Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Information and Words: Mind and Spirit

A few weeks ago at Sonlife Bible Camp, I gave a message on the power and nature of words. Obviously, due to the constraints of time and the fact that I was speaking to a mixed audience of junior high kids as well as adults, I couldn't go as in-depth as might have been possible. The subject of words as the material manifestations of thought is one which reaches into a great many areas, and I could probably have done every message of the whole camp on one aspect or another of the subject. Fortunately, this being my blog, I can go as in-depth and super-long as I want. So that's what I'm going to do.

But first, a brief summary for those few of the people who will read this who weren't at Sonlife Bible Camp 2005. In my message, I made the case that words not only express our thoughts and ideas, but they make them real and bring them into the physical realm around us where other people can observe and be affected by them. A thought exists within your head and can be altered or taken back at whim, but a spoken word has left your mind and entered the world, where it cannot be taken back. It becomes a thing separate from you, though still being an expression of who you are. Additionally, in the ancient world in which the Biblical writers lived, your words were not considered to be seperate or distinct from your thoughts -- one's words were the completion and manifestation of one's thoughts, and a thought that was not spoken or acted upon was regarded as incomplete (in much the same way that a spirit without a body is incomplete, a subject which I will be getting into here shortly).

In my message, I mainly focused on words and the external side of things. Here I intend to focus on the interal side, on the thoughts and emotions that give rise to words, that is to say, on the mind and spirit of man.

There are people in this world who think that physical reality, the material things we can see and touch, is all that exists. They're known as "materialists". They deny the existence of spirits, or God, insisting that since we cannot test these things scientifically, they do not exist. They believe that when a man dies, his brain shuts down and he as a person ceases to exist. To them, a man is just a bunch of flesh collected together in a certain way, and thoughts are just electrical signals in the brain. However, this is clearly and easily proven wrong.

Information is one thing which clearly exists, but is not part of physical reality. Information has no mass or energy. It cannot be measured by any physical instrument. Yet, its existence is obvious. Language, for instance, is a symbolic code, a method of transmitting information. The symbols of language are, obviously, physical things: written words are bits of ink on paper, spoken words are soundwaves travelling through the air. However, the information transmitted by these symbols is distinct and separate from the symbols themselves. To quote a physicist (Dr. John Baumgardner, PhD):

"The meaning or message does not depend on whether it is represented as sound waves in the air or as ink patterns on paper or as alignment of magnetic domains on a floppy disk or as voltage patterns in a transistor network. The message that a person has won the $100,000,000 lottery is the same whether that person receives the information by someone speaking at his door or by telephone or by mail or on television or over the internet."

Information doesn't come out of nowhere, of course. Mashing a bunch of random keys on your keyboard doesn't result in information, it results in gibberish (like: "oejvivbjdhsye"). Symbols are meaningless physical entities if they haven't been assigned some information to symbolise: the power of words lies in what they mean, not how they sound. Physical symbols don't create information, they merely represent it. Furthermore, material objects can't generate non-material information, just like non-material information can't generate a material object. Physical things are generated by other physical things, and non-physical things are generated by non-physical things. A tree can't create a poem any more than a poem can create a tree. Trees come from acorns, and poems come from the minds of poets. But wait, says the materialist, isn't the poet's brain a physical thing? However, note that I didn't say his "brain" -- I said his "mind".

Our brain is rather like a computer. The synapses and grey matter are the hardware. However, to say that the mind is the same thing as the brain is like saying that computer software is the same thing as computer hardware. Our brain stores our mind, certainly, but only in the same way a computer hard-drive stores videogames.

Consider this: if the mind were the same as the brain, they would do the same things, right? My mind thinks. My brain electrically fires its synapses. Those are not the same thing -- the firing of the synapses may cause thought, but it's not thought itself. Similarly, my mind feels joy. My brain releases chemicals. Outside of the brain, those chemicals don't have anything to do with joy, so clearly joy and chemicals are not the same thing. The chemicals may theoretically cause joy, but there is no physical thing in my brain I can point to and say "this is joy".

So clearly, the mind is not a physical thing, any more than software or language. They exist in another form of reality, different and seperate from physical reality. If our thoughts and memories are like computer files (a text file or an image file, say), then our minds are like computer programs, which take input from the outside and generate those files.

So what happens when we die? Do we just cease to exist like the materialist would say?

