Friday, October 25, 2013

Incompatibilities and Contradictions in Disembodied Experiences: A Possible Implication for the Law of Karma

From guest blogger, Annalee.

It is important to make the following notes before proceeding. I will employ the term disembodied mind to avoid the theological or colloquial meaning of the word souls. In doing so, I am not committed to the concept of consciousness after bodily death as presented by Judeo-Christian perspectives. I acknowledge that Prasnnatma Das used the word soul in the context of the law of karma. When employing the term disembodied minds, I intend to use it within the same context; that is in terms of the law of karma as Das did. I will not seek to prove that disembodied minds actually exist. Rather I will work under the assumption that if consciousness after bodily death, under the law of karma, does exist, then disembodied minds necessarily exist. I will assume, without providing statistical back up, that the number of beings who have lived on Earth and who are no longer alive in a biological sense outweighs the current number of beings on Earth who are said to be alive in a biological sense. Additionally, I acknowledge that upon a disembodied mind entering into a living being on Earth, the term disembodied experience no longer applies as the experience of the disembodied mind is the experience of the living being it is inhabiting. However, in entertaining an important assumption of the law of karma, I will assume that, upon a disembodied mind entering a living being, the term disembodied experience does apply to the disembodied mind.

One perspective that provides a process for consciousness after bodily death is presented by Prasnnatma Das in A Hindu View of Life and Death. According to Das, death is the process whereby the soul is subjected to the law of karma after bodily death. Through the law of karma, the soul is implanted into another being and the soul experiences another life on Earth. The souls ability to experience pleasure while implanted in this other being is defined by the complexity of the being in which the soul is implanted; the factor of the beings’ complexity is contingent on the soul’s prior performance on earth. For those souls who performed past wrongs, they will be implanted into a being with a lessened capacity for pleasure. For those souls who perform great deeds, they will be implanted into a being with a greater capacity to experience pleasure.

At first glance, Das’ argument for consciousness after bodily death seems appealing because it does not seem to be subjected to the same type of criticism imposed on Judeo-Christian claims; it does not involve an omnipresent God and it does not necessarily promise anything to humans. However, the conception of consciousness after death as proposed by Das does present a logical problem. If there are currently less beings on Earth for souls to inhabit than there are souls needing a being to inhabit, then is it a requirement that a single being be inhabited by more than one disembodied mind? And can more than one disembodied mind inhabit a being?

As stated by Alan and Jesse Steinberg in Disembodied Minds and the Problem of Identification and Individuation, “One way in which the presence of more than one mind could be established …would be to provide some ground or principle for determining that disembodied experiences themselves are incompatible with one another in such a way that they cannot be had by only one mind.” Steinberg and Steinberg provide the following examples to illustrate a possibility where a disembodied state is incompatible or contradictory:
1)           Feeling a pain and not feeling a pain simultaneously
2)           Feeling a pain and feeling serene simultaneously
Steinberg and Steinberg argue (1) The state of being in pain does not equate to a mental state. The state of being in pain and not being in pain equates to the mental state of being in pain. The mental state of being in pain would only need to be had by a single disembodied mind. (2) The mental state of being in pain is a positive mental state. That is by being in pain one is feeling serene. Intuitively, it seems as though both states that would exclude the other. But as Steinberg and Steinberg point out there do occur times in which people experience pleasure and pain simultaneously and there doesn’t appear to be anything “intrinsic about the phenomenology of mental states” that rule out a simultaneous experience of both pain and pleasure; it doesn’t appear to rule out the possibility of more than one disembodied mind.

This is the point where you, the bloggers, come in. I feel that it is profound in terms of the philosophy of religion to demonstrate that some of the same incoherencies of Judeo-Christian doctrine can be demonstrated in eastern religion. With that said I am trying to capture this in my next paper. However, I am not committed to a specific thesis; it seems that the jury is still out. So, do you find Steinbergs’ claims about more than one disembodied mind inhabiting a single being to be compelling? Why or why not? And do you find that his argument has a serious implication for the law of karma if the number of beings who have lived on Earth and who no longer alive in biological sense outweighs the current number of beings on Earth who are said to be alive in a biological sense?


