Pleasures of Bodiless Souls

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Lisa Miller recently wrote an article for Newsweek about life after death. In this article (and her book Heaven) she runs through various theories and views on this matter. One view she considers is the notion of an immortal soul. She writes:

After death, the soul—unique and indestructible—ascends to heaven to be with God while the corpse, the locus of our senses and all our low human desires, stays behind to rot. This more reasonable view, perhaps, has a serious defect: a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon. Consolation was not the goal of Plato’s afterlife. Without sight or hearing, taste or touch, a soul in heaven can no more enjoy the “green, green pastures” of the Muslim paradise, or the God light of Dante’s cantos, than it can play a Bach cello suite or hit a home run. Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy.

The crux of this problem is that a bodiless soul cannot have the same experiences that an embodied soul can experience.

One important assumption in her assessment is that a disembodied soul cannot (or at least will not) have the same sort of experiences it had while it was embodied. However, it is easy enough to make a case that such a soul could have experiences comparable to bodily experiences. To do this, I simply need to borrow some skeptical arguments. For example, take Descartes’ classic Meditations on First Philosophy. In the first meditation he presents the dream argument, arguing that everything he experiences could be a dream and uncaused by external objects. Even more relevantly to this issue, he considers that God might be causing his ideas of his physical body and an external world even though there are no such entities. This is a coherent scenario and God could presumably do this for a bodiless soul “in” heaven. Since God would be doing this for the benefit of the soul, this would not be immoral on God’s part. In fact, God (or His agents) could make it clear what is being done. Interestingly enough, for philosophers like George Berkeley life on earth is just like this: there is naught but minds  and the ideas in them. In short, on such views we are already bodiless souls. So, life in heaven as a bodiless soul could be every bit as satisfying as life on earth.

A second assumption on her part is that a bodiless soul cannot have experiences that differ from the bodily experiences yet are as (or even more) satisfying than the bodily experiences of life. While Plato’s goal was not to comfort people with his idea of the Platonic heaven, in his theory the souls are not “escaped balloons.” The souls “commune” with the forms and engage in intellectual activities. Even better, the souls are fully in the presence of the good. In Plato’s theory this seems to be a rather interesting and satisfying existence. In contrast, life on earth is far less satisfying.

Turning to a more religious view, it could be argued that being in the “presence” of God and the other souls would be immensely rewarding and satisfying. This experience would not be like what we experience on earth. It would, one might argue, be vastly different and vastly better. After all, to assume that the mere physical pleasures are all that a human can experience and enjoy is a bit like assuming that a human can only enjoy the pleasures of animals such as pigs.

True, when most people think of pleasure they do think of bodily pleasures and would, naturally enough, see heaven in that light. For example, people enjoy sex so it is natural that some folks would claim that there will be a number of virgins waiting to have sex with them in heaven. However, the fact that most people think in terms of bodily pleasures simply shows the limits of their imagination and conception of what is fine (as Aristotle would say). The fact that the many would prefer bodily pleasures on earth and in heaven hardly shows that these are the best pleasures. As Plato and others have argued, there are better pleasures than these and these pleasures could very well be enjoyed by a bodiless soul.

Of course, one might wonder whether there are souls or not and if there is a heaven.

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  1. Odins Acolyte

    As a younger man I had what I can only call a vision. It was cruel in that I was taken to Paradise and shown its delights and then returned to my mortal shell. I wept for weeks. I can only say, God was as far from me there as He is here. I found no Judgement and no angels flying about. Everybody knows you there. They know all of you. One quickly finds one is not as bad as one would imagine nor is anyone as good as they would hope.
    I don’t expect belief or followers.
    I am satisfied with knowing and no longer have that unreasoning fear of death. All si as it should be and neither Paradise nor the Earth are our destinations. Life is about the journey.

  2. Odins Acolyte

    Pardon the spelling. My fingers have been cripled by battles and do not responmd as well as they once did.

