And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

Matthew 3:9

I wish to write a short argument for the compatibility of purely materialistic accounts of individuals with the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection and thereby exorcise the need to postulate “immaterial” souls or magical qualia or “consciousness” to make coherent the idea of the resurrection and life after death.

On Software and Hardware; A Functionalist View of the Mind

The view of consciousness and the mind I will be adopting is commonly called the “functionalist” view of the mind. The functionalist view is to be distinguished from both the identity theory and the dualism. Dualism is of course the most common view amongst religious believers that the universe consists of two types of “stuff”, mental stuff and material stuff, and that consciousness or souls are made of “mental stuff” while our bodies are made of material stuff. The identity theory is the idea that we can simply identify various mind-states with various brain-states, and that our minds are simply nothing more than our brains.

I won’t spend much time discussing these other conceptions rather than simply spell out what functionalism is in contrast to these two other conceptions. According to functionalism, the mind is a cognitive or functional system; it is to be defined more by what it does than what it is. Thus, for example, what makes a thing a key is not what it is made of. A key can be made of gold, iron, steel, copper, etc, it’s “stuff” is irrelevant, what makes a key a key is what it does, its function, it opens locks.

The computer is a very popular analogy used to explain the functionalist view. In the analogy, the mind is essentially like the software of the computer while the body is like the hardware. A software is an information processing system which receives inputs and generates outputs, a software is precisely such a system which is constituted by what it does. But the software is not the same as the hardware, the software program is not to be confused with the physical machine itself, that is the identity-theory’s error. But neither is the software made up of some special ‘mental’ stuff which is dualism’s error. Thus our minds receives stimuli from our senses, processes them and generates outputs or behaviour. To be sure our minds are much more sophisticated than that, it is a system which can also modify itself in response to stimulus and receive feedback from its behaviour, etc. But our minds is essentially a cognitive system for processing thoughts, ideas or information.

So what is a software or functional/cognitive system made of? This is actually a category error. It isn’t “made” of anything. It is what philosophers and scientists call an abstractum, an abstract entity. Another analogy that can be used is that of a center of gravity. What is a center of gravity? It isn’t a material particle or atom nor anything within the space-time universe jostling together with quarks and protons. It has a space-time location to be sure, every physical object has a “center of gravity”, but it isn’t itself a space-time entity. It is simply a theoretical entity if you like, it is well defined within the system of physics used for making predictions as to the stability of a physical object.

One of the advantages of the functionalist theory is that it is multi-realisable. That is, the same functional system can be used upon different material objects. For example, how should we explain our experience of pain? According to the dualist, an experience of pain is to be identified with some moment of consciousness in your soul, and according to the identity theorist, the experience of pain is simply to be identified with a very specific chemical-neurological type. But both are problematic when we consider the question as to whether or not animals feel pain. Do they have souls or “mental stuff” to experience pain? Maybe monkeys has souls, how about lizards? Coackroaches? Do they feel pain, have they a sort of proto-soul or consciousness? The functionalist has an advantage over this in that the functionalist does not postulate a special mental or consciousness stuff in binary contrast to material stuff. According to the functionalist, experiences and consciousness is simply a matter of degrees, a matter of how vast or encompassing one’s cognitive system is. To be sure, we humans because of our much more complex cognitive system, experience pain in a different way than from animals, for example, we don’t only feel raw pain, we feel desperation as well anxiety at our pain, etc, because the pain is linked to our other systems of our hopes for the future being threatened, intentions, etc. Whereas animals can feel pain, but not in the same way and not with the same connotation or meaning as we do because of their simplier cognitive system, etc. The point being that a mental experience exists as long as the same functional system exists, whether in humans or animals, although we grant that this functional system is a matter of degrees and connectedness to other systems.

The problem with the identity theory is that different animals may have completely different brain and neurochemistry from us and yet still experience pain. The point therefore is not whether the same brain states exists in animals, but whether their brain-states does the same thing or performs the same function as it does in our brains. Therefore, any entity or animal can be said to possess the same experience or consciousness as long as they possess a similar cognitive or functional system, not necessarily the same neurochemistry.

On the Self as the Center of Narrative Gravity

Suppose we make another huge theoretical leap and simply argue that what we call our “souls” or “self” is simply an abstract narrative or story, a story about a character, namely, you. To quote an article,

Pick up Moby Dick and open it up to page one. It says, “Call me Ishmael.” Call whom Ishmael? Call Melville Ishmael? No. Call Ishmael Ishmael. Melville has created a fictional character named Ishmael. As you read the book you learn about Ishmael, about his life, about his beliefs and desires, his acts and attitudes. You learn a lot more about Ishmael then Melville ever explicitly tells you. Some of it you can read in by implication. Some of it you can read in by extrapolation.

