Personal Identity and the Possibility of the Afterlife

What happens after we die? A popular notion in our culture states we have an immaterial soul within our bodies that preserves our consciousness, memories, attitudes, and personal identity. This immaterial soul departs from our bodies and enters a far-off world much different from our own, Heaven. This earthly world means very little compared to our experiences of the next world, and thus we should be strive to be the sort of person, the sort of soul who gains admission into Heaven. The body is temporary, something that will be disposed of as we approach this distant, ethereal heaven. As Hamlet said, “What dreams may come/When we have shuffled off his mortal coil.” Thus, the soul is really all that matters in the big scheme of things.

The trouble is, what exactly is a soul? In our popular sense, the soul is imagined to have a spacio-temporal location within our bodies, and yet where might we find it? Could a soul be divided and cast from the body? What is it that the soul does that is not a function of the body? One of the appeals for the Soul-View is to address the problem of Personal Identity through time. If our bodies are contently changing, then in what way is the person I was at time X the same person as I was at time Y? The Soul-Theorist could answer by saying, the person with soul A at time X, and the person with soul A at time Y is the same person. On a very deep level, I think most people, religious or not, have an intuition that there is an essential, unyielding component to a person that makes them that person.

Let’s grant the Soul-View for a moment. If souls do not die when the body dies, then what happens? Does a soul continue to have the cognitive functions of a nervous system? Accounts of Near-Death Experiences often talk about a soul floating above the operating table, hearing and seeing the dying body. If this is the case that a soul has a faculty of vision, memory, and so forth, then why can’t blind people see? Why does CTE damage one’s memory and cognitive functioning if your soul is capable of collecting and sorting information? Couldn’t the soul kick in to back up somebody’s physical eyeballs and brain, should they fail? I could imagine an ad hoc explanation, such as, “The soul embeds itself in a body, and thus is causally inert while the body is still alive,” but I think this ignores the widespread folk intuition that the soul is the causal agency in our bodies, and is the source of our emotions, cognition, thinking, personality, attitudes, and intentions; and, when we die, our soul carries on with our sense of self into the hereafter.

What’s ironic about the soul view is how it isn’t explicitly Biblical. In the Book of Daniel, which was written around 150 years before the birth of Christ, a different sort of view is given about life after death (Daniel 12:3-5):
“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”

The dead are sleeping in the dust of the earth? This sounds a little different than the folk-concept of the soul jutting off to heaven right away. The New Testament of the Bible is similar (1 Corinthians 15:35-40):

“But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another.”

Consider this viewpoint the “Bodily Resurrection View” of the afterlife, which is the traditional view of the Christian Church. In the above-quoted passage, St. Paul discusses how our earthly bodies will be superseded by heavenly bodies when Christ returns again. This resurrected, heavenly body is generally understood to have properties similar to an earthly body. For example, the resurrected body of Jesus Christ still had scars from the nails in his hands, and is able to make breakfast (John 21:12) with the disciples, which implies He wasn’t just a phantasm. In short, the Bodily Resurrection View holds that our bodies die, and God resurrects our bodies at a later date, and that is how we are able to have an afterlife.

Let’s bring back the problem of personal identity over time. The Soul View attempted to solve this problem by suggesting that the soul is an essential, immaterial substance, and as long as the soul existed, so did the continuity of the self. The Bodily Resurrection View does not necessarily believe there is an immaterial soul within a body. In fact, our resurrected bodies are understood to be somewhat different from our earthly bodies. If this is the case, then in what sense is my earthly body the same person as my heavenly body? Suppose God were to create my Heavenly Body from cells that belonged to older incarnations of my earthly body while my currently Earthly Body was still alive. “This is the heavenly body that will live forever,” I am told, and “Your earthly body will be extinguished upon death.” At this point, I would feel a bit disappointed: as I stare at my Heavenly Body, I have a strong sense that THEY ARE NOT ME, this body is a different entity, one that might bare my likeness, but that’s about it. Thus, it really feels like when I die, so dies my person.

For my personal identity to persist over time, there seems to be a psychological continuation. A person at time X and a person at time Y are the same person if there is a psychological through-line from time X to time Y. British Philosopher Derrik Parfit offers a famous thought experiment where he considers a teleportation device, much like one from Star Trek. A person’s immediate body is destroyed when entering the device, but a new body with an identical physical and psychological structure, with the same memories, tics, aspirations, and so forth, is created at a distinct location. Parfit encourages us to think that we, as a person, survive this teleportation, even if a body literately dies in the process.

Parfit’s thought experiment treads on the notion that the new body is identical. However, I can imagine that our Heavenly Bodies would be different from our Earthly Bodies in some very significant ways. For example, suppose you suffered from a psychological or physical ailment during your life. It is almost impossible to think that did not influence your personality or sense of self. What happens when your Heavenly Body no longer has that ailment? Or suppose you had a condition that was long considered a disease or ailment, but there has been a movement to end the the stigma around it? For example, many deaf people resent the notion that they are “Broken,” and the DSM used to categorize queer people as being mentally ill, does your Heavenly Body maintain your deafness or your sexual orientation? Without our Earthly political, social, legal, historic, and linguistic identities, how much continuity does our Earthly Bodies have with our Heavenly Bodies?

I’m willing to bite the bullet and accept that trying to find a stable, objective personal identity over time is a fool’s errant. Instead of trying to find an essential piece that connects Person at Time X to Person at Time Y, I strongly believe that “The Self” is a linguistic and social construction, a narrative reality, but not an objective fact. There is a very real sense in which the person I was at age 10 and the person I am now are not the same person, but because of our psychology and social systems, I consider both to be stages of my whole personal experience. Parfit really tried to push on this, and argued that the distinction between myself at time X and another person at time X is far less than the difference between my person at time X and my person at previous time Y.

