Category Archives: Philosophy

A New Thought Experiment

Along the lines of my previous post, I’m still trying to get my head around when Terri Schiavo’s soul departed her body, and am still trying to understand the thoughts of those who believe in souls.

Hans Moravec has postulated a thought experiment in which his brain is gradually replaced by a mechanical de-vice, one subunit at a time. After each component replacement, he’s asked if he still feels like himself. Presumably, if the answer is yes (and an assumption is made that he’s being truthful), then the next component is replaced, ad semi-infinitum, until there is no longer any meat left in his head, and he’s thinking entirely with hardware. At the end of the process, by definition, he still feels and thinks like Hans Moravec. So is he? Or is he a robot?

Now, this ignores the (perhaps large) degree to which thought processes and feelings are mediated by hormones–it simply assumes that there are some kind of sensors at the interface between the body and the mechanical mind that sense them and get the mind to respond the way the gray matter would have. Of course, one gets the sense that Moravec would prefer to have done with those unmanageable emotions anyway. Which is why he’d probably have replaced his body first, and gotten rid of all those yucky glands, before doing the brain upgrade.

But leaving that aside, the question is, does mechanical Hans still have a soul? Is he still made in God’s image? If not, and assuming that he did prior to the initiation of the procedure, at what point did it leave?

These are not just ethereal philosophical questions. They’re going to become theologically important to some people as technology continues to advance, and we become more cybernetic in the future. We’ve heard about gaining kingdoms at the price of one’s soul. Will there be some unwilling to undergo life-saving medical procedures, fearing such a stiff bill?

OK, now, let’s forget about the gradual replacement scenario. Suppose the functions are simply removed, and not replaced. This is in fact what happened, to some degree that remains in dispute, to Mrs. Schiavo. Getting back to my earlier question, suppose that her cortex was damaged to the point that she no longer had any awareness, of herself or others?

Well, remove it completely, but keep her breathing and her blood circulating. Keep her body healthy.

Now remove other parts of her brain, one by one, but all other organs remain functioning and healthy. Leave in the eyes, and provide nerve impulses to them so that they follow moving objects observed by external cameras, and cause her to emit random sounds with her mouth and lungs of seeming recognition at faces that would have been familiar to her prior to her tragedy. That is, remove the brain entirely, but have her behavior seem exactly the same as it appeared to be in reality.

Is that Terri Schiavo nee Schindler? Does that body still have her soul, or anyone’s? If not, during which excision did it depart for new premises? If so, if it’s a function of physiological functions of respiration and blood circulation, then what does that really mean in terms of today’s technology, that will soon be capable of keeping a brainless body alive, if it isn’t already?

To the degree that I understand the concept of the soul, I can’t believe that it is associated simply with a body, living or breathing. To the degree that I believe in souls, I think of it as a different word for “mind.”

That’s why I think that if I were someone who loved Terri, and I believed in souls, I’d comfort myself with the thought that hers perhaps departed long ago, and was observing in anguish from above throughout the whole circus, and that while effort to hold on to something of her was noble, her ultimate end was foreordained fifteen years ago. And at some level, I’d have to feel relief that the long nightmare was over for everybody.

The Point Is Moot Now

The people who thought it would be about two weeks seemed to have it right. The body of the person who was Terri Schiavo has finally stopped metabolizing. How many more weeks will it be before we stop talking about it?

There are lots of comments over at Free Republic about “bless her soul,” and “she’s with God now,” and the like.

While my heart goes out to the long-suffering family, whose hearts are surely now fully (if only figuratively) broken, at the risk of being (more than) a little iconoclastic, as long-time readers know, I’m not fully down with this soul thing. Perhaps those who are can enlighten me.

At what precise instant did the soul pass from her body, and was transported to God’s sitting room?

Was it when she stopped breathing? When her heart stopped beating? When the phosphor trace on her EEG (assuming that she was on one) stopped wiggling? Even now (or at least a few minutes after the end of these activities) she could have been resuscitated with CPR and defibrillator, and resumed these activities, at least briefly, particularly if rehydrated. Had someone done so, would the soul have had to rush back from heaven, to take up residence in the body again, in case there was still one more legal appeal to play out? Or was the body a lost cause, and the soul would know it? But if the latter then why wait for the conventional functional shutdowns that we arbitrarily use to declare legal death? Why not vamoose once it was clear that all the appeals were exhausted, and the organs were failing, regardless of the respiratory and cardiac state?

The relatives said that Terri has been communicating with them, and they with her, but was that wishful thinking? Did they see a spark in her eyes that they imagined was her, words in her vocalizations that they, in their grief, fantasized as expressions of love and human desires? If so, and those who said that she was truly in a “persistent vegetative state,” uncomprehending of self or anything else, are right, then is it possible that her soul actually left when her cortex collapsed, years ago, and that since then they’ve only been feeding an empty shell in the form of a human being?

I ask these questions for two reasons. First, because I’m genuinely curious, not about souls per se, because I don’t believe in them, but about how those who do justify their beliefs, and how they think about them. Second, because I do think that this bears on a more practical issue to those of us who do want to live as long as possible–at what point should someone be allowed to go into cryonic suspension? While the issues of soul dispositions and locations shouldn’t enter into legal discussions, it’s inevitable that they will, and I’d like to know how the arguments in court might go.

How Can They Know?

There’s a new study seemingly funded to (among other things) justify fishing with live bait, that purports to prove that worms on a hook feel no pain. It also says that lobsters don’t suffer when put into a pot of boiling water. Apparently, the authors of the study think that these critters are too dumb to hurt.

Now, I don’t know how to get into the head of a crustacean, let alone a night crawler, but I’m always a little suspicious of such firm pronouncements on subjects that truly are ultimately unknowable. They sound more like rationalization than science (like the old theory, that’s unfortunately not all that old, that the medical profession had that newborns were also insensate to pain, and that their cries and wails during unanaesthetized surgical procedures was just a reflexive response). It may be that worms wiggle mindlessly, but I suspect that if a lobster being put in a pot of boiling water didn’t mind, one wouldn’t have to work so hard to keep them in it.

A Critique, Not A Theory

OK, one more before we take off. John Derbyshire has a slightly different perspective on the ID controversy:

I would like to see some scientifically literate school board somewhere mandate stickers in biology textbooks stating that “INTELLIGENT DESIGN IS NOT A THEORY, BUT A CRITIQUE.” Then we might be getting somewhere with this dismal business.

Just so.

Now, really, see you later. She’s dragging me out the door, fingers still frantically stabbing at the keyboard. Why didn’t I get a wireless keyb….