William James And The Afterlife/Survival Debate

I have posted before on Keith Augustine and the soul survival debate with his book “The Myth Of An Afterlife,” and subsequent journal debates.

In his time, William James was immersed in the various ways consciousness was dependent on the brain: eg, you destroy one part of the brain and it will annihilate feature ‘x’ of consciousness. James, however, wanted to argue this didn’t rule out the afterlife, and so made a distinction between various ways consciousness could be dependent on the brain without being produced by/reducible to it.

Jim Spiegel summarizes James’s position in the following way:

  • The truth is that there are several kinds of functional dependence, only one of which is the productive function that materialists assume about the brain-mind. James asks us to consider two other kinds of functional dependence: (1) a releasing function, as when an obstacle is removed from the bow, allowing the bow to bounce back and, thus, the arrow to be shot away or when a plug is removed from a drain, allowing water to flow into the pipe and (2) a transmissive function, as when a prism or refracting lens allows light to pass through while determining the color, path, and shape of that light as it proceeds. In both of these cases there is functional dependence, but in neither case is the dependence productive. So the question is whether the functional dependence of the mind on the brain must be productive. James says no, “we are entitled also to consider permissive or transmissive function. And this is what the ordinary psycho-physiologist leaves out of his account.” So James is proposing the possibility that the brain does not produce but rather transmits or releases mental activity, in the sense that there is a realm of consciousness beyond this physical realm—whether a single, monolithic consciousness, as conceived by pantheists or innumerable individual consciousnesses as conceived in orthodox Christian and Jewish traditions—which breaks into the physical realm via our brains. James writes, “Consciousness in this process does not have to be generated de novo in a vast number of places. It exists already, behind the scenes, coeval with the world. The transmission theory not only avoids in this way multiplying miracles, but it put itself in touch with general idealistic philosophy better than the production-theory does. It should always be reckoned a good thing when science and philosophy thus meet.” As a Berkeleyan idealist myself, I am especially pleased to see James make this important observation. He continues: “On the production-theory one does not see from what sensation such odd bits of knowledge are produced. On the transmission-theory, they don’t have to be ‘produced,’—they exist ready-made in the transcendental world, and all that is needed is an abnormal lowering of the brain-threshold to let them through.” So, on this view, death doesn’t bring destruction of the person. Rather, “all that can remain after the brain expires is the larger consciousness itself as such” whether conceived in a pantheistic or traditionally theistic way: see https://wisdomandfollyblog.com/william-james-human-immortality/

For James, there is one large monolithic consciousness that expresses itself differently depending on the individual physiological makeup it is being mediated by.

Against this, it would seem consciousness is but a species of awareness, which is in turn a species of attention-toward, since we can be vividly absorbed yet be unconscious, such as in a dream. In this way, consciousness as mental states are not separate from awareness of my cold hand, but just a more developed kind of it. Feeling cold is thus not fundamentally different from modelling 3X2=6 with counters in your imagination, but are just more and less complex kinds of awareness. For instance, we have absolutely no reason to think the experience of the numinous has anything to do with contact with a divine other, since as Nietzsche pointed out a religious song can go from presencing numinously to presencing irritatingly just by listening to it a bunch of times in a row. Like experiencing boringness to be a quality of a book like hardness and smallness, it is really just a way the mind finds itself in the world, ek-static in Greek, our primordial being outside ourself. We likewise have schizophrenics experiencing aliens controlling their brains, and the force of such experiences makes it very difficult to persuade them of a mundane cause.

I would say the body is producing various kinds of awareness all the time, like with phantom limb syndrome for a new amputee, and so her “experience” of the hand is physical mind/body producing immaterial awareness even in the absence of a material locus.  Awareness seems to emerge out of certain physiological processes, which is why the phantom limb still bears the physical awareness of the hand after the hand is gone.  Hand awareness emerged gradually in our evolutionary history, and so is intentional – there is no  contentless awareness, but as Husserl said consciousness is always consciousness of something. 

Lower levels of this awareness emerges in plants, for instance, though it’s up for debate if they are in any sense conscious.   Some plants respond to their environments by, for example, curling their leaves up when touched, or enclosing and digesting their prey in their leaves. The basic mechanisms of these responses have been well studied, but addressing the more philosophical questions, such as whether or not the plants ‘intelligently choose’ to execute such actions, is a much more recent idea.

While not claiming that the experiment proves once and for all that plants can and do act with conscious intent, the Rotman Institute of Philosophy’s Dr Vicente Raja says beans in an experiment were doing more than simply responding to external stimuli. “It is one thing to react to a stimulus, such as light, it is another thing to perceive an object,” he says. “If the movement of plants is controlled and affected by objects in their vicinity, then we are talking about more complex behaviours, not reactions, and we should be able to identify similar cognitive signatures to those we observe in humans and some animals.” see https://www.sciencefocus.com/news/plants-are-they-conscious/

James’ key point seems to be encapsulated here:

  • The sun rises and beauty beams to light his path. To miss the inner joy of him, as Stevenson says, is to miss the whole of him.

This is an idea that goes back to the Greeks, that our mental states are not just things which run their course in our inner lives, but rather are ways in which life presents itself to us, and so with the mansion “houseness” presences fully/beautifully, but presences moderately in the average house, and hardly at all in the broken down house.  “Presencing” refers to a way the mind is acting on itself even though it is encountered as external and other. Nietzsche was the first modern thinker to clarify this way of thinking, pointing out this has nothing to do with the world, and so the beautiful mansion may not appear beautiful at all to the next person, but rather gaudy, who in turn might find the shack quite lovely and quaint.  Certainly, if beauty was a feature of reality and not simply a trick of the mind, James would have an argument, but it’s like a wine expert trying to explain his evaluation criteria for fine wine to a person who doesn’t like the taste of wine.  Nietzsche called this the Being of beings or “essence (essentia)” as creative/artistic form imposing Will to Power.  For example, I don’t encounter the starry night sky as the randomness it is, but rather as constellations.  Heidegger comments:

  • For example, a lizard hears the slightest rustling in the grass but it does not hear a pistol shot fired quite close by. Accordingly, the creature develops a kind of interpretation of its surroundings and thereby of all occurrence, not incidentally, but as the fundamental process of life itself: “The perspectival [is] the basic condition of all life” (VII, 4). With a view to the basic constitution of living things Nietzsche says (XIII, 63), “The essential aspect of organic beings is a new manifold, which is itself an occurrence.” The living creature possesses the character of a perspectival preview which circumscribes a “line of horizon” about him, within whose scope something can come forward into appearance for him at all.

The evidence thus suggests that human awareness is simply a more complex form of plant awareness, and so we incorrectly infer life after death through through special pleading that human consciousness is somehow unique and special: the human exceptionalism fallacy. The Beauty that appears along with the sun that James refers to above is just the mind projecting and encountering itself, which is why the next person with sensitive eyes might have the sun appearing irritatingly, not beautifully.

Keith Augustine has a journal exchange coming out at the end of the month that engages James’s arguments, which I will deal with at that time.