Spring is coming upon us. Just today I saw some green growth in my garden emerging from the seemingly endless days of white, gray, brown, and black. Where there seemed to be just frozen ground and mutilated remnants there was hidden folds of life waiting to unfold.
According to the enlightenment philosopher G. W. Leibniz our souls enfold and unfold as well. We can see how by taking a look at his analysis of perception. Perception, for Leibniz, is an example of the unifying power of the soul: “The transitory state which enfolds and represents a multiplicity in a unity, or in a simple substance, is exactly what one calls perception” (see Nicholas Rescher’s G. W. Leibniz’s Monadology: An Edition for Students, p. 75). And Leibniz thinks he can argue for the immaterial and soul-based nature of perception. Consider this fascinating thought experiment:
“Furthermore, one is obliged to admit that perception and what depends upon it is inexplicable on mechanical principles, that is, by figures and motions. In imagining that there is a machine whose construction would enable it to think, to sense, and have perception, one could conceive it enlarged while retaining the same proportions, so that one could enter into it, just like into a windmill. Supposing this, one should, when visiting within it, find only parts pushing one another, and never anything by which to explain a perception. Thus it is in the simple substance, and not in the composite or the machine, that one must look for perception. Moreover, there is nothing besides this—besides perceptions and their changes—that one could possibly find in a simple substance. It is also in this alone that all the internal actions of simple substances can consist.” (83)
For Leibniz we are all “monads”, simple immaterial substances not made of parts, that engage in the activity of perception. This perception is not mechanically explicable because perception is about unifying a multiplicity and parts working together mechanically cannot result in a true unity. Moreover, mechanical action is simply a matter of cause and effect or efficient causality without regard to purpose and intention. But perception is about final causality or the type of action that is goal-oriented and intends something such as pursuing good and avoiding evil: “The perceptions in the monad arise from each other according to the laws of the appetites or of the final causes of good and evil, which consist in observable perceptions, whether regulated or unregulated, in the same way that bodily changes and external phenomena arise from, each other according to the laws of efficient causality, that is, of motions” (85). So we see that it is really through an analysis of perception that Leibniz defends his claim that we are spiritual beings. Our soul cannot be a set of functions in the brain since a brain, like a mill, is a complex system of cause and effect relations that cannot give rise to the true unity needed for unified and purposeful perceptions.
Now assuming that the soul exists, what can we hope for regarding its immortality? Well, Leibniz believes that nothing ever naturally dies: all living things are monads and monads, being simple, cannot be dissolved: “There is no dissolution to fear<in the monads>, and there is no way conceivable in which a simple substance can perish naturally” (55). He goes on to deny the natural genesis of monads as well: “For the same reason, there is no way in which a simple substance could begin naturally, since it cannot be formed by composition” (56). This leads to the conclusion that births and deaths are really unfoldings and enfoldings: “This also brings it about that there is never either complete birth or complete death, in the strict sense of separation of the soul<from the body>. What we call births are unfoldings and growths; even as what we call deaths are enfoldings and diminutions” (240). He elaborates:
“But, you will say, an organic body can be destroyed. I answer that even if a body is destroyed according to our perception, nevertheless the soul would not for that reason be destroyed, for there would still remain an animated mass and the soul would continue to act on the inside and outside, though less perfectly, i.e., without sensation. And we retain such a perception in deep sleep, apoplexy and other cases, although the senses may cease. For sensation is perception that involves something distinct and is joined with attention and memory. But a confused aggregate of many little perceptions, containing nothing eminent that excites attention, induces a stupor. Nevertheless the soul, or the power of sensing in it, would not for that reason be useless, although it would now be prevented from being exercised, because with time the mass could again develop and be adapted for sensation, so that the stupor ceases, just as more distinct perceptions arise when the body also becomes more perfect and ordered.” (see Leibniz: The Shorter Texts, Continuum, p. 65)
So perhaps upon death we enfold our perceptual activities and then, in some future springtime of the soul, we will, despite grim and wintry appearances to the contrary, emerge again and unfold our powers of perception in unimaginable ways.