The Flying Man Experiment

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”
These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

  • Psalm 42:1-4

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

  • Matthew 10:28

“In the Flying Man experiment, Avicenna wants to examine what we can know if we are effectively robbed of our senses, and cannot depend on them for information.  He asks us each to imagine this: suppose I have just come into existence, but I have all my normal intelligence.  Suppose, too, that I am blindfolded and that I am floating in the air, and my limbs are separated from each other, so I can touch nothing.  Suppose I am entirely without any sensations.  None the less, I will be sure that I myself exist.  But what is this self, which is me?  It cannot be any of the parts of my body, because I do not know that I have any.  The self that I affirm as existing does not have length or breadth or depth.  It has no extension, or physicality.  And, if I were able to imagine, for instance, a hand I would not think that it belonged to this self which I know exists.
“It follows from this that the human self – what I am – is distinct from the body, or anything physical.  The Flying Man experiment, says Avicenna, is a way of alerting and reminding oneself of the existence of the mind as something other than, and distinct from, the body.”

  • Sam Atkinson (senior editor), The Philosophy Book, Big Ideas Simply Explained

Avicenna (980-1037) is an Arabic philosopher who broke from Arabic tradition (predominantly not considering philosophy as an appropriate field of study) to study the Aristotle method of philosophy.  We can see what Avicenna was searching for in his philosophical arguments was the immortal soul, which is his ultimate conclusion of his “experiments.”

In reading this, I would love to witness Avicenna and George Berkeley in the same room.  George Berkeley believed so much in empiricism (everything based on the senses) that if he left a room, he thought that the room no longer existed, because he could not perceive it with his senses at that moment.  But Avicenna wished to perceive his existence with no sensation at all, just to prove that his mind, or the immortal soul, existed outside what could be sensed.  The two philosophers could probably babble in the direction of each other for decades and neither one could take the slightest chisel mark from the other’s arguments.

Or would it be interesting to see George Berkeley give the Flying Man experiment a try and then come to the conclusion that he, himself, George Berkeley, failed to exist?  But if he came to that conclusion and that conclusion existed, then how did the conclusion come into existence from something that did not exist!?!?!?  Now that might just be a Catch-22.

In looking for the word “soul” in the NIV, the majority of the early references, all nine in Deuteronomy, are in a couplet with heart, doing everything with your whole heart and soul.  Body and soul are also combined a few times, but possibly the most significant is in the Scripture from Matthew above.  Jesus is making it clear that there are two deaths.  Jesus came to save us from that second death, death of the soul in hell.

Our body will someday fail.  Matthew 10:28 should have been the perfect Scripture for us during the COVID lockdown.  The virus can kill our body, but we should focus on our soul.

When I read the synopsis of Avicenna’s philosophy, I thought of a novel by Marcia Muller, Locked In.  Her heroine, Sharon McCone, was investigating a mystery and was shot in the head.  When she awoke from the coma, she had a rare disorder called “locked in” where all voluntary muscle function is paralyzed except for the muscles of the eyes.  In the novel, it takes a while for her partners to realize that she can communicate by blinking, and through “yes-no” questions, they follow her thought pattern in solving the mystery, which also reveals who tried to kill her.  In the end, she recovers.  After all, the author would has written herself out of a mystery series by eliminating her primary character, but I found the book haunting.

I do not wish to take the Flying Man experiment to that sort of extreme, total awareness and total entrapment at the same time.  Marcia Muller did a great job of taking you to the edge of insanity, but I did not wish to stay there.  I think subconsciously it might be the reason why in the five years since reading that mystery, I have read no others from the author.  Sometimes you are gripped with emotion and you want more; other times the emotion repels.

There has been much written about what the soul is and what the soul is not, but I find comfort in those who have experienced death for a few seconds or experienced death in the form of a vision or dream.  Many of them have the memory that we “never die.”  One second, they are inside their bodies and the next second, they are outside what used to be their body, and they are now in a new body.  And another common sensation is that this observation seems so natural.

Whether we can truly become flying men and women in the Avicenna sense is immaterial, but we can realize that we are more than just a body that will someday pass away.  We have an immortal soul, and we need to spend time preparing for what is to come … for eternity.  Jesus said that we should fear the One who could kill both body and soul in hell, but even in our reverent fear, we should turn to Jesus, the Son of God, and accept Him into our hearts, living for Him and serving Him with all our body, mind, and soul.

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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