A dear friend and I have been talking about this concept. She read in a “Scientific American” column that current brain research states that there can be no consciousness and therefore no self without a body to put it in. I can’t find my copy of this particular issue, so this is all I have to go on right now, but I do know that scientists have so far been unable to prove otherwise and for them (and for my friend) there can be no knowledge, no truth, without proof. Indeed, some scientists seem to develop a level of smugness regarding this issue, rather as if they were the only fonts of wisdom and the rest of us poor souls are living in a fools’ paradise thinking that there is anything other than electric synapses and what we can see, feel and touch. My friend needs such proof herself and is quite depressed at the loss of a link to some kind of purpose in life, some larger something that we are here to do.
My last post touched on this: whether beings have a purpose, have lives determined for them by outside forces, or are completely autonomous and subject only to random chance. But my friend brought me a much larger issue, that of whether there is anything apart from the self-determinism of chemical and electrical brain function; in other words, a soul. In fact, she also brought to me the issue of whether only proof, primarily by the scientific method, can arrive at truth. And she reiterated the issue of outside forces acting upon living beings. That is, apart from what humans loosely call the forces of nature.
Her points were these:
Firstly, that if consciousness can only reside within a physical matrix, believing in a soul, which by definition is not connected to a physical body, must mean that the person believing such a thing believes in elves and fairies and ghosts. All or nothing. She stated that one cannot believe in one incorporeal, metaphysical thing and not believe in all of them.
Secondly, she returned to an older discussion of ours. What is the purpose of living, of having a self? We had talked before about reincarnation, about living serial lives in this world or in others. Her question then became why can she not remember any of those other lives? What purpose could they possibly serve if there is no memory of past lives, from which to learn and improve.
Thirdly, and this was more implicit than explicit in our conversation, if this is all there is, if we are an accidental combination of electricity and chemicals, how did consciousness arise? The latest studies indicate that consciousness does not survive the death of the physical structure in which it is housed. If so, that’s final and all our striving is worthless.
My answers and comments during our conversation were by no means singularized by intellect or wisdom. She caught me rather flat-footed, because I have no idea how to have a discussion regarding the proof of something that I do not think can be known using the scientific method. Which, of course, led us to a brisk exchange regarding the circular reasoning of concepts of faith and belief. We both agree that the idea that belief will bring you to knowledge and truth begs its own questions. So that’s not helpful. And belief–faith–is one of the reasons the scientific method was promulgated to start with. Stating that the sun goes around the earth because it’s written in the Bible and that’s what received wisdom says doesn’t help us arrive at truth. It forces an already provided truth upon us. The statement doesn’t answer the why of the whole thing and it doesn’t allow for any curiosity. It is that it is.
Remember that sentence, because we will return to it. Probably in another post, the way this is going.
In the meantime, let’s go through my responses to my friend’s concerns.
Firstly, I sort of flapped around like a chicken trying to get off the ground, but when I managed to think of something, anything, I did come up with the idea that a soul is, by its nature, not measurable in any kind of physical way. (See above paragraphs about belief being a circular system and you’ll see how well this went. My friend may be upset about the idea, but she’s anything but stupid.)
Secondly, I suggested that if consciousness ends upon death, we won’t know. It won’t be just me who ends when I die, but the entire universe, since I will no longer be “conscious” to perceive it. Thus turning (without meaning to) the whole discussion into solipsism. Sigh. She also pointed this out. I was about to go into my very imperfect understanding of phenomenology (see Husserl and Heidegger), but she’d gotten to me with the solipsism problem.
Thirdly, I tried to discuss it from the point of view of the “Ich”, which is a term she and I came up with in a prior conversation. It’s German for “I”. We used it to designate a soul, a consciousness, that always exists, whether the container dies or not. I have always believed, with of course no possible evidence, that if the universe does not die with me, then I (or rather, my “Ich”) does not die, but continues throughout the universe and beyond, because there has always been and always will be my unique “Ich”. This isn’t just solipsism, by the way, but a pervasive ego that I try not to show too often to the world. But of course my argument here is that we all have one, every being that ever lived.