  3. I life Hell or Jail?

    The answer is whatever you would
    like it to be. Hell or Jail is a limited and negative point of view that would influence negative events to manifest while hallucinating or while living normally. Why does it seem like the walls are always about to cave in but they always stay standing? Why don’t the walls just disappear and a whole new universe manifest around us? The answer is mind control. Society is mentally, physically and emotionally controlling through social taboos and racial profiling. Don’t do this, Don’t touch that, You’re a menace to society, no one loves you anymore, you’re a disappointment, your life was a mistake cracked out son of a bitch, do you see my point? All this negative thoughts and comments directed at individuals under the influence will surely lead to negative outcomes for both sides. Thoughts are like transmitters that effect everything in reality itself. What goes around comes around! This is exactly what destroyed all the great civilizations in the past, the Mayans were right the apocalypse is near…. But it’s never too late for anyone to change reality ; ).

  4. While the possibility of an immaterial soul, on its own merits, seems incoherent, let’s give it the benefit of the doubt.

    Were it all to be some machination of a higher being’s mind, then why the rigor of physical laws at all in this world? It seems implausible that, were this to be some kind of dream (and thus, we are all, in fact, disembodied souls already), that there would exist the sorts of statistical regularities in nature that we perceive, and in fact, can describe mathematically. Thus, this argument has the same tenor as that of Young-Earth Creationists claiming that dinosaur bones were placed in-situ by God, rather than the more likely case of there actually having been dinosaurs.

    That is to say, the life-is-a-dream argument stretches credibility to the point of it being simply a case of magical thinking. You say “this is a coherent scenario and God could presumably do this for a bodiless soul ‘in’ heaven,” but it’s NOT a credible scenario AT ALL; it’s only credible if you are willing to suspend disbelief entirely, to the point where you will belief anything anybody else tells you.

    This simply seems a desperate case of wishful thinking, where one starts with the preconceived conclusion (i.e., that the immaterial soul exists, therefore it must survive death), and thus stretches credibility in attempting to describe what it would be like for such a soul to have experience.

    Given that our minds depend on our brains for sustenance, the argument holds as this: if your remove your eyes, you go blind. If you remove your ears, you go deaf. If you remove your tongue, you cannot taste. And so forth, until you have no further experience of the world.

    If you then remove oxygen, your brain (and you with it) dies. This is a physiological fact. Thus, if your soul is NOT your mind, but your mind DOES depend on your brain, then your soul must, in no way, be anything like your mind, and in fact, could not conceivably have any experience at all like that of your mind (if it exists at all, which is doubtful)… which makes the whole concept of a soul having experience meaningless.

  5. Odins Acolyte

    Have you ever done something or seen something that is really wonderful? You look around to share it and you are alone. That my friends is why we are here. Simple isn’t it? All your comkplex wrangleing about is there a god or not and why are we here. This is the answer. Y’all work too hard. Focus tht energy onsome math. Philosophy is where all the good math and physics comes from.

  6. Odins Acolyte

    Nagarjunary. You have an empty life and a meaningless death to look forward to. It is a good thing you are wrong. Life is about the journey and neither death nor life is all there is. Lucky for you.

  7. Sadly, I am not that great at math.

  8. To Odin’s Acolyte,

    On the contrary, my life has the richness and warmth that every life has, inherently, for life is a beautiful thing that needs no mythology or superstition to give it meaning or value.

    When I am gone, that is all there is, as when you are gone. This is not something to be afraid of, but something to embrace, for this is our time, now, enjoy it and make what you can of it.

    For, to live for the next life is to live someone else’s life entirely, not your own. The afterlife is just that: everybody else’s life AFTER your life is gone.

    Before you were alive, there was life, yet you were not a part of it. When you are dead, the same shall be true.

    Are humans so arrogant to claim that this is not enough? That they must cling on to what few remnants they can imagine of life-beyond-life, out of the desperation their poor egos lay upon them, at the contemplation that life is finite?

    Understanding of this is happiness; to do otherwise is to live in cowardice and denial of the truth… that this is it.

  9. Profoundly pointless as a critique of the afterlife by someone who is ignorant of the basics of Christian Doctrine. It’s in the Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come”. Go and read the Gospels and the Letters of St.Paul to learn the basics. A post which proposes a criticism based on beliefs which Christians do not hold is merely fatuous.

