The table fairly condenses Proclus' immortality argument. Results from Chapters 5 and 6 may work
some changes on this table. Any changes we'll mark on an updated version
Let's look again at Propositions 17, 15 and
16 (taking them in the same order as before):
Prop. 17: Everything originally self-moving is capable of reversion upon
Proposition 17 states that for the
self-moving body, "one and the same thing moves and is
moved." Are we to infer that self-motion is corporeal, or incorporeal? Proclus' statement is unclear on this point.
But we, possessing better knowledge, can make a more certain statement. If we recall the
distinction made between a recursive
a recursive function
in Chapter 5
we can see how the
recursive function correlates more precisely with self-motion. A recursive definition must
be interpreted by a mathematician, who acts as its cause and motive force.
The recursive function, however, can be applied mechanically by a computing
device. The self-motion which results is invisible inside electronic
computers, but the gnashing gears of an electrically-powered mechanical
calculator display quite vividly the modern reality of self-motion in corporeal
examples we can remove ambiguity from Proposition 17. We can say now that
self-motion is wholly corporeal, and present even within the rigid confines of a machine.
Moving to the
Prop. 15: All
that is capable of reverting upon itself is incorporeal.
Proposition 15 defines self-reversion as
"the case in which the reverted subject and that upon which it has
reverted become identical." This, Proclus maintains, is an
incorporeal act; just because "a divisible substance cannot be conjoined with the
whole of itself."
speaking, Proclus' statement is true. But Proclus' definition of
conjunction neglects the role of time. And
time does have a role to play, because corporeal bodies cannot act
instantaneously to accomplish any task whatsoever. They
cannot be moved instantaneously. Neither can they move themselves, nor
revert upon themselves, nor conjoin themselves, nor disjoin from themselves, nor in
any other way
change without the freedom to do so in time. Granted time, these actions become
the hippocampal autoassociator described in Chapter 6
. The autoassociator operates
over time because the neurons which comprise it function at a finite
speed. It stores and retrieves memory patterns via the neurons' recurrent
collaterals. And these collaterals are recurrent just because they feed loops of axonal spikes back
to their sources; inputs priming outputs, outputs cycled back as inputs
Where in the
midst of these recursions can we say an active memory really
"begins"? No one certain point answers. Practically
speaking, the question is not meaningful. The memory is conjoined with itself.
While the memory is active, the
reverted subject and that upon which it reverts have become identical.
This sort of corporeal recursion is,
by Proclus' corrected definition, a form of self-reversion. And so Proposition 15 falls: self-reversion, like self-motion, can be wholly corporeal.
Moving to the
third proposition of immediate interest:
Prop. 16: All that is capable of reverting upon itself has an existence
separable from all body.
Proposition 16 asserts that the
self-reversive "has an existence separable from all body."
This, because self-reversion is "independent of the body and not
conducted through it or with its co-operation...."
It is too easy
to remark that spiking neural nets "conduct" their electrical spikes
by the principle which Proclus verbalized, yet did not know. But irrespective
of this remark, we note also that Proposition 16 cites the invalidated
as an authoritative axiom. That authority being now invalidated, Proposition 16
must also be invalidated. In the living brain self-reversion would appear to be inseparable
from the corporeal.
7.2 summarizes all the changes derived above. Strikeouts have been placed over Proclus' modified or
Changes to the first four
of the selected propositions
|both corporeal and incorporeal
|separable from corporeal
inseparable from corporeal
Table 7.2 shows the changes which
preceding arguments have effected. The
first four propositions have been marked, their causes all now falling to corporeal nature.
Proclus is clearly under siege. Yet six propositions are still unmarked
in Table 7.2,
their natures being as yet undecided.
The final six propositions build in part upon the four now captured, but they rise
higher than the basic facts brought to bear so far in this
critique. So nothing should be said of the final six propositions until some greater argument
ascends to their level. Another perspective on memory can advance
cast memory in civic form as "the
cabinet of imagination, the treasury of reason, the registry of conscience, and
the council chamber of thought."
Imagination, reason, conscience, thought itself to St.
Basil, memory was essential to the execution of all these psychologies.
To be sure, it is difficult to perform mental tasks without memory's aid.
If we linger now to consider St. Basil's listed psychological functions, one
by one, this point may sharpen itself.
We might begin
by considering the vitality which memory infuses into the imagination.
It's hard to imagine, say, a tropical reef if we've never held a brittle plate of fan
coral, nor watched a sting ray's perfect glide, nor heard the sizzle of reef head
feeding, nor felt the warmth of sun in shallow water, nor gulped brine. Such
events are indispensable to a rich imagination of reef. Forget them and
the imagined reef fades to a lifeless pastel.
reason: Can a judge reason a case of jurisprudence wisely if deprived of
his libraries of law and barred from the use of precedent? No judge so
constrained would attempt the task. His
memory of legal precedent is the guide his reason follows to a sound
judgment. Were he to judge while in ignorance of precedent he would risk rashness.
conscience: Can conscience speak to us if we remember nothing of the bad
acts of which we are guilty? Repress all memory of those acts and
conscience is muted.
meaningful weight of our thoughts is emptied if the history of life is
Basil's apt metaphors the vital importance of memory becomes clear. It is no exaggeration to say that the
soul, were it deprived of all memory, would be then incapable of knowing any thing; incapable even of knowing itself.
