Is the Notion of Disembodied Existence Intelligible?
Hospers (John)
Source: Edwards - Immortality, pp, 279-281
Paper - Abstract

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Bibliographical Note

  1. This is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of the 1988 3rd edition of Hospers’ much-revised book. I have the two surrounding editions, ie:-
  2. This passage appears in revised form in Chapter 6 of the 1997 4th Edition, and in a yet different form in Chapter 20 of the 1967 2nd Edition.
  3. The passages appear fairly similar, though the long quotation from Geach’s Mental Acts is considerably truncated in the much briefer 4th edition.

Full Text1
  1. Perhaps one might do better2 to imagine surviving without a body. We have already noticed some problems with ghost life and apparition life, but these at least contained some aspects of body, such as visual appearance. Let's try now to eliminate body altogether and imagine a purely mentalistic existence.
  2. You go to bed one night and go to sleep3, then awaken some hours later and see the sunlight streaming in the window, the clock pointing to eight, the mirror on the other side of the room, and you wonder what you will do today. Still in bed, you look down to where your body should be, but there isn't any. The blankets and bed sheets are there, but there is no body under them. Startled, you look into the mirror, and see the reflection of the bed, the pillows, the blankets, but no reflection of your face or body. "Perhaps I have become invisible like H. G. Wells's The Invisible Man." The invisible man could not be seen, but he could be touched. You try to touch yourself, but there is nothing there to be touched. A person coming into the room would be unable to see or touch you — people could run their hands over the entire bed without ever coming into contact with a body. You are now thoroughly alarmed, thinking that now no one will know that you still exist. You try to walk forward to the mirror, but you have no feet. You might have the visual experiences you would have if you were approaching the mirror, but of course, not having a body, you are unable to walk.
  3. Have we now succeeded in imagining existence without a body? Not at all. There are hidden references to body even in this description. You see — with eyes? But you have no eyes. You look toward the foot of the bed — but how can you look in one direction and then another if you have no head? You can't touch your body because there is no body there — and what would you touch it with? Did you reach out with your fingers? But of course you have no fingers — nor hands, nor arms, nor anything else. What would it mean, without a body, to even try to touch? You move, or seem to move, toward the mirror — but what is it that moves or seems to move? Not your body; you have none. Things seem to be getting larger as you approach them — approach them with what? your feet? Your body seems to be involved in every activity we try to describe, even though we have endeavored to imagine existing without it.
  4. Is the problem just that we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as having bodies and can't get out of the habit? The difficulty seems to be not just the inability to imagine; we can be very ingenious at imagining. The difficulty seems to be conceptual: how can we have a concept of moving when there is nothing to move, or touching when there is nothing with which to touch, and so on.
  5. "But a person can imagine visual sense-data even if she has no eyes; surely she can imagine the visual data even if she lacks the sense organ, the eyes, with which in our present world she sees." But can she? Try it for touch — to touch is to be in physical contact with something, and how can one be in physical contact without a body? Even the idea of seeing without a body doesn't really survive analysis:
      What shows a man to have the concept seeing is not merely that he sees, but that he can take an intelligent part in our everyday use of the word "seeing." Our concept of sight has its life only in connection with a whole set of other concepts, some of them relating to the physical characteristics of visible objects, others relating to the behavior of people who see things. I express exercise of this concept in such utterances as "I can't see, it's too far off — now it's coming into view!" "He couldn't see me, he didn't look round," "I caught his eye," etc., etc. . . . And the exercise of one concept is intertwined with the exercise of others; as with a spider's web, some connections may be broken with impunity, but if you break enough the whole web collapses — the concept becomes unusable. Just such a collapse happens, I believe, when we try to think of seeing, hearing. pain, emotions, etc., going on independently of a body4.
  6. Is there anything left of the concept of disembodied existence5? Descartes believed himself to be a mind, a "center of consciousness." The body is only the external trapping, said Saint Augustine, which is discarded at death. There are thoughts, and since thoughts cannot exist without a thinker, there is a thinker. And what is that thinker, and how can he/she/it be distinguished from anything else? Can one try to imagine it, perhaps in a community of other minds or spirits? Without a body, how could such a spirit have even the most elementary interaction with the world? (How could one even distinguish he or she from it?) And how could these disembodied6 minds do anything? Is such a description even intelligible? Whether it satisfies anyone's conception of personal immortality is surely open to question.

  1. It is sensible to press those who claim to believe in the possibility of disembodied existence7 to explain something of what – if not exactly what – they think they are imagining.
  2. But, one presumes, most don’t imagine themselves interacting with the physical world without the aid of some body or other – some sort of spiritual body maybe, or metamorphosed8 into an angel9.
  3. It’s also rather strange quoting Geach, a Catholic Thomist (Wikipedia: Peter Geach), in support. He, presumably, believed that God has no body, yet is able to interact with the physical world. And presumably he’d thought things through a bit.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Taken from the 4th Edition, Chapter 6, pp. 195-6.

Footnote 2: The previous Section was “Survival in a new body”.

Footnote 4: Peter Geach, Mental Acts: Their Content and Their Objects (London: Routledge, 1963), pp. 112-113.

Footnote 9: Yes, I heard this at a funeral recently.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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