A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Saturday, January 4, 2014

20 Life After Death

20 Life After Death

Last week we concluded that there is life after death—end of story. So, today’s sermon examines not so much the veracity of the Life-After-Death scenario, as some of the various possible descriptions of the Life-After-Death scenario. Last week’s sermon suggested that the question of life after death was just one more rational concept in the complicated jig-saw puzzle of concepts which the mundane mind incorporates to arrive at its rational articulation of the experience of spirituality; it was suggested that the picture, of what the afterlife will look like, is slightly different for everybody, implying, therefore, that the role the afterlife concept plays in our total faith/doubt package, and its effect on our behaviors and values in this life, will also be, on a case by case basis, correspondingly distinct.

As usual, we will use Wikipedia to kick off the discussion:

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
"In philosophy, religion, mythology, and fiction, the afterlife (also referred to as life after death or the Hereafter) is the concept of a realm, or the realm itself (whether physical or transcendental), in which an essential part of an individual's identity or consciousness continues to reside after the death of the body in the individual's lifetime. According to various ideas of the afterlife, the essential aspect of the individual that lives on after death may be some partial element, or the entire soul, of an individual, which carries with it and confers personal identity. Belief in an afterlife, which may be naturalistic or supernatural, is in contrast to the belief in oblivion after death.

Some belief systems, such as those in the Abrahamic tradition, hold that the dead go to a specific plane of existence after death, as determined by a god, gods, or other divine judgment, based on their actions or beliefs during life. In contrast, in systems of reincarnation, such as those in the Dharmic tradition, the nature of the continued existence is determined directly by the actions of the individual in the ended life, rather than through the decision of another being.

Mainstream Christianity professes belief in the Nicene Creed, and English versions of the Nicene Creed in current use include the phrase: "We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."

When questioned by the Sadducees about the resurrection of the dead (in a context relating to who one's spouse would be if one had been married several times in life), Jesus said that marriage will be irrelevant after the resurrection as the resurrected will be (at least in this respect) like the angels in heaven.

Olam Ha-Ba: The Afterlife
• Judaism believes in an afterlife but has little dogma about it
• The Jewish afterlife is called Olam Ha-Ba (The World to Come)
• Resurrection and reincarnation are within the range of traditional Jewish belief
• Temporary (but not eternal) punishment after death is within traditional belief

Writing that would later be incorporated into the Hebrew Bible names Sheol as the place of the dead. The Christian writer's traditional re-interpretation is that the Hebrew word Sheol can mean many things, including "grave", "resort", "place of waiting" and "place of healing".

48. What does Islam teach about life after death?
It teaches that a human being not only has a body, but also has a 'spirit' given to him or her by God. The spirit is the seed from which a higher form of life grows within man, higher than physical life, just as the body has developed from a small 'seed'. Just as in the world around us, higher forms of life evolve from lower ones, similarly from the life of the individual in this world is evolved his higher 'spiritual' life. During his life, man's deeds shape and mould his spirit, for better or worse, according to his deeds. When a person dies, the physical body is finished, but the spirit remains, as he or she had moulded it by their deeds when alive. That is the life after death."

Now the first thing I want to ask is, “Where do all these assertions about an afterlife come from?” Clearly, the vast preponderance of evidence comes from anecdotal reportage: other people have told us about the afterlife, by going there and coming back; even some us have “been there and come back”, and in prayer, is seems a safe bet to say that, ALL of us have, in some subtle way, “been there and come back”. But how can we be sure about any of these reports or experiences if “coming back” means, “not being dead?” How can we be sure that our memories of spiritual experiences are not mere hallucinations, and when we are REALLY dead, we are REALLY DEAD? We can begin with a materialist explanation of the so-called Near-Death-Experience, and see if that makes us nervous:

Has science explained life after death?
by Josh Clark
"As many as 18 percent of people brought back from death after a heart attack said they'd had a NDE. While many religious adherents might not be surprised by these accounts, the idea that human consciousness and the body exist distinctly from each other flies in the face of science. A brain-dead person should not be able to form new memories -- he shouldn't have any consciousness at all, really. So how can anything but a metaphysical explanation cover NDEs?

A study from the University of Kentucky has quickly gained ground among scientists as possibly the best explanation for NDEs. Researchers there theorize that the mysterious phenomenon is really an instance of the sleep disorder rapid eye movement (REM) intrusion. In this disorder, a person's mind can wake up before his body, and hallucinations and the feeling of being physically detached from his body can occur.