When I was living in Syracuse, I once met up with a friend who was very committed to Zen Buddhism. I asked him what he thought about the notion of Reincarnation, as that seemed a little odd to me: if you can’t remember your past lives, then what was the point? He told me that in his tradition and experience, rebirth wasn’t so much something that happened upon death, it was something that occurred all the time. If there is no consistent, objective self, then perhaps we are reborn every time we reconsider our actions and intentions, every time we resolve to be different, to consider others’ viewpoints, to learn from our mistakes, to contemplate and experience the Holy, then we pass that on in our rebirth, just as how a dying candle passes the flame to a fresh one. Perhaps then, this is the case of the Resurrected Body; the Earthly Body, a composite of a life, passes a flame to the Resurrected Body. That is the continuation that makes our personhood carry on into the World-to-Come.

How to be a Bad Vegan


The other day I took a different path home from work than usual. The road was blocked, police cars swarmed around a house, and I saw the EMTs showing up in their stretchers. I am always a curious person, but I felt too much like a voyeur to get any closer. In my different path, I passed several broken and abandoned houses. Ivy covered the front porches, the red “Condemned” spray paint tags from the city only barely visible between the graffiti and the lead-based chips of paint. It’s amazing, saddening, really, to see how much this city changes in only a few blocks.

“Nobody must live on this street,” I thought. Every house was shuttered, condemned, or just abandoned, not a single light from a street lamp, a car, or a window. Not a single light, except for a bright pair of windows at the end of the block. From the distance, I thought it would be just another liquor store, maybe one that gouged the food-desert neighborhood by selling junk food and individual packets of laundry detergent. But as I approached, I noticed the striking mural on the side of the store: brash, sexualized Little Red-Riding Hood, strutting from a lush, guileless field to an angular, shadowed woods. I pulled out my phone and took a picture; it looked hand-made for a profile banner.

“Rustic Green Food Co-Op” the hand-painted, hand-carved sign above the door read, “Open” read the sign just below. I stepped inside, finally getting a clear view of the interior, which was blocked previously by a host of posters informing me about upcoming house punk shows, community meetings, advertisements for the services of Urban Shaman, and other curiosities. Within, shelves reached to the ceiling stocked with dried beans, barley, grains, and drums of goods I was uncertain how to pronounce. Imported cans with Cyrillic and Korean letters formed neat sets of rows in the back. Peanuts, heads of purple lettuce, apples for cider rested in hand-woven baskets in front of the shelves.

This must have been how the grocers before WWII looked, I thought. Nobody was in the store, not a soul. Adjacent to the main floor of food was a small room, “The Study” another hand-carved, hand-painted stated above the entrance. Among a few worn chairs, and a public computer from the time of the Bill Clinton presidency, I found a large collection of books, zines, and pamphlets. Everything from “Socialist Worker” to “EarthFirst!,” Feminist self-stapled photocopies to Aldo Leopold, the Autobiography of Assata Shakur to a self-published New Age instructional map to a pagan reconstructionist text. When sifting through these texts, known and obscure, a pocket-sized pamphlet fell onto the ground. “On the Carnists” it read. I was intrigued, I put it in my satchel.

Still, I heard nobody in the store. I felt an unease, looking at the dusty floor, the asymmetrical shelves. What had once been dusk now looked like night. I left. The door closed behind me. I turned the corner, the next street had no lights, either.

Later that night, I pulled the pamphlet out of my bag. It read, all typewritten,


1 Accept the fundamental truth that the world consists of binaries. True or false, yes or no, black or white, savage or civilized, man or woman, wet or dry, light or dark, right or wrong.

2 The world has two ideological camps, vegans and carnists. The vegan refrains from exploiting non-human animals. The carnist reaps from the body and labor of animals. It is very clear which side of the binary they fall.

3 You must accept that you are fighting for 40 Billion. There is no argument otherwise.

4 Not only are carnists guilty of a grave systematic moral infraction, they are essentially wrong. You must never forget this.

5 The most wicked holocaust is the 40 Billion. The carnists commit this every year. The carnists complain about other things, but they commit this heinous crime every year. They are essentially misguided.

6 The carnists’ abuses are so ingrained so systemic, and so essentially to their character, you cannot listen too long to them. You must speak, but you cannot forget their doings.

7 The carnist will try to defeat you with their petty identity-driven politics. Do not listen, do not entertain. Their claims of suffering are nothing compared to their holocaust. You are for the 40 billion. Do not forget that.

8 They will tell you that you are “Privileged.” This means nothing. Carnists are the privileged ones; they are the oppressors. All of them.

9 It is about the animals, not you. Do not entertain their divisions. They create these problems for themselves, and their suffering is minuscule compared to the oppression that commit.

10 If they will not listen, move on. They are broken. You have the truth. Never forget it. This is for the animals. This is for the 40 billion.

I put the pamphlet down. It was unsigned. I had no idea who this was for, how many copies had been made. This unsettled me. I reached over to my nightstand for a pen, and then wrote a new title for the text: “How to be a Bad Vegan.”

Since 2011, I have been a vegan: I stopped eating all animal produces (occasionally honey slips through my guards); I stopped buying leather, wool, fur, and down; I became much more critical of the animal entertainment industry. There are several influences as to why I adopted this lifestyle, but the two major reasons I want to cover are an ethical argument, and a religious/spiritual conviction.

I am an ethical utilitarian; I believe that, very broadly, pain is bad, pleasure is good, and the extent of applied and normative ethics is a matter of investigating how experiences and structures either lead to pain or pleasure. One moral feature I think about quite a bit is the concept of POWER. Very broadly, power is the ability for a party to directly influence its circumstances. We can speak in terms of physical power, political power, social power, but in each of these instances, power is a matter of allowing one’s will to control factors for a desired outcome. Recognizing power is integral for any meaningful discussion about higher-order pleasures and pains. Having power itself is often a pleasure, as it often allows for additional choices or a social safety-net if fortunes turn. Likewise, being under another agencies power is often very painful, even if the material circumstances are well-off. For this reason, I am very critical of arguments that defend colonialism on the grounds that Britain, France, the Netherlands, or the United States introduced electric lights and asphalt to savages in exchange for their political, social, and religious autonomy. Imperialisms, colonialism, sexisms, and other forms of systemic oppression I like to call Empire, but that is my doing.

