Recent Posts



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’ Descartes’ Baby, or Damasio’s Descartes’ Error. So, we can and do imagine bodies without minds, like zombies or robots, or invisible essences without physical bodies but having intentional states, like ghosts, spirits, demons, devils, or gods. The problem, of course, is when we have to locate them in order to deal with them, and the only inferences we can really make are from things we can perceive. Hence Casper the Ghopst's fluttering sheet, or things that go “bump” in the night. Of course we can “engage brain” and do the slower and more ponderous weighing of evidence and critical weighing of alternatives Gee, maybe the idea that the soul is a separate thing, but consists in all those intentional states we know to be affected by things like brain damage and drugs to falling on love or having a morning coffee, doesn’t make much sense. Of course, you can’t think that through if you aren’t supposed to think about it!

If the default, automatic, unreflective states are what lead to actual behavior, then the better that reflective beliefs fit them, the more plausible and intuitive they seem, the easier it is to learn or accept them. If never questioned, these are the default intuitions. My experience is that for many people (at least amongst young adults), most of their foundational religious beliefs have the character of “what I was always told” or “what I never thought to question,” or even “what I wasn’t supposed to think about.” So, most of the input to your more reflective system comes pre-edited by nonreflective plausibilities. If there is a time limit, or you are informationally overloaded (increasingly more common in this era), it is the non-reflective that are the more compelling. Separating what is actually verifiable from what is not is conscious, tedious, and effortful, requiring perseverance and training, and in which we are often unwilling or unable to engage. Hence one of my favorite t-shirts says: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Such reflection can lead to all sorts of things that are counterintuitive (a hallmark of scientific advances). This is what is produced by analytical thinking and it is what science in particular, and rationality in general, are all about. As Oliver Cromwell once said, “In the bowels of Christ, think it possible you might be mistaken.” I once distributed condoms on campus that said this, and thought it might help allay some of the more notorious effects of “beer goggles.” It’s also the essence of the critical thinking that higher education is supposed to inculcate, but often does not, but which, quite happily, is often inhibited in the early stages of falling in love [blog].

Now, Cartesian (“substance’) Dualism is really the enlightenment’s incarnation of Platonic Dualism, which become the stock in trade of the early Christian thinkers co-extensive with the decline and fall of the Greco-Roman world, including St. Augustine. Much of the later thinking of Plato’s student Aristotle (who, in turn, taught Alexander) gets lost to Medieval Europe, however retained in the Islamic world. For Plato the “problem of universals,” which is about how different things can be of the same kind, is resolved by the theory of Forms, that is, that this horse or that horse, this book or that book, are similar in that they are each imperfect copies or manifestations of the divine or heavenly Form of a horse or a book. The best examples of Forms are mathematical objects, like the circle, which are in effect separate things, located in a different realm, the immortal realm of the divine. Oddly what gives us access to these Forms is our ability to think and reason. Might life in heaven be like doing mathematics all the time? Mere perception, of course, can be misleading, and imagination, that handmaiden to fiction and falsehood, leads in quite a different direction.

Aristotle, a student of Plato, effectively says “So you imagine this separate, hidden world of Forms to explain what you can see?” For Aristotle, there’s really no such thing as a form independent of the substances that it is the form of. Sure, a form is different than substance, as the same substance can be formed in many different ways, have different essences. But once the substance ceases to have one form, say by being smashed or melted, it has another. It’s not like the initial form left and went somewhere else. So a ball that is deflated will no longer bounce, but it isn’t because “bounce” left and went somewhere else. The form of something is what enables it to accomplish its functions. Without it, the substance is still there, but the form has changed. When something dies, it’s not like its life goes somewhere, it’s just that the corpse no longer retains the form necessary to accomplish the functions of life. The psyche or soul is the Form of the human being which enables all of its functions, but not form is able to do anything without it being the form of something, of some substance, of somebody who can actually do those things. Forms do not exist independently of what they in-form, accomplishing things in some alternate realm. So, we may be more than merely bodies, bodies in particular forms. We can be more than corpses, since we are animated, intentional beings with the form of a particular psyche. We may be more than merely bodies, but that does not mean we aren’t necessarily also bodies. We can’t do without them.