This truth will press against the final six propositions
left undecided in Table 7.2. Returning now to
Prop. 16: All that is capable of reverting upon
itself has an existence separable from all body.
This proposition we know already to
be invalid. The hippocampal autoassociator demonstrates that self-reversion can be wholly
read again from the proposition: "[I]f there were any body whatsoever from
which [self-reversion] was inseparable, [self-reversion] could have no activity separable from
links to the claim of Proposition 83: "All that is
capable of self-knowledge is capable of every form of self-reversion."
Now we can complete the syllogisms implicit in these quotations. Episodic
memory, being as we've seen both corporeal and self-reversive, is
inseparable from the body. It follows that self-knowledge, being the
memory with self as both subject and object, must likewise be inseparable from
the body. Memory's corporeality makes self-knowledge a hostage to the body's
turns a cold light on the last of the ten selected propositions,
Prop. 187. Every
soul is indestructible and imperishable.
For all that is capable of being in any way
dissolved or destroyed either is corporeal and composite or has its being in
a substrate: the former kind, being made up of a plurality of
elements, perishes by dissolution, while the latter, being capable of
existence only in something other than itself, vanishes into non-existence
when severed from its substrate (Prop. 48). But the soul is both incorporeal and
independent of any substrate, existing in itself and reverting upon itself
It is therefore indestructible and imperishable.
The soul would appear to be intimately
dependent upon self-knowledge and the greater store of memory. But they, being as we've seen
composites which are inseparable from the corporeal body, must be "dissolved
or destroyed" when the body ceases function. We are led to conclude, contra Proclus, that
at death the soul is destroyed along with its requisite parts: it "perishes by
dissolution," or else "vanishes into non-existence."
This is a dour conclusion.
It is also not new. Scientific knowledge leaves us with little reason to doubt this
conclusion today, but even in the classical and medieval worlds complete mortality broke through
occasionally as a minority opinion. The works of Plato, Aristotle and
al-Farabi provide famous examples.
Also, we've seen above how the logic within Proclus' own
Propositions 16, 83 and 187 does itself spool down to complete mortality once
we've assigned corporeal natures to the causes in Propositions 17, 15 and 16.
Of course, we
are still free to spin arguments for immortality if we wish to do so. But
a modern argument for immortality should, I think, honor the tradition of
systematic philosophy which Proclus' work exemplified. The conflicted immortality
arguments set forth by William James and Albert Shalom (to choose two capable philosophers)
make plain the difficulty of approaching Proclus' classical standard.
arguments will need to address physio-computational evidence directly; so as to
refute it, or else to show its irrelevance to the problem. Abundant evidence
now supports the Church-Turing Thesis and its recent application to hippocampal
learning. To my knowledge no philosopher has as yet
found a way to accommodate this body of evidence within a rational immortality conjecture.
conjectures are forthcoming. But for now the evidence gives us good reason to ponder instead the
case for complete mortality. And not only to ponder it, but to actively
probe it with temperate questions, e.g.:
- What are the limits of complete mortality?
- Can anything be known of complete mortality's
- Does that metaphysics in some way point
"beyond" complete mortality?
Such questions bring to mind the
heated correspondence between al-Kirmani and al-Akhram, back at Dar al-Hikma. We
will revisit that precedent, but not yet.
If we are to
examine the metaphysical questions surrounding complete mortality, we will need
to work for a time within an entirely modern conceptual framework.
Classical frameworks are incomplete. They enshrine time-tested
concepts, such as Causation, Generation, and Soul. But other, more modern
concepts are missing from the matrix. For example, neither Hellenic nor
medieval philosophers conceived "personal identity" in the way we do
today. And we will see that personal identity does factor into the preliminary
answers which are soon to emerge.
These answers I
will gather beneath a rubric — a title I've affixed
to the header of every essay page. I call this philosophy "Metaphysics by
Default." I'll explain the meaning of that title directly.
But thinking back to Chapter 2, we bring
to mind again the library of Dar al-Hikma. We have envisioned in our
mind's eye the little padlock on the door of the Greek sage's cabinet. And in our mind's
eye we've taken a crowbar to that padlock, ripping it off to retrieve Proclus' Elements
imagery is readily appreciated. What one man locks, another man can
unlock. (Sometimes it takes a little elbow grease.) And
I'll sound a note of caution here, because it is also second nature to
coerce metaphysical belief when our understanding fails to free it. Or if we do understand, we
are sorely tempted to discount those arguments which are sound, but which seem
somehow unpleasant or unrewarding. In short, we're tempted to force the
But we must be
patient with ourselves, for here we are interrogating our natural limits — never an easy task. In our mind's
eye the barrier we'd breach now is no mere cabinet door no man-made
obstruction but a hardened ebony wall marking the extremity and end of
life. It is life's natural barrier, impervious to artifice.
To my way of
looking at it, this wall has an inlaid double lock. A snake's eyes stare
at us from deep within the pitch — two keyholes awaiting two keys. We may yet be
tempted to force this lock: by invoking a creed, or some dissemblance.
But this lock, being natural, cannot be so forced. The
keys must be natural truths if they are to fit the lock and open the ebony wall.
We have one key
already in complete mortality. That truth is not cultural, or relative. It is not contingent
upon a conditioned state of mind. It is instead a natural truth, as
required. If we value the case for complete mortality we hold the first
key firmly in hand. Now we can go after the second key.