As my mother-in-law passed away 11 years ago, my husband, standing beside her deathbed, experienced an inexplicable rush of energy from the room. He typically doesn’t go in for the mystical, but he was astonished. What can philosophy tell us about what happens at death?
Welcome to the intractable “mind-body problem.” Obviously if there is any sense to the idea of an afterlife, mind must be capable of existing on its own, separate from body. Let’s look at three scenarios.
1. Dualism. This view, going back to Plato but in its current guise the baby of René Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), surmises that mind and body are different types of substances and thus completely distinct. For Descartes, bodies are spatial, unthinking, unfeeling substance; minds are unextended substance that both thinks and feels. Minds influence bodies, but how and why is up for debate.
This approach has been derided for understanding mind as the “ghost in the machine,” but it allows for the possibility that my husband may well have witnessed the actual separation of his mother’s mind or soul from her body.
2. Monism. Here, either the mind is reducible to the body or vice versa. The first approach is materialism: we are composed of one substance, and mind is just a particular arrangement of a portion of our matter. There is nothing about us that could exist after death; the body’s decay is it. If my husband experienced anything at all in that hospital room, it was merely the reorganization of the matter that was formerly his mom.
The second approach is idealism: we are indeed one substance, but it is a non-material one: Mind is the primary substance of reality, matter is in some sense a mental construct.
The first approach (with its many variations) sounds like a good bit of modern science. The second seems kookier, but think about the last time you experienced anything without it first being filtered through your mind; some philosophers argue we cannot get outside or beyond mental processing, and that as far as we know, the entire world of our experience is a byproduct of it. Eastern philosophy often takes this view of reality as being fundamentally mind or consciousness. Obviously it is fully compatible with the idea of the afterlife in a way that materialism is not. That is a great comfort, but of course in no way argues for its truth.
3. Functionalism. This isn’t exactly what philosophers call this category, but I had to call it something. If we are neither all mind nor all matter, and if a complete breach between mind and body seems untenable, perhaps mind and matter are two aspects of an entity that functions as one.
Aristotle, who described mind as a faculty of the soul, gave this version of the view: “It is not necessary to ask whether soul and body are one, just as it is not necessary to ask whether the wax and its shape are one…” To put it another way: “If the eye were an animal, sight would be its soul.” We can distinguish in thought between the concepts of mind and body, but in reality they are inseparable. The mind or soul could no sooner exist apart from the physical body than our faculty of sight could exist apart from our eyeballs. Aristotle accordingly rejected the notion of an afterlife.
In our own day, neurophilosophy—the interdisciplinary study of neuroscience and philosophy—is at the forefront of the discussion. Neurophilosophers use brain imaging and the latest discoveries about consciousness to address the relationship between the physical brain and mind. They are having some success, but the mind-body problem is far from resolved.
So, where does all of this leave my husband and my beloved, late mother-in-law? The moment of her passing of course remains mysterious. Why bother, then, with the philosophy? Two reasons.
1. How you think about the mind-problem problem is how you think about yourself. Let’s say, possibly without ever having realized it, you view your mind as more truly “who you are”; this may lead you to subtly neglect or de-emphasize the needs of your body, possibly to the detriment of your health. Or, it could play the other way around: You see your body as somehow more real, tangible, and relevant than your mind. You eat well and take care of yourself physically, but since you view your nonphysical part as somehow less real and important, you may give short shrift to your emotional or spiritual needs, again possibly without even realizing it.
Alternatively, thinking of your mind and body as both “equally you” but as completely disparate à la dualism may lead to conflicts in such areas as human sexuality. If you love with your mind but desire with your body, you may experience a conflict between two feelings that ideally would coalesce (your spouse would sure hope so). In contrast, the idea that mind and body are integrally one is a viewpoint that usually corresponds to a more holistic self-concept.
If you probe a bit, I think you’ll find that you hold a position on this matter. It’s good for us to identify our hidden assumptions and make sure we actually agree with the beliefs that, after all, underlie our choices and attitudes.
2. Philosophical journeys are fun, interesting, and force you to reevaluate everyday experience in greater depth. They don’t promise mathematical precision, or even answers. It’s the process of questioning that enriches, deepens, and, hopefully, delights. To my mind, it would be a shame for my husband to have experienced such a powerful moment and to have just left it at that. Our family, of course, remains perplexed about what precisely has become of our mother, but we thank her for what, indeed, became her final gift—a fresh opportunity for pondering life’s mysteries.