  10. To: Michael Reidy

    On the contrary, I was raised as a Christian and was a true-believer for many, many years.

    At the end of the day, the evidence just doesn’t add up. I can’t just take somebody’s word that there is something there that can’t be there. No matter how many people may say that it’s there, the facts of the matter just don’t add up.

    I’ve looked into it, spent quite a bit of my life looking into these matters. Only to realize that, if there is a God, it’s not the God of the Bible, or the Koran, or any personified God. And any claims of the afterlife are just that: subjective claims, with no supporting evidence, whatsoever.

    I obviously won’t convince you, nor do I care to. If you wish to believe in something that gives you comfort and solace in the face of your own mortality, so be it.

    But I leave you with this. Many Christian-types suggest Pascal’s wager as a way of living life:'s_Wager

    That is, we should live our lives as if the afterlife existed (and so does God), “because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.”

    I came to realize there was a fundamental flaw in this argument:

    by believing (or acting as if) God exists, you *DO* stand to lose very much:

    You lose your freedom, to enjoy this life for the intrinsic beauty and wonder it holds. You become beholden to a doctrine of life, a way of living your life that holds your eternal soul in bondage, using your own sense of guilt and fear of the unknown as motivation.

    How many people do you know actually live biblically, as Jesus would have? Most people who call themselves Christian live so out of fear of the consequences; the most Jesus-like people I’ve met put such concerns past them and act out of a kindness of their being, regardless of what benefit it may claim them in the afterlife.

    And, as for Jesus, he was a great man, but he was just that: a man. A good man, who had many wonderful things to say, which I hold close to my heart, to this very day. But, as Alan Watts once said, Jesus made the mistake of saying the one taboo that is forbidden in society: to claim that he was God. Only he didn’t realize that we are all God, we are all made of stardust, we all have the universe coursing through our veins, connecting us to the majesty of existence.

    And no mythology or superstition will take this away from me, ever again.

    Believe your inert words in a book written by men, hold your soul bondage to the whims of other men who claim to speak in the name of a God who cannot show his face, for any God deserving of creation of this wonderful place is greater than any god that man could claim to speak for. And any afterlife if but a reverie, a dream-world, a metaphor for something that cannot be experienced save in the memories of those whose lives you’ve touched in the good deeds you have done while you were here.

  11. Nagarjunary:
    You old tetralemmist you, I was addressing the OP which was ill informed about the nature of Christian belief about the afterlife. Mike Lab needs to consult his catechism should he have such an arcane document or a Christian of the practising sort. The red biro would course like the mighty Yangste through such a note proffered by one of his students. Hey but it’s just a blog. My point holds whate’er my beliefs.

    An interesting point is whether belief and knowledge are as linked as they are sometimes purported to be. Do you automatically (by default) believe something to be the case if you know it to be the case and/or vice versa?

  12. The truth of all this is it is of no consequence. Life and death (not seperate but part of the same thing) are what they are no matter what one may think. They are beyond our analysis. They cannot be objectively analysed because of the place from whence we perform the analysis. Do not demean the beleifs of others. You have no place to redicule faith from if you have none. I can remember as far back as being a babe-in-arms. Most adults I know cannot remember a fraction of their childhood. It doesn’t mean thay had none. If one has a soul, it would be rather pointless to produce it, send it to the land of life for such a short time and then retire it. If a thing seems foolish to a human, how much more so is it foolish in God’s Eyes?

  13. I agree 100% with everything Nagarjunary says in all his postings regarding this topic. Like him, I was brought up a Christian until I decided to think and reason on my own (outside the Bible) and come up with my own conclusions. To Michael Reidy: interesting you quote St. Paul, for it was him (and not Christ) who brought doctrine to the teachings of Jesus. Out of the 27 books of the New Testament, only 4 are “about” the life and teachings of Jesus (which introduced the 2nd God of the Bible: The Heavenly Father, who was never mentioned before Jesus), the remaining 23 books are about Paul and his desperate attempts to convert gentiles, because for him and all the disciples of Christ at that time, it was a given fact that the second coming would happen in their life-time. Intentionally or not, Paul made an institution out of the teachings of Jesus, who wanted to accomplish just the opposite. As the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham said: “If Christianity needed and Antichrist, they need look no further than Paul”.
    But, if believing in the Bible blindly brings you comfort, it is all the same. However, to me if there is an afterlife, to think that what we believe or not will determine our eternal fates seem a bit childish. Assuming there is life after death implies there is life before birth: so what is the process of becoming an incarnate soul: I am in heaven (I suppose) and I have the choice to come to earth to experience life, but the wager is: dude, you will not remember who you are, and if you fail to “believe” in a book, you will go to hell forever. What’s the incentive? If this was the case, no soul would ever be as stupid as to risk eternal damnation with such high stakes.