Aristotle’s works on logic were the textbooks of logic all along, but when his work on Nature was discovered in the Islamic world, and translated from the Arabic, it produced a real problem for the Dualists. St. Thomas Aquinas, patron saint of the Catholic Church, manages a synthesis, where a resurrected body is necessary to accomplish all of those functions done by the soul, the psyche, or the mind. But then, isn’t bodily resurrection a pretty basic tenet of Christianity? Ask anyone who believes in a disembodied soul to try to distinguish it from a mind. For Aristotle, the mind is mortal, as our memory, our thinking, our intellectual capacities simply cease upon death. There is an immortal agent intellect, but it is unchanged, unchangeable by experience, and isn’t altered by death, so it is hardly the repository of one’s individual life experiences, and being universal, might be more easily thought of as, well, reason or logic itself, of which living beings merely partake before they shuffle off this mortal coil.

There always seemed to me to be something remarkably egotistic about any belief system, religious or pagan, in which retaining one’s individuality after death, the pie in the sky when you die, seemed to be the central motivator. If a god is sacrificed but doesn’t really die, isn’t that kind of, excuse the politically incorrect phrase. “Indian giving”? Which is the greater sacrifice, the soldier who throws himself on a hand grenade in a trench “in order to obtain seventy virgins in paradise” (never mind Robin Williams’ remark that even one virgin can be a challenge), or the one who throws himself on the grenade not thinking of any reward but the continued lives of the comrades he loves, for who his sacrifice means a great deal? Isn’t the value of sacrificing oneself to a greater cause, to things greater than oneself, the kenosis (to use the theological term) of “pouring oneself into a larger vessel,” the greater value of that larger vessel than one’s own mortal life? It’s as if one is a carrot, being shredded and liquefied to be part of a fine gazpacho (and my Spanish friends will have to forgive me if their gazpachos don’t include carrots, mine does), that somehow that doesn’t mean anything unless one gets to be a carrot again, in fact, the same carrot! For my money, the stories of mythology that mean the most are when a hero is offered the choice of immortality and chooses mortality instead. Ulysses, given the choice of living forever with Calypso, weeps on the beach for his aging wife Penelope, and sets forth again on the wine dark sea in hopes of finding his way home. Perhaps the gods envy us our mortality, the sacrifice we can make for love, or for a good greater than our own.

So what’s the deal with Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World? I think there is a really interesting answer to be found in Kant’s phenomenal world. Kant’s answer to radical skepticism is that there are categories that are a priori to the possibility of our having any experience at all. A category like Time, for example, is logically prior to experience because without it, everything would be experienced as simultaneous, no then and now, no now and in the future. So with Space, without which everything would be experienced as it it was happening in the same place, no here and there, no near or far. There are a whole set of such categories, including Causality, and Identity, within which the phenomenal world is made possible. Kant understands that there may be a whole nuomenal world of things outside the world of our experience, like gods or multidimensional realms, but we do not experience these, so any knowledge based on experience cannot address them. Now, this phenomenal-nuomenal distinction may be a theologically interesting one. It may be that even as we may constantly extend the world of human experience through our theories and instruments, there will always be a “horizon of cognition” beyond which we have not gone, and do not know. According to a Vatican II theologian by the name of Karl Rahner, what theology is really about is how we address, how we orient ourselves to that horizon, and how what is beyond it may reveal itself to us. But what is psychologically interesting to us here is about distinctions made within the phenomenal world. For many people, including most cognitive scientists, it’s like “Oh, I get it, the categories are like rose-colored glasses, or like categories we carry in our heads, that make us see the world the way we see it.” But wait, the distinction between what is inside me and outside me, between what is me and not me is a distinction that is made within the phenomenal world. If these are just rose colored glasses or ideas in my head, those only exist after, or a posteriori, to the existence of experience at all; it’s only “all in my head” if the distinction between my head and what is outside of it was itself a priori. But it isn’t! You can talk to any developmental psychologist about how we learn to distinguish what is inside and outside, what is me and not me, what I directly control and what I do not. I learn to distinguish between me and the world gradually, that there are things, like my own hands, that I control, and things that I do not, that when I am upset it doesn’t mean everything is horrible. This is actually a lifelong project, and part of what makes psychology so interesting. Was I responsible for that, or did you do it? Is it just me? Just because I feel angry doesn’t mean you did something wrong.

