Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Michael Jackson Lives!

There is indeed life after death, and the disembodied spirit of Michael Jackson (among other notables) lives on among us.

But let me make clear at the outset that I don’t subscribe to any of the various species of dualism, which suggest that the mind is immaterial, and that there is some insubstantial spirit which, having a separate existence from the body, persists after death. Michael Jackson lives, like his colleague in song Madonna, in a material world.

I am quite convinced by Gilbert Ryle’s arguments against the “Ghost in the Machine” (Ryle, 1949) – and by the way, Searle’s homunculus in the Chinese Room (Searle, 1982) appears to be just another ghost in the machine – and I do consider the mind to be just what the brain does.

As Ryle points out, there is no reliable evidence of any non-material non-substance associated with our minds, and plenty of evidence that our minds and our bodies are inextricably connected. Furthermore, as a matter of common sense, in daily life we don’t treat others as if they were separate from their bodies.

U. T. Place (Place, 1956) makes the interesting argument that when we see a cloud we immediately recognize it as such. But when we are immersed in the cloud, it seems to us to be not a cloud but a fog or mist, and on closer examination, it appears to be a mass of tiny droplets of water in suspension. In fact the cloud is simultaneously all of these things, without ceasing to be any of them, and there is no need to regard the cloud, the fog, the mist, and the droplets in suspension as qualitatively different, separate, or mutually exclusive.

Place’s example of lightning also provides a flash of insight. We can see lighting in action, we can speculate on the internal physics of lightning, but we may have to be content with never being able to actually get inside lightning and examine what is going on in there up close, as we can with a cloud.

Similarly, we may have to be content with never being able to directly witness the millions, possibly billions, of simultaneous electro-bio-chemical interactions that take place at speeds of hundredths of a second within a single thought – let alone the body signals accompanying a brain state. For this reason alone we are unlikely to reproduce human intelligence exactly with a machine. And if we did, the machine would have to bear such a strong resemblance to a human being as to lead one to wonder what advantage building such a machine could confer.

But we certainly can reproduce aspects of the human mind with machines, aspects such as reasoning, calculation, and speech. One important example I’d like to look at more closely is memory.

One of the clearest distinctions between human beings and other animals is that human beings are alone in our capacity to store memories outside of our own physical bodies. We store our memories and our knowledge, things we rightfully consider to be a part of our minds, on external physical media, such as photographs, computer disks, books, and the Internet.

Recognition of this uniquely human capability can lead us to two conclusions. First, that memory is not immaterial but a physical mechanism, and therefore that the brain might be characterized as a type of physical media. We know that specific memories (and indeed many mental functions) reside in specific locations in the brain from the fact that they can be destroyed by trauma to those locations. This alone suggests that the mind is irredeemably physical.

Second, that the line dividing human life from the material world is becoming harder to draw as science progresses. We know that in addition to external material and mechanical aids to life, such as eyeglasses and canes, not to mention clothing and housing and food, we now also create internal material aids to life, such as medications, heart pacers, stents, dialysis implants, indeed whole organ donations from other human beings.

We also know that some 90% of the cells in our bodies (not 90% of our mass – bacteria are very tiny) are actually microbes with an independent life – or I should say semi-independent, since they are dependent for life on us as we are on them.[1]

All of which validates Einstein’s famous quote:

"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest -- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. “

But who is that “someone” we are referring to when we speak of ourselves, or of a person like Michael Jackson? Our identity is surely a product of our own experience, but it is also a product of our heredity.

Turing writes of what makes an adult human mind (Turing, p.364). He notes three components: 1) the initial state of the mind, say at birth, which includes hereditary material; 2) education; and 3) experience.

Turing takes care to distinguish between education and experience, a distinction which I consider unimportant for the purposes of this discussion. The University of Experience is where one achieves the most advanced degrees.