  14. To Odin’e Acolyte:

    Again, on the contrary, the truth of this is VERY important.

    Life and death: they are what they are… yes, that is true. But our reaction to it is of monumental importance to our particular scope in existence.

    Let’s say that there were actually life-after-death, for the sake of argument.

    How would that affect your life, versus the knowledge that this is the only life you will lead?

    Now, try the opposite: imagine that this were the only life you had; imagine that, even if there were some immaterial soul that survived your death, *YOU* would no longer be it… it would be something entirely separate from you, something that shared none of your experiences or your beliefs.

    Just imagine it, for the sake of argument.

    Would this change the way you lived your life?

    If it does, I would say you would need to re-evaluate your core beliefs, about life and its meaning. Are you in it just for the reward at the end, or do you have a fractal-level appreciation of all of eternity and being, despite the possibility that this is your shining moment in the sun, a moment that will never happen again, even if everything you believed about the afterlife were true?

    There may indeed be a God, I am not beyond that possibility. But my appreciation of life and my fellow brothers and sisters is not contingent on that fact; nor do I depend on the ruse of reward to open my eyes to the wonder of this place.

    Furthermore, the analyses that we *CAN* perform, at our meager level of knowledge, suggest that the grand majority of causes (if not all) in this universe are of natural origin, not supernatural. That if there is a God, it is not the interventionist God of the common understanding of the Bible, nor is it a personal God….it is not the God of Falwell, nor even the God of Adam, but more the God of Einstein.

    Nonetheless, I demean not their beliefs but the consequences of their beliefs… to live as if one’s soul purpose were the rewards of the afterlife is to miss the point entirely; I demean both their self-righteousness and the imposition of such, at the social, at the cognitive, and at the spiritual level.

    As for faith, why should it be free from scrutiny, as anything else in life? Whereas there may or may not be a God, the long traditions of human abuse in the name of God place the currency of faith in an inflationary curve, increasingly losing value as more and more people seek to speak in the name of God rather than seek what God could possibly be, authentically.

    The blind adherent to popular Christianity would run from this challenge, believing it to be a case of temptation, of Evil or Satan testing one’s faith. The authentic seeker would welcome the challenge, knowledgeable in the essential truth that whatever ultimately is, is.

  15. Michael,

    The stock answer would be that knowledge entails belief. After all, while having a justified, true belief has been shown to not be sufficient for knowledge, knowing P does require believing P.

    Of course, “believe” has various “levels” and intensities. For example, a person might intellectually know that P, yet psychologically and emotionally reject P (refuse to “believe” P).

  16. GoldEagle,

    It does seem possible that a soul could be immortal without having a prior existence. For example, it seems easy enough to imagine that God (or something) creates a new soul each time a souled being is born and that this soul is such that it will not perish. Assuming that God is all powerful, that would seem to be within His power.

    But, the idea that “what is incorruptible must also be ingenerable” has an appeal, or so Hume believed.

  17. Michael,

    My intent was not to discuss what the bible says (or does not say). Rather, my intent was to address the point raised by Lisa Miller.

    I have spoken to many professed Christians over the decades, often to ask about their view of the afterlife. Interestingly, I have received a variety of answers. As such, I am not quite sure what the true Christian view is and I am reluctant to say who among my friends, colleagues, students and casual acquaintances of conversation are not true Christians in the matter.