What do we do with parts of our experience that we do not experience as real things out there in the world, but also do not or cannot experience as our own, as part of our own interiors? Can I do things that I did not intend, or fail to do things that I did? Is it me or is it the evil within me that is responsible? Are there parts of me that I do not experience as my own? There are very few people who make it to adulthood who haven’t learned a thing or two about themselves that were true long before they knew about them. What does it mean to say: “I wasn’t myself today?” I had a cartoon on my office door once that has someone saying that, to which a friend responds: “I know, I noticed the improvement.” It doesn’t mean I was literally someone else, just that I wasn’t being the person I want to be, and I want others to think of me as being. When it happens I do not think I am somehow “possessed” by some other being, though I may be “possessed” by an idea, an obsession, or a fantasy. But this is our modern account, and it does include all sorts of things that I don’t recognize as part of me, or inside of me, that turn out to be just that. Sometimes quite happily, asa when I had someone else tell me I was a natural leader, or that I was gracious, neither of which I generally think to be true of me. When I hear the voice of my father in my head, I don’t think he is “haunting me” in anything but a metaphorical sense, but that I surely remember him, even 25 years after his death. Which doesn’t even have to mean I actually heard him say these things, some of which I know I invented myself.

There is certainly research on felt “presences.” Many such experiences involve the sense presence of a loved one, often a sibling or a lost friend. Common environmental features of such experiences appear to include common environmental factors, including restricted physical and social stimuli, like being on a desert. While stress is not a necessary component, the presence often gives a sense of security or encouragement, which may produce successful coping. Some of this can be understood as the parts of others we have interiorized as part of ourselves, which may serve many important psychological functions. Imagining the voice of my father saying “you lazy shit, get back to work,” may not be something he ever said, but it might be an important part of my own self-discipline. I believe that there is no small part of experiences of ghostly presences or hauntings that are actually tied to “phantom relationships” No, not the imagining that someone loves you who does not (Son House defines the Blues as “You love someone and they don’t love you back”), but something like the “phantom limb” phenomena after amputation of a limb Phantoms In the Brain We still retain mental representations of our limbs, and indeed, normally experience them through these representations, normally updated regularly by sensory input or motor output, now absent. But people who experience a “phantom limb” do so with a strong sense of the reality of a limb as part of the “self.” Nobody really believes that there is actually a ghost of but what happens with extensive developmental dependencies, social shaping of our bodily and emotional lives, and an ability to form long-term relational bonds. When “severed” from our lives, couldn’t there also be a kind of “phantom other” still present to us, in both memory and anticipation, normally tuned and updated by their actual presence, but still present in our interior representations of rich lives together? When someone dies, why do we mourn? Not because of how the dead person feels, but because of how we do. We miss them, we miss the updating of our image of them by the daily news and weather of interaction with them, of the expectations of futures that no longer will happen. I remember a week after my father’s funeral, when I found my mother weeping in the kitchen. Why? Because there was not coffee made. My mother was the caffeine addict, but it was my father who always made the morning coffee. I am sorry, but I had to laugh. My father was always a joker. On a camping trip he tricked my mother into sticking her head out of our tent-trailer pre-coffee, so he could take a snapshot. “Fooled you, didn’t he? What a trickster, even from the grave.” She laughed, too.