Wednesday, June 13, 2012

At the Edges of Consciousness: Death and the Double Judgement

As I've written about and alluded to a few times in recent months, my theological paradigm has recently taken the form of a certain type of what I've been calling Idealism (though not necessarily that of any particular philosopher whose school goes by that name). Put otherwise, I've taken to thinking and talking in what I might call an "analogy of Meaning" (except I probably really don't know enough about the "analogy of Being" to make that comparison). This ultimately doesn't lead me to any different conclusions (and certainly not any heterodox ones!) than I've held in the past, but is rather more like "parsing" orthodox dogma according to a "semantic" analogy. 

In fact, I am convinced, this is what the Church (or, the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church) has been intending all along. But there has been a lot of confusion because so many people mistake metaphysics for a sort of "spooky physics" (just look at how misunderstood the concept of "substance" is in the Church's eucharistic doctrine!) Dogma is actually quite abstract in its content, but because our analogy and language for abstract concepts starts with the concrete, people can entirely miss the abstraction and, instead, give into their imagination in the form of reification of the abstract, and thus understand metaphysical claims as basically physical ones.

This is why, for example, I (and many other people I know) do not merely disagree, but simply cannot have any respect for the so-called New Atheists. There are "compelling" atheistic philosophies, but they are mainly found among the existentialists, even certain strains of Marxists, etc, not in these sorts of crass materialism or scientism which can't seem to recognize their own inherent epistemological claims which they are already taking "on faith." But likewise I have no real interest in debating them in the way that more "simplistic" theist conservatives are inclined to attempt. For me, such debates make me cringe in general, because they all seem to be based on fundamentally flawed premises in the first place. Most especially, they all seem to reify God as if He can be treated as a being among other beings, as if the question of His existence is of the same nature as the question of the existence of a teacup or a meteor in space (or, of course, a giant spaghetti monster). To me, however, this seems a very naive category error.

Rather, I've come to see religion (and the Catholic religion most properly) as a system of symbols that speaks to the very structure of knowledge and consciousness itself, and can be shown to be reasonable (and necessary) in relation to that. Because so many breeds of logical positivists and materialists today are inclined to dismiss the supernatural or metaphysical as being merely a superfluous category layered on top of "reality" or tacked onto an account of the universe when (they think) there are already "complete" and internally consistent systems that explain it without this phantom of an extraneous and unnecessary element. 

I am convinced, however, that since "being" itself is a meaning, and since we can only ever access reality from the perspective of our own consciousness, of being subjects, our "starting point" must be epistemological. The epistemological must preceded the ontological in the order of philosophical inquiry, even if from that perspective we are then compelled to conclude that the ontological must have preceded in the order of reality (I'm not advocating solipsism after all!) 

This is what I mean by "structure of consciousness." Even with something like "meaning" itself; it is a profoundly human thing, and the materialists might say it is simply a phenomenon that arose from the evolution of human brains and their programming. And yet, this idea is ultimately as meaningless and contradictory as true nihilism, because the very inner-logic of the concept "meaning" implies that meaning is eternal, and so there is simply no way for us to speak or think meaningfully of it as not being eternal. "Might this not just be a byproduct of how our brains are programmed too, though?" And the answer, of course, is that this very question is meaningless; trying to speak "outside" the structure of our own consciousness like this, from some sort of "objective" simply impossible. There is no "really real" we can access from which to critique the inner-logic of meaning inherent to our consciousness.

However, when relating the "symbolic structure" of dogma to the "structure of consciousness"...there is a clear and present danger of Modernism here (heresies are usually more dangerous the closer they are to the Truth!) that I have seen near-allies fall into when pursuing this stream of thought. And so (as I wrote already) it must be understood that such an understanding is only viable and orthodox on the understanding that "meaning" and "reality" are ultimately the same thing. I have been thinking more about this specific point recently, and hope to write again soon about it along the lines of something like "the totality of meaning" (using the Eucharist and the Resurrection as the primary examples).

For now, suffice it to say, as I put it before, there is no "really real" in some materialistic sense outside reality as constructed by consciousness, which includes the consciousness of God of course. This would be a crucial difference from the Modernism which secretly cleaves the realm of symbols from reality (and so divorce the signifier from the signified; a common issue these days it seems). I also must insist that the "structure of consciousness" I'm talking about is ultimately identifiable in some sense with Reason, with a rational "semantic" objective structure of inner-logic in consciousness, and not with the vague and entirely subjective "experience" (socio-cultural, sentimentalist, or otherwise) to which the Modernists refer.

