Does Consciousness Depend on the Brain? (cont.)
By Chris Carter
The near-death experience described above is not rare. Hundreds of similar cases – involving people reporting that while seriously ill or injured they left their bodies, observed the surrounding scene, entered a tunnel, emerged into another world where they met deceased friends or relatives before returning to their bodies – have been documented in several different countries and cultures. The case above is not even a particularly impressive one. At first glance, such cases seem to indicate that under life-threatening circumstances the conscious part of us is capable of detaching from our physical bodies, and may travel to another world. The over-whelming majority of those who have had such experiences are convinced of the existence of an afterlife.
However, there are those that disagree, and who argue that such experiences simply cannot be what they at first seem to be. The strongest arguments against the existence of an afterlife are those that deny the possibility of consciousness existing apart from the biological brain.
The Greek atomists were the first to define the soul in terms of material atoms. Epicurus (342-270 BC) defined the soul as “a body of fine particles …most resembling breath with an admixture of heat.” He stressed the complete dependence of soul on body, so that when the body loses breath and heat, the soul is dispersed and extinguished. The Roman poet Lucretius (99-55 BC) took up the arguments of Epicurus, and continued the atomist tradition of describing the mind as composed of extremely fine particles. Lucretius wrote one of the earliest and most cogent treatises advancing the arguments that the relation between mind and body is so close that the mind depends upon the body and therefore cannot exist without it. First, he argued that the mind matures and ages with the growth and decay of the body; second, that wine and disease of the body can affect the mind; third, the mind is disturbed when the body is stunned by a blow; and finally, if the soul is immortal, why does it have no memories of its previous existence? Similar arguments, to the effect that the mind is a function of the brain, were taken up with greater force nineteen centuries later, in the work of men such as Thomas Huxley.
More recently, Corliss Lamont, former president of the American Humanist Association, has written one of the most extensive statements of the materialist positions in his book The Illusion of Immortality, the title of which speaks for itself. He tells us in the preface that he started out as a believer in a future life, but does not give us the reasons why he held the belief against which he reacted so strongly.