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A question for your consideration

There are a few questions that my recent scientific readings have brought to the surface that I'd appreciate your comments on.

One of the fundamental laws of Physics is called the Law of Conservation of Energy. Wikapedia describes it as follows:

The law of conservation of energy is an empirical law of physics. It states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant over time (is said to be conserved over time). A consequence of this law is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed: it can only be transformed from one state to another. The only thing that can happen to energy in a closed system is that it can change form: for instance chemical energy can become kinetic energy.

Albert Einstein's theory of relativity shows that energy and mass are the same thing, and that neither one appears without the other. Thus in closed systems, both mass and energy are conserved separately, just as was understood in pre-relativistic physics. The new feature of relativistic physics is that "matter" particles (such as those constituting atoms) could be converted to non-matter forms of energy, such as light; or kinetic and potential energy (example: heat). However, this conversion does not affect the total mass of systems, since the latter forms of non-matter energy still retain their mass through any such conversion.[1] Today, conservation of “energy” refers to the conservation of the total system energy over time. This energy includes the energy associated with the rest mass of particles and all other forms of energy in the system. In addition, the invariant mass of systems of particles (the mass of the system as seen in its center of mass inertial frame, such as the frame in which it would need to be weighed) is also conserved over time for any single observer, and (unlike the total energy) is the same value for all observers. Therefore, in an isolated system, although matter (particles with rest mass) and "pure energy" (heat and light) can be converted to one another, both the total amount of energy and the total amount of mass of such systems remain constant over time, as seen by any single observer. If energy in any form is allowed to escape such systems (see binding energy), the mass of the system will decrease in correspondence with the loss.
What all of this means is that from the point of the Big Bang and continuing through to the great prolepsis, the total amount of energy in the universe has remained the same. No energy can be created or destroyed. It can only be changed.

My question is this: what becomes of consciousness when the body dies? Surely consciousness is a form of energy. The thought I use to write these words (virtually) down on paper for the consideration of others is most certainly the result of more energy than is required to stimulate the neurons and muscles. Prior to doing anything that required any motion or movement, I expended energy pondering these questions. Further, behind the energy required to 'ponder' something, there exists 'me' – my personality, qualities, characteristics and experiences. All of these elements are most certainly must stand for something. Why would this energy be the only one that is extinguished? Changed? Yes, but extinguished? I cannot see how such a thing as personality, intellect, ideas and notions – hell, even Love itself would be the only thing in all of the universe that can be extinguished.

My faith gives me one solution to this question, and this answer suffices for me. I am not approaching this problem from the perspective of faith. I am seeking answers from science, logic or philosophy.

Do you have any answers to share? 


  1. Fr. Michael Smith11 November, 2010

    I would make a distinction between those aspects of you that are matter/energy, and thus potentially susceptible to empirical observation; and that aspect of you that is other then matter/energy, and thus not potentially susceptible to empirical observation.
    The material aspects of consciousness (e.g., the energy you expend in thinking) dissipate not only prior to death but also many times during life, and they become part of something else. We are constantly drawing energy from our environment (e.g. nutrients) and expending it in different ways.
    There remains that aspect of you that is something other than energy, and thus is not part of the closed system that is the material universe. It can be called by various names: soul, form, principle of life, the “I”. It accounts for your personal identity over time despite the fact that the matter/energy that makes up your body has been expended and renewed many times.

  2. I agree Fr. Michael Smith, some of the various names for the spiritual aspect of being are soul, form, and principle of life. I am reluctant however to include the "I" because the "I" as it is commonly used refers to the ego ie. only the concious part of our psyche. I think the unchanged substance could better be described as the "true self" which at the core of our being represents (in matter/energy language)the converging point for all aspects of spiritual existence.
    When Socrates was asked "where shall we burry you" his reply was "wherever you like, if you can catch me."
    At the heart of Aristotle's metaphysics is his proof of the existence of God in the human noetic capacity to understand.For Aristotle the minds abilty to grasp the universal ie. the innermost quality of an object goes far beyond intellectual discourse or the classifying of things.In the proccess of understanding , the object of thought becomes thought and it is in this capacity that the divine element resides.Although , of course Aristotle goes in much greater detail,the point is Fr. Tim that it may seem that concsiousness consists mainly of the external world we perceive ie. "particulars" it actually consists in much larger part of the invisible world of "universals."
    Telhard DeChardin said tha "there are 2 poles, the ascending and the descending." The descending represents matter broken down to its elements , molecules ,atoms,particles, proteins,and finally as far as we know it to be reduced to energy. The ascending pole is the unification of matter in the things composed of it.The spirit in the matter is revealed only in its unity.
    I think Fr. Tim the shorter reply to your queston "what becomes of consciousness (ie. the I) when the body dies?" We hope we to can say like Jesus did "I AM."