The Kentucky researchers believe that NDEs are actually REM intrusions triggered in the brain by traumatic events like cardiac arrest. If this is true, then this means the experiences of some people following near-death are confusion from suddenly and unexpectedly entering a dream-like state.

This theory helps explain what has always been a tantalizing aspect of the mystery of NDEs: how people can experience sights and sounds after confirmed brain death. The area where REM intrusion is triggered is found in the brain stem -- the region that controls the most basic functions of the body -- and it can operate virtually independent from the higher brain. So, even after the higher regions of the brain are dead, the brain stem can conceivably continue to function, and REM intrusion could still occur.

The Temporal Parietal Junction and OBEs
While the REM intrusion theory for near-death experiences explains the apparent hallucinations that accompany NDEs, another aspect remains a mystery. How can a person watch his body after he dies? Though out-of-body experiences are sometimes reported as part of the near-death experience, they can also stand alone, indicating that they are a different animal than NDEs.

This is supported by a bit of accidental research. To find the cause of a 43-year-old epileptic patient's seizures, Swiss neurologist Dr. Olaf Blanke conducted a brain mapping test using electrodes planted on the brain to determine which area controls what function. As one region was being stimulated, the woman had a sudden out-of-body experience. She told Blanke that she could see herself from above.
Blanke determined that by electrically stimulating the woman's angular gyrus, a part of the temporal parietal junction, he could induce her OBEs. What's remarkable is that the patient experienced an OBE each time her angular gyrus was arbitrarily stimulated.

Both Blanke's and the University of Kentucky theories explain OBEs and NDEs. But what about when you put the two together as an explanation for experiences like that of Pam Reynolds? This still does not resolve how Pam Reynolds and others like her view themselves outside of their bodies while they were brain-dead."

[Sidebar: I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but I want to reiterate this last sentence: “This still does not resolve how Pam Reynolds and others like her view themselves outside of their bodies while they were brain-dead.” Many out-of-body reports include the spiritual vision of the “dead person” not only as ABOVE the body, but sometimes, in the next room or, indeed, the next county. If a theory were devised to explain this, on the basis of the above arguments, it would have to assert that the eyes of the BRAIN STEM are mobile, itinerant, and peripatetic.

Going on:]

"NDEs may be a result of REM intrusion, triggered in the brain stem. But OBEs are controlled by a region of the higher brain, which is clinically dead when NDEs occur. What's more, it seems logical to believe that the higher brain must still function in order to interpret the sensations produced by the REM intrusion triggered in the brain stem.

Even though combining the University of Kentucky and Blanke theories does not produce an explanation for NDEs, it does not mean that either theory is wrong. Research in one area often leads to a breakthrough in another. Perhaps we will find out that an organic function is indeed behind NDEs.

If neurology does come up with the definitive explanation for NDEs, the mystery may still remain. Science could explain the "how," while leaving the "why" unanswered. Discovering an explanation for NDEs may reveal a door to the metaphysical world, which could possibly be unlocked -- and explored -- by science."

[Sidebar: Well, duh.]

"As physician Dr. Melvin Morse wrote, "Simply because religious experiences are brain-based does not automatically lessen or demean their spiritual significance. Indeed, the findings of neurological substrates to religious experiences can be argued to provide evidence for their objective reality”."

[Sidebar: In other words, the fact that scientists can yank the chain of the soul and make it do certain predictable tricks, like any other organ, muscle, or material substance, does NOT mean that there IS no transcendent soul, that there is no discrete spiritual entity, separate from the body, but  connected to the body in, if not a MYSTERIOUS way, certainly a COMPLICATED way. Scientists should not be so proud of their electrodes and brain map in creating OBE’s because Hindu yogis have been able to duplicate these effects WITHOUT wiring, for thousands of years; these abilities in the adepts have been shown to PROVE the existence of the souls, not disprove it.

Furthermore, scientists should not so quickly conclude, from the holes is their conclusions, that their scientific methods or procedures are somehow flawed—they should look for unexplainable phenomena with the eyes of pure reason, pure thought, and conclude what any thinking man must conclude—that the world of thought is real and , so far, beyond the range of our electronic instruments’ detection capabilities.]

