02 August 2008

there is no 'I' in 'me'

There was a good post over at Greta Christina's while I was wandering around in Colorado. She discusses her reason for not believing in the soul. I agree with many of them. At some point along the way, I realized I could no longer accept the traditional view of the soul as some unchanging thing that makes people who they are. Below is my analysis of what's left.

Now, the most common arguments against the soul use examples of brain injuries radically altering personality. The problem is that there's an immediate counterargument, that the soul is the software and needs properly functioning hardware to completely express itself. I'll be the first to admit that this approach has its own problems (e.g. if someone is born with a brain defect, his/her soul will never be able to fully express itself; is there then any point to that person living? -- not to mention that it seems to be completely untestable as a hypothesis), but it is an answer. At any rate, brain chemistry and injuries are not the reason that I have to reject the more traditional notions of a soul.

Still, it is the "unchanging" part of the definition that I have the most problem with. See, brain injuries or not, a person's personality continues to develop and change throughout life. Sure, some people get to a certain point and just stay there for the next umpty-nine years, but that seems to be the exception. I'm not the same person I was a year ago, or two years ago. I'm certainly not the same person I was twenty-five years ago, when I was all of six years old. Some basic preferences have remained the same. Others have changed radically. Now, you can argue that this is the "soul" coming to express itself fully as the body/mind matures. But then where did the earlier preferences come from? Were they mistaken? Were they from the body itself, needing to be tempered by the soul? Okay, that might be workable, but...

What about changes that come about due to bodily chemistry? It doesn't even need to involve the brain directly. Take gluten intolerance. In a nutshell, it's an auto-immune disease where the immune system attacks the intestinal walls in the presence of gluten. Shortly before figuring out I was gluten intolerant, I was the "I'll try nearly anything once" type ('nearly' in case something really grossed me out). Now, I'm the "It's poison until I can see a full ingredient list" type. Fresh unseasoned veggies or fruit? Fine. Anything else? Probably poisonous. You could argue that this is simply an attitude change, but it has affected my personality, and it seems to be independent of the soul. Or could my particular soul only be born into a gluten-intolerant body so that the appropriate personality would develop? Then we get into "If the soul needs a particular kind of body, then what's the point of the soul anyway?" Isn't it supposed to exist and be what it is independent of the body?

Then there's the existence of "muscle memory." This is partially connected to the mind, but has a great deal to do with the muscles themselves. The more we repeat a particular movement, the easier it becomes, and the more automatic it becomes. This is the point of repetition of martial arts forms: to get the basic movements into muscle memory. Anyone who's done any sort of martial arts will understand the sentiment: "I know that in my head, I just can't get my body to do it!" Then once it's been practiced enough: "Wow! I just did that without thinking about it!" See, these things are dependent on the body itself. Without the body, they have no meaning. Part of my identity is "taiji player." Without a body, the "player" part is meaningless. Where is that stored in the "soul"?

The first time I encountered the sentiment that there is no mind, or there is no self, I resisted it. It made no sense to me. Now that I've spent some time meditating, I think I know what it means. The more I explore my "mind", the more that I find that there is nothing of substance in that which we call "mind." There is nothing permanent. Likewise, there is nothing permanent in that which we call the "self." The only constancy is what I've heard termed "continuity of consciousness." There is a sense of things coming before, and that we have experienced those things, and an expectation that this will continue. Everything else rises up for a time and then disappears.

So to me, the notion that the soul is some repository of our true personality is nonsense. It's wishful thinking projected on the world by an ego terrified of ceasing to exist. But even the ego's permanence is illusory. The 'I' who began this blog a few years back is not the same 'I' now writing this article. We share the same body, and many years of the same memories, but to claim that we are the same person with the same personality, the same motivations and desires is nonsense. Sure, there's overlap. But not identity.

What's left? Consciousness. Awareness. Pure and simple. Might these one day have material explanations? Sure. I don't see that as any particular threat. I believe it was Carl Sagan who said something like, "Man is the matter of the cosmos, observing itself." [Note: Can't find the quote I'm thinking of; closest is "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."] That is the point of existence. We are here and it is now. We are aware here and now. That is the most profound truth that I can imagine. Why? Because that awareness links us with all-that-is.

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