Anyway, recently I shared some thoughts on this approach as it applies to the concept of "temporal punishment" for sin and indulgences, and about how to think of these concepts in a non-reifying way. There are several other topics I've been mulling over in terms of how to fit them into this framework (for example, a non-anthropomorphic account of angels and demons) which I hope to write about someday when I've got the ideas more fleshed out. For now, however, I'd like to address the implications for consciousness of death, and of the relation of that to Catholic eschatology.

The immortality of the spiritual soul is a truth considered knowable to natural reason, and indeed it is almost self-evident or definitional. The spiritual soul of human beings is, as it were, the "meaning" of the person, which the body contingent in space and time signifies. Meaning, however, is a category that is not time-bound.

However, the death of the body nevertheless raise two questions for consciousness, for the "system" which is human meaning (at least, at it's "edges.") Those questions are, basically: what happens when I die? And, perhaps even more interestingly, what happens if/when all human beings have died? These two questions necessarily, thus, divide any notion of the after-life into two distinct parts: the part where I am dead, but other people are still alive, and the part where everyone is dead.

This, of course, coincides perfectly with the Catholic notion of there being a particular judgment after the death of the individual, but then a general judgment after the final conflagration. Notable differences between these two stages are that after the individual judgment purgatory is possible (whereas purgatory will not extend beyond the final conflagration), and that after the final conflagration (which basically means the death of the last human being) we, both saved and damned, are said to be resurrected in our bodies.

Now, is this all just "myth" (whether true or false)? Or is there something in these distinctions intrinsic to the very logic of consciousness itself? I would argue so. Consciousness, followed through to the edge of its logic, has to address both situations: when "I" am dead, and when all I's are dead. When just I am dead, consciousness still imagines a world of time continuing with the other consciousnesses. The meaning of my life may be "complete," but lives of new meanings go on.

The connection of this to our experience of Time must be noted here. Time is a phenomenon that, as we experience, only makes sense with respect to consciousness. From the "objective" perspective, there is no reason "now" should be now rather than yesterday. From the perspective of science, for example, Time is part of space-time, is simply a fourth dimension, albeit with a few differences (like that the "arrow of entropy" moves in its direction). Without subjectivity, human subjects, whose presence defines the "now"...the universe is really more like a cube of an infinity of thin slices, or a film strip with many many frames. But it is only consciousness (like the light shining through a projector) which defines when we are "on" this frame instead of that frame.

Now, after we personally die, we imagine that time will continue progressing, and there is no contradiction in this because, though we may no longer be embodied, there are other consciousnesses which are, and which can still define the "now," still progress through Time. It is really this which allows for purgatory, even though the souls in a state of purgatory are no longer in Time. There as a good Vox Nova post related to this once. My recent post on temporal punishment, I think, is also relevant here. If earthly "temporal punishment" is, essentially, the construction (in at the mind of God) of a connection or causation between suffering and sin, this insight into the meaning of punishment would likewise apply to the meaning of death.

For the saved, death poses no problem. The meanings of their lives are so united to the supreme meaning, to meaning itself, that the loss of the body is at most a temporary inconvenience due to original sin which afflicts the race as a whole, but really just unites them fully to Christ who also descended into death. For the damned, of course, death is the end of all positive meaning and the beginning of the total self-enclosure of self-meaning which is Hell. For those not quite perfect, however, but who are still aligned by sanctifying grace to the ultimate meaning, death itself (and the encounter with Christ therein) still has partially the meaning of temporal punishment, of being a deserts for sin. 

However, this "punishment" is in the end only temporal; it doesn't last forever. Rather, as Time passes on earth among those still living, and they pray for the dead and have Masses said and offer indulgences and offer up their suffering, and especially combined with these new imputations of salvific meaning to the death...with the passing of time, the "negative" meanings attached to the death of the imperfect dead fade away, they are gradually loosed of it, and once this chaff is shed, only what is permanent and of lasting significance remains. The meaning of their lives, though they have already exited temporality, is nevertheless "untangled" from its attachments to sin (in the form of either venial sin or temporal punishment for previous sin) by the combination of their own death and that very temporality continuing for others.

