Lisa Miller recently wrote an article for Newsweek about life after death. In this article (and her book Heaven) she runs through various theories and views on this matter. One view she considers is the notion of an immortal soul. She writes:
After death, the soul—unique and indestructible—ascends to heaven to be with God while the corpse, the locus of our senses and all our low human desires, stays behind to rot. This more reasonable view, perhaps, has a serious defect: a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon. Consolation was not the goal of Plato’s afterlife. Without sight or hearing, taste or touch, a soul in heaven can no more enjoy the “green, green pastures” of the Muslim paradise, or the God light of Dante’s cantos, than it can play a Bach cello suite or hit a home run. Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy.
The crux of this problem is that a bodiless soul cannot have the same experiences that an embodied soul can experience.
One important assumption in her assessment is that a disembodied soul cannot (or at least will not) have the same sort of experiences it had while it was embodied. However, it is easy enough to make a case that such a soul could have experiences comparable to bodily experiences. To do this, I simply need to borrow some skeptical arguments. For example, take Descartes’ classic Meditations on First Philosophy. In the first meditation he presents the dream argument, arguing that everything he experiences could be a dream and uncaused by external objects. Even more relevantly to this issue, he considers that God might be causing his ideas of his physical body and an external world even though there are no such entities. This is a coherent scenario and God could presumably do this for a bodiless soul “in” heaven. Since God would be doing this for the benefit of the soul, this would not be immoral on God’s part. In fact, God (or His agents) could make it clear what is being done. Interestingly enough, for philosophers like George Berkeley life on earth is just like this: there is naught but minds and the ideas in them. In short, on such views we are already bodiless souls. So, life in heaven as a bodiless soul could be every bit as satisfying as life on earth.
A second assumption on her part is that a bodiless soul cannot have experiences that differ from the bodily experiences yet are as (or even more) satisfying than the bodily experiences of life. While Plato’s goal was not to comfort people with his idea of the Platonic heaven, in his theory the souls are not “escaped balloons.” The souls “commune” with the forms and engage in intellectual activities. Even better, the souls are fully in the presence of the good. In Plato’s theory this seems to be a rather interesting and satisfying existence. In contrast, life on earth is far less satisfying.
Turning to a more religious view, it could be argued that being in the “presence” of God and the other souls would be immensely rewarding and satisfying. This experience would not be like what we experience on earth. It would, one might argue, be vastly different and vastly better. After all, to assume that the mere physical pleasures are all that a human can experience and enjoy is a bit like assuming that a human can only enjoy the pleasures of animals such as pigs.
True, when most people think of pleasure they do think of bodily pleasures and would, naturally enough, see heaven in that light. For example, people enjoy sex so it is natural that some folks would claim that there will be a number of virgins waiting to have sex with them in heaven. However, the fact that most people think in terms of bodily pleasures simply shows the limits of their imagination and conception of what is fine (as Aristotle would say). The fact that the many would prefer bodily pleasures on earth and in heaven hardly shows that these are the best pleasures. As Plato and others have argued, there are better pleasures than these and these pleasures could very well be enjoyed by a bodiless soul.
Of course, one might wonder whether there are souls and if there is a heaven.