  18. Michael, the idea that a God creator would create a “new” soul every time a human is born does not make sense at all. First of all, an omnipotent God would “depend” on humans mating effectively, which means He is no longer all-powerful. Second, we must completely be willing to forget all the laws of cause and effect to believe that a soul has a beginning but no end; but assuming that is the case, why would a soul need to be incarnated? In the infinite vastness of the universe exists a star located in a forgettable corner of a very average galaxy (which is one of billions). This medium size star is one of billions that are a part of this galaxy. Around this star orbits a little planet that is million times smaller than the star; on this planet inhabit creatures that are (taking the average size of a male American) 1.26 sextillion times smaller than earth…in other words, we are very, very small…If one could imagine to be large enough so one can glance the confines of the Universe at once, one could not be able to locate our Milky Way galaxy, let along the sun, let along the earth, let along humans. It would be like looking at the Sahara desert trying to locate a specific grain of sand (this grain of sand being the sun). So again, why would a God creator have the need to create souls that “must” inhabit such an insignificant body? All this assuming that there is a God creator.
    Knowledge entails belief? Are you saying that a person must believe what he or she knows? So if I know 2+2 is 4, I must also believe it? I disagree. We know that the act of believing does not entail knowledge, but to state that knowledge entails believing is to go backwards. Belief becomes knowledge. I used to believe that airplanes fly until I saw one flying, then my belief turned into knowledge. Kids believe in Santa, until they grow up and find out that it is all a myth, so then they “know” Santa does not exist. However, this brings up a good point: beliefs unchecked by reason turn into superstition and/or fear. I am not saying at all that one has to abandon faith, because a little mystery in life is healthy. But had it not been for all those who applied reason to beliefs, we would still “believe” that the earth is flat and at the center of the Universe. Fundamentalism is the pc term, I believe.

  19. Mike Lab. writes:

    My intent was not to discuss what the bible says (or does not say). Rather, my intent was to address the point raised by Lisa Miller.

    I have spoken to many professed Christians over the decades, often to ask about their view of the afterlife. Interestingly, I have received a variety of answers. As such, I am not quite sure what the true Christian view is and I am reluctant to say who among my friends, colleagues, students and casual acquaintances of conversation are not true Christians in the matter.

    Looking at Miller’s piece she is perfectly clear about the central doctrine of Christianity about the afterlife. Resurrection is a core belief and her appearing to find this more difficult and paradoxical than mere disembodied existence is a side issue. Christians never had any other belief which is of course, as she mentions further down, also a late developed Jewish tenet. (2 Macabees) To assert as you do that they might have had a disembodied after life given the omnipotence of God is beside the point, flippant even, and does not engage with the total thrust of her article. In any case there are perfectly good philosophical reasons for the espousal of the resurrection of the body which Miller clearly has not a notion of.

    What sort of immortality is worth having? Personal immortality. Now when you bring the person into the scheme clearly the body comes into it. St. Paul recognises the difficulty about the physical body in a post mortem existence so he speaks of a spiritual body. We die as a physical body and are raised as a spiritual body. This is a mystery of faith but Christians believe that Christ is the assurance of its truth.

    Now if you had scrutinised this belief rather than what they might have believed your OP would have had some point. I allow that for you there is much of a muchness between two varieties of nonsense but it is good practice to get it right. If it had been a question concerning The Critique of Pure Reason then I think you would likely have checked the source rather than accept approximations.

  20. Michael,

    Lisa Miller does raise the possibility of bodiless souls and that is what I was discussing. My point is not to debate what is the actual Christian doctrine (again, I have heard Christians assert various views and I do not know which of them has been speaking the true word of God). Rather, my goal was to consider what sort of afterlife a bodiless soul could have. As such, we seem to have been talking past each other. To reiterate: I am not arguing what the true Christian view is or is not. I am not even arguing about what actually happens after death. I was merely considering the matter of bodiless souls. Whether they are consistent with X, Y or Z Christian views is not my focus. Naturally, that is a theological point worth considering, but I will leave that to other or at least another time.

    Personal, bodiless immortality seems to be a coherent notion. after all, Berkeley was able to make a decent case for personal, bodiless existence here. Descartes was also able to do reasonably good job of presenting just such a scenario as was Plato.

