Saturday, March 19, 2005

What is a Soul?

A former student who is studying theology wrote not long ago to ask my opinion on the nature of the soul. I'm not a theologian, and I freely acknowledge that my guess is no better than anyone else's, but rushing in where wise mean fear to tread, this was my reply:

Some people think of the soul as a sort of "ghost in the machine", as Gilbert Ryle dismissively described the dualistic view of mind. Some people identify the soul with the mind. Some say the soul is our personality plus our body. In other words, for them the soul is the entire self.

It certainly could be that any of these is indeed what our soul is, although I think that if we include the body in the concept we run into a difficulty since bodies age and deteriorate. We might wonder whether our soul is what we are at ten years of age, or seventy, or at death. Despite the difficulty, however, I'm not discounting the idea.

My own view, though, is that our soul is really the totality of information which describes us: our personality, our life history (whether remembered or not), our values, knowledge, character, aspirations, etc. This information is not "in" us in any way, but rather it resides in the mind of God, like a file in a vast database, and is thus eternal. When our bodies die, this information, or at least some of it, is instantiated in another format (a body or body-like entity) in another world so that we are capable of experiencing another existence. We can think of it as a kind of download of information which creates the phenomena of "body" much like the software we load onto our computers creates the images we see on our screens.

This view is compatible with both materialism and substance dualism since regardless of which, if either, is true it has no bearing on the existential status of the soul. If it should turn out that mind is just the word we use to describe the functioning of the brain then the existence of the soul is no more jeopardized by that discovery than if it turns out, as I think it would, that the mind is something related to, but other than, the brain.

Even many materialists would acknowledge that a complete description of every person exists, although they could certainly add that the description is inaccessible and useless. They would doubtless point out that such a soul only exists in the same sense that numbers or logical relations exist even if there were no minds to apprehend them. They would exist but be utterly useless. The set of propositions which gives an exhaustive description of someone still exists after a person's body dies but would only be useful if it could be somehow conjoined with consciousness and another "body" of some sort. The possibility of this happening most (though perhaps not all) materialists would deny.

On the other hand, if there really is an omniscient God, then when my body dies, all is not lost. I, the set of propositions which describes the essential me, the information that comprises my identity, continue to exist in the mind of God. I may have no conscious awareness of my existence, it may be like being placed into a deep coma, but I exist nonetheless. I am not gone. If and when God decides to download the information (or the greater part of it) to some "body", the file marked with my name and containing a complete description of my self, infused with a spark of consciousness (mind?), becomes a revivified person. At that point I will have been resurrected, returned to life.

This has been the grand hope of Christianity and other theistic religions down through the ages, and it is this hope, this opportunity, that God held out to the world in prototype on the first Easter when He raised Christ from the dead.

On Tipping Points

I've read several articles lately that mention the possibility of March 16 being a "tipping point". This is a term given to an event or events that mark a significant point in time where, in hindsight, it becomes apparent that things will no longer be what they were.

Here's one of them from Morgan Stanley's Stephen Roach.

Tipping points are a great concept, but virtually impossible to identify ahead of time -- let alone when they are occurring. It is only with the great luxury of hindsight that we can look back and know that the proverbial bell has rung. In my view, March 16, 2005 could end up in the running as a possible tipping point for America. Suddenly, the US has taken on a very different aura in an increasingly unbalanced world: The confluence of a record current account deficit, a disaster from General Motors, and yet another new high for oil prices all speak of an increasingly precarious role for the global hegemon. World financial markets have barely begun to sniff that out.


But the message from overseas is that this game is just about over. One by one, Asian central banks -- America's financiers at the margin -- have dropped the not-so-subtle hint that they are saturated with dollar-denominated assets. From Korea and Japan to China and India -- not to dismiss Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Singapore -- there is a growing protest to massive dollar overweights in official reserve portfolios. The standard American response borders on arrogance: "What choice do they have?" The presumption is that the US has externally driven Asian economies over a barrel -- unwilling to accept a deterioration in export competitiveness that currency appreciation might bring. This misses a key cost-benefit tradeoff -- weighing the hit to exports against the fiscal cost of a portfolio loss on holdings of dollar-denominated assets. The bigger the build-up of dollar reserves, the more this tradeoff is likely to tip toward dollar diversification -- spelling the end of America's cut-rate foreign financing.