Turing recognizes that heredity and what we sometimes call “instinct” are in fact a form of learning, a learning on the species level that informs our thoughts and our minds from birth. Heredity is how we pass on that species-learning, a small part of which is also the learning of our own individual lifetimes.

Michael Jackson’s children have inherited something from him, have been influenced by their time with him, and most certainly have been influenced by and will continue to be influenced by his images and music long after he’s gone. It can be truthfully said that some of Michael Jackson will live on in his children, and in his children’s children to the Nth generation.

As well as inborn instinct, our selves are formed by our experiences, including our educational experiences. But these experiences are dominated by social interaction with the rest of humanity, in the first instance with our parents and family. In fact there can be no doubt that a great deal of what we consider to be our selves we owe to the family and the culture we find ourselves in. It is no exaggeration to say that we are to a considerable degree a product of a human culture and to a considerable degree a representation of that culture.

We can illustrate this by pointing to those unfortunate cases of children who are raised in cages or locked rooms or orphanages where they have little or no interaction with other human beings. Such children invariably grow up with limited language skills and limited cognitive skills. In fact we may say that through isolation such children have been denied a not-inconsequential portion of what it means to be a fully actualized human being, and after a certain age may never regain it.

The implications of this are quite significant, for it means that a considerable part of our own minds, including language, the very stuff of thought, is in fact a reflection of the greater social mind and all the memory, knowledge, and experience of our larger cultural environment. Our selfhood, often thought to be our private property, turns out to be inseparable from a larger humanity.

The reverse is equally true. Our selfhood, and indeed our very minds, belong not only to us but to a larger humanity, to which we contribute daily. This contribution takes the form of our daily work, our contributions to Wikipedia and the Internet, our interpersonal roles as teachers and friends. For some of us, such as Michael Jackson, our contribution takes the form of unforgettable music and images.

In fact we have two overlapping selves, one a private self, and the other a social. We are on the one hand a single body with a mind of its own, and on the other a single cell in the great body Hobbes referred to as Leviathan:

“For by art is created that great Leviathan called a Commonwealth, or State, in Latin civitas, which is but an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural…” (Hobbes, p. 115)

Michael Jackson’s mortal flesh may have passed on, but his spirit very much lives with us still. It has been disembodied by the circumstances of his bodily death, but his spirit has been absorbed into our greater self, the collective human mind.

What is “spirit”? It appears like the cloud of U. T. Place, which from a distance appears to be fluffy and white, but up close is seen to be a mass of tiny individual particles in suspension. “Spirit” up close can be seen to be composed of the individual memories of multitudes of people, and the spirit of Michael Jackson is the collective human experience of his time with us.

Gilbert Ryle’s example of “team spirit” (Ryle, 1949) is especially useful in making this point. He asks us to imagine a foreigner watching a cricket game, and saying that he sees all the players, but where can he see the team spirit? The answer is that it lies in the minds of the team, it operates collectively on the team and each of its members, and it evidences itself in both their individual and collective behaviours.

To conclude: our “spirits” are the contributions we have made to the collective consciousness of humanity, and in that sense our spirits live on, ghost-like, after our deaths. Our spirits are also captured in some sense in the genetic material we pass on to our children, reincarnated if you will, and that too is a lasting contribution to humanity.

But both kinds of contribution are registered on physical media of one sort or another, be it photographs, DNA, the printed word, or the memories of living human beings. Thus is the spiritual and the material seen to be one and the same.


Armstrong, D. M. (1970). The Nature of Mind.

Einstein, Albert. (1950). Out of My Later Years. New York, Gramercy Publishing Co.

Hobbes, Thomas. (1651). Leviathan.

Ryle, Gilbert. (1949). The Concept of Mind.

Searle, John. (1982). The Myth of the Computer.

Turing, A.M. (1950). Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind, New Series, Vol. 59, No. 236. (Oct., 1950), pp. 433-460.

[1] See Olivia Judson in the New York Times, retrieved from the Internet August 16, 2009 at

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