  3. It certainly takes energy to drive the mind, the brain consumes a substantial portionof the body's daily energy. The energy comes from the food we eat, which ultimately derives it from the sun. When we die, we stop consuming, the brain stops functioning and using energy. No contradiction in the conservation of energy law. The energy that was store in our body as chemical energy then becomes released after we are buried to the environment.

  4. Michael: Do ideas have a 'life' on their own? Take Karl Marx as an example. His ideas, the fruit of his intellect, warped and almost destroyed cultures. These ideas sprung from his mind... his consciousness. These elements are not accounted for under your schema.

    We must be more than our physical parts for our physicality cannot explain the results of our inspirations.

    Fr. Tim

  5. Fr. Michael: I agree. What we are grappling with is how to define that 'life force' that impels all creation. When it is wedded with consciousness, sentience and self awareness, it seems to exceed the simple bounds of matter alone.

    I know what happens to the matter of my being. What happens to the energy that animates this matter?

    As I said in the initial post, faith provides an answer to this that satisfies me. But I am curious as to how this 'life energy' is explained by science.

    Fr. Tim

  6. Larry Green: Thanks for bringing Telhard into the conversation. I think that he might provide a key clue to understanding this question!

    Fr. Tim

  7. Richard Dawkins, somewhat capriciously, defines memes as mental genes. Various ideological systems like communism, Captitalism, religion, language would all exist and live or die like genes do.

    Why can't we be just our physical parts? Developments in neuroscience are closing more and more of the areas we took to be non-physical. Just like circulating blood is what the heart does, exchanging gasses is what the lungs do, now we can say the mind is what the brain does.

  8. There is no "life energy" or vitalism that animates bodies, just chemical reactions using energy supplied from food the body consumes. When a living thing dies the chemical energy in its body is used again by nature. While some might think this depressing, it's actually quite profound. Just as the theory of evolution links us to every other living thing on this planet, conservation of energy links us to the cosmos as a whole. Science has shown us that we are quite literally stardust, and we live and die by the same rules that govern the stars.

  9. "My question is this: what becomes of consciousness when the body dies? Surely consciousness is a form of energy."

    I've been pondering that for just about all my life, along with its partner question, "Whence does consciousness come?" And I came to the tentative conclusion that, since energy cannot be created or destroyed, consciousness cannot be categorized as energy. Unless the law of conservation of energy is wrong.

    Consciousness is organic, but energy is not. I don't think they're made of the same stuff, whatever that is.

  10. Lady Janus - Try "How the Mind Works" by Stephen Pinker. I don't agree with all of it but it's an excellent start to the subject.

  11. Lady Janus: I think we are using 'energy' in different ways. I am using it in the physics sense of the word - radiation that changes into different forms. Since all matter comes from energy, and since we are made of matter, then consciousness must be some form of energy. It might be a heretofore unconsidered form of energy - but it must be energy none the less.

    This being said, there could be something in your labeling it as 'organic'. That particular definition might fit with the Thomistic definition of a 'soul' (that which animates life).

    Fr. Tim

  12. Michael: We MUST be more than the sum of our organic parts. Sentience itself exceeds what our body is. We are more than just animals... we are 'rational animals' - rationality must count for something.

    The very fact that we are the first and only (on earth at least) species that has been able to actually understand the universe would seem to be something different... something unique. As Cannato says, we are evolution itself looking and reflecting upon itself. Why would we be the only species to possess this capacity if we were simply matter and neuron discharges.

    Fr. Tim

  13. Michael: One other point: if we are just chemical reactions etc. why can we not 'create' life in a lab?

    Fr. Tim

  14. Perhaps not in my life but perhaps in my childrens' lifetime, one may see intelligence created in a computer. As to life in a lab, perhaps, it is getting close.

    I don't see why sentience is not just attributable to the mind. Especially when we look at primates and dolphins and realize that they aren't that different from us. There is the definetly something there.

