Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Death and Dualism

My stepmother Fran is in the hospital, close to death. My bio-parents died a long time ago, so she՚s pretty important to me.

I՚ve long had a sort of intellectualized view of death: that it should be no big deal, that it is an essential part of life so we might as well get used to it, that there is no sense fretting about something that is inevitable. This is not an entirely puerile stance. Too much obsession with death is pathological and we should focus our attention on the living. But still – the reality of death is the prototype of That Which Cannot be Intellectualized Away. It takes away something you love and when it is gone it is gone for good, and we are all share the same fate sooner or later. To be human is to live with that reality, to trivialize it is a false sort of sophistication.

I like to go on about embodiment, and sometimes fancy myself a preacher to the rationalists, who think they will conquer death through science, eg by freezing their heads or uploading their software to a better medium than flesh. I will get them to accept the reality of our messy, finite, creaturely existence, goes this fantasy. Well, I haven՚t exactly given up on that, but today I am aware of the downside of embodiment, of having a mind that is inextricably intertwined with a decaying body. Frankly, it sucks, and perhaps my sniffiness at their dreams of immortality is another form of false sophistication. By all means, let us figure out how to break the mind-body connection for good. Even a small hope of keeping us out the grinding maw of old age and death may be worth a shot.

Anybody who believes that you can decant the soul out of the body and put it in a different substrate is a mind/body dualist,  exactly as much as any religious person who believes in an afterlife. I՚m pretty sure that both are wrong in some fundamental way, but right now want to acknowledge whatever truth there is in such beliefs. There is something immaterial about our being, although if you just look at an isolated individual you can՚t see it. We are to some extent a set of roles, stories, relationships, shared experiences, all things which are implemented in our biological hardware but are not rigidly bound to any one body. All those parts live on after death, in a sort of symbolic half-life, embodied as memories in other minds. It՚s not much perhaps, but it՚s not nothing. Whether our immaterial part is soul or software, the purely mechanical view of the mind leaves it out, and the failure of the mechanical part of a person leaves behind whatever that other stuff is.

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