The moral argument is as follows:


P1 One needs very good reasons to inflict pain on another sentient creature (e.g. self-defense; in a consensual activity for greater pleasure, like a surgery). (Principle of First-Order Utilitarianism)

P2 There has not been a single historical case in which Party A held total, non-consensual dominion in all matters (life, death, bodies, labor, reproductivity, and otherwise) over Party B, and Party A was justified by the moral tribunal of future generations. (Principle of Second-Order Utilitarianism)

P3 The way we treat animals is a total, non-consensual system of dominion, which includes inflicting a great deal of pain, both in physical and psychological terms.

P4 Following from premise 3, the principles of First- and Second-Order Utilitarianism are not met to justify our actions.

C Therefore, we humans are not justified in our treatment of other animals.

My argument for veganism is similar to my argument against other forms of Empire, including the Police State, the Prison System, Colonialism, Sexism, Racism, and a host of other oppressions that are often grouped under the oft-derided title of “Identity Politics.”

This pamphlet reminded me of some of the vegans I have met in my life. Vegan Reductionists, I have noticed, live in a Manichean World where all actions are black or white, right or wrong. The sins of the carnists will always be more pressing and more troubling than the issues of every other oppressed group in the world. I have seen vegan reductionists racism doesn’t exist anymore, that women have more rights then men, that immigration from Muslim countries raises the crime rate, that IQ is genetic and that discrepancy in crime and income between black and white Americans is rooted in a lack of objective intelligence, that rape is wildly over-reported, that virtually all police shootings of black men are justified, and so on, and so forth. When pressed on any of these issues, the Vegan Reductionist immediately resorts to speaking about the 40 billion animals killed for food and clothing every year. “You are the privileged one!” The Vegan Reductionist responds. The Vegan Reductionist ignores the manifold of intersection in environmental problems. Capitalism, racism, imperialism, militarism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and unsustainable environmental damage are all connected. There is no keystone that, when punched away with your endless social rambles and self-righteousness, will topple the edifice.

The Vegan Reductionist is similar to the Eco-Reductionist, who employs similar tactics. Derrick Jensen and Loirre Keith of Deep Green Resistance are Eco-Reductionists, and are irredeemably transphobic, as well as grotesque appropriators of indigenous cultures. I will go as far to say that Derrick Jensen is an abject moral failure, an intellectually dishonest man, and cut from the same cloth as a fundamentalist preacher. Likewise, the Vegan Reductionists. These reductionists will not listen, they will not recognize the diversity of experiences, or the depth of pains. They will not entertain the complexity of life, and how power complicates all moral activity. But the Reductionist does not care. They relish in being right, rather than being in right relationship. And as a Utilitarian, the inert morality of obsessive purity is a pathology to overcome.

In attempting to be the good vegan, I strive to recognize the connection between my vegan principles with the other ethical issues in my life. I do notice a fundamental issue in reconciling animal ethics with my approach to other power- and oppression-based topics: because I believe it is good in principle to have power, and to check the authority of those who have too much power over others, I accept that I often cannot prescribe a particular course of action for a group that does not have power and would like it. Rather, it is better for me to allow the particular group to advocate for themselves, and attempt to help on the sides, or if asked. This act of allowing self-determination is empowering, and in my model of normative ethics, a source of higher-order pleasure.

The trouble comes in recognizing that humans and non-human animals have a fundamental communications problem: we cannot directly communicate with animals; we do not know exactly what it is they would like from us, or how they would want to be treated. Since animals have literately no voice in the discourse around power, they cannot lead their own movement of liberation. Thus, the vegan activist takes the matter of animal liberation as their own movement in a way I would find distasteful, if not immoral, in another context. Consider how colonialism, slavery, the subjugation of women, of intersex and transgender persons, the Russian intervention in Syria, the Vietnam War, and the genocide of Native Americans have been justified by a powerful group claiming to protect and defend a group with very little power. To be the external liberator, the “Cyrus the Great” for the Other, puts you in a long history of other oppressors, because you were more interested in fulfilling your own perceived moral duties than making yourself vulnerable to the Other, by releasing your privilege and power. The Bad Vegan wants to have the power of the liberator, but not the love to support the liberated.

I don’t know the best way out of this “Liberationist’s Paradox.” But I do have hope: recently, I spoke to a graduate student in linguistics. They mentioned that human and non-human animal communication might not be as stark as originally thought. Pet owners know the emotions of their animals, they said, of course we can find ways to communicate, even if we cannot directly understand the syntax or make make the phonemes of our dogs and cats. Perhaps animals really are giving us testimony every day about how they would like to be treated, what they would like from us, and how we can live together, without dominion, without the manifold Empire creeping in. As a Christian, I believe in the world-to-come that the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. Perhaps then, the moral tribunal of animals will judge me, and they will say they liked it the most when I listened to their words.

Christian Moral Nihilism?

One of the most popular arguments for the existence of God is the Moral Argument. While this takes many forms, the general structure of the argument goes:

P1 If there is no God, then there can be no objective morality.
P2 There is objective morality.
C Therefore, there is a God.

Most scholars who specialize in ethics do not find this argument very convincing. The majority of moral philosophers believe that morality is, in some sense, objective, but do not believe in God, or at least do not reference God in their arguments. However, as somebody with a great interest in the philosophy of religion, I suspect that Christian theology itself may not necessarily support a robust theory of ethics, a theory of right from wrong. In fact, I will argue that some Christian traditions in effect [suppose moral nihilism], the view that there are no objective moral properties.

This may seem a little strange. Isn’t it the Christians who formed an organization called, “The Moral Majority?” Don’t Roman Catholic bishops show up in the newspaper ever few months complaining about how abortion is destroying America? It seems like religious people are constantly telling people not to do certain things? Isn’t that moralistic? How on earth could these people be moral nihilists? All they seem to care about is enforcing their morality on others!