The following piece reviews some of your basic fundamentalist truisms, which, though clichéd, deserve a place in this discussion:

10 Reasons to Believe In Life After Death

"While some believe it’s impossible to know whether there is life after death, belief in immortality is a timeless phenomenon. From the pyramids of the Egyptians to the reincarnation of New Age thinking, people of all times and places in history have believed that the human soul survives death. If there is no consciousness or laughter or regret beyond the grave, then life has fooled almost everyone from the Pharaohs of Egypt to Jesus of Nazareth.

An Eternal God
The Bible names God as the source of immortality. It describes His nature as eternal. The same Scriptures tell us that God created us in His likeness, and that His plan is to welcome His children eventually into His eternal home. The Scriptures also teach that God introduced death into human experience when our first ancestors trespassed into the darkness of forbidden territory (Genesis 3:1-19). The implication is that if God allowed the human race to live forever in a rebellious condition, we would have unending opportunity to develop into proud, self-centered creatures. Instead, God began to unfold a plan that would ultimately result in the eternal homecoming of all who chose to be at peace with Him (Psalms 90:1; John 14:1-3)."
[Sidebar: I believe this sentence, “The implication is that if God allowed the human race to live forever in a rebellious condition, we would have unending opportunity to develop into proud, self-centered creatures,” suggests many powerful ramifications:

1.   What about the relationship between death and original sin, for instance: if Man, once infected by the fruit of the tree of knowledge, were allowed to retain the knowledge both of good and evil, AND of the power to defy the law of God, eternity might easily find itself peopled by a race of Satanic ego maniacs. Breaking the cycle of growth in rational knowledge by introducing death into the system, sounds kind of like breaking a tension cycle in a violinist’s technique—relaxing the grip of tensed muscles, allowing the position to begin again. Without death, original sin might grow, unimpeded, into a universe- engulfing cancer; and without life after death, Man, created in God’s image, could not enjoy the return to his source in the Heart of God.

2.   Another implication is that, living in the shadow of death serves as a constant reminder that life resonates beyond the confines of carnal knowledge. The mystery of death sobers the proud and calms the furious.

Back to 10 Reasons:]

"Practical Effects
Belief in life after death is a source of personal security, optimism, and spiritual betterment (1 John 3:2). Nothing offers more courage than the confidence that there is a better life for those who use the present to prepare for eternity. Belief in the unlimited opportunities of eternity has enabled many to make the ultimate sacrifice of their own life in behalf of those they love. It was His belief in life after death that enabled Jesus to say, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26). It is the same truth that prompted Christian martyr Jim Elliot, who was killed in 1956 by the Auca Indians, to say, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”

The following pair of excerpts bring a little classical philosophy to the party, and show how St. Thomas Aquinas was able to put a spiritual spin on the materialistic views of Aristotle. It seems that science and spiritualism have been at odds for 2500 years; original sin pervades the scientific perspective, and the Cloud of Unknowing envelopes the act of  Faith:

“Plato was a dualist, meaning that he believed that humans are composed of two elements, body and soul; two separate entities; a corporeal body, and an ethereal soul. The ‘soul’ is simply a function of the body. Plato held that the soul was tripartite; composed of three elements in much the same way as a chariot. At the helm is the soul’s logical element, commanding the two horses- base desire, and emotional drive. When reason is in control, and coordinates the horses, life is smooth and good. When the horses are unruly, and logic is thrown aside, life becomes stressful and full of strife.

Plato held that this tripartite soul is in a constant cycle- being trapped in a human body, and then escaping the body at death to return to the ‘realm of the forms’, and back to a human body, and so on ad infinitum- as the soul is both eternal and immutable. His student Aristotle contested this viewpoint, claiming instead that soul and body were inseparable- an early materialist stance- the soul being a component of the body, helping to keep it alive and enrich it, in much the same way as blood. Descartes may have attacked Aristotle’s assertion, based on his argument from doubt- if the soul is simply a component of the body, then it’s existence can be doubted, rendering it effectively corporeal, and therefore not the metaphysical entity which Descartes believed it to be- and which, indeed, his assertion ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ seems to prove it to be.”

St. Thomas Aquinas is known as the first of a group of philosophers known as the scholastics. Scholasticism was a movement in the medieval period to reconcile Christian dogma or doctrine with the somewhat newly discovered objective philosophies of Aristotle and Plato. Thus, we observe that: not only has the Mind/Body dichotomy been a controversial subject ever since philosophers first began to write, but the battle between religion and science has also been raging, within the Christian church, ever since 11 or 1200; this little piece by St. Thomas Aquinas is a charming introduction to this subject.

