Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Pain and Death

A Protestant friend asked a couple of questions today. I thought they'd make great blog fodder.

"What do you think is the atheist or agnostic explanation for the existence of pain?" (cleaned up a little, the original had an ambiguous wording)

If you're asking how an atheist explains the existence of pain, we tend to prefer the scientific explanation. Pain is an evolved response that makes organisms avoid bodily harm. If you didn't feel pain, you would not take action to avoid bodily harm. Imagine a group of organisms. Some feel pain, others do not. The ones with pain will survive and reproduce more successfully. The no-pain organisms will accidentally injure themselves, sometimes fatally. Eventually the no-pain organisms will die out. Only the organisms with pain will be left.

"What happens when one dies?"

What happens to a candle flame when it is blown out? What happens to a wind-up toy that has wound down? Nothing.

There is an idea that some people hold called dualism. Dualism is the idea that humans consist of two (dual) things. One is physical matter (your body and brain) and energy (electromagnetic). The other is not (soul). The problem from a scientific perspective is that we have no way to detect the soul. There is no evidence that it exists. What we do have is an increasingly great understanding of the complexity of the human brain and how it works. We know that when this area over here lights up, you will feel happy. When that area over there lights up, you will feel angry. We even know that when a particular area of the brain is damaged, the thing it used to do, no longer gets done. When the decision-making area is injured, people can't make decisions, when the speech area is injured, people can't speak, etc.

Now it is still possible (though there's no evidence for it) that some sort of soul is out there, reaching out and touching particular areas of the brain to make them do their thing. But if so, isn't it interesting that it is restricted to only one type of matter (brain tissue; don't get me started on bogus claims of telekinesis). More importantly, it is restricted to one particular lump of brain tissue (my brain). If souls were a little less picky, my soul could control your brain (don't get me started on bogus claims of ESP and mesmerism). Wouldn't that be chaotic? Most importantly, it can't be detected. I'm sure that some dualists will jump in here and say that maybe someday we'll be able to detect the soul. They may be right. But in the mean time, we have no reason to expect that it exists. We have no more reason to believe the soul exists than that L. Ron Hubbard's Thetans do.

When I was younger I always wondered what would happen to my step-dad when he died. He started life as a normal healthy man. But he wasn't particularly religious. Then his brain was injured. Now he's kind of simple (like a big kid). He's become a devout Christian. When he dies, which one of those people is he? Does he go to heaven as he is, or does he get restored and possibly go to hell? Those are all inconvenient questions for a 14 year old to think about. They are the sort of questions that dualism brings up.

But now, I am not a dualist. I am a monist (just matter). Monism is supported by the evidence. I AM my body and my brain. If they are damaged, my self* is damaged. When they have stopped working, there will be no me, any more than a candle flame will continue to exist after the candle is blown out.

* Technically, I don't think my "self" is the particles that comprise the matter in my brain. My "self" is the pattern of the particles that comprise the matter in my brain. The pattern is what stores all my memories, thoughts, feelings, and personality. Yes, the pattern is always changing. Yes, this means I am always changing. Check the blog title. I believe in truth in advertising.

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