Anonymous said...

Schopenhauer holds that will, the inner content of the world or thing in-itself, always represents as a present or a now; consider:

"Of course, if we think back to the thousands of years that have passed, to the millions of men and women who have lived in them, we ask, What were they? What has become of them? But on the other hand we recall only the past of our own life, and vividly renew its scenes in our imagination, and the ask again, What was all this? What has become of it? As it is with our life, so it is with the life of those millions. Or should we suppose that the past took on a new existence by its being sealed through death? Our own past, even the most recent, even the previous day, is only an empty dream of the imagination, and the past of all those millions is the same. What was? What is? The will, whose mirror is life, and will-free knowledge beholding that will clearly in the mirror. He who has not already recognized this, or will not recognize this, must add to the above question as to the fate of past generations this question as well: Why precisely is he, the questioner, so lucky as to possess this precious, perishable, and only real present, while those hundreds of generations of men, even the heroes and sages of former times, have sunk into the night of the past, and have thus become nothing, while he, his insignificant ego, actually exists? Or more briefly, although strangely: Why is this now, his now, precisley now and was not long ago? Since he asks such strange questions, he regards his existence and his time as independent of one another, and the former as projected into the latter. He really assumes two nows, one belonging to the object and the other to the subject, and marvels at the happy accident of their coincidence."

- The World As Will and Representation, IV, 54

Danny Witt said...

It sounds to me like you have two questions: (1) what are some counterarguments for Steinberg’s argument (i.e., the conclusion that it is impossible to delineate multiple disembodied minds); and (2) can the law of karma be logically coherent given the set up of the biological world of the present and past? And, I suppose you have a third question about whether the conclusions for either question (1 or 2) influence the truth value of each other.

Starting with question (1), you might want to check out Michael Dean’s post where there seems to be an argument for the possibility of individuating and identifying distinct disembodied minds (i.e., souls) based on the logical contradiction of two “cogitos” occurring in the same mind at the exact same time.

So, there are two approaches for constructing an argument against the Steinbergs’ conclusion (although I’m not sure if either avenue will yield a great counterargument). Either operate within their criteria for “being able to coherently conceptualize thing X” and try to come up with some two types of a mental scenario that cannot possibly be had by the same mind at the same time (i.e., what Michael Dean is doing with cogito and the examples that the Steinbergs shoot down in their paper), or you can argue against their necessary conditions for “conceptualizing thing X”. It seems to me that their criteria for “being able to coherently conceptualize thing X” is as follows:

1. Thing X is identifiable.
2. Thing X is able to be individuated.

(Jesse, you might want to add or subtract from this; however, I seem to remember your dad saying something along these lines.)...

Danny Witt said...

...[continued] It seems like it would be pretty hard to argue that these criteria are not necessary conditions for “conceptualization of thing X” by human minds. We really can’t conceptualize or cognitively entertain any thing X that escapes our ability to identify X and that cannot be separated from other things around it. However, all this gets us is that human beings cannot conceptualize a disembodied mind (which cannot be individuated in a purely physical reality bound by time). If you think that all that can exist metaphysically-speaking is that which the human mind can register and understand, then it’s pretty much case-closed, since the human mind understands only within the context of physical properties like the three spatial dimensions and time.

However, you could make some type of argument which states that for some thing X to have real existence it does not necessarily depend on human coherent conceptualization of that thing X, nor (within that claim) does thing X’s existence depend on being individuated (by time or spatial dimensions) or identified at all. Although the human mind cannot really conceive of existence outside of space and time, things could exist beyond what we can conceive of (i.e., exist outside of space and time). Maybe having some type of intuitive identification of a thing (if not direct physical identification) is sufficient for thing X’s existence. This almost seems to start looking like the absolutist claim about God as something we intuitively know as being all-perfect and cannot really know anything else about Him. Now, arguments such as these would seem to make possible the existence of any thing X which could at least be identified in some immaterial way (which makes me skeptical from the start because people could claim the existence of anything they vaguely felt they could identify, even if lacking clear individuation of that thing). Again, I’m not sure how you could even identify something that you could not individuate, but it’s at least a line of argument that you might want to take up if you are willing to combat the materialist’s beliefs.