    Now, if you want to go with a spiritual body, then perhaps you mean a spiritual substance as per Descartes’ mental substance. If so, then this would be a bodiless existence in the usual sense (no corporeal body) but not a substanceless existence (as per Hume’s view that the self is just a bundle of perceptions).

    Again, my discussion has nothing to do what Christians believe-I am not criticizing their beliefs about the afterlife.

  21. Mike Lab:

    Yes I misapprehended your intent which was to discuss the possibility of disembodied post mortem life, mea culpa. Though neither the Jews or the Christians mentioned in Miller’s article have held this theory perhaps it might serve to illustrate a philosophical point or two. Terence Penelhum in his book Survival and Disembodied Existence discusses and dismisses the idea on several grounds. Some of the chapter headings in this monograph (just 100 pages) give an idea of his approach: /disembodied existence and perception/disembodied agency/memory and personal identity/incorporeal identity.

    You mention Berkeley. Is his immaterialism the same as bodilessness? What we are directly acquainted with are ideas in the mind. That in effect is what bodies are. So no bodies is another way of saying no ideas in the mind and therefore non-existence.

    Yes it’s all very complicated.

  22. Michael,

    I should have been clearer in my original post, so the error is mine.

    Excellent question. If bodies are taken as material entities, then his view would be that we are bodiless. If we take bodies to be collections of ideas (for example, the visual idea of an arm), then we “have” bodies. An embodied existence would be just to have the ideas that correspond to having a body. If his view makes any sense, we can imagine a person who had a physical body losing it, yet still being able to have all the ideas of a bodily experience without a body. For example, God could create the ideas of a body in the person’s bodiless mind, perhaps in heaven.

    Leibniz also has an odd view of bodies. In his monadology, he takes all of reality to be composed of minds (the monads). Living creatures thus do not have material bodies, but they do have “bodies” composed of monads. In the case of people, there is the monad that is the person which is the “dominant” monad of the collection. So, on his view we have bodies but lack material bodies.

    Part of the messiness is that “body” can be taken various ways. For many Modern era philosophers, body was taken as being a material, extended thing (taken as short for matter). Under classical dualism, the mind someone connects to a material body, but the mind can (supposedly) exist without that body (as per Descartes arguments).

  23. Mike, I was not aware that this site took for granted the existence of the biblical God. Here are the problems with your reasoning: if God creates the “idea of a body” for souls (in heaven or wherever) it implies two things: one, the soul has its own ego/personality which carries with it for eternity; second, the idea implanted by God should be that of a perfect body. The first implication necessarily means that the actions of a person in this world are the result of the soul’s personality which a person wouldn’t be able to modify; a mass murderer is a mass murderer because that is who his soul is; there is no chance for a mass murderer to be the result of the many influences (environmental, mental, social, religious, etc.) we use to justify these people’s actions. Regarding the second implication, what do you tell a person who was born with mental and physical defects? That God implanted the ideas of a damaged brain and a crippled body in his soul? Another issue I find with your line of thinking is the problem of a person in a coma: is that person (whose brain has stopped functioning) just imagining he or she has a body but is unable to imagine anything else? And what about animals, since they do not have souls (as it is believed by Christians) how do they have bodies? We could say we know animals have bodies since we ingest a few of them to maintain our own (pardon the pun), does this mean that animals do have souls?
    Descartes Meditations are great rational justifications for the existence of an all powerful, all knowing, and omnipresent God, as well as for the body, but they fall short in many aspects. Among some, they do not address the problem of the ego, and the problem that a perfect God creator has created, or rather, implanted imperfect ideas on some souls, while others were luckier. Perhaps Descartes should have tried to justify the “God works in mysterious ways” axiom as well.

  24. GoldEagle,

    I’m not assuming God exists. I was just writing hypothetically. Feel free to recast that as “If God exists and if God creates…”

    True, if God exists and is perfect and so on, then there is the old question of why He would allow imperfection, suffering and so on. Also, as you point out, having bodies be ideas makes for some odd things-what are we eating when we have a burger or an apple (Berkeley does try to address this problem). I have no good answer to either problem beyond the ones given by others. I do rather like Leibniz’s attempts to deal with the problem of evil. While I think it fails, it does fail in interesting ways.

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