Trusting Without Proof

The service which provides us with a quotation each day from various philosophical sources sent this one from Thoreau's Walden the other day:

No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.

We were just wondering what proof Thoreau had that no way of thinking can be trusted without proof.

Oh...This Can't Be Good

Following up on the troubles at General Motors, check this link where you will see that GM has $300 billion in debt. More importantly, you can also see that GM has a debt to equity ratio of over 10.

The significance of a debt to equity ratio as high as 10 can be found at this link to where we learn that:

A high ratio of 2 or more would expose the company to risk such as interest rate increases and creditor nervousness.

Foreign nations are plenty nervous and have been announcing that they will be selling U.S. bonds to diversify the holdings of their central banks: Russia, India, China, South Korea, and Japan.

Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and the US are truly in a no-win situation. Greenspan must raise interest rates to stem inflation and make Treasury bonds more attractive to foreign countries. If he doesn't raise rates, the US will continue to lose the financing from foreign countries that has been fueling our economy. Yet if he raises rates, GM and others will go belly up. Note that for every one point that interest rates rise, refinancing GM's debt will cost an additional $3 billion in annual interest payments.

If GM fails, it would mean default on their debt of $300 billion dollars. That would make the Enron, World Com, and LTCM debacles look like a tea party in comparison.

Given the above, my initial reaction was to expect two possible outcomes, that GM would eventually file bankruptcy or they would become a takeover candidate by the likes of China. But after further consideration, I couldn't see a reason why any thinking investor would be interested in buying GM at any price with the excess baggage of $300 billion in debt. Upon further reflection it becomes apparent that it would be much more expedient to simply stand by and let GM enter into bankruptcy proceedings and then buy them at a discount. After bankruptcy, the stock holders lose everything and the bond (debt) holders might be lucky to get pennies on the dollar.

In any event, GM will be well worth watching as the end-game is sure to unfold over the next twelve months.

Room For Growth

According to a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, relatively few Americans are generally familiar with the phenomenon of blogging, in which individuals, ranging from famous to anonymous, post running narratives of their thoughts and observations on whatever interests them:

[F]ewer than one in six Americans (15%) read blogs regularly (at least a few times a month). Just 12% of Americans read blogs dealing specifically with politics this often. Among Internet users, the numbers are similarly low: 19% and 15%, respectively.

According to a December 2004 Gallup Poll, the percentage of Americans getting their news on a daily basis from the mainstream media is 51% for local television news, 44% for local newspapers, 39% for cable news networks, 36% for the nightly broadcast network news, and 21% for radio talk shows. By contrast, only 3% of Americans say they read Internet blogs every day, and just 2% read politics-focused blogs daily.

Blog readers are younger than the population at large. Although 17% of the public is aged 18 to 29, a quarter of all blog readers (those who read even occasionally) are in this age bracket. At the older extreme, 17% of Americans are 65 and older, but only 6% of blog readers are this old.

There's lots of interesting data at the link, but the article promotes a misconception. Many of the most popular blogs are not really news disseminators. They're not in the same category as newspapers and the evening news. They are more like the op-ed page of the paper or the commentary at the end of the news report. As such, the comparison of blogs to news outlets is a little like comparing hammers to screw drivers.

Power Line notes, too, that the low percentage of blog readers is actually a promising statistic since it indicates that there is still a vast untapped market out there for bloggers to tap into.

Memos From Our Troops

Instapundit posts a series of e-mails from readers connected in some way with servicemen serving in Iraq. They're worth reading. The whole link is good, the e-mails start several paragraphs from the top.