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.