Aquinas and Life After Death
“Saint Thomas Aquinas, famous philosopher and theologian of the thirteenth century, is known for adhering to a worldview very dependent upon Aristotle’s philosophy. Though the task of reconciling Aristotle’s philosophy with Aquinas’ proved difficult, he was very thorough and well argued in it. One of the biggest problems Aquinas ran into during this attempt to make his views compatible with Aristotle was that of life after death.  Aquinas made arguments against Aristotle’s idea that the soul is mortal, among which include
the idea of concept abstraction, and
the necessity of unity between body and soul.

            Among Aquinas’ weaker arguments for the immortality of the soul is that of desire. This argument essentially states that because no human desire is in vain, the desire to live on after death will not be either. This argument does not come with great support other than the belief that God does not leave any desire unanswered.

A stronger argument comes when Aquinas alludes to concept formation. Aquinas believed that because humans are capable of thinking of ideas apart from material substances, that souls were also able to live apart from the body. For example, we can think of the Pythagorean theory as an abstract concept without seeing it being used to find the length of a hypotenuse. Therefore, the soul can live on without the body because it does not need the body to exist, just like ideas do not need material bodies to be realized."

[Sidebar: Many concepts of spiritual existence are IN FACT living spiritual entities; an idea's incarnation into the physical, by any means, gives that idea life in the exact same way our souls bestow life upon our our physical bodies; that is to say, many philosophers perceive THOUGHT itself to be an abstract reality with its own supernatural identity, structure, and sphere of influence; THINKing being the same as AMing. Is thought, itself, therefore, the essence of the soul?—or is it, as in the case of the neutrino detection, merely the evidence of where some higher supernatural identity has been?]

I have declared, for years, that music is not a representation of an abstract reality, but the living presence of an abstract reality made manifest in the physical universe. Music, as thought, rightly claims to be as much a spiritual reality as any prayer, or miraculous pre-cognition. We cannot see the wind, but we know where it has been; likewise we cannot see the soul, but without it we would see nothing, because we would be conscious of nothing.

Furthermore, music, as thought, lays as much claim to immortal being as any other emanation of soul.

Wikipedia on the Cloud of Unknowing-Anon

“The book counsels a young student to seek God, not through knowledge and intellection (faculty of the human mind), but through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought. This is brought about by putting all thoughts and desires under a "cloud of forgetting", and thereby piercing God's cloud of unknowing with a "dart of longing love" from the heart. This form of contemplation is not directed by the intellect, but involves spiritual union with God through the heart:

"For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.""

These two paragraphs may appear to contradict the comments I have made, concerning the spiritual reality of thought, since thought, by this author, is rejected as a lower mode of consciousness; but remember I also suggested, above: many philosophers perceive THOUGHT itself to be an abstract reality with its own supernatural identity, structure, and sphere of influence; THINKing being the same as AMing. Is thought, itself, therefore, the essence of the soul?—or is it, as in the case of the neutrino detection, merely the evidence of where some higher supernatural identity has been?

The Cloud of Unknowing author subsumes all spiritual identity under the general heading of “love”. God is love, is enough for him. Would that it were enough for me.

In this presentation, we are suggesting a definition of spiritual activity as: abstract (superhuman) ideas not only being born into the physical dimension, but acting on it in certain physicalized ways. The paragraphs below on William James take this idea still further.

William James
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
"View on Spiritualism and Associationism
James studied closely the schools of thought known as associationism and spiritualism. The view of an associationist is that each experience that one has leads to another, creating a chain of events. The association does not tie together two ideas, but rather physical objects. This association occurs on an atomic level. Small physical changes occur in the brain, which eventually form complex ideas or associations. Thoughts are formed as these complex ideas work together and lead to new experiences. Isaac Newton and David Hartley both were precursors to this school of thought, proposing such ideas as “physical vibrations in the brain, spinal cord, and nerves are the basis of all sensations, all ideas, and all motions...”

James disagreed with associationism in that he believed it to be too simple. He referred to associationism as “psychology without a soul”. Because there is nothing from within creating ideas; they just arise by associating objects with one another."

[Sidebar: As we have noted above: the fact that objective observation can document the active phenomenology of a spiritual entity, does NOT negate the possibility of a of higher dimension of existence for that spiritual reality. The thing perceived is the thing as it exists in an abstract or supernatural dimension. I think therefore I am—it doesn’t get any plainer than this.]

