Religion: the Next Version
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Mark F. Sharlow

Thu, 19 Mar 2009

The New Face of Spirit: Part Two

In Part One of this post I explored a basic idea of religion: that we are more than just our bodies. This idea is true because we have abstract selves that are not the same as our material brains. However, we also differ from the matter of our bodies in another way. We differ from the matter of our bodies because all physical objects differ from their parts.

To explain what I mean by this mysterious statement, I'll explore some facts about diamonds. (What do diamonds have to do with the human spirit? Read on.)

Think about a diamond. According to science, a diamond is composed of carbon atoms arranged in a certain orderly way. A diamond is made of carbon atoms; it has no substance besides the substance of its carbon atoms.

Now ask yourself: Is a diamond really just carbon atoms?

The obvious answer to this question is "yes." After all, a diamond is made of carbon atoms. Take away the carbon atoms and - poof! - there's no diamond left. It seems as if there's nothing to the diamond but carbon atoms.

It seems that way - but is it true?

It isn't easy to find a good answer to this question. To find the answer, we have to think carefully about the relationship between the diamond and the atoms that make it up.

Is the diamond the same thing as any one of its atoms? Obviously not - because the diamond isn't just a single atom.

Is the diamond the same thing as all of its atoms together? This option seems much more reasonable, but still it isn't quite right. If the diamond were somehow identical to all of its atoms, then one thing would be the same thing as many things. If you take this idea literally, it doesn't make much sense: how can one single diamond really be the same as many different atoms? (This is one aspect of the traditional philosophical problem of "the one and the many.") Of course, the diamond will be the same as all of its atoms together if we take this to mean that the diamond is the same as the whole composed of all the atoms. But that isn't an answer. It's just a different way of saying what we already know: that the diamond is made of the atoms.

So can the diamond really be its carbon atoms? The best answer is: Not exactly. The diamond is not identical to the atoms that make it up. The diamond is an object that comes into being when the atoms are placed in the proper arrangement. It's perfectly true that the diamond is composed of these atoms and of nothing else. It's also true that the diamond is the whole made up of the atoms, and that the diamond has no substance besides that of the atoms. However, if we want to say that the diamond is the atoms, we must stop ourselves - for we are saying something that isn't quite true. The diamond is made up of its atoms, but it is not just its atoms. It is a whole of which the atoms are parts - but still, it is something a bit different from the atoms.

If you start with a zillion carbon atoms and then build a diamond, you are starting with a zillion things and ending up with a zillion and one things.[1] You are creating a new thing, even though no new matter is created!

There is nothing mysterious about what I just said. I'm not claiming that the diamond has some mysterious, ghostly thing in it besides its atoms. The diamond is just a whole composed of atoms, with no added parts - natural or supernatural! But in spite of this, the diamond is not just its atoms. There are the atoms. There is the diamond. There is the relationship between diamond and atoms (the diamond is a whole composed of the atoms). But the diamond is not identically the same as the atoms. If you took some loose carbon atoms and built a diamond, you would be creating a new thing - an extra thing that wasn't one of the things you started with. The extra thing is just the diamond itself. The amount of matter would remain exactly the same - but a new object would come to exist.

So what's the point of all this talk about diamonds? What do diamonds have to do with the human spirit?

The point is not just about diamonds. The point is that all material objects work the same way as the diamond. Material objects are not identical to the matter that makes them up. They are made of matter, but it would be a mistake to say that they are just matter. There is something to them besides the matter that makes them up. This "something" is not ghostly or mysterious. The "extra something" is just the fact of the existence of the complete material object - an existence that is not the same as the mere existence of the matter that makes up the object!

Like the diamond, your body is more than the matter that makes it up. Your body - including your brain - has an existence that goes beyond the mere existence of atoms and subatomic particles. This difference of existence is not magic, but is a subtle difference rooted in the logic of whole and part. It is not a property of humans alone, or even of living things alone. All physical objects have this difference. However, for humans the differences between the atoms and the whole system are much more dramatic than for diamonds. The human body has properties that would be unthinkable in the atoms - properties such as self-movement and thinking. Philosophers call these features "emergent properties." Their presence is a sign that your brain is more than the chemical elements that make it up.

There is a school of thought called "holism" that says the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The idea I am presenting here may sound like holism, but it isn't the same. You can believe what I am saying here whether or not you are a holist. Holism, in its common forms, says that the properties of the whole can't be explained in terms of the parts. I'm only claiming that the whole is not the same as the parts. Holists and non-holists alike are welcome to consider this view.

You are not just matter. Even your body - a material object - is not just matter. We live in a world in which wholes are a bit different from their parts. Your brain is no exception!

In Part One of this post I said that you have an abstract self that is not the same as your brain or your body. Now it turns out that your brain and body are not just the matter that make them up. This is a second way in which you are not just matter. Not only are you more than matter, but even your body is more than matter. Once again, there is nothing supernatural about this.

The human mind is more than just matter. Even the human body is more than just matter. You are more than just matter - and you don't have to believe in the supernatural to be that way!

If you want to read more about the ideas in this post, read my ebook God, Son of Quark. There I present detailed arguments about the differences between objects and their parts. (I've presented the ideas informally in this post; the book gives the rigorous arguments and the philosophical details.) The book also contains references to the work of many philosophers who did things related to this idea. If you're curious about all this, read the book. It has an interesting cover too.




[1]  The view of whole and part that I suggested here is essentially the same as what Donald L. M. Baxter called "the Non-Identity view" of whole and part. See Baxter's article "Identity in the Loose and Popular Sense" (Mind, vol. 97 (1988), pp. 575-582).


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