The Ghost in the Machine
TOPICS: Dr. Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven - afterlife - near death experience - Descartes - the laws of nature are ideas - the Big Bang - ground of being - personal God or impersonal God - Glenn F. Chesnut, God and Spirituality
Many skeptics -- people who believe that they are scientifically-minded -- will still draw back, however, from accepting the reality of Dr. Alexander's out-of-body experience. They are haunted by a ghost, one which has been hovering in the background of western thought for over three centuries. It is a famous ghost, one which goes back to the time of the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes (1596-1650). That philosopher believed that the human body worked like a machine and followed the deterministic laws of natural science. But he argued that the human mind was immaterial and was therefore exempt from the laws of the material world.
Descartes was aware that this raised the question of how pure thoughts (which were immaterial) were able to influence the actions of material bodies (such as our arms and legs and so on). So he came up with the rather quaint idea that the soul was able to move the body through the intermediary of the pineal gland, which he seemed to believe lived in both worlds, part spiritual and part material. In fact this does not solve anything at all, because the pineal gland does not live in both worlds, but is in fact just a collection of cells and hence a material object, like any other part of the material body.
The notion that our thoughts could control the motions of physical objects does appear to be an absurd idea, pictured in the way we frequently visualize the problem. Sitting here at my desk, I could think as hard as I wished, but I would be unable to make the cup sitting beside my computer keyboard rise through the air and move into the kitchen and refill itself with another serving of coffee, and then come back again (moved by my thoughts alone) and obediently place itself at my right hand.
And so we are sent back to that image of the human brain as a piece of mechanical clockwork with gears and cogs meshing with one another, while a pale white ghost flits nervously through the spinning gear wheels, attempting futilely to make the machinery do something different from what we all know it will invariably be forced to do. But since it is completely immaterial, when the poor ghost attempts to shove on one of the cogwheels, its hand simply passes right through the wheel.
Ideas (which are completely immaterial) cannot affect the course of physical bodies (which are material). With all our modern knowledge, we all know that -- or think we do -- here at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Human thoughts as electrical charges and biochemical shifts
The world of western thought became so convinced that this was true, that it eventually developed the theory that thoughts and ideas were composed solely of electrical charges moving around in the human brain, and minute biochemical shifts taking place in the brain cells and elsewhere in the body. That is, thoughts were material things just like everything else that truly existed. The invention of the modern computer, which uses patterns of electrical charges on computer chips to represent numbers, words, mathematical relationships, and other ideas, seemed to have proved that this was so. If you take a hammer and break the computer chip into pieces, the computer will no longer be able to calculate anything at all. In like manner, human consciousness cannot exist apart from a functioning human brain and body. There can be no life after death.
Can immaterial thoughts affect material objects?
We seem to be presented with an irresolvable dilemma. Life after the death of the physical body would be possible only if thoughts and ideas (and human consciousness itself) were immaterial things. But a set of immaterial ideas could not affect the behavior of our physical bodies, which are material objects.
The fact that I can decide right this moment to reach out my right forefinger and touch my nose, seems to decide which side of the dilemma we have to come down on. My thoughts and ideas are in fact material things -- composed of patterns of electrons and chemicals in my physical brain cells -- or my finger could not be moved by my thoughts. And this means that life after death is impossible.
But is this apparent dilemma a real one? The first step in exorcizing the image of the ghost in the machine is to realize that pure ideas can indeed shape the movements of physical bodies, and do so all the time. This is the fundamental basis of modern science. The laws of science are all cast in mathematical form as pure ideas. When an apple detaches from a tree, it falls to the ground because the law of gravity (an idea) compels it to do so. The law of gravity determines the course of a cannonball shot from a cannon, and the elliptical orbit of the earth about the sun. Of course pure ideas can make physical objects move in specific paths! It is sheer nonsense to try to argue otherwise.
According to present calculations, the physical universe in which we now live came into existence in an event called the Big Bang which took place around 13.7 billion years ago. It exploded into existence out of what I like to call the ground of being, a term I first ran across in the writings of the great twentieth-century philosophical theologian Paul Tillich. The physical universe came into being along with the fabric of space and time: neither existed before the Big Bang. Likewise, all the physical elements which we know (carbon, hydrogen, iron, sodium, silver, gold, uranium, etc.) came into existence in the period which came after the Big Bang.
What can we say about the state of the ground of being before this universe was created? There was no space or time. There were no material things or physical objects. The Laws of Thermodynamics could not have existed, at least in anything like the form used anywhere else in modern physics and chemistry. Because if the ground of being was affected by the law of entropy, it would long ago have run down and quit functioning at some point in infinite times past, and could not have created the Big Bang. For similar reasons, the ground of being seems to have an infinite supply of energy, or the equivalent thereof.
It was not only physical objects which were created by the Big Bang, and the universe's reservoirs of energy. The laws of nature were imposed on this universe by the ground of being, from the very beginning. But this means that the laws of nature -- or the fundamental ideas upon which they are built -- have to have already been in existence in some form or other in the ground of being. In fact, the Big Bang itself was shaped by that preexisting realm of ideas.
We observe thoughts and ideas -- for how else can we describe the laws of nature, since they are not physical objects? -- bringing a universe of physical objects into existence and then controlling and directing them. So can immaterial thoughts and ideas affect material objects? Of course they can. And going even further, can a collection of thoughts and ideas existence totally apart from the physical and material universe? Of course they can, because the ground of being is a totally immaterial realm.
God and the ground of being
Some people have referred to the ground of being as "God" throughout all of recorded human history. For some of them, this is a personal God. But in both East and West, many people have regarded the source of the physical universe as a totally impersonal ground. In Christian history, there have been numerous theologians like St. Augustine who have regarded God as completely personal. But there have also been other Christian theologians who have regarded it as a totally impersonal ground, like the very capable philosopher who wrote around 500 A.D. under the pseudonym of Denis (or Dionysius) the Areopagite, and the twentieth century Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich. St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century taught the idea of a God, which he referred to as the power of Being Itself, which was almost totally impersonal. Aquinas' God did not feel emotions like anger, for instance. Most of the biblical descriptions of God were merely symbolic for him, not literal.
Glenn F. Chesnut, God and Spirituality: Philosophical Essays, Hindsfoot Foundation Series on Spirituality and Theology (Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2010. Can be read online at http://hindsfoot.org/kgs1.html
See especially Chapter 21, "Self-Transcendence," pp. 412-413. Can be read online at http://hindsfoot.org/g21selftrans.pdf
See also Chapter 6, "The Ground of Being." Can be read online at http://hindsfoot.org/g06grnd.pdf
Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (New York: Simon and Schuster, October 2012).
Eben Alexander, "Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife," Newsweek (Oct. 15, 2012). Read online at http://hindsfoot.org/alexnewswk.html