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The Dark Night of the Soul What If This Storm Ends? PowerPoint Presentation
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The Dark Night of the Soul What If This Storm Ends?

The Dark Night of the Soul What If This Storm Ends?

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The Dark Night of the Soul What If This Storm Ends?

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  1. The Dark Night of the Soul What If This Storm Ends? Feraco Myth to Science Fiction 10 January 2012

  2. When asking about the soul’s nature, it helps to start with basic questions… something like “Where is it?” Is it in your head? Heart? Pinky? Clearly, the soul isn’t something you can grab and rip out, Mortal Kombat-style. But how can we be sure it exists if we can’t find it? To try solving this puzzle ourselves, we need to look at what constitutes a human being. Our first school of thought today is Monism, which holds that everything is made out of the same stuff – no blending between anything. This “stuff” could be matter, could be energy, could be thought – but whatever we’re made of is uniform. In other words, there’s no separation between the “spiritual” and the “physical” – Monists believe that everything is built from the same blocks. Therefore, humans are either going to be all spiritual “stuff” or all physical “stuff.”

  3. There are two subsets of thought that, when combined, form the Monist school. Think of a coin representing the Monist spectrum, with each subset representing one of its faces. We’ll assign “heads” to the Materialists, who believed that everything is physical – the energy/matter continuum, essentially. In this case, “thought” would not be something that’s “intangible” – it’s a real, tangible electrical signal, carried from physical neuron to physical neuron. Since nothing is intangible – and the soul would seem to be – the Materialists argue we don’t have them.

  4. There’s some disagreement among Materialists, however, on what constitutes a human being. We’ll only concentrate on two sub-subsets in the interest of time. Eliminative Materialists take a hard line: “thought” doesn’t exist, nor does sensation. Everything is just an electrical event in your brain, and all events are made of the same “stuff”: nothing that happens brain-wise is distinct. Reductive Materialists are gentler – they accept thought exists – but they also reduce it to an electric event. In any event, all Materialists basically argue that we’re just “stuff,” and there’s no mysterious or mystical “soul” in us because we’re uniform and thus indivisible.

  5. If Materialist Monists (say that five times fast!) have the right idea – that we’re uniform blocks of “stuff” – we can’t be divided into bodies and souls. Since we can’t be divided, we can’t release anything separate when we die. (Also, if a soul’s not put in at birth, a soul’s not leaving when we die.) This, of course, doesn’t worry the Monists much: as William Hazlitt put it, “there was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern – why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be?”

  6. Since we assigned “heads” to the Materialists, we’ll assign “tails” to the Idealists, who believed that the only things that exist are minds and ideas; anything that seems physical instead is simply a mental projection. In other words, we’ll move from being nothing but physical forms in the Materialists’ eyes to nothing but souls now. This body is not a body; my eyes aren’t being used; it’s all in my head.

  7. With the Materialists and Idealists representing opposing sides of a coin, it stands to reason that there’s a school that grabs the whole coin. That’s the Dualist school. They hold that both bodies (physical “stuff”) and souls (mental/spiritual “stuff”) can exist, and account for our inability to sense the soul by proposing what amounts to a multi-plane system. Our bodies exist in this reality/plane of existence, while our souls exist in another one – one that’s perfectly laid over our own and runs at exactly the same speed. We’re linked together in time, if not in physical space, and we access what we can’t see like an antenna that receives and processes an external signal.

  8. If you like the concept of human beings as combinations – a fusion of body and soul – you’re also accepting the idea of a “double reality” (the seen and unseen). For that matter, you might buy into “double reality” without being a Dualist at heart. You can propose that a human being is one thing (not body and soul components, but one whole object), then assert that some “omni force” – a god or gods – operates beyond your range of sensory perception. It affects your life, it can help you, it can sense you – but you can’t see it.

