Friday, March 5, 2010

Prisoner of Matter

Among the puzzles of the borderzone, one that interests me most is—how to put this? Well, call it the problem of incarnation. Call it the body-soul duality. Call it being a prisoner of matter. Before this situation can even become a puzzle, we have to credit that a duality exists. There is ample experiential but no scientific evidence for it. By “experiential evidence” I mean the reports of people. By “scientific evidence” I mean evidence of such a nature that you can support it by some kind of physical measurement. If souls are real and are genuinely immaterial, scientific evidence, of course, is ruled out by definition. You cannot touch, see, hear, smell or measure the immaterial. And that which we can touch, see, hear, and smell is always reaching us by material agencies. These may be caused to manifest by immaterial realities, but since we have the material manifestations, we can always explain it using material derivations. By material, here, I also mean energetic. This situation explains why science dismisses the paranormal.

A Range of Views

The puzzle is also absent if we accept an Aristotelian definition of substance. Substance, for Aristotle, was always the combination of matter and form. Neither unformed matter nor immaterial form were genuinely real. In his system they occupy a kind of hazy underworld, the realm of potential. The soul, as the body’s form, is thus one aspect of the substance we call a human. When we die the matter of our body takes on another form, and the uniquely human vanishes. Form is thus not a prisoner of matter. It is, as it were, its necessary counterpart. Without it, prime matter sinks into invisibility too.

The Christian belief, strongly influenced by Aristotelian philosophy, maintains this matter-form duality, at least for humans. The Athanasian creed speaks of the resurrection of bodies. In this system the real human is an incarnated human. Resurrection bodies may be “glorified,” to be sure, thus different from those we now inhabit, but bodies they are still. The soul itself, however, in the Catholic tradition, is immortal; but, while absent from the body, it is incomplete. So a duality is maintained but the unity of the two is asserted. God creates each soul at conception.

In Eastern traditions which assert the transmigration of souls (reincarnation), the duality is held to be real, the body always just a temporary vehicle. On the achievement of nirvana, the soul then enters a region of undefined bliss; bodies then no longer matter—indeed are not discussed. In general, bodies are a lower, never a higher, manifestation of reality. In these traditions the soul has a unique reality. It “carries” its karma in some way. Souls preexist their birth but, in the processes of birth “forget” their earlier life (and sometimes don’t—at least for a while). Something has to carry that karma, and that something must be differentiated, in some way, from every other soul.

In some modern syncretistic speculations the soul is often imagined as an energetic phenomenon, thus as the life force. Such models resemble the eastern tradition but picture the individual, the Self, strictly as a temporary embodied manifestation. The life force, moving on after death, is equated with a kind of pantheistic cosmic flow in which the individuality may remain conscious in a kind of merged consciousness of the All.

Comment on these Views

On the subject of form and matter I’ve suggested (link) that I like the notion of this merged duality provided that we substitute, for form, the concept of intention. The source of a substance, therefore, is always a triad: there is matrix in which an intention manifests, there is the intention itself, and there is the source of an intention. In that form the Aristotelian doctrine retains its elegance and takes on valid meaning for me.

My own take on the Christian model is that souls indeed are immortal—but that their yoking to bodies (ordinary or glorified) is dependent on philosophical systems and/or cosmic models that I find difficult to embrace. I resonate with the grand scheme—a creation, a process, a resolution of that process, a divine intention behind it all; but I find the details difficult to accept. I am entirely persuaded by experiential evidence (others’, not my own) that some souls are reborn. I’m sometimes inclined to think that we are engaged in a developmental process, and the Christian model, at least viewed from a sufficient distance so that the details are fuzzy, seems to me a good expression of that feeling.

I am temperamentally drawn to one aspect of the Eastern traditions—an aspect also mirrored in the Christian doctrine of the Fall—which suggests that humanity has fallen into a great chasm of ignorance—from which to extricate ourselves is Job One. And in that sense we are indeed prisoners of matter. One lifetime may not suffice to get clear of the debris. My own view is that most people do escape in a single lifetime, but some do not, hence we have evidence of rebirth. That rebirth is everyone’s invariable and inevitable fate—until they’ve managed to do the near-impossible, namely to achieve Buddha-like bliss in the flesh—that I find difficult to credit.

As for the life-force model of Western syncretism, I see that as a rather inconsequential and groping return from materialism to transcendentalism still largely stuck in a materialist conceptualization of the regions beyond.

In the next post I’ll address the question of how exactly we might be imprisoned in the flesh. Stay tuned.

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