Disembodied existence can be defined as the continuance of the soul in separation of the body, in dictionary terms “to free (the soul or spirit) from the body” This theory is based around that of dualism, which states that two substances can exist independently but also have the ability to form a partnership. A follower of dualism would therefore believe that the body and soul are separate entities that exist together, and that after death the body decomposes and the soul transmigrates and lives on.
However the claim that disembodied existence is meaningless comes from a more materialistic point of view. This is the belief that the human body and mind are no more than physical things which cease to exist after death and that what we assume to be our soul is no more than psycho-chemical reactions which take place within our brain. The statement ‘disembodied existence is meaningless’ denies that a soul can exist in isolation from the body and claims that life after death cannot be proved. The atheistic point of view towards this statement can be found in the arguments of Richard Dawkins.
In his book “The Blind Watchmaker’ Dawkins puts forward the opinion that the world and it’s beginning had no purpose and that the idea of a designer is a misinterpretation of facts. He criticises William Payley’s theory of ‘the watch maker’ and claims that we mistake the coincidences in nature for evidence of design. “the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way” Dawkins claims that the existence of natural selection contradicts the need for designer as such random, blind and selective acts would not exist in a pre-determined and planned world.
He talks of a ‘hierarchical reductionalism’ in which he explains that the actions of a complex being are not designed, but determined by random interactions. He therefore discounts any chance of a life after death because it follows the idea of an all-powerful creator, and although the world appears to contain aspects of good design it is made up of co-incidences based upon natural selection. However Dawkins cannot be used as a typical view towards disembodied existence as his ideas come from a biased standpoint of atheism.
Early concepts of dualism are closely related to Plato’s theory of forms, which can be found in his book the ‘Republic’. In this theory he claimed that the universe is divided into two separate realms. The first realm of appearances, in which exists physical objects such as rocks, cars and people, and the second higher realm of forms that contains universal and abstract objects such at mathematical problems and moral concepts. Plato claimed that during our lives we remain in the realm of appearances because we believe it to be reality, and we never truly experience the truth as we can only visit the higher realm via thought.
His theory on the human soul closely links to his theory of forms as he claimed that the soul belongs to a level higher than the body to which it is always striving towards. As we can only access the second realm though thought, the soul exists to guide and rule the body though life and towards the truth. Plato believed in the immortality of the human soul and saw it as an entity fundamentally distinct from the body although often associated with it.
He claimed the soul has the ability of self-movement and possesses no physical matter; therefore it is able to free itself from the body at death and live on forever in the higher realm. “a spiritual soul cannot be corrupted, since it possesses no matter, it cannot disintegrate… the human soul cannot die” -Phaedo Plato therefore strongly believed in the concept of disembodied existence as he saw the body and soul as entirely separate beings, and claimed that life and death are so different that one cannot become the other. Dualism has also had a large influence from philosophers such as St Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes.
Aquinas stated that the soul operates independently of the body and claimed that as only divisible things decay the soul could not possibly die with the body, as it is not divisible and therefore not liable to dissolution. Descartes saw the mind and soul as containing everything, which cannot be located physically and claimed that the mind and body are distinct even though they interact. His theories are often known as ‘Cartesian dualism’ and his main belief was that the mind could survive the death of the body, and go on to continue ‘life’ in the presence of God without losing its individuality.
Views to support disembodied existence can also be found in the Hindu and Buddhist religions, which are based around the theory of reincarnation. Reincarnation is the belief that at death the soul of a human being migrates from the dying body and inhabits a new one. The aim is that through each lifetime the soul will improve itself until eventually it will reach perfection and can enter an infinite state of bliss; therefore remaining existent without a body. In both religions the life of a person determines the next life of their soul, for example if someone is kind and shows many virtues in one life their soul will be rewarded in the next.
This is known as the ‘karma’ and it can be defined as the acceptance of the relationship between what a person does and what happens to them. Good or bad actions build up good or bad karma that determines whether an individual is born into a lower or a higher situation. For example in the Hindu religion a person can be reborn as an animal for an extremely wrong action (e. g. Stealing from a priest) meaning they have a very bad karma. It is only when someone has a perfectly good karma that they can achieve ‘moksha’ and their soul does not have to re-enter the cycle of birth and death.
These religions therefore support the concept of disembodied existence because they see the connection of body and soul as merely a way for a soul to achieve its individuality in a state of bliss. Evidence which claims to support disembodied existence can be found in supernatural occurrences such as regression, near death experiences and ‘sightings’ of the dead. Many near death experiences of those brought back from being clinically ‘dead’ are similar, or have small things in common.
A few examples of these similarities are feelings of indescribable happiness, heightened awareness and at the moment of death the feeling of floating out of the body. Many people see dead relatives and feel the presence of a divine being, and although these experiences certainly do present an idea of life after death there are those who reject them as hallucinations or reactions to extreme pain or oxygen starvation.
Many people especially children claim to have memories from former lives and descriptions have been given that can be confirmed by historical records. People have also been known to speak in different voices and languages when hypnotised. But it can also be claimed that information could have been inherited (genetic inheritance), information absorbed from books and films or memories from childhood simply changed by time. Another example is in the form of spiritualism, which is the belief that it is possible for the living to communicate with the deceased.
Those who pass on ‘messages’ are known as mediums, and there have been many cases of mediums passing on information otherwise unknown to them. Although many believe spiritualism to be a fraud, there are many recorded cases of extraordinary occurrences. Sightings of the dead can be believed to be elaborate tricks or cases of mistaken identity but many people claim to have had experiences with the supernatural. Ghosts that have been seen repeatedly or by many people certainly allow for the existence of an afterlife, and add weight to the argument of disembodied existence.
Those who support the view of materialism do not accept that there is a separate part of the human body called the soul. Materialism can come in two forms, hard and soft. Both which state that when our physical body dies then so does our mind. Hard materialists believe that our emotions are no more than brain activity, and that the body and soul cannot be separated, where as soft materialists follow the belief that our conscious and personality is more than just a brain process as it affects our body and is connected to it.
As materialists claim that the body is matter alone they come to the conclusion that it would not be possible to locate a soul and make it exist in isolation. They believe that life depends upon a functioning, physical body and that after death a person identity ends, as life cannot be supported by itself. However not all materialists believe that death is the end, in fact many follow the theory that because a soul cannot be separated from the body it could be possible for the whole body to continue to the afterlife; this is known as resurrection or the re-creation theory.
The western concept of resurrection has formed mainly from the Christian theory of a bodily re-birth in heaven after death, as without a body we would lose our identity. The basis of this theory can be found in 1 Corinthians in the Bible, which introduces the belief of the resurrection body. Corinthians, which was originally written by St Paul as a letter to the people of Corinth in Greece claims that to be resurrected we must put our trust in God and take a leap of faith.
The Christian belief is that everything has the potential to become a life but it must gain the help of God, and that we can only become regenerated if we rely on God’s good grace. Corinthians states that we are only truly completed once we die and go to heaven, it speaks of the difference between the mortal (being weak and ugly) and the immortal (being strong, spiritual and beautiful). It also follows the theory that after resurrection our ‘body’ will be entirely different to the one we are used to but it will still contain our own personal identity. Therefore we do not become simply another immortal spirit, we remain as an individual form.