Last semester, my first semester studying Greek, I sustained a mild concussion. I have mostly recovered now. I still have problems with bright lights that makes nighttime driving intolerable, but for the most part, I’m functioning normally. But for a few weeks there, I couldn’t think straight. It hurt to concentrate. Reading even a light novel was difficult, and translating Greek was nigh impossible. Just looking at Greek letters caused me pain. But my handwriting was spectacular. Any notes I took about lectures I attended during that time are the most clearly written, beautifully precise notes I have ever taken. Sketching was fine too, so the concentration required to look and draw was painlessly available to me.
It was strange to experience this involuntary shift in my capacities. I tend to think that what I think, how I think, is what I am. But if my cognitive functions are subject to physical manipulations, some of which are outside of my control, can I think of my thinking self as my self?
Stephenie Meyer’s adult sci-fi book The Host is a science fiction romance exploration of the connection between emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development with the particulars of physical embodied experience. In that way, it is a very Mormon reflection on purpose of mortality and morality. For Meyer, the particulars of human embodiment includes deliberate agency and unintentional feelings of passion, vulnerability, and need. This naturally results in social structures, the most basic of which is the nuclear family.
Assigning a high value to the emotional experience in making moral decisions is a very Humean move. And one of Hume’s intellectual predecessors in the theory was Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson claimed that Locke had failed to recognize the existence of the non-cognitive inner senses, such as an aesthetic and moral sense. We must have the experience of our outer senses, our physical senses, to be able to develop and experience the inner senses.
In my reading of Hutcheson, in order to feel anything, physical or psychological, we first need a body that feels. Having once felt a range of sensations that are the result of our body reacting to outside stimulus, we develop experiential knowledge based on these outer senses. As we reflect on those immediate experiences, a secondary, inner sense develops. Having felt physical pain, the mind now has a way to understand emotional pain. Having experience the physical pleasure of sweetness, the mind has the capacity to experience pleasure without a sweet stimulus by remembering a previous experience or recognizing some other notion as pleasing. Not all pleasing notions require an antecedent, like those that accompany aesthetic or moral judgments. But the capacity to have these non-rational inner senses presupposes the experiences of a physical body.
I find this interesting when compared with the LDS concept of the pre-existence and the plan of salvation. Hutcheson believed it was necessary to have a body, to experience physical stimuli, in order to access or respond to the innate but intially dormant moral and aesthetic sentiments. Mormons believe that the temporal experience of having a physical body is necessary to learn and grow and to eventually gain god-like knowledge and understanding.
However, by Hutcheson’s concept, as not yet embodied spirits, entities who had not yet experienced outer senses, the non-rational inner senses of morality and aesthetics would have been unavailable to us. So what capacity would we have had with which to make a decision in the council in heaven?
It stands to reason that a post-body spiritual entity, a spiritual mind with a recollection of physical experiences and a well developed moral sense, could continue to make judgments and consider ideas. So a spiritual conversion after passing through the veil is plausible. But if that spirit lacked some necessary physical experience, like the taste of sweetness, then it would have a corresponding deficit in its ability to understand and contemplate some things. There could be progression within a sphere allowed by previous physical experiences, but some concepts would be out of reach unless there is a second period of embodiment.
Some things, like love and grief, don’t make sense. Both feelings are incomprehensible prior to physical experience. So while we perhaps were able to make some decisions pre-body, we could not have possibly understood the full impact of the consequences of those decisions. We couldn’t have known what we were getting into.
Meyer makes our a posteriori knowledge blessing, an unexpected benefit of the human experience. And my recent concussion reminded me again how much my body shapes my experience of the world and my personality. I wonder how much of what I consider to be myself is essential and could survive through an experience like Alzheimer’s. And I am thankful that for now, for the most part, my body functions well, and I can be the self I’ve become used to.