In many of these instances where a person is telling another person what to do, they are asserting a normative, or prescriptive claim: you should do this, or you should not do that. People make normative expressions all the time, and not all of them are moral. Consider if I am teaching somebody how to play volleyball, I’ll say things like, “You can’t kick this.” Many laws are normative without being a matter of ethics: “You need to come to a complete stop at the stoplight before you make a right-hand turn.” Aesthetic opinions are often prescriptive and emotional even when most of us seem to accept that taste in art cannot be settled objectively: “’Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is a masterpiece of genre filmmaking! It totally should have beat ‘Chariots of Fire’ at the 1981 oscars!” Grammar is a matter of prescription, even though there is no objectively correct language, and standards change generation to generation: “’Who’ is for the subject of the clause, ‘Whom’ is for the object of a clause.” Lastly, many people express norms and prescriptions as a way to enforce traditional practices, if for no other reason than because it distresses or disgusts them: “Bobby, take off that pink shirt, you look gay.”

In each one of these instances, the speaker expresses a normative assertion to do or not do something based on their own attitudes or a social or legal convention. These rules are social, and while they are real in the sense that people do notice and utilize them in speech, they are not ontologically real. That is, there is no property of “Traffic Law” that exists in nature independent of human beings, the rules of English grammar would mean little if the language became forgotten, and rules around gender expression vary quite a bit culture-to-culture.

The moral realist (or moral objectivist) will say that moral norms are different than these social or legal norms I listed earlier in that moral statements are not a matter of opinion, attitudes, or culture: moral propositions refer to actual properties of an action or event. Just as I can make objective statements about the mass of an object, or the solution to a math problem, the moral realist argues that I can make objective, true-or-false statements as to whether something is good, or desirable, or impermissible. There are many different forms of how to justify moral realism, if moral facts are natural or non-natural facts, and how we would go about determining what these moral properties even are to begin with, but what’s important for now is to remember that moral realism is not necessarily religious. Several dogged defenders of moral realism have been atheists: Russ Shafer-Landau, Philippa Foot, Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, and Thomas Nagel all explicitly argued that the notion of moral judgements are not culturally relative, and have an objective, rational basis.

A consequence of moral realism is the belief in the independence of moral properties. The argument is as follows:

P1 If there are objective moral properties, then the attitudes of moral agents are not necessarily relevant to the existence of those properties intrinsic to the actions.
P2 If an action can be objectively good, irrespective of the attitudes of the moral agent, then there can be a case in which a moral agent performs a good action, despite their otherwise troublesome character.
C Therefore, the existence of the property of goodness does not necessarily require a particular mental state, attitude, or political/social commitment for the property to hold for a given action.

While this seems very intuitive, traditional Christian theology (and in particular, Calvinist theory) holds to the concept of Original Sin, which rejects this principle. In short, Traditional Original Sin Theology (TOST going forward) states that God created all life perfectly, but human beings deliberately violated God’s trust, now all of creation is “Fallen,” and we categorically suffer from “Total Depravity” by our nature. As we suffer from sin, all of our actions fail to live up to God’s standards, and we deserve damnation. The only thing that can heal this affliction is the Grace of God, which we receive as a total gift; our “good” works mean so little to God compared to our systemic, endemic sinful nature. According to TOST, without God, we cannot be good.

TOST conflicts with moral realism’s principle of independence, and can easily lead to a few dead-end conversations. I once found myself in such a situation. During my undergraduate education, I lived and worshiped at the student Episcopal campus ministry house. I very much enjoyed my time there, and found great solace with the fellow students and the local church community. One summer, when an older adult from an evangelical background hear I lived in a church community, she began to ask me a number of questions, expressing a sense of skepticism as to whether my church was a “real” Christian church or not (notice how Evangelicals often say, “Christians and Catholics,” as if Catholics aren’t Christians? I’m sure many of them know nothing of Christian Orthodoxy, either), and asked rather bluntly why I went there. “Well, they’re good people,” I said. “What do you mean by ‘Good?’” she asked, “Nobody is good except God.”

That was a bible quote (Luke 18:19), and arguably one taken out of context, but I suddenly found our conversation took a sharp turn to the unproductive side. In this conversation, I held to a moral realist’s interpretation of Good, as in, my church peers were loving, supportive, welcoming, and all the other virtues that one could intuitively consider representing the property of good. My conversation partner, at least in this discussion, seemed committed to a skepticism about the intrinsic property of goodness. Unless this group upheld or represented a very specific theological vision, then she appeared to deny that the actions of my friends were good, even if they were welcoming, friendly, supportive, and so forth. She was expressing what could be considered a nihilistic (denial of existence) view on intrinsic value. The argument would go like this:

P1 If TOST is true, an agent under Original Sin categorically does wicked things. No reference to the actions themselves changes this.
P2 A moral agent or action without Original Sin (Jesus Christ and the Immaculate Conception of Mary, respectively) is said to be good if in accordance with God’s Commandments, while an agent afflicted with original sin who does the exact same action cannot consider that action good.
P3 Following from premise one and premise two, moral properties are not independent features of an action, as the goodness of an action is contingent on the sinfulness of the agent or action.
C Therefore, there are no objective moral properties.

So if Christians are nihilists in some sense about morality, why on earth do Christians seem to talk about morals so much? The answer is, Christian morality, especially for those committed to TOST, is subjective. God’s commandments are subjective edicts, as they are God’s attitudes; we are to obey them because the ways of God are just, and God’s righteousness cannot be questioned. There is no law or property independent of God’s attitudes that constitutes goodness. Thus, God’s commandments have more in common with the social and legal norms I outlined earlier than with the moral realist’s notion of an objective morality.

For those who grew up outside of a Christian tradition, this might not make a lot of sense. What would keep God’s commandments from being totally arbitrary? I may wonder. Or what if God’s commandments go against our moral intuitions? Disagreements over abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, environmental control, the State of Israel, Euthanasia and a host of other moral issues often clash along the lines of one party holding to the (perceived) edicts of God, and another making arguments based on potentially objective (or at least secular) moral properties. How could we possibly resolve these conflicts, if one side genuinely believes that moral reasoning outside of the edicts of God is categorically false?

