left biblioblography: Allegories Gone Wild - Homing In On The Homunculus

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Allegories Gone Wild - Homing In On The Homunculus

Cross-posted at God is for Suckers!


For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of the homunculus, in occult lore, it's the creation of a human being by supernatural means. Paracelsus was rumored to have created one. As a window into how primitive man viewed himself as well as others of his species, the following description is not for the weak of stomach:

To manufacture one, Paracelsus stated that the needed spagyric (a term probably coined by Paracelsus implying an alchemical process using semen) substances should be sealed in a glass vial and placed in horse dung to digest for 40 days. At the end of this time something will begin to live and move in the bottle. This is sometimes a man, said Paracelsus, but a man who has no body and is transparent.

Nevertheless, he exists, and nothing remains but to bring him up—which is not more difficult than making him. This may be accomplished by feeding him daily (over a period of 40 weeks, and without extricating him from his dung hill) with the arcanum of human blood. At the end of this time there should be a living child, having every member as well proportioned as any infant born of a woman. He will be much smaller than an ordinary child, though, and his physical education will require more care and attention.

I could not tell you to save my life the how's or whys of why I stumbled across this: but the following entry caught my eye (from the Philosophy Dictionary):

A small person. A bad idea in the philosophy of mind is to explain a person's agency, or intelligence, or experience, as if there were a smaller agent, or intelligent thing, or experiencing subject ‘inside the head’. But homuncular functionalism decomposes complex functions into simpler ones, thereby avoiding the obvious regress.

Thus, I realized; this is a perfect description of that ineffable, abstract conglomeration the religious refer to as a 'soul'.

The concept of our being able to survive this life into another is an attractive one. However, this concept is rich in imagination, and piss poor in actual facts.

One person actually tried to weigh in on this (pardon the bad pun):

Dr. Duncan MacDougall was an early 20th century doctor in Haverhill, Massachusetts who sought to measure the mass purportedly lost by a human body when the soul departed the body upon death.

This is one of those pernicious arguments that the more romantic 'souls' pursue - it's hard to fathom, that we're gone, turned off like a light switch. Often as not, someone trots out the inevitable Conservation of energy, to wit: "The principle of conservation of energy states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, although it can be changed from one form to another." Which is pretty much a sad effort. Information is lost. Shred a CD (or a DVD), and you pretty much have the same energy/mass, but access to the info contained in that mass is lost.

The other problem encountered, is: what exactly gets saved? The selective swipe of a scalpel can drastically alter a person's personality. This saved template would draw on...what, exactly? That person as he/she is, or as they were prior to the surgery? What if they were reduced to a mere vegetative state, as was Teri Schiavo? Reduced to a mere collection of neurons, a chemical stew,  a primitive Bunsen burner with the flame burning dimmer?

Or, for a famous example, Phineas Gage?

Phineas P. Gage (1823May 21, 1860) was a railroad construction foreman who suffered a traumatic brain injury when a tamping iron accidentally passed through his skull, damaging the frontal lobes of his brain. This injury is supposed to have negatively affected his emotional, social and personal traits—leaving him in a temperamental and unsociable state, so much so that his friends said he was "no longer Gage".

(There was one skeptical doctor who disputed this, but given what we now know, especially about lobotomies and electroconvulsive therapy, the chances that this disrupted Gage's...mindset are highly probable. I doubt I'd be very sunny or rational after all that.)

As per usual, the supernatural disappears quickly under closer scrutiny. Small wonder it never gets used in the laboratory.

So there is no afterlife - no choir of trumpets to greet us, no tearful reunions, no kaleidoscopic flights to gates of any sort. More's the reason, then, that we should live, love, and care about one another.

Till the next post, then.

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Zac Hunter said...

Ah the old homunculus. He's the one with tickets to the cartesian theater. Product of the old infinite regress arguments in bad philosophy of mind. Funny idea. Makes me think of Being John Malcovich.

Its funny to me that the entry in the Philosophy Dictionary struck you as minutia when to me, that weird occult passage you mentioned just boggles me.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Hey-ya, Zac. How are ya?
Homie the Homunculus - had an unculus on his peduncular.
Its funny to me that the entry in the Philosophy Dictionary struck you as minutia when to me, that weird occult passage you mentioned just boggles me.
Ah yes - the signs of a misspent youth indeed. ;)