So who am I? Well, I’m Machina. I’m a son of Deus, I’m a Protestant Christian, and I’m a citizen of Singapore. I studied in a neighbourhood school and I don’t care for sports but I love reading philosophy, I tend to ramble and get confused easily, I’m friends with so and so and I don’t like blah blah, etc, etc. Thus what identifies me or who I am is not exactly my body or some special mental substance, what identifies me is this narrative history or character. Even if every atom in my body is replaced (and it does get replaced every few years I believe), I am still me.

Thus what makes me me is not my body or some special soul “stuff”, but my narrative character and my cognitive system which encodes my habits of thinking, feeling and behaviour, etc. Thus my narrative character and my cognitive system is what constitutes me, my self or my “soul” is essentially the center of this story about myself, the center of narrative “gravity”. To be sure in this world it is “realised” in this body, but it is not the same as this body.

Multiple Realisability and the Resurrection

Once we postulate that the soul is nothing more than this narrative and cognitive system, then it is easy to see how the resurrection could occur. Even after our bodies perish, God can simply “install” our program or “soul” into another body. Remember, what makes you you is simply whoever possesses the same narrative and cognitive system, so all God has to do is precisely just to install this cognitive system into another body along with the same memory of the narrative and presto! You’ve come back to life. To be sure, God wouldn’t just install precisely the same system, he will definitely be making some corrections, removing malice and concupiscience from our system, improving our charity and love systems, repairing our knowledge and perceptual systems, etc, but nevertheless, it would still be relevantly you after God is done.

However at once we can recognise an objection to this account. The multi-realisability feature of the functionalist account which allows the same cognitive system to be “installed” into a new body is also precisely the problem. God could, in principle, simply install the same system into two bodies, then which one would be the “real” you?

The question is actually quite puzzling, in that it assumes that the reality of your uniqueness is somehow necessarily encoded into reality, that there is some necessary metaphysical fact about your individual reality. But this is clearly false. Our uniqueness isn’t some divine or metaphysically necessary fact about reality, it is dependent and derived purely from the will of God. The fact that we are unique is precisely because God decided or willed to accept this body as us. But God can just easily do away with our uniqueness by installing the same system into two bodies. Thus, the fact that we are unique is not a necessary but a contingent fact about ourselves, dependent upon the will of God which is the source of our “being”, including our unique identity and he could as easily “do-away” with its uniqueness if he so pleases. No doubt I am here invoking my nominalist-Scotus prejudice here to defend the maximal freedom of God to do as he please and minimise the number of metaphysical constrains upon his will.

Consider the analogy to narrative fiction. Suppose we dug up an alternative version of Shakesphere’s Romeo and Juliet where Romeo and Juliet marries and lives on happily ever after at the end. Puzzled we ask, which is the “real” Romeo and Juliet? Suppose through some necromatic ritual we can call up Shakesphere’s spirit and ask him which one is the real one, he could do three things, (1) The version where both die is the “real” one, and the version which they just dug up he meant to destroy but forgot. (2) The version which they just dug up is the “real” one, and he meant to submit this to the publishers but died before he could and so we’ve been reading the wrong version or (3) and this is the more intriguing answer, Shakesphere could shrug and just say that they are both equally true and real and that they are both equally valid and authentic Romeo and Juliet.

Thus, the characters of Romeo and Juliet is the pure creation of Shakesphere, he calls the shots and decides whatever the hell he wants to do with them, he could make one of them real, or both of them equally real. As the author and their creator, he has maximal freedom to do as he pleases. It is the same with God, to be sure, given the structure of this creation and this history which he has contingently decided to make and determine, we would be unique beings at the resurrection, but this is a sheer contingency. God could, if he so decided, obliderate entirely the notion of unique personal identity by creating a universe where there isn’t a “real” you.

This no doubt would be a little unsettling. There is a literal ‘unbearable lightness of being’ ourselves which this account presuppose. It seems to imply that there is something to be said for the Buddhist idea that uniqueness and personal identity is at heart an illusion, not a metaphysically necessary but an empirically contingent fact. We might worry, but this person which God “resurrects” at the end, how could I be sure that it is metruly me? Maybe after I die, I enter into an endless sleep and a imposer duplicate takes my place at the resurrection!