I believe we could make two theological moves to help resolve the riff between the secular moral realist and the Christian moral subjectivist. The first is to suggest that there is not a stark separation between God and Nature, and thus moral properties could be natural properties while also being instantiations of God. Second, TOST is not the only reading of the Bible and Christian tradition. Total Depravity comes from the tradition of St. Augustine, and some churches, especially the Eastern Orthodox churches, have refrained from this extreme reading of the fallenness. Perhaps then, these two moral traditions, the philosophic and the theological, may find one day they were climbing the mountain from different sides.

Does God Have a Mind?

What is a mind? What a broad question! Perhaps it is easier to list the set of activities a mind does: a mind thinks, makes judgements, reflects, imagines, pictures, remembers, and perceives. Consider what makes human minds different from other animals. Geckos and eagles and pot-belly pigs all seem to have better sense of perception than human minds, but they do not appear to be able to reflect on mental images or thoughts of things as well as humans can.

Within the philosophy of mind, this ability to conceive of and think with mental representations is called “Intentionality.” Notice, “Intentionality” or “Intentions” in this context does not mean “The motivation as to why somebody acts a particular way,” but rather, intentionality is the sense in which a mind has thoughts, images, feelings, desires, memories, attitudes, prejudices about something. The intention is the “something” that we have in our minds when we think about anything. If you asked me to think about pistachio ice cream, I immediately have a mental image of a waffle cone with green-tinted ice cream. Additionally, I have a attitude that I will not eat anything like this dessert, because I’m a vegan and don’t consume dairy products. Lastly, I will almost certainly have an olfactory memory of walking into Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream when I was 18 and beginning my undergraduate education at the University of Wisconsin. This image, attitude, and memory are all memories about things, and yet they occurred spontaneously in my mind, which has no literal ice cream within it.

In a debate with Alex Rosenberg on the matter of whether faith is reasonable, professional Christian debater William Lane Craig invokes a unique argument for the existence of God, the Argument from Intentionality. Craig sees this as problematic for an atheist with a materialistic ontology (“Ontology” literately means “Study of Being.” It is a fancy way of saying “Worldview.”): the materialist believes that all of reality is physical matter, and can be understood and explained in its entirely by referencing physical processes. However, argues Craig, physical objects do not have intentionality, but human minds do. Thus, if minds have intentions, and materialism cannot account for them, then materialism fails to explain the world. Theism, by Craig’s measure, explains intentionality by positing that intentions are supernatural, non-physical states; intentional states of consciousness cannot arise from matter alone. From these premises he argues,

P1 Intentionality requires a supernatural force (e.g. God and Souls), as intentionality cannot exist in a purely physical system
P2 Intentionality exists
C Therefore, a supernatural force must exist

I do not believe Craig’s argument is successful: even if we grant that intentional states are irreducible to physicalistic neuroscience, we might imagine that there is another category of nature that we need to figure out with a new set of methods, all without immediately invoking God. Contemporary defender of dualism and atheist David Chalmers argues just this, drawing comparison to how scientists initially attempted to explain electromagnetism in terms of either electricity or magnetism, and eventually gave up and just invented the term electromagnetism to describe that set of phenomena.

Other philosophers have argued that the mind and the brain are identical, thus all intentional mental states are physical states of one’s brain. Talk of beliefs, mental images, desires, hopes, feelings, and so forth could be paraphrased into language about such-and-such neural fibers, just as how a digital image could be broken down into colored pixels that by themselves stand for nothing. To use my example of pistachio ice cream again, my attitude of “I will not eat pistachio ice cream because of my moral convictions” comprises of a set of neurons, some of them in the memory region of my brain, some of them in the moral thinking region, and when they fire, it is me having that thought. According to this Mind-Brain Identity Theory, intentionality is simply a colloquial way of speaking about a purely physical process. After all, hunger and thirst are intentional states as well, but these seem pretty physical. Craig correctly argues that rocks and chairs and other physical things do not have intentionality, but if they had a neural network, they would have intentions.

As these two arguments demonstrate, it is not necessarily true that intentionally requires a supernatural force, such as a soul, to occur. In fact, if mind-brain identity theory is correct, then it would seem that a being would require a neural network of sorts to have intentionality. Some have made this argument to suggest that it is the structure, and not the material itself that makes for conscious states, thus it would be possible for a computer with a sufficient circuitry to be conscious and have intentionality.

Suppose then, the atheist turns the tables and presents Craig his own argument inverted:

P1 Intentionality is a colloquial way of discussing structures of a physical system; there is nothing mysterious or supernatural about it.
P2 A non-physical, non-corporal entity (i.e. God, angels, demons, souls) is dissimilar to a physical systems as it has no parts.
P3 Following from premise 1 and 2, an entity with no parts cannot have intentionality
C Supernatural entities cannot have intentionality.

Craig would almost certainly challenge premise one, and argue that it could be possible for an intentional state to exist without a corresponding physical system. Saul Kripke, a much better philosopher than Craig, argued just this. But without immediately resisting this argument, let us consider just how a supernatural, non-corporal being like God might be understood to have a intentionality. Or, as I will argue, how it may be possible for God to not have a mind at all.

There is a model of theism adopted by some Christians called “Panentheism” (not to be confused with Pantheism, which argues that nature or the universe is identical to God). Panentheism, which is Greek for “All-In-God,” argues that God is both wholly transcendent and wholly eminent: all the universe is within God, and God is within all of the pieces of the Universe. This is in direct contradiction to what 20th century theologian (and first non-Jewish professor to be expelled from a German university) Paul Tillich described as Supernatural Theism: the God of Supernatural Theism is removed and remote from Creation. The God of Supernatural Theism, while having total power over His creation, is not affected by it. The God of Supernatural Theism creates through inseminating the Universe. Conversely, the God of Panentheism creates by gestating; there is no possible event that occurs outside of the parameter of God.