  15. I'm pleased to hear that someone else appreciates Telhard ( a beutifull and insightfull man indeed.)
    To address the matter at hand I am prepared to offer the following.
    You have sugsested that energy is the animator of matter, and that is the claim in question.
    Between energy and mass there is a difference in kind physically and not substatialy in any way.Energy and mass are equivalent = in nature and that can be verified quantitativley.
    Energy moves matter (as you say), but in fact incidentaly ( not essentialy) .ie. one object moves another but the regress of moved and movement cannot go on forever. The smallest element of energy is still matter.The soul (if it exists) is not, it is the other part of the hylomorphic composition that constitutses being ( a PARTICULAR effect produced from 4 specific causes).You can't possibly and truthfully assert that matter is the animator of matter ecxept incindentaly.
    Fr. Tim this is at the heart of Fr. Telhards belief.
    To ask what happens to energy is to ask what happens to all things in a state of potentiality and I am quite confifdent and I think blessed to know that what happens is that "they" and "we" become actual.
    It is a mistake and false assumption Fr. Michael to conclude that the brain (matter) is the animator of the mind (soul) when all evidence indicates that the reverse is the truth.

  16. "We" can't create anything: it's only an illusion that we can." Only that which IS can create, "we" are becoming.

  17. Larry: Excellent points! You offer an excellent synopsis of Teilhard's argument. There is much there to contemplate.

    Thank you.

    Fr. Tim

    P.S. Are the same Larry Green from Sylvia's site? If so, my compliment to you there as well!

  18. Tim, is my identity exposed through the excellence of my gramatic skill?

  19. That and the fact you use the same name on both sites! I visit Sylvia's site every day as it the BEST website in Canada to keep abreast of the crimes, sins and errors of my brother priests and the Bishops. The work she is doing is absolutely essential if the church is going to rid itself of the horrific abusers and enablers.

    I do grant you that your messages in both places demonstrate an intelligence and insight that is far rarer that you might think on the net.

    Glad to converse with you in either place (even if you thought I was the one who sent out the anonymous note - which I was not! What I said there about anonymous allegations is what I sincerely believe. If someone, even a priest, is unwilling to put their name to an allegation as severe has he/they put forward, then they should keep quiet. I've put my name forward when I have taken the steps I have to accomplish the cleansing of the diocese. It has not been easy and I have paid a price... but it is the only moral way to proceed. If you want to discuss these matters, you should do so via email and not in this public forum.)

    Fr. Tim

  20. I hope you know I was being sarcastic about my "excellent" gramatic skill.
    I dont remember saying or implying that I thought you sent the anonymous note but I realize that some topics set me ablaze and my mouth flaps according to passion rather than reason, I apologize if I have offended you and if in the future there are such matters to discuss I will as you wish do so privately.
    Do you aggree though that there is no better way to seek the truth than to subject the claims of such to the scrutiny of reason? Even if at times passion interferes.
    There is an uncanny syncronicity here in that we have made a number of references to Telhard DeChardin and that man predicted implicitly that the world would soon be connected in this way ( The Net ).
    I have always since I've known you had the sense that there is something powerful that both connects and repells you and I. I don't know what it is but I suspect that one day at least one of us will know what it is.

  21. Larry:

    1. No offense was taken either then or now. No need to apologize.

    2. Absolutely!! Reason is the best way to discern truth!

    3. I hope we discover that which connects us and nothing that repels!

    Fr. Tim

  22. Fr. Michael Smith13 November, 2010

    Larry Green: Point well taken about the ambiguity of the expression, ‘the “I”’. ‘True self’ is much better.

    Here is a consideration for the materialists among the readers:
    1. We have a sense of personal identity over time. For example, my memories of my three-year-old self are indeed memories of myself, despite all the accidental changes in the intervening years.
    2. The matter/energy that comprises our bodies is depleted and renewed several times throughout life.
    My question is this: How does one explain personal identity over time if a human person is NOTHING BUT matter/energy?

    I realize that David Hume, in thorough logical consistency, denied both the “self” and personal identity over time, but that raises even more difficult questions: If there is no personal identity over time, then how can a person be convicted of a crime committed several years ago? Is not the current cluster of matter/energy called John Doe, if convicted, the innocent victim of the misdeeds of an ancestor cluster, also called John Doe?

  23. "I think we are using 'energy' in different ways. I am using it in the physics sense of the word - radiation that changes into different forms."

    No, we're using the term in the same way. All matter is made of energy, but consciousness is not matter, so it probably isn't made of energy.