But the answer to this is pretty obvious. What is it that make you you at the moment? Your narrative memories, your cognitive experiences and habits generated by your cognitive system, etc, and nothing more. It is a futile to try to burrow further into “ourselves” in the vain attempt to find something deeper and more fundamental which constitutes ourselves. That is all there is to being ourselves. There is no doubt something unbearably “light” about this, but this is simply a reminder that we are creatures, not gods, contingent finite and empirical beings, not metaphysically necessary entities, and our reality is in the hands of God, as Rowan Williams one said in a sermon talking about a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

It’s a poem written when he was in prison for his share in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer writes, ‘… they tell me I step out into the prison yard like a squire going to walk around his estate’. (Bonhoeffer was a man of rather aristocratic background and bearing.) And the poem is about the great gulf between what ‘they’ see – a confident, adult, rational, prayerful, faithful, courageous person – and what he knows is going on inside; the weakness and the loss and the inner whimpering and dread. ‘So which is me?’ Bonhoeffer asks. Is it the person that they see or the person that I know when I’m on my own with myself? And his answer is surprising and blunt: ‘I haven’t got a clue; God has got to settle that. I don’t have to decide if I’m really brave or really cowardly, whether I’m really confident or really frightened, or both. Who I am, is in the hands of God.’

Conclusion: The Hope of the Radical Change of the Resurrection

In fact, one could go further and argue that this “unbearable lightness of being” ourselves, so far from being something to be worried about, is in fact the source of our hope. For it implies the possibility of radical redemption and healing of ourselves. The wounds which we have received in this life, the sorrows which we bear, the sin which festers within, “hangs” as it were lightly and in the air, they do not possess infinite significance, meaning or being, but they can be easily healed and restored by the action of God. The painful memories of our past fades in the light of our resurrected selves, does not get encoded into some horrible eternally necessary metaphysical mental substance, but lightly gets “programmed” away from us as Lev Shestov argues,

Can we “understand,” can we grasp, what the prophets and the apostles announce in Scripture? Will Athens ever consent to allow such “truths” to come into the world? The history of humanity – or, more precisely, all the horrors of the history of humanity – is, by one word of the Almighty, “annulled”; it ceases to exist, and becomes transformed into phantoms or mirages: Peter did not deny; David cut off Goliath’s head but was not an adulterer; the robber did not kill; Adam did not taste the forbidden fruit; Socrates was never poisoned by anyone. The “fact,” the “given”, the “real,” do not dominate us; they do not determine our fate, either in the present, in the future or in the past. What has been becomes what has not been; man returns to the state of innocence and finds that divine freedom, that freedom for good, in contrast with which the freedom that we have to choose between good and evil is extinguished and disappears, or more exactly, in contrast with which our freedom reveals itself to be a pitiful and shameful enslavement. The original sin – that is to say, the knowledge that what is is necessarily – is radically uprooted and torn out of existence. Faith, only the faith that looks to the Creator and that He inspires, radiates from itself the supreme and decisive truths condemning what is and what is not. Reality is transfigured. The heavens glorify the Lord. The prophets and apostles cry in ecstasy, “O death, where is thy sting? Hell, where is thy victory?” And all announce: “Eye hath not seen, non ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.”

Our painful past, our sorrows and tears, will get wiped away, we shall arise again at the resurrection and look back seeing them as nothng more than “phantoms or mirages”, like awakening from a dream wherein our earthly lives seems to be nothing more than random flashes compared to the vivid consciousness and realisation of the inconceivable glory awaiting for us at the end. Yes, we shall treat our memories and subjectivity in this world lightly, for our lives and our being is not grounded upon necessity, but upon the good and gracious will of God, who can deliver us from the horrors of necessity and eternal mental substances.

While for most of history, theologians and philosophers have cursed Scotus and Ockham and the medieval nominalists for their wanton exaltation of divine freedom at the expense of metaphysical necessity, but the two good theologians of the Church wrote raptured by the different and much more glorious vision compared to the narrow metaphysical systems of their contemporaries, they wrote with supreme confidence in the love and grace of God, convinced that the maximal freedom which God possesses cannot but be for our good, and that even as we perish, die and get “nihilised” by their metaphysical iconoclasm, yet they are confident that a far greater thing awaits for us after the death of nothingness… the glory of the resurrection of Christ, wherein what we have lost in nihilism, shall be restored a thousand fold in the life everlasting.

So let us rejoice in our materiality, in our lack of eternal metaphysical mental substance, and cry out with the stones (Luke 19:38-40),

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

8 thought on ““I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body”; A Functional Materialist Account of the Survival of Personal Identity”
  1. Frank Tipler already proposed this idea (but closely tied with cosmology, and in a far more rigorous and detailed way) in his 1994 book “The physics of immortality”.

  2. Great post, but I have a question: does “Center of Narrative Gravity” suffer or joy? Because I’ve not understood how an idea can really experience emotions. Thanks for everything.

      1. Yes, but only in the narration, only narratively. He does not really have experiences, I think, but maybe I don’t understand.

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