Recall the argument that Craig made, intentionality is the ability for a mind to grasp things that are not literately within it. The mind must create a mental representation, whether through imagery or syntax or some combination of the two, because there is an ontological separation between the perceiver and what has been perceived. The God of Panentheism has no such separation. Not only is all of time and space within this God, so are all possibilities. This God, this Ground of All Being, to use Tillich’s language again, does not need to conceive of alternative possibilities, God actually is present in all things, no faculty of representation is necessary. God does not intuit or judge or remember or get thirsty; God simply IS. And as much traditional theology states, the Goodness and Holiness of God is an essential feature of God, it does not arise from reflection. Thus is it that much of a stretch to say that God does not have a mind? Mental faculties are for beings that have some sort of epistemological separation they are working through. God has has no separation from Creation.

What then about our language of God’s feelings, attitudes, desires, and other mental states? Are these simply metaphors? The Biblical text suggests that God has intentionality: God changes his mind at different points (Exodus 32:14), God makes judgements (Romans 2:5), and God feels regret (Genesis 6:6). Jesus prays to God the Father (Luke 22:41-44; Luke 23:34), which would suggest that God is self-reflective. However, Jesus has a human body, so it would make sense that He would have Intentionality. Traditional Christian theology believes that Jesus existed prior to His birth in Nazareth, thus the statements about God’s intentionality through the Bible could be references to Jesus’ emotions, reflections, attitudes, and so forth. This act of limitation allows for God to join human kind in solidarity, to experience the fallible intentional states common to all natural beings.

One of my favorite stories in the entire Bible is Jesus and the Syro-Pheonician woman (Matthew 15:21-28). In this account, Jesus is approached by a Gentile woman of Syrian descent (keep in mind, almost all of the people Jesus interacts with are Jewish), begging for Him to heal her daughter. Jesus rebuffs her, stating that He was sent “only for the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” As she begs for Jesus to rid the demon from her child, Jesus turns to her and says, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Calling her a dog, it turns out, was an ethnic slur; Jesus literately said something racist.

The woman responds, “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” “How great is your faith,” Jesus replies, and heals the woman’s daughter.

In this story, Jesus exhibits intentionality: He holds a prejudice against the woman, He holds an attitude about his mission on earth, He makes a cruel play on words, and He changes his mind. As a preacher once stated in a sermon I attended, Jesus in this moment is healed of racism. Racism is an intentional state. So is fear, confusion, hate, delusion, misunderstanding, and all the problems that come when one’s mental representations clashes with another’s. Jesus, in His human limitations, experienced negative emotions, and that direct experience is part of the Godhead. Jesus’ growth, healing, and self-reflection, too, exists within the wholeness of God.

In short, God could be understood to both have a mind, and not have a mind. God does not have a mind, because God is not a supernatural being, and is not a being, so to speak, but being itself. God does have a mind with intentional states in that, Jesus Christ is God incarnate, and Jesus is a fully physical being with a mind that exhibits intentionality.

This is a paradox, but I must admit, I do not expect God to fit within my intentions. Perhaps I can seek to simply be without conceiving of.

Is God Good? A Stab at Euthyphro’s Dilemma

In the 4th century BC, Plato wrote a parable about his instructor Socrates engaging in a dialogue with a man named Euthyphro, who is on his way to court. Euthyphro’s father is being tried for manslaughter for one of his employees dying from poor work conditions, and Euthyphro is testifying against his father in court, claiming this pursuit of justice is the pious (holy) thing to do. The law usually only permits the dead’s estate from suing, making Euthyphro’s testimony against his father a legal anomaly; still, he maintains this is what a pious person does.

Socrates challenges Euthyphro with this dilemma: Is something pious because the gods like it, or do the gods like it because it is pious? This is still a living argument, especially in the philosophy of religion and meta-ethics (philosophy around the structure of ethics). Oftentimes, this is reformatted to ask, “Is something right or morally good because God likes it, or does God like it because it is morally good?” The trouble with the first horn of the dilemma is, if moral goodness is simply the edicts of God, then what would keep God from making terrible edicts? There are many passages in the Bible in which God commands terrible things: for example, in Ezekiel 5:10, God forces His enemies into cannibalizing their children. This just doesn’t seem right. God’s deal with Satan in the Book of Job seems a little manipulative, and God’s sending of poisoned quails to the wandering Israelites after complaining too much reads as a petty response. Are these actions suppose to be Good just because God commanded them? Christian politicians often lament the “moral relativity” of the secular world, but isn’t this simply making morality relative to God’s attitudes?

The other horn of the dilemma, God loves such-and-such because it is good, also sits uncomfortably, because it suggests that God is bound by moral laws or principles that are beyond or separate from Him. If there is Good that we can discern without God, then why even bother with all the God stuff? Novelist Iris Murdoch made this argument herself, arguing that believing in objective, universal moral values was easier than believing in a God, thus her atheism was more useful and more parsimonious than Christian Theology, which is convoluted and often antithetical to our moral intuitions.

The traditional response, which is perhaps best argued by St. Thomas Aquinas, is to claim that this is a false dilemma, that the objective moral Goodness is of the same essence as God. Thus, it is not so much that God issues edicts of what is moral or not moral, but that what God is, is the Good. If Goodness is the essence of God, then the response to the dilemma is to say something like, “X is good because it corresponds to God’s Essential Goodness.”

While I do believe it directly responds to the dilemma as written, not everybody is convinced this move actually resolves the issue at hand. Some would argue that all that was done here was push the dilemma one step further back. For example, somebody could argue that God’s essential Goodness still isn’t all that desirable or useful, and then go about proposing an alternative moral system. Why should we follow God’s moral system, even if it is coming directly from God’s own character?

This is a far more interesting question, in my opinion, than whether God exists or not: even if we grant that God exists, why should we follow or accept God’s authority on moral issues? I have a proposed solution that draws on the traditional response: Euthyphro is a false dilemma, because it’s really two different questions. I think there is a distinction between asking “What is Pious/Holy” and “What is Moral.” Holiness is the experience of God, a religious or spiritual experience. Morality is a set of prescriptive, normative statements, values, and principles. If we believe in a God or some kind of super/non/supra/trans-natural force, then I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch to posit that Holiness is synonymous with the experience of the Divine. While I believe that religious experiences are good in the colloquial sense, I actually want to suggest that they are neutral in a moral sense. If I say, “It is good that today is sunny,” I am not making a moral claim the same way I am when I argue that it is good to sponsor refugees. It is difficult in this space to defend the value of religious or spiritual experience. Perhaps the best argument is simply the pragmatic one: we shall know them by their fruits.