  24. But... if E=MC2 is true, then all that exists is either energy or matter. What would account for consciousness?

    Fr. Tim

  25. "We are more than just animals... we are 'rational animals' - rationality must count for something."

    Ah, but we don't hold the exclusivity card on being "rational," Tim. Almost all the higher forms of animals and birds use rationality to some degree, some better than others.

    "Michael: One other point: if we are just chemical reactions etc. why can we not 'create' life in a lab?"

    But we can! Have you not heard? But your church and other religious organizations raised such a collective stink about it that it went underground! It seems that they all think that "creating life itself" belongs completely and unequivocally to their gods, and everyone else who tries to do it is fair game for assassination and/or prison and/or mental institutions. They were so volatile about it that several countries passed laws against it, just to keep them quiet!

  26. Lady Janus: You wrote "But we can! Have you not heard? But your church and other religious organizations raised such a collective stink about it that it went underground! It seems that they all think that "creating life itself" belongs completely and unequivocally to their gods, and everyone else who tries to do it is fair game for assassination and/or prison and/or mental institutions. They were so volatile about it that several countries passed laws against it, just to keep them quiet!"

    ... to which I ask


    Fr. Tim

  27. "...if E=MC2 is true..."

    But it's only true to a point, and then it stops being true. Einstein's equation is governed by the speed of light, which is not -- as he mistakenly thought it was -- a constant. Once you enter the quantum world, Einstein's formula no longer works. That's why people like Michio Kaku are working so hard to find the equation that will reconcile both the physical and the quantum worlds.

    Once we have that reconciliation, I think it will probably be a lot easier to define what consciousness is. Right now, all we seem to be able to do is guess at what it is not.

  28. Lady Janus: Are you talking about the difference between the laws of physics that relates to the world of the very small? String theory etc.?

    Fr. Tim

  29. "????"

    I'm not sure if I've got all the names correct, but there were scientists who did a lot of lab work on what's called "primodial soup" and actually got some results before they were vilified -- Fix, Miller, Venter, possibly others. I'll have more time later to do a search for what information I can find online about them for you. Mostly, I remember a friend of mine telling me that her lab was being picketed by some religious group or other because she was working on the Human Genome Project and the members of that group were rather nastily screaming about "atheists playing God."

    "Are you talking about the difference between the laws of physics that relates to the world of the very small? String theory etc.?"

    The differences between the physical world and the quantum, yes. String Theory, once it is found, is supposed to reconcile those differences and assist in clarifying thoughts and puzzles that we cannot yet understand because we have no foundation for that understanding.

  30. Conciousness can be shown through neuroscience to be a result of the chemical activity in the brain (the mind is what the brain does). Science can't explain it 100% now but are well along in that direction. There's no need to exempt consciousness from the regular laws of nature everything else obeys.

  31. Creation scientist, Professor Philip Stott, who has B.SC. (honours) and M.Sc. degrees has been lecturer and done research in applied mathematics. He was converted to christianity in 1976. For the last number of years he has travelled widely lecturing, presenting slide shows, and taking part in conferences dealing with scientific and relgious matters. I have seen his slide show presentations on creation-evolution matters seveal times in the last 15 years.

    One interesting thing he explains in layman's terms in his book Vital Questions is the impossible probablility of life having evolved from the non-life chemicals in the earth by random chance processes. He said "the simplest known living organism has more than two hundred thousand individual protiens, and of those more than two thousand are enzymes. Just to produce those two thousand enzymes (from a copies supply of all the required amino acids)the probability is one chance in 10 to the 40,000th power, a number so large that to write it out by hand takes about twenty pages! Even if the probabilities of combination for the various types of amino acid are not all the same, and even if their combination might be a process which can "remember: what happened in the past, leading to enormous acceleration of later stages, analysis shows that at most one thousand of the forty thousand zeros could be removed, reducing the improbability one chance in 10 to the 39,000th power. And this is only the start of the problem. The simplest known living organism has an apparatus called a "ribosome". The ribosome of the simplest known living organism is as complex and as accurate as that possessed by man. A ribosome is an amazing piece of apparatus. It has a head somewhat like that of a tape recorder. The ribosome moves along a thread of messenger-RNA (mRNA), which is a working copy of a section of the genetic code stored in the DNA of an organism. To shorten this explanation, the first part of the head reads the code of one unit of information called a "codon". It deciphers this code, decides what amino acid is specified and summons a transfer-RNA (tRNA) molecule which carries that particular amino acid. The complex process continues reading the codons and deciphering it, finding the approproate amino acid, chaining it onto the second amino acid. This process must continue until the process is complete."