This belief of mine has a corollary, which makes even less logical sense. The corollary states that it may not be so that the “Ich” persists and is singular. It may simply be that there is always an “Ich”, even if there is no connection between the bodies containing that “Ich” from lifetime to lifetime. English, unfortunately, is NOT good at these kinds of constructs. But then, neither am I. The basic theory, that there is always an “Ich”, could, in this idea, be simply that when one “Ich” dies as the body does, another is born, into another body. I am finding it impossible to put this into words. But then, the thought processes I’m pursuing are a little inchoate in and of themselves. Very well, what I mean by “Ich” simply means self-awareness. The fact, and this is indeed a fact, is that I am self-aware, because I have a unique consciousness that resides only inside this container, and so I look out at the universe from within this container and move within the world as a self-directed living being who can and does contemplate these fuzzy philosophical concepts. My friend’s response to this was basically “what good is that if there’s no connection?” How can there be any purpose, and reason, for there to be an “Ich” if there’s no connection, no memory, no way to LEARN?
At that point, while my mind was bubbling over with wildly illogical and half-formed thoughts, we had to end the conversation because of an appointment she had, and there is where the whole thing was left.
So now, in an attempt to think through the whole thing, I am writing it down, as best I can remember, from our conversation. Unfortunately, I have read only the basics of philosophy, so I am thinking about concepts I don’t fully understand. And tying the whole meshugas to religion isn’t really helpful because, again, belief and faith are circular systems, containing within them their own reasons and their own logical fallacies.
The basic situation is this: The scientific method can discover and pursue and experiment with anything that leaves a physical trace. So of course it can detect consciousness in the electrical and chemical activity of the brain. And so of course it cannot detect and therefore prove any phenomenon which does NOT leave a physical trace. Oddly enough, in the outer reaches of quantum physics, apparently there are particles which behave in a way that seems, shall we say, quizzical, in light of my above sentences. And there is always “Schrödinger’s Cat”, which is shorthand for a thought experiment in which a cat is put in a steel box with a bit of nuclear material which decays in one of two ways. In one way, nothing else happens. In the other, the nuclear material decaying breaks a bottle of hydrocyanic acid, which kills the cat. Schrödinger’s point was that until the box is opened, it is impossible to determine whether or not the cat is dead. Apart from being very hard on the (theoretical) cat, the whole concept makes my head ache, as it did and still does make the heads of physicists ache. Physicists, and this is my point, have, by taking one step after another using the scientific method rigorously, found themselves floating in a space made up of objects that are not objects, processes that cannot be pinned down, waves turning into particles, particles buzzing around like bees and interacting with waves that, meanwhile, are not acting like waves, and with everything in the universe being modified by time and thus turning into strings. And we can’t know what they’re all doing until we open the box.
The universe, it seems, may be as fuzzy as the concepts of consciousness, soul, life everlasting and purpose that I am reaching for. From this rather strange perspective, it seems that proof itself, with its concomitant ability to know anything at all, may have to become as fuzzy as Schrödinger’s cat. This does not help my friend with her dilemma, or me with mine. But it opens a vast array of possibilities.
Including, of course, how all this got started. The Godhead? Or itself? An outside force? Or an internal chaos that resolves into form? And that becomes one of the big questions for humans pondering the point of it all. Because with one end of this spectrum, we get purpose. With the other, we don’t.
My preference in this duality is definitely for purpose. I believe that the universe has a reason for existence, and us within it. Because my consciousness, my soul, is currently imprisoned in this physical container, I cannot think about what this reason is with facility, because it is too alien for electrical synapses and chemical reactions to parse. But I know there is a reason for our existence, even if I have no idea what that reason is. Even if the reason it so far away from the abilities of any electrical synapse to ever know. I do think that consciousness, defined by both scientists and me to be a result of electrical synapses and chemical reactions, does indeed die with the body. But I also believe that I have a soul that is not material and not a function of electricity, chemicals or particles whizzing around the universe. I believe that my soul will survive my physical death, and that it has a purpose for its survival which will be either revealed to me or that I will figure out. And possibly even modify. Because otherwise this huge clockwork, this whizzing of particles and foaming of waves and formation of strings, makes no sense. No, I don’t think it’s just for me, all this purpose and meaning. But I think I am a part of it all, a persistent and perpetual part. And if that means I also need to believe in fairies and ghosts and elves and even unicorns, well, I already do.
Speaking of parts, this is Part I of this discussion. My friend and I will not cease talking about this. And next time, I will write, perhaps, about my take on some of the theories about what happens next. We’ll all see if they make any kind of sense.