The Atheist Afterlife: p37-56

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So I’ve had plenty of time to read over the past five days, and I figured it’s time to do another installment on The Atheist Afterlife, by philosopher David Staume.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I really admire and respect Staume for the approach he took with his work. Sure, there are areas I think could use improvement, but by and large, David adheres to the majority of the rules. He tends to state claims conservatively. He lets his reader know when he’s making assumptions or operating off speculation. He doesn’t overstate his case. I could go on, but, let’s just get to it. We begin in Chapter 5, titled, The Geometry of Space and Time.

As seems to be the case in most varieties of theism, spatial dimensions in addition to the three we experience in everyday life are central to Staume’s Inside-Out theory of consciousness [which forms the backbone of his ideas about an atheist afterlife]. Now, to be clear, I don’t think Staume intends the term dimension in the same way we might be used to, but that’s okay, and more a point of mention than a point of contention; a “heads-up” to the reader, if you will. In what Staume calls “outer reality,” he notes that we find width, height, and depth. He argues—and I agree—that these three spatial dimensions provide us with the framework for “where” questions, whereas time provides us with the framework for “when” questions. He uses the analogy of a spaceship traveling along a road, noting in particular that the ship can travel in three spatial directions: forward or back along the road, left or right off the road, or, directly above the road [it should go without saying these are not mutually exclusive]. As an example of the “good work” I alluded to in the previous paragraph, Staume writes:

I don’t want to give the impression that we know a lot about this stuff. Space and time are mysterious. We don’t know why they are as they are, we don’t know how they relate to consciousness, and the analogies here are undoubtedly crude–except for the cute little spaceship–but we can’t let things like that stop us. So let’s try to imagine a fourth spatial dimension. [p.39]

See what I mean? When one is used to writers practically beating the reader over the head with their point, this can be quite refreshing. In order to imagine this fourth spatial dimension, Staume asks us to envision a clock and a person drawn on a sheet of paper, noting that–given two dimensions only–there is no way to connect the two besides drawing a line that connects them. However, Staume then asks us to imagine folding the piece of paper, such that the clock now touches the person. In doing so, he argues that we’ve added a new spatial dimension: where we had only two before—up or down, and left or right—we now have a third: out. From here, Staume attempts to explain how we can get from three dimensions to four, and asks us to imagine an actual clock on a mantelpiece, in the full glory of three dimensional existence.

Adding a fourth dimension would allow us a completely new way of joining ourselves and the clock. Imagine a point within you, and a point within the clock. Now imagine that you could fold space–in a similar way to how we folded the piece of paper–to join these two points together. We now have a line that goes from within you and reaches the clock by welling up inside of it. Imagining a fourth dimension of space is extremely difficult because there’s no room for one in outer reality. It becomes slightly easier, however, when we acknowledge that we have an inner reality. The only way we can draw a fourth line is by going within. And that is the point of this exercise: the only place that additional dimensions can hide is within. [p.41]

Of course, I’m hesitant about the “only” part of that last sentence, but nonetheless, I say A for effort. Staume’s Inside-Out theory is predicated on inner reality. Responsible writer that he is, he mentions that additional dimensions are not proven, but also notes that many theoretical physicists actual require them in order for their equations to work. Not too overconfident, not too underconfident, but… just right. Next, Staume implies that if inner reality could be turned outward—i.e. externalized—we might gain the benefits of additional dimensions. Heady stuff? Tell me about it. Then again, he’s challenging us to think in ways radical different from everyday Newtonian existence. So, how does this relate to an afterlife?

Staume begins Chapter 6, aptly titled, The Elephant in the Room, by asking and answering a question that will no doubt seem laughable to those with prior commitments to materialist theories of mind:

How could we perceive anything at all when we’re dead? It’s a good question. One answer is: we would see, hear and feel in the same way that we see, hear and feel in our dreams. The things that we see, hear and feel in our dreams are not seen through our eyes, heard through our ears, or felt through our skin. They are seen, heard and felt internally. [p.45]

Fair enough, but you know me: time to play devil’s advocate. I grant that in dreams, we don’t literally see through our eyes or hear through our ears. The first question I asked myself upon reading Staume here was, “Do blind people see in their sleep?” My searching led me to tentatively conclude that the scientific consensus is against it. It seems that the congenitally blind do not “see” in their sleep in the same way sighted people do. This led me to tentatively conclude that dream sight must, in some way, be dependent on the prior experience of actual sight. This idea finds strength in the apparent fact that congenitally blind people do not “see” in their dreams, whereas people who go blind later in life do. In other words, the data seems to suggest that dream sight is only possible as an aftereffect of actual sight. This, of course, seems wholly consistent with the hypothesis that consciousness is nothing more than a by-product of the brain.

However, I recalled from my studies on NDE’s that congenitally blind people routinely report “seeing” in their experiences. 45-year-old Vicki Umipeg recounts the experience of seeing herself, despite the fact she was blind from birth:

I knew it was me … I was pretty thin then. I was quite tall and thin at that point. And I recognized at first that it was a body, but I didn’t even know that it was mine initially. Then I perceived that I was up on the ceiling, and I thought, “Well, that’s kind of weird. What am I doing up here?” I thought, “Well, this must be me. Am I dead? …” I just briefly saw this body, and … I knew that it was mine because I wasn’t in mine. I think I was wearing the plain gold band on my right ring finger and my father’s wedding ring next to it. But my wedding ring I definitely saw … That was the one I noticed the most because it’s most unusual. It has orange blossoms on the corners of it. […] “This was the only time I could ever relate to seeing and to what light was, because I experienced it.

Fascinating. In stark contrast, here we find a case where the evidence suggests that actual sight took place in a person whose brain is incapable of actual sight! Among other things, this challenges the hypothesis that consciousness is nothing more than a by-product of the brain. I’m starting to get lost in a tangent here, but hey: that’s what good books do.

Let me try to reel this thing back in: like the evidence above, what Staume needs to confront is this idea that perception is brain, nerve and sense-dependent. He uses the analogy of a television set and television station to offer the logical possibility of mind/brain dualism. In short, he notes that the writing and producing goes on at the station, and these products are communicated to and expressed through the set. If you damage the set, you wouldn’t expect that the station was also damaged. You would expect the expression of content to change, and this is in fact what we find in many who sustain severe injuries to their set [i.e. brain]. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Staume isn’t the first to come up with the idea. I’ve expressed it here using the analogy of light and bulb. With the penchant for conservatively stated claims that he has, Staume concludes:

This [analogy] does not prove dualism, but it could reduce the strength of the position that the mind and brain are the same. [p.53]

Of course, the dualist has far more at their disposal than analogy to challenge the hypothesis that consciousness is nothing more than a by-product of the brain, but that’s another discussion altogether. Stuame’s take-home point from all this follows:

…there is reason to believe that we dream in a different geometry from the geometry of our waking experience. [p.53]

However, I have to disagree when he gets to this part:

The point is: if it’s not our brain doing the dreaming, it must be our mind, since there’s no other option. That makes our brain and mind different, and the dualists are back in the game. [p.54]

Well, for one, the dualists have never been out of the game; they just get shouted over and denigrated by the materialists. That said, I think my previous line of questions strongly suggests that the brain is doing the dreaming. The mind seems to need prior sensory input to synthesize the content of our dreams. For that reason, I think NDE’s and OBE’s would be much better bullets in Staume’s gun: those phenomena strongly suggest that “mind” can be doing something without the brain.

What do you think?

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