Just to be clear, someone taking up this belief would simply say that each of the Steinberg arguments somehow constrained souls to time and/or space, which wouldn’t be necessary (and might not even be applicable) for descriptions of a soul as an immaterial, outside-of-time entity. However, I’m still not certain that you can really prove the existence of “multiple” souls then, since “multiple souls” seems to necessarily entail some means of individuating those souls (the crux of the Steinberg paper). Maybe you could argue for one single “composite-soul” which is immaterial, and outside-of-time and is able to be compatible with the law of karma since the interaction of the composite-soul with a biological entity allows you to get this quasi-individuation, in that there is composite-soul (of which there is one) concentrated within individual physical vessels. I think that last part about how the one-soul (which is immaterial and timeless) interacts and somehow individuates upon contact with the physical entity is where you will have to provide a lot of argumentation. I don’t know much about Buddhist philosophy, but I feel like my description is very much in line with some of those tenets. These are just some thoughts I had, I hope they help.

Zach Wrublewski said...

Hi Annalee,

I think this is certainly an interesting area for a paper topic, but I have two critical comments. First, I'm not sure it's quite right (though I may be mistaken) to claim that people/souls that are being punished for wrongs committed in a prior life are placed into beings that have a limited capacity for pleasure; it might be that they are placed into a situation with more frequent or severe obstacles to pleasure or the pursuit of goodness.

Second, I'm not sure that the people/souls that are embodied in human beings must be returned to a human body after death. That is, I don't think it's necessarily a problem for karmic theory that there are fewer humans alive currently than the total number of humans that have lived and died in the past. It's possible that some of them have come back as non-human animals/beings. So, there would have to be a general balance of organisms into which souls could reenter; to me, it seems less problematic to assert that this is a possibility, and it might strengthen your paper to consider this.

Zach Wrublewski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Annalee Galston said...

Thanks for the comments,

Per Zach and Danni's comment, I will include Steinbergs' criteria for individuation and differentiation. In reading the comments, I think I will be using this criteria of identifying a disembodied mind along with your perspective outside of space and time to strengthen Das' argument.

Anonymous said...

Let's speculate that the world, in-itself, the inner-content, or that which represents, singular, ineffable, without time or space... has employed, not simply reason, but consciousness itself, as a present or a now, into its service. Is reincarnation, as will, born anew as representation, under these premises, so hard to imagine?

Will Psilos said...

Since it seems that no one else has said anything specifically about this, I'll do it. I think it might be helpful to consider the conclusion we reached in class that a theory of reincarnation only needs to commit to the idea that the number of living beings in the universe remains constant over time. This is consistent with your statement that the number of beings alive is less than the number that have been alive, since this second number is an aggregate of all the living things to ever have existed. In fact, in the case that the number of living organisms remain constant and organisms die, it would be expected that the aggregate of the dead would increase over time and would surpass the number of living beings at some point. All of which is to say that your statement about the number of living things, at least as it's stated here, doesn't pose a problem for the theory of reincarnation. Instead, you could deny that the number of living beings in the universe has not remained constant or just say that that is implausible.

Danny Witt said...

I have a quick comment which piggy-backs on my previous comment. I had laid out a conception of a single, composite soul that interacts with physical matter to become quasi "embodied" (even though the soul is essentially outside of time or space). I think that such a conception of an "over-soul" would help bypass objections that you were worried about in the original post--namely, that there is not necessarily the same number of biological beings today as there was yesterday. If the souls are immaterial and are truly one soul "injecting" into physical lifeforms, then it doesn't seem like there is a contradiction about maintaining the finite number of embodied souls in the world at any given time. However, this seems like it might start to violate the idea of reincarnation, because it seems like the theory relies on individuation of souls. That might be an area to clarify and consider as you try to preserve the reincarnation thesis.