"On the other hand, a spiritualist believes that mental events are attributed to the soul. Whereas in associationism, ideas and behaviors are separate, in spiritualism, they are connected. Spiritualism encompasses the term innatism, which suggests that ideas cause behavior. Ideas of past behavior influence the way a person will act in the future; these ideas are all tied together by the soul. Therefore, an inner soul causes one to have a thought, which leads them to perform a behavior, and memory of past behaviors determine how one will act in the future."

[Sidebar: You can see, here, how the Aristotelean/Acquinas controversy continues to rage.]

"These two schools of thought are very different, and yet James had a strong opinion about the two. He was, by nature, a pragmatist and therefore believed that one should use whatever parts of theories make the most sense and can be proven. Therefore, he recommended breaking apart spiritualism and associationism and using the parts of them that make the most sense. James believed that each person has a soul, which exists in a spiritual universe, and leads a person to perform the behaviors they do in the physical world. James was influenced by Emmanuel Swedenborg, who first introduced him to this idea. James states that, although it does appear that humans use associations to move from one event to the next, this cannot be done without this soul tying everything together."

[Sidebar: This idea harmonizes with the Platonic idea that “At the helm is the soul’s logical element, commanding the two horses- base desire, and emotional drive.”

Back to James:]

"For, after an association has been made, it is the person who decides which part of it to focus on, and therefore determines in which direction following associations will lead. Associationism is too simple in that it does not account for decision-making of future behaviors, and memory of what worked well and what did not. Spiritualism, however, does not demonstrate actual physical representations for how associations occur. James therefore chose to combine the views of spiritualism and associationism to create his own way of thinking that he believed to make the most sense.”

The expression "to make the most sense," in this context, may be said equally to mean, "to be the most true." Sense, as a logical entity, and Truth as a spiritual entity, are harmoniously homogenized in the cloud of unknowing.

This last quotation by Gary E. Schwartz, from his William James and the Search for Scientific Evidence of Life After Death, is in the same ball park as my comments last week on the subject of neutrinos; i.e., that very small things, as yet undetectable by current science, may indeed turn out to be the MATERIAL basis of the soul AND eternal life.

Contemporary Physics, Systems Theory, and the Persistence of Information
"As described in detail in [his] book integrating systems theory and quantum physics (Schwartz and Russek, 1999), while at Yale [he] also became open to the possibility that not only did information carried by photons persist in the ‘vacuum of space’
(a core assumption of quantum physics and astrophysics—without this assumption, there would be no justification for the development and application of precision optical as well as radio telescopes),
but that this information retained its systemic / feedback structure, and therefore could continue to function theoretically applied to all systems at all levels which contained dynamical feedback loops.

In other words, just as the light from distant stars continues long after the star has ‘died’—i.e. the photonic information of the history of the star continues in space (a fact which makes the science of astrophysics possible) — patterns of photonic information and energy comprising biological systems could conceivably continue in space after the organism had died (despite the low intensity of the energy—in quantum physics, intensity is defined as the number of photons per unit period of time).

This led to the novel prediction that learning and memory processes which required the existence of networks of feedback loops could conceivably continue in space (since their informational structure would persist in the vacuum as well). Simply stated, the integration of systems theory with contemporary quantum physics revealed a possible theoretical framework for predicting and explaining a variety of seeming anomalous experiences and phenomena, including the continuity of cognitive processes after physical death.

Moreover, since animal brains contained billions of neurons with potentially a hundred or more feedback loop connections (on the average) per neuron, this raised the possibility that memories and consciousness associated with all living systems with functional nervous systems could, in principle, continue in some form after physical death."

At the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned my intention to offer a  variety of possible descriptions of the Life-After-Death scenario. I don't know whether I have done exactly that, as much as I have offered a variety of justifications for the Life-After-Death scenario. Perhaps the justification comes with a built-in description. My mind reels, at that particular suggestion. It is overwhelming to think about, merely because each anomalous soul, in this wide universe, expresses its thoughts in subtly different ways, making the possibility of coming up with some globally uniform description of the After-Life, an impossible dream. That is, unless we return to this:

The Cloud of Unknowing author subsumes all spiritual identity under the general heading of “love”. God is love, is enough for him.

Certainly, at some point, it must be enough for me--else, whatever will my death mean?

Let us pray:
Jesus, as we approach the season of Advent, and prepare to solemnize the anniversary of your incarnation at Bethlehem, we are minded of so many deaths and rebirths. Give us the strength of attention to steadfastly fix our eyes on the newness of life offered to us by you through a birth and a death. Amen.

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