However, imagining Time continuing is dependent on imagining that other consciousnesses are still alive and embodied in time. But, consciousness must also address what happens when the last human being dies. At that point, by what reference point can we even really say that one point in the space-time-line is "now" more than any other? What would define that at that point? In reality, nothing. Therefore, when consciousness considers the hypothetical (but inevitable, someday) situation of the last human dying, its "perspective" must (if it is being logical) suddenly switch from a universe with a "now" defined by the progression of the eternal "four dimensional whole" existing all at once.

Indeed, we hear of the angel in the Revelations 10:6, "And he swore by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things which are therein; and the earth, and the things which are in it; and the sea, and the things which are therein: That time shall be no longer." This is why the Summa posits, I believe, that the final conflagration must and will itself suffice for the purgatory of any remaining alive at the end; there is no more time beyond that. After that it's resurrection and final judgment.

Why resurrection? Well, while I won't claim quite that the resurrection is knowable apart from Revelation, I do think it makes eminent sense according to this analysis. Consider: if, with the death of the last human, we reach the "end of Time" (in the sense that thinking of a particular "now" defined subjectively no longer makes sense after that, but only considering the entire 4-D "whole")...this means that the past will be as "present" as the "future," all at once. Like all the characters and moments of a book that you finish reading, that now sits on the shelf; but those moments and characters don't disappear, in fact the book objectively (ie, without the temporal progression given to it by you as a reader) still contains all of them, all at once!

So, indeed, with the death of the last human...suddenly the very logic of consciousness as it relates to time (and of time as it relates to embodiment) must imagine the past being as present as the future. We must imagine that the book has finished being read, and now the entire story exists all at once rather than any one "page" being the "now" any longer (on account of the presence of subjectivity). But there's just the paradox: at that point, in the past, we were alive, we did have bodies. So reaching the last "now," the death of the final human, actually suddenly implies the idea of all human lives (embodied lives as they were) present all at once! 

Except there will be nothing "new," no substantial change; they will be present in their "completion," locked into their final "complete" meanings (for salvation or damnation), the totality of their "life-lines" from their time alive as seen from the perspective of the End of Time (and therefore including any purgatorial "completion" of their "trajectory"), and so compared (judged) against each other and that central meaningful act of history, Christ on the Cross (which is, perhaps, why Christ's voice itself is spoken of as the "trumpet of the resurrection," and why the sign of the cross on which He died is said to appear at the end). And, I assume, for those whose lives finally had a good meaning, the body as a signifier will then be glorious. But for the damned it will be, as we teach, only further sign of their damnation.


Theodore Seeber said...

May I suggest something that you've overlooked is Purgatory? While the ultimate destination of the church suffering is indeed salvation- it is a temporal process that continues the work of conversion after death.

If you make it to purgatory, you are saved, most certainly- but likewise if you are in purgatory instead of paradise, that means that your soul still has something left to learn to perfect it to be in paradise.

Thus, your final "all souls existing together outside of time" idea cannot begin with the death of the last human- it must only begin after the last suffering soul is released from purgatory.

And none of this presumes that God doesn't have other species elsewhere than this planet that he's also using in the same way. Humans in this instance are "those with souls" not the materialist "homo sapiens".

A Sinner said...

Theodore, I've addressed these points before.

As for "men in space"...I'm really not sure I believe, in the end, this is even an intelligible concept:

But, even if we DID accept extraterrestrial embodied persons...where in my post did I ever specifically say "humans" were "homo sapiens"? My post works however you define "human." So that seems a rather extraneous point to bring in.

As for Purgatory after the death of the last human, I addressed this in the post if you read carefully:

"This is why the Summa posits, I believe, that the final conflagration must and will itself suffice for the purgatory of any remaining alive at the end; there is no more time beyond that. After that it's resurrection and final judgment."

The final conflagration itself suffices to immediately complete the purgatory of any remaining in a purgatorial state at the End of Time. This is made quite explicit in the Summa:

It basically boils down to "the heat will gain in intensity what it loses in shortness of time."

Now, what we mean by "fire" and "heat" is up for more debate here. But the point is that purgatory will NOT continue after the "final conflagration" (the death of the last human).