  9. In any case, each school of thought seeks to address similar concerns. Is there more to man than what can be sensed? If there isn’t, how did we even conceive of a “soul”? (It’s not like anyone believes they have “secret physical” components.) If there is, which part is more important – body or soul? Which part lives your life? Is what goes on in my head – my consciousness and thoughts – different from my soul? (Descartes said no – he felt that the mind and spirit combined to form the “theatre of consciousness and conscious experience.”) Oddly enough, these questions go to the heart of our earlier explorations of choice and morality. If we’re just programmed by cells and chemistry, are our “infinite possibilities” actually limited – at a sub-molecular level? (It’s the same question we considered when we introduced the “divinely guided” artist, except here biology, not divinity, provides the guidance.)

  10. As you can imagine, Monists and Dualists can’t reach common ground while considering these matters (mainly due to the Monists’ perspective), and they don’t take too kindly to each other. The Monists believe that we are complex – but uniform – beings, with our uniformity eliminating the possibility that we possess souls. The Dualists believe the opposite – that we’re divided at a metaphysical level, and that there’s something to us that we aren’t seeing. But even if we do have souls – if we are living a Dualist existence – the Hazlitt quote is still worth pondering. After all, none of us can remember a time before our births. What was our soul doing before then? Where does the river begin? Where do we go after – if there’s anywhere to go? And where does the river end?

  11. Moreover, if one does have a soul, one has to wonder whether it can be changed (consciously or unconsciously), damaged, etc. At a minimum, if the soul can’t be changed, character and personality certainly can; this would indicate that soul and character are separate. If the soul can’t be changed, is it more important than our character – our self-constructed personas, the ones that we shift in accordance with the experiences and knowledge we gain throughout our lives? Which one governs our behavior – soul or character? And if souls can’t be changed, why bother being good? Your soul’s going to be the same anyway. Is it a matter of fearing the karmic consequences? Are we afraid something bad will happen to our souls after we die regardless of whether the soul was “responsible”?

  12. In What is Morality?, I made the same point about a dozen times: our morals provide a scaffold in order to stop us from behaving (naturally) badly. What would have motivated that awful “natural” behavior, however? Our souls? If not, why do we believe our soul’s eventual fate depends on what we do here? How is it any more fair to punish a soul for something it couldn’t control than it would be to punish someone who didn’t mean to commit a crime? And if there’s some meaning to our lives at the time we die, will we have been defined by who we are…or what we’ve done?

  13. Jesse Lacey, Brand New’s lead vocalist, once sang, “…I’m not scared to die / But I’m a little bit scared of what comes after / Do I get the gold chariot? / Do I float through the ceiling? / Do I divide and fall apart?” William Ernest Hocking wryly notes that “man is the only animal that contemplates death, and also the only animal that shows any sign of doubt of its finality.” Numerous cultures and theologies provide different explanations for what death actually is. (One wonders why we don’t have a “Unified Theory of Death.”) However, it’s useful to begin with our old logic, the Laws of the Excluded Middle and Noncontradiction: either something lies beyond death – regardless of what it is – or nothing does. For the sake of our exploration today, we’ll consider both.

  14. Scientifically speaking, death represents the end of corporeal existence. (“Corporeal” = “Physical” – “Corpus”  Body  Corpse.) It seems like such a simple deal, and to a Materialist, it is – but to others, not so much. Remember, if you’re a Materialist, you don’t believe in a division between realms – you think this is it. This doesn’t mean that a Dualist can’t believe this is it; it’s just that dualism is a prerequisite belief if one wants to believe in some sort of afterlife or reincarnation.

  15. As you might expect, a Monist doesn’t think anything happens after death – or happened before life. This works for Idealists (who believe we’re nothing but mental energy and projections), as well as for Materialists. The Idealists, after all, recognize that death “happens,” even if they don’t believe a physical body is actually expiring. Instead, they simply assume death represents the fundamental ending of a consciousness. A Dualist, on the other hand, operates under the principle that there’s more to us than meets the eye. Again, you don’t have to believe in an afterlife if you’re a Dualist, but a belief in some state of being that persists after death requires you to assume that humans are more than sacks of meat and bones.

