Here are a few thoughts I had today about the mind-body problem and the afterlife.

May I first acknowledge that I’m not an expert on this subject. However, concerning the mind-body problem, I think there a couple of key points to remember:

  1. We do not have a firm conception of what it means for something to be “physical” or “material.” It used to be that material referred to bodies that can interact with one another — e.g. causally effecting one another by “bumping into each other.” However, with the onslaught of quantum physics, this view of material/physical is gone because we no longer view reality mechanistically (i.e. like determined, clockwork machine). For more information, you can check out these short videos: onetwo, or this article. “Physical” is now a term we apply to something we understand or can give an explanation of.
  2. It is important to emphasize the human person as an organic animal. I do not mean promoting a mechanistic view of human nature (as that would contradict my first point). Instead, we must understand the human subject as an animal who interacts with his or her environment through a body. If we e.g. over-emphasize the idea of humans possessing a soul, we begin to consider humans in the abstract rather than humans as they truly live (i.e. confined to the limitations of an organic body).

So much of who we are is confined within the brain — at least this is true for our mental lives. Our memories, for example, are stored within a brain, and we use our brain processes to construct language and thought.

In relationship to these “physical” activities (i.e. activities we can give a neurological explanation of), there is another fascinating concept philosophers call “qualia.” For a broad definition, consider what is written in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Feelings and experiences vary widely. For example, I run my fingers over sandpaper, smell a skunk, feel a sharp pain in my finger, seem to see bright purple, become extremely angry. In each of these cases, I am the subject of a mental state with a very distinctive subjective character. There is something it is like for me to undergo each state, some phenomenology that it has. Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives.

Qualia are a kind of subjective experience that are not quite reducible to physical processes in the brain. There are qualia for sensations such as touch, smell, etc. However, I am also curious whether or not we should say that there are qualia for other mental activities, such as language and memories. For example, the neurological/chemical/biological aspects of my brain store memories of me e.g. riding a rollercoaster at Disney World. However, it may also be correct to say that I have qualia for my experience of those memories.

If qualia are not reducible to neurological/chemical/biological aspects of the brain (i.e. the “physical”), then we are left with a type of non-reductive physicalism. Our brains are a dominant aspect of who we are, and without them, we would be quite different, but our identity is also not reducible to purely neurological functions.

Perhaps this subjective experience of qualia is, in a way, the “core” of my identity. My individual experience of e.g. memories is what makes me unique. Suppose, for example, that we downloaded someone else’s memories into my brain. This would not then mean that I became the other person. I would have their memories, but I would not possess their qualia of those memories. My own subjective experience of those memories would constitute new qualia.

Now, consider the afterlife. In philosophical or theological discussions of the afterlife, it is often noted that continuation of identity is vitally important. For example, the Christian hope is that I myself will experience eternal life. If God made a clone of me, and gave it all of my memories, that would be a problem for Christian doctrine. would not be granted eternal life — rather, it would be a clone who is like me but not identical to me.

Suppose, then, that perhaps our qualia are the bit about us that “carries over” into the afterlife. Our organic brains may rot and decay in the ground, but our qualia remain (perhaps sustained by God?). We might therefore be able to possess the qualia of our memories without the neurological phenomenon. Thus, if one believes in the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, perhaps God sustains my subjective experience of qualia, and unites it to a newly-formed, compatible brain, programed with corresponding neurological wiring.

Maybe something like this is true. Or maybe the idea of qualia without a brain is nonsense and something else is the case. Or maybe qualia could not be “carried over” the way I’m imagining. Oh well. It’s still food for thought.