“What is moral” is a different question. A lot of people have a negative gut reaction to the word “Morality,” as it brings up memories of sexual repression, authoritarian parental figures, undue shaming, and many other negative psychological experiences. By moral I mean, what kinds of behaviors, principles, values, and attitudes can or cannot be endorsed. When ACT UP shamed Reagan for ignoring the AIDS crisis, this was a moral statement. When nations divested from South Africa’s Apartheid regime, that was a moral statement. When former coal miners on the verge of losing their pensions descended on Peabody Coal’s downtown St. Louis offices to demand what was owed to them, that was a moral statement. Most philosophers are moral realists, which means they believe there is, in some meaningful sense, an objective answer as to what can or cannot be prescribed as a course of action. There is a lot of disagreement as to what these moral truths are, and how we go about identifying them. I am sympathetic to a notion called “Moral Constructivism,” which argues that moral values are not so much coded into the universe the way we generally think about other abstract principles like Mathematical truths, but are true because there is a collective social process that determines what these values are. The Golden Rule is an example of a constructivist device, because it offers not so much a discrete value or principle, but a course of action to determine how to come about to a prescriptive course of action.

So what does this have to do with God? I suspect that a reason a lot of people are interested in bring God into a discussion about morality is how God would seem to offer a hard-and-fast prescription for any given circumstance. The problem is, I do not believe this is even good theology. In the Christian tradition, it is believed that there is an Original Sin, or a Fall of Man, or some sort of systemic or ontological sickness that effects all the cosmos. If we grant this, then it would seem to follow that our moral decision-making cannot be absolute, final, or wholly “Holy.”

Here is my counter-intuitive conclusion: Human beings and other non-human persons are moral agents and operate in a Fallen World. God is Holiness, but not a moral agent and does not directly prescribe moral values. Moral propositions supervene on the Holiness of God, but are not reducible to propositions or beliefs about the Holiness of God. Thus, “Is X moral because God likes it, or does God like it because it is moral?” is perhaps the wrong question, because any moral decision presupposes the conditions of a systemically oppressed, sinful world, which are not the conditions of God.

Jesus does offer some pretty challenging prescriptions in the Bible, but I want to consider that maybe these are not moral commands as much as they are devotional prescriptions, which perhaps we must treat as a window into the Holiness of God, and not a moral decision among our other mundane values. One in particular is Jesus’ command to visit those in prison. He says nothing about if people deserve to be visited in prison, or if their guilt is of any matter. We are to visit those in prison, full stop. I remember hearing a sermon from a minister who took this prescription very seriously.

“The people I minister to are not good men,” he said, “I served a man in solitary confinement who raped a six-month-old baby to death. That doesn’t matter, Jesus said, ‘Just as you did to the least of these, so have you done to me.’”

I cannot endorse Euthyphro’s actions. He clearly is in a conflict of interest, as having his father arrested would put him in position to take control of his money and resources. Additionally, this takes away from the agency of the dead worker’s family to make sense of this case themselves. It is my hope that Euthyphro would visit his father in prison. That is, after all, the pious thing to do.

The Baby-Eating Objection

I enjoy watching Christian vs. Atheist debates, but I’m often frustrated at the lines of argument that are usually presented. In a recent video I watched, the Christian team cross-examined the atheist side like so:

XTIAN: Do you believe that we are just stardust? Matter in motion?
ATHEIST: I believe that we are physical beings made of matter that started at the big bang, yes.
XTIAN: So we’re JUST matter, correct?
ATHEIST: I don’t believe in the supernatural, so yes, we are just made of matter, which is made of atoms and so forth.
XTIAN: So if we are just matter floating through space WHAT’S WRONG WITH EATING BABIES?

This is an example of the Moral Argument for the existence of God. I’ve heard it from plenty of people, and I myself, when I was much more evangelical, may have used it in an argument with someone. I do not believe it is a strong argument for a few reasons. To demonstrate, let me lay out the form of this argument:

P1 According to the atheist, all of existence can be reduced to little bits of matter and natural forces
P2 Atoms and physics are impersonal, chaotic, random, unintentional, and have no inherent value (aesthetic, moral, or otherwise)
P3 We intuitively or experientially know that morality exists
C There must be a God, who allows for value in the universe

Rick Warren makes this argument in his best-seller “The Purpose-Driven Life,” and various existential writers (Camus, Lovecraft, Houellebecq, Von Trier) have more or less accepted premise 2, while rejecting premise 3. I do not find this argument convincing, because it ignores how morality can be said to supervene (that is, require a smaller set of pieces to allow for its existence, like how organs supervene on tissue, and tissue supervenes on cells) on natural properties. To elaborate on what I mean, consider this reframing of the moral argument:

P1 According to the atheist, all of existence can be reduced to little bits of matter and natural forces
P2 If I understand all facts about these little bits of matter and natural forces, I will know all facts about the universe
P3 Nowhere does one find a moral or a value in bits of matter or natural forces
C By the atheist’s rules, there is no fact of the matter about morality

Versions of this argument could also be used to argue against things like aesthetic value or personal identity, but to stay focused, the reductionist seems to reject morality because moral properties do not appear amongst the reductive natural facts. In my view, this is an error. I reject premise 1, and by necessity, premise 2: even if I had complete knowledge of all atoms and their forces, I would not have knowledge of all possible facts in the universe. Why not? Because physical, social, political, ethical, and aesthetic facts supervene (or in other words, are predicated on) on facts about atoms and forces of nature, they are not necessarily reduced to them.