  16. If you’re a Monist, can you fear death? Sure – there’s a push and pull between accepting what you see as the natural necessity of death and facing the overwhelming terror of oblivion. Plus, there’s always that final possibility: what if you’re wrong? (Would this be a good or bad thing? If you’re a Monist, I suppose it depends.) If you’re a Dualist, should you fear death? Sure – what if you’re wrong? Plus, who’s to say you lived well enough to enjoy a second life even if you’re a Dualist?

  17. Imminent death tends to elicit a number of different fearful reactions from people. We may fear that, as I alluded to before, something we did in life will come back to haunt us. Others may fear that nothing we do, for good or ill, will impact our fate after death. Still others fear death because it is a mystery, and our minds respond oddly to perceived dangers that aren’t fully understood. We may fear that the end will involve suffering, or that nothing awaits us on the other side. But our greatest fear may also be the simplest: the possibility that our deeply-held beliefs about the end are, in fact, wrong – and that something else, something unanticipated, will happen instead.

  18. The great philosopher Plato took a physically-oriented approach to the study of death. He argued physical objects don’t just stop existing. If you want to “kill” a chair, what do you do? Breaking it up just separates it into its components, and even burning it leaves ashes. The chair’s been transformed into something else, but not eradicated from existence; whatever you started with remains. The same thing holds true for a statue – if it falls over, it breaks into little shards, but the stone remains. This, Plato asserted, is how things get destroyed in our world – they break down into components, but they aren’t eradicated or erased. Plato, a Dualist, then went on to argue that since the soul is not substance, it cannot be broken down into parts – and since it can’t be broken down, it cannot be destroyed.

  19. Plato’s thought process may hold true for physical things – but is everything in this world physical? This is the sort of question that makes a Materialist angry, as one would insist that everything is physical, and that it therefore makes no sense for there to be this mysterious thing composed of something unknowable beyond sensation. If you’re not a materialist, however, you acknowledge that there are a variety of different “substances” in the world. Is the beam from my laser pointer made from the same “stuff” as the grass on the softball field?

  20. However, things do exist that stop existing. Where does light go when you shut off its source? Possibly nowhere – possibly everywhere. If I play a note on the piano, however, does it play forever? What if I destroy the piano? Can the note live on without its host – its source? How does Plato know that the soul isn’t made of something as transitory as a musical note – or a physical body? Then again, if the soul isn’t meant to endure forever, what’s the point of having one? With death – as with many other things – humanity’s questions just lead to more questions.

  21. We often wonder about the meaning of life in the context of the meaning of death. If there’s no “beyond,” many wonder, is there any point to the “here and now”? I would argue that the lack of a “beyond” would make the good we perform in this life even more important; if this is all we get, why not make it as wonderful for everyone as possible? William Penn phrases it better than me: “I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”

  22. What if there’s nothing after this? How would our lives in this “plane” (using the Dualist system) change if nothing lies beyond? Is Penn’s philosophy best? Should we instead simply throw morality out the window and take what we want while we can? Does the mystery surrounding death actually help us live better lives? (It depends on your view regarding fear, I suppose – is it a positive or negative force?)

  23. Many theologies and cultures account for some sort of continued existence. One wonders if this shared tendency towards a reverence for an “afterlife” is meaningful in and of itself, or if it merely reveals something interesting about the human character – whatever that interesting thing may be. We have people who claim to have been contacted from beyond, or to have come back from the brink of death. In some cases, people insist that they remember previous lives.

  24. But in any event, the mystery surrounding death – the sheer enormity of all that we don’t know – isn’t necessarily a prescription for negative possibilities. After all, if we don’t know whether we continue beyond our corporeal end, we don’t know that we can’t continue. Perhaps that’s part of the meanings of both life and death: that without definite knowledge, all doors remain open to us, and we have an opportunity to explore the infinite possibilities of existence – and, in turn, the infinite possibility for discovery, both of new answers and new questions, a billion targets at which to fling the arrows of our selves…or souls. We just have to hope we lived well enough to make the adventure worth taking.