodies being quite dead and buried. I taught an upper-division college core course for about ten years called “Brain, Mind, and Spirit,” which was specifically designed to look at the relationships between these three. I often began the class by asking how many of the students believed that they had a soul or spirit that would leave their bodies when they died and go somewhere else. I’d invariably get about 80% un-self-consciously raising their hands. Religion wasn’t the major variable, as I had plenty of lapsed Christians and even by anti-religious science students yet to be disabused of this standard folk belief. By the end of a semester hearing scientific, philosophical, and even theological reasons why this might not make sense, the number would be down to about 70%, though by now most were a little embarrassed by it, and agreed that I’d given them something they might need to think on.

Imagine what it might be like to be disembodied, beyond your “Casper the ghost” cartoon fantasies. Even living humans with no eyes cannot see. The long-term blind can’t even imagine vision. Emotion depends heavily not only on an intact limbic system, but actual hearts, circulatory systems, and faces. Memory and higher cognitive function can be messed with by messing with the brain (everyone can think of examples of stroked out relatives, or a grandparent with Alzheimer’s). Even personality and morality can be altered by material changes in the nervous system. The story of Phineas Gage and the tamping iron is just scratching the surface of work like that of Antonio Damasio Descartes Error. it is a commonplace of the cognitive science of religion that we have a hyperactive “agency detection system,” that reads interiority and intentionality into all sorts of situations and events from which they are demonstrably absent. Given a species with a “theory of mind” (except for the autistic -- Cohen’s Mindblindness), this is probably adaptive: Better to mistakenly presume an intentional enemy than miss a tactical feint. Chapter 8 in Michael Gazzaniga’s 2008 wonderful Human is “Why We All Act Like Dualists,” but Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained is the now “classic” account, Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust from another anthropologist, Justin Barrett actually makes a case for the “naturalism” of religion in The Naturalness of Religious Ideas, and, for developmental psychologists, nothing beats Paul Bloom’s Descartes Baby.

We are all certain that we are more than merely bodies, as, in addition to the physical person, we have the interests, abilities, and intentions that lead to the intuitive belief that these are separate, like a hidden essence that stay the same despite changes in the body. Part of our “theory of mind” arises from the ability of even babies to respond differently to human faces (and even gazing direction), and to biological motion. This is part of what Barrett refers to as nonreflective, automatic, and rapid, precisely what needs to be counteracted when I tell myself to “engage brain” and more reflectively, to actually use my knowledge and critical capacities to think about what might really be going on. Now, the unreflective “essentialism” may be the kind of thing that got me in trouble when I believed someone loved me “despite the absence of evidence.” But “intuitive psychology” really is about explaining people’s behavior by reasoning about unobservable entities and processes. When something is not recognizably physical, or even properly biological (having to to with eating, sex, or death), Intuitive psychology makes it a separate domain. If it isn’t physical or biological, presumably it could pass through walls, disappear, or survive death, leading to the nonreflective intuitive belief that the body is separate from its conscious essences. The problem is that even if we are neurologically constituted to have separate systems of belief about bodies and about intentions, this doesn’t entail a belief in bodies and intentions themselves being separate, or even if so, that they are separate objects or essences, separable things. These are the separate substances of Descartes’ res extensa (thing that takes up space) vs res cogitans (the thing that thinks). Hence the titles of Blooms’