This phenomenon is called “Emergence.” Emergence is the ability for a system to have a greater level of organization and causal explanation on a macro level, than on a micro level. In an emergent system, the properties of the whole cannot be reduced to properties found in the bits and bobs that make it up. Here are some examples of emergence:

– Ant colonies
– Economic systems
– The internet
– Legal codes
– Rules of language

Imagine asking the same question about eating babies about language: if we are just atoms flying through space without the intention of a Creator God, then how can we have language? Who makes the rules for language? How could be possibly have semantics and syntactical forms? There is no language in inanimate dirt, after all! This is just the problem, if you look exclusively at the pieces, you miss the over-arching structure. Atoms allow for life, life allows for minds, and minds allow for language systems. Thus, the physicist who has total knowledge of all facts about atoms and their movement would not have knowledge about all languages and their rules, despite how all languages rely on physical systems of vocal cords, air vibrations, and physical gestures.

By the same measure, moral facts can be natural facts, supervening on top of and emerging from natural facts about societies, which are themselves natural phenomena. Supernatural or non-natural forces need not be evoked to allow for there to be something wrong with eating babies.

What Do Philosophers Do (and Why Bother?)

I love philosophy, reading it, writing it, and talking about it. I acknowledge this is a bit of niche interest, as most primary and secondary do not offer philosophy in their curriculum, and many people see philosophy as a “Worthless Major” in college. In actuality, philosophy majors earn on average more than any other humanities major, with a mid-career median of $82K (/…/philosophy-majors-out-…/403555/).

I, for one, am interested in becoming a professional philosopher, which includes similar earning trajectory over time, provided one finds a tenured position at a university, or lands a place at a thinktank. Erik Olin Wright, professor at the University of Wisconsin’s Sociology department, and one of the more esteemed philosophical sociologists in the business, brings in $400K a year (his book “Imagining Real Utopias” is wonderful), but in order to get to this place, one must obtain a Ph.D, which takes anywhere from 5 to 10 years of full-time study, and needs to market themselves in the crowded University market.

The first question the prospective philosopher should ask themselves is, why bother? One third of all PhDs will not finish their program. And of those who do finish, approximately half of all PhDs will never find a tenure-track position; this would be like if half of all board-certified doctors could only find jobs working as elementary school nurses. There are other career options: I personally know philosophy majors who ended up making bank by becoming recruiters and business consultants, by becoming a public relations specialist for an oil company, by becoming lawyers, politicos, and non-profit administrators. The idea that the only thing one can do with an education in philosophy (or english, or history, or sociology…) is teach is false, but after working in the non-profit field for a few years myself, I am interested in teaching and writing philosophy, a practice that I believe have tremendous utility in the world.

What is philosophy? The direct greek translation means, “The Love of Wisdom.” In practice, academic philosophy is a set of subjects that center around two broad questions: What is the world like? And How should the world be? Dealing with these questions are the six major disciplines of analytic philosophy: Ethics, Politics, Aesthetics, Logic, Epistemology, and Metaphysics. I will summarize each of these fields, and give some examples as to why they matter.

Ethics is the study of how we ought to live our lives, especially with regards as to our actions and values. The three major subfields are metaethics, which studies the nature of what a value or moral is, and if it exists; normative ethics, which are theories of morality; and, applied ethics, where you find the fun cases like abortion, capital punishment, and health care.
Even though we often disagree about how we ought to act, studying ethics helps give a person a language and a rational for their values. This is applicable in just about every professional field imaginable.

Probably the most popular subject in philosophy, given that everybody seems to have an opinion about it, politics is the study of power and its relationship with groups of people.
Political ideology motivates wars, treaties, economies, education, and just about every major force that affects a person’s life. A knowledge of political philosophy, especially theories of power, is a tool to be able to make a change in the world.

This is easily the most neglected field in philosophy: aesthetics is the study of art, especially trying to make sense of beauty. Aestheticians often explore questions of whether beauty or ugliness can be an objective property of an object, what actually is art, and what our attitudes toward artistic judgement ought to be.
Art is always political. Having a way to think about art without throwing your hands up and saying, “Bah! It’s all subjective!” is useful for looking into other cultures and making sense of the ideas of people within their time periods, as well as question why you find what you do of value.

Logic is the set of rules and structures that govern rational thought. Logic is closely related to mathematics (and some philosophers have attempted to prove that math is an applied form of logic), and relies on lots of symbols and axioms that are very confusing if you are not familiar.
Computer programming and lots of higher-order mathematics owe a huge debt to the work of logicians. Formal logic might be one of the most applicable skills one can learn with a philosophy background. Additionally, a knowledge of logical fallacies and how to avoid them makes your conversations much more consistent and cogent.

As the study of knowledge, epistemologists dive into questions like, what does it mean to know something? What can I be certain about? What counts as evidence? Of what value is testimony? How is a belief justified?
Epistemology helps you evaluate your belief structures, and often times makes you very skeptical or challenging about how you have come to believe what you do. Robust epistemologies are very important, especially for fields like science, law, education, and journalism, which grapple with issues around evidence and justification of belief.

Metaphysics is a loaded word, because many people hear this think of chakras, spirits, third eyes, past lives, astral projects, the lost city of Atlantis, and other eccentric beliefs. By metaphysics, what philosophers mean is, the study of abstract concepts, especially those which are just beyond (“meta-”) the reach of physics. Topics include things like, the nature of time, do we have free will, do numbers exist, are minds and brains are the same thing, are there such things as emergent properties, are properties objectively part of the world, and so forth.
Metaphysics is especially abstract, but I do believe there are many cases where science, law, and politics benefit from really examining the structure of their concepts. One prime example is Race. Sociologist WEB DuBois argued that race is a social construct in the 19th century, but it took scientists a couple of generations to come to that same conclusion. Additionally, metaphysics weights heavily in the discussion of religious, spiritual, and ethical beliefs. Consider, “Does God exist?” “Do I have a consistent self-identity throughout my life?” “When does life begin or end?” and “Do we have free will, and if we do or don’t, or what consequence is this?”

Lastly, I think of philosophy as a form of brain-training. Coming to work through the problems people have been exploring for thousands of years gives a context for your own experiences, and can help you make decisions and seek to lead a richer life.