Well, when a computer dies (say you pull a Brodie and throw it out the window or something ;) ), what happens to the information stored on it? Well, the magnetic ones and zeros are disrupted, but those are just the symbols representing the information. If I write you a letter, and somebody burns it before you read it, does the message of that letter just cease to exist? Of course not, if my memory is good enough I can just write up an identical letter with the same message. The message clearly still exists, it's just symbolised in a different physical form now. The information is still "out there" somewhere, it's just that without a letter or speech or some other representation in the physical world, it can't be accessed by anyone in the physical world.

When we die, all that happens is that our physical form is destroyed. As we saw, we are not the same thing as our physical form. My brain may store my thoughts and personality, but my thoughts and personality are not part of my brain. The synapses of my brain are merely the physical symbols representing who I am.

What is it like without a body? It's hard to tell. Conciousness and awareness is pretty clearly part of our non-material mind, but without the mechancial parts of our brain (our hardware), it's difficult to say how well our minds would work. How well does software work without hardware? Theoretically, there should be nothing to stop it from functioning. All the necessary information is still there, all that's missing is the physical hardware that connects it to material reality. I've done a bit of programming myself, so I know that it's technically possible to write down a computer program on a piece of paper and run through it in your mind. The computer hardware is not, strictly speaking, necessary. Certain things wouldn't be functional, mind you -- like if a program executes a function that draws something on the screen, it'd obviously need a screen (hardware) to do that. Similarly, our mind without our bodies wouldn't be able to do certain things -- it'd be rather like being asleep, really. When you're asleep, certain bodily functions are shut down and can't be accessed. Actually, the best representation of what a non-material existence might be like, I think, is our dreams. Our dreams exist wholly within the confines of our non-material minds, there are no physical realities to deal with. An existance without a body might be something like a dream, insubstantial and transient, shifting back and forth between conciousness and unconciousness.

So, if we can reason all that philosophically, how does it all compare to what the Bible says about the subject?

Well, the Hebrew word for "Spirit" is ruwach, and the Greek is pneuma. Both actually mean "breath" or "wind", and only mean "the life force of an intelligent being" by implication or metaphor. Mind you, the ancient Hebrews and Greeks didn't exactly have a whole lot of words to choose from to refer to non-material things, so "breath" or "wind" is a pretty good choice. From what we've deduced above, ruwach and pneuma would refer to the mind, the intangible part of us where thoughts and memories exist.

The Hebrew word we translate soul, on the other hand, is actually nephesh, a word which can mean "living, breathing creature", "life/vitality", "man/person", "body", or "mind". It seems to refer to a living creature as a whole, body and mind. We tend to use it as a synonym for "spirit", but it's not, really. It seems to refer more to the concept of "life" as opposed to "death" or "non-life" (such as a rock or something), rather than the non-material portion of our being.

The Bible often refers to death in terms of sleep: Deuteronomy 31:16a: "And the LORD said to Moses: "You are going to rest with your fathers...", Daniel 12:2: "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt," and of course 1st Corinthians 15:51: "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—"

However, there are many verses that refer to the dead as being concious: the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, for example. A passage from Isaiah (chapter 14) says:
9 The grave below is all astir
to meet you at your coming;
it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you—
all those who were leaders in the world;
it makes them rise from their thrones—
all those who were kings over the nations.

10 They will all respond,
they will say to you,
"You also have become weak, as we are;
you have become like us."

Especially interesting is the line in verse 9: " rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you". The word translated "rouses" is the Hebrew uwr, which means "to open the eyes," i.e., "to wake up".

On the whole, the picture painted is one where the dead are in a dream-like state, listless and weak and mostly asleep, but still capable of conciousness and speech. It's a state that seems like a logical consequence of a mind separated from the machinery necessary to run it.

As you can see, the subject of information and how it interacts with material reality (through words and the like) is a pretty far-ranging subject. I haven't explored all avenues of thought on this subject, but I'm pretty sure I'm just scratching the surface here. The nature of free will and Jesus as the Word of God are two topics that come to mind. I'm hoping to write about those things in the future, we'll see how it goes. Until then, biblical apologist J.P. Holding has an interesting set of articles on Jesus as God's Wisdom, which has bearing on this topic.

If you have thoughts or comments on this stuff, don't be afraid to click on the "comments" link below this paragraph. Feedback is the fuel which keeps me writing. Anyway, I hope all this rambling theoretical stuff has been somehow useful to you.