    The operation of this process to form a ribosome, the simplest known oranism is more complex and accurate that an advanced computer. This required operation of the ribisome is incredible accurate and complex.

    "To calculate the probability that such a complex and accurate mechanism could make itself by chance would be difficult. We are still hardly beginning to scratch the surface of the problem, because the simplest living organism has a thread of DNA, which is a marvel of information storage miniaturization. It is in effect a computer program of immense length and complexity, which specifies the processes of life. The simplest known living organism has a thread of DNA containing information equivalent to hundreds of books full of complex information. The probability of producing that just by chance is mind-boggling."

    Proffessor Stott concludes, from his mathematical expertise, that the chance of just the physical structure of the simplest bacterium forming by chance is one chance in
    10 to the 100000000000 power. And that is only the probability of producing the physical structure on which the simplest known form of life can ride."

    He asks "If the scientists can see that the idea of life arising by chance is nonsense of a high order, how is it possible to continue to believe in evolution?"
    ---from Professor Stott's book Vital Questions

  32. The Westminister Shorter Catechism answers the question:
    Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
    A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God,[1] and to enjoy him forever.[2]

    Man has therefore been created distinctly different than animals. God has created man for a special purpose and with special abilities to worship God, his Creator.

    Psalm 86. Bow down thine ear, O LORD, hear me: for I am poor and needy. Preserve my soul; for I am holy: O thou my God, save thy servant that trusteth in thee. Be merciful unto me, O Lord: for I cry unto thee daily. Rejoice the soul of thy servant: for unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee. Give ear, O LORD, unto my prayer; and attend to the voice of my supplications. In the day of my trouble I will call upon thee: for thou wilt answer me. Among the gods there is none like unto thee, O Lord; neither are there any works like unto thy works. All nations whom thou hast made shall come and worship before thee, O Lord; and shall glorify thy name. For thou art great, and doest wondrous things: thou art God alone. Teach me thy way, O LORD; I will walk in thy truth: unite my heart to fear thy name. I will praise thee, O Lord my God, with all my heart: and I will glorify thy name for evermore. For great is thy mercy toward me: and thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell. O God, the proud are risen against me, and the assemblies of violent men have sought after my soul; and have not set thee before them. But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth. O turn unto me, and have mercy upon me; give thy strength unto thy servant, and save the son of thine handmaid. Show me a token for good; that they which hate me may see it, and be ashamed: because thou, LORD, hast holpen me, and comforted me. Isaiah 60:21. Thy people also shall be all righteous: they shall inherit the land for ever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified. Romans 11:36. For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen. 1 Corinthians 6:20, 10:31. For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.... Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. Revelation 4:11. Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. Unquote


    Therefore God has created our consciousness for the purpose stated above in the Westminister Shorter Catechsim. It is not just a random coming together of chemicals. God was the designer and creator. Praise God for his wonderful works to mankind.

  33. Small Town Guy I would argue that the conlusion formed by Proffessor Scott "how is it possible to continue to believe in evolution?" rests on the presupposition that the theory of evolution implies that things have created themselves which is false.
    Micheal,thought provoking ideas.These problems are'n knew though to our time of an ever increasing grasp of the physical world around us.They have always been around and much more so in the pre-socratic era . Emperical observation will reveal concrete data.Problems occur when universal claims are drawn from particular analysis.
    Aristotle demonstrated in a number of ways that to understand a thing is to know it's cause and to know it's cause requires a penetration of the object beyond it's sensible qualities.The sensitive soul is capable of receiving only particulars. The intellectual soul is capable of understanding only universals.The object of thought is the essence of things and in order for this to occur Aristotle believes that there is a real point of contact between the mind and the essence of the thing before it.This essence reveals the enduring quality of substantial being , the unchanging component of being , that which is actual.It wouldn't seem possible for that which is potential , matter (the brain) to be the cause of that which is actual (the mind)to exist.
    The question related to whether or not humans alone are rational creatures is a more modern one. Aristotle said that " the capacity to reason" is predicated essentialy of human beings which means in part that it is predicated only of humans. Jeane Vanier says that the capacity for meaningfull relationship is also essentaily predicated of human beings.

    Man has moved from the caves to the moon and beyond.Cows have been grazing in the fields for centuries with same blank look in there eyes.We have not nor will we see any monkeys or dolphins teaching quantum physics at universities anytime soon.


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