Self as a Plausibility Structure for Hard Spirituality

Believing in Hard Spirituality

As I mentioned in my previous post doubts in hard spirituality seems to be on the rise even if it will be an uphill climb for materialistic evolutionary psychology. While over the long haul I think it stands to reason that dismissing hard spirituality is an up hill climb, in the short term maintaining belief in a hard spirituality is a struggle for many.

My relationship with what I’m reading in evolutionary psychology is just as complex as my relationship with what I read of evolutionary biology. I respect these scientists and have no ground to doubt much of what they assert. The final leap to materialism (or perhaps the initial presupposition of materialism) I don’t share.

The Soul and Materialism

Many, many people believe in the existence of “the soul“. Materialistic evolutionary psychology casts doubt on the existence of the soul and for good reason. There is no scientific basis for anything like a religious soul.

The soul, as I see it construed by a broad variety of people in a variety of religions is problematic on other grounds. The assertion that a person has a “spiritual” (immaterial) essence and that this functions in an immaterial realm is by definition not subject to science.

People’s belief in things like the soul are usually a product of the cultural context of their histories. If you were told at a very young age that you have a soul, you tend to believe it. The idea of the soul is something very natural to all of us, it is in fact very close to the belief in a self, that there is a “me” in my body.

This is how Bruce Hood treats it in “The Self Illusion”

Take a further moment to experience your body in this quiet state. If you concentrate, you can feel its inner workings. As you read these lines, can you feel the subtle movements of your tongue bobbing up and down inside your mouth? Now that your attention has been drawn towards it, can you feel the pressure of the chair you are sitting on pressing against your backside? We can be in touch with our bodies, but we are more than just our bodies. We control our bodies like some skilled operator of a complex meat machine.

This internal self is sometimes called the homunculus, and this little chap is a real troublemaker. The homunculus is a problem because you are left none the wiser about the location of the self. In fact, considering the homunculus reveals why the reality of the self is a problem. There can be no single individual inside your head for the simple reason that, if true, then this homunculus would require an inner self as well. You would need a “mini-me” inside the “you” that is inside your head. But if the “mini-me” inside your head is a homunculus, then who is inside the head of mini-me, and so on, and so on? This would become an infinite regression leading to no end. Like an endless series of Russian matryoshka dolls, one inside another, the homunculus simply restates the initial problem of where the self is located in the mind. This is what philosopher Dan Dennett has called the illusion of the Cartesian Theater, after the famous French philosopher, René Descartes, who thought that each of us possess a mind that inhabits our bodies. Dennett described this like sitting in the audience inside our heads watching the world of experience unfold like a play on a stage. But who is inside the head of the person watching the play in the Cartesian Theater? Proposing an inner self simply does not help in solving the problem of where we are inside our heads.

Hood, Bruce (2012-04-25). The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (pp. 16-17). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

In other words we have the experience of a self. Most religious people (unless you embrace an idea of an alien self of sorts that usually goes together with a belief in something like reincarnation) closely identify this self with their soul. It is the true me, the “spiritual” me, the me that though this body is destroyed will still endure, immaterially, in the “spirit world” or somehow.

I can easily see how this idea is increasingly difficult to maintain given the plausibility structure of western context. If the me I experience is utterly dependent upon this meat brain that has been wired since conception, that is heir to a legacy of evolution for thousands of years, in what way can I conceive of this “me” surviving the death of my body?

Boundary Lines of Hard Spirituality

The question of whether there is a “me” apart from my brain is becoming one of the boundary lines of hard spirituality. Do you believe that the “you” you experience will cease to be once the brain you currently possess ceases to function normally? Is there an ongoing “you” apart from your brain?

If you answered “yes” then your position is under assault, and for some pretty good reasons.

The boundaries of what we call “mental illness” continue to expand as medications for treating it continue to become more common and more powerful.

When I was young I had a hard time sitting still in church and in school. Sunday afternoons was a common time for me to receive a spanking. I couldn’t sit still and it bothered my poor mother.

Today I would likely be diagnosed with ADHD and given medication. Why? Because medication for many children has proven to be effective. All of us know that somehow these medicines are impacting how I experience my self.

An example like ADHD is a small one, but for many with more impactful mental conditions the experience of a changed self through medication is more dramatic. Which self is the true self?

It is likely that within the next few years we will see medications to tackle addictions and other behaviors in people that they find self destructive and as a society we find problematic. How will these impact one’s sense of self?

We have these experiences often without medications. Twelve step programs change people’s sense of self as well as their behavior. Religious conversions likewise can radically change one’s sense of self. So which self is the true self?

What about dementia? Many of us have seen family, friends and loved ones suffering from different forms of dementia. Is the self lost by the disease?

It isn’t uncommon for a major stroke to alter a person’s personality. How does that impact the self? If it impacts the self, does it likewise impact the soul?

Evil Religious People

Christian Smith notes that most emerging adults assume the job of religions is to help people become more moral.

The real point of religion, ultimately, in the eyes of most emerging adults, is to help people be good, to live good lives. Bad people are bad—emerging adults do not like or want to be bad people, at least not really bad people, like murderers and bank robbers and wife beaters.

Smith, Christian; Snell, Patricia (2009-09-14). Souls in Transition : The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Kindle Locations 3034-3036). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

One of the common objections I hear to Christianity is that Christians are hypocrites. Less religious observers expect that religious people will be more moral than others and they have good reasons for their expectation. The same goes with in the “spiritual” marketplace.

People are highly offended by the assumption that Christians, who are immoral, crappy people to be around should somehow be rewarded for poor behavior with heaven for their souls, while their moral betters get sent to hell. There’s a lot to this that I want to eventually explore, but for now we should recognize that we commonly assume there is a connection between the moral quality of our self and the moral value of our soul and that this should impact what happens after we die, at least if we are a hard spiritualist.

Your Soul is Your Self, More or Less

I think the best way through this IS in fact to recognize the relationship between the soul and the self. To suggest that we are something completely alien to what we experience our self as being, or what other experience our self as being, seems to lead us down the wrong path. The me I know myself as being, more or less, is the me that I want to endure beyond the reasonable expectation of my physical brain. The self of my friends and family that I desperately wish to endure beyond their physical death is the self that I know. I don’t want an alien soul, some essence other than the self we all knew for years. What good is it for a part of me to endure if I have never known this part.

We are used to the exchange in the physical world. The carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen that make up my physical body has all been passed through how many other people, animals and plants before me. How do I know this? I’ve been taking in carbon from other plants and animals all of my life in order to sustain myself. The physical parts of me that endure are interchangeable and disposable. The thing I want to hang onto, the thing I want to connect with dead friends and family, is my self.

Just Skepticism

I can very much appreciate the collapsing plausibility structure of much hard spirituality for contemporary people. We watch drugs and diseases changing the self. We have significant brain science evidence to show that our experiences, our genetics, our relationships have evolved into the self we experience. We suspect that once the brain is gone, the self is gone. We find religious narratives of the soul to be offensive or unintelligible. We need to get specific about the self, what it is, what it isn’t, how we imagine it, if the self/soul is to not only be plausibly imagined, but also invested in.

Next: Locating the Self

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in book writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Self as a Plausibility Structure for Hard Spirituality

  1. Pingback: Locating the Self, Resolving the Host |

  2. Pingback: Circumcision: Is Identity Received or Achieved? |

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