How a concussion made me think of Stephenie Meyer and Francis Hutcheson

January 30, 2013 | 10 comments
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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?

thehostcoverStephenie 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.

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For a discussion on Hume, see Norman Kemp Smith’s excellent The Philosophy of David Hume: A Critical Study of Its Origins and Central Doctrines. Palgrave McMillan, 2005.

10 Responses to How a concussion made me think of Stephenie Meyer and Francis Hutcheson

  1. Demaris on January 30, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Great addition to the discussions we’ve been having about mental health and the interplay of brain function and behavior/ belief/ free will! Thanks!

  2. Rachel Whipple on January 30, 2013 at 9:23 am

    Thanks Demaris. Although I haven’t commented, I’ve been loving your guest series.

  3. jks on January 30, 2013 at 11:23 am

    It’s been a while since I read The Host, but I remember it being interesting to discuss with my teenage daughter. Our belief in the necessity of our mortal experience is very powerful and I agree strongly with it. I also find it interesting to figure out who I am based on my physical body and my spirit and my experience here on earth. How much can we separate these different things and how much are they one and the same.

  4. Alison Moore Smith on January 30, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Best title ever. There were so many possibilities. :) And you surprised me. Very interesting.

    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.

    I don’t know that I agree with that. Who knows what the veil concealed? Was it only placid experiences or a host (no pun intended) or ideas, thoughts, feelings, relationships, etc.? While it seems reasonable to say that we didn’t have the benefit of life experience to ADD to our decision-making process, phrases like “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” doesn’t sound like the bunch of unfeeling (in the psychological sense) zombies Hutcheson seems to describe.

    P.S. I never thought anyone could get me to consider reading Meyers. Not that I’m a literary snob (not remotely), but it just didn’t sound like my cup of tea. I just might do it. :)

  5. Julie M. Smith on January 30, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    I was thinking about just this topic yesterday, when I came across a chart describing typical behavior of a female Aspie (<–a label I had only previously identified with in jest) and I thought, “Oh my gosh, have they been spying on me?” It was beyond surreal. And it really made me wonder: which parts of me do I control, and which were just bugs/features of my particular neurochemical make-up?

  6. Rachel Whipple on January 30, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    Alison, you are completely right in that I may be completely wrong. I, like many other people, tend to apply conclusions derived from what I do know through experience and reflection to things about which I have no experience, or in this case, no recollection of any experience. So while speculation on the decision making capacities of pre-mortal spirits may be interesting on occasion, it remains nothing more than speculation.

    As for reading Meyers, The Host also has post-apocalyptic western survivalist themes. It’s not on the same level as The Stand or Folk of the Fringe or A Canticle for Leibowitz, but it’s in the same category. Just more romance-y. What should have been twists were predictable, and I thought the emoting of the main character was annoyingly repetitive.

  7. Jonathan Green on January 30, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    Rachel, thanks for your review. I enjoyed The Host. I wrote about what I thought were Mormon elements in it a while back, mostly looking at different issues than you do. Looking back at it now, I find that I still agree with some of what I wrote. Also, I see that my review is now running under Dave’s byline. The ways of WordPress are mysterious.

  8. Rachel Whipple on January 30, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Jonathan, what a coincidence, that you comment on my review at spot #7, and years ago I had commented on yours, also at spot #7. I may be a newbie of a blogger, but I’ve been reading T&S for years.

  9. Brian on February 1, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    Am I the only one who think Meyer’s description of vampire physical characteristics is what the Telestial kingdom is like?

  10. Brian on February 1, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    think -> thinks

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