Lots of people wonder WHAT the soul is. Lots of people wonder WHERE the soul is when someone has died. Very few people wonder WHERE the soul is when someone is still alive.
In my last post I suggested that we should think about “the self” as a practical approximation for “the soul”.
What the self is not
I don’t think the self is a spirit that possesses our bodies. It might be, that was certainly the older suggestion of what it is, but I don’t think given where we are today that’s the best way to think about it. This usually leads to a lot of ideas like pre-existent selves that get incarnated into a baby, etc. Some religions assert this. I don’t think it’s a helpful idea. I don’t think my religion, Christianity, asserts this idea, with one notable exception. More on him later.
I don’t think our bodies possess the self like a pocket possesses a coin.
I don’t see the self as strictly the experience of a single brain. That is the working assumption of the evolutionary psychologists, that the self is the experience of consciousness and self awareness that we know as our selves. This is a lot of who we are, but not all of it.
Our Self That Lives Among Us
We are multiple selves. We are multiple selves in time. We are multiple selves in different situations. We are multiples selves to other people with whom we have relationship. Identifying our “true self”, this thing that “spirituality” seems to want to pursue, is not a simple thing.
The self I know myself to be today, is not exactly the self I’ll look back on 10 years from now. The self I know myself to be today is not exactly the same self hundreds of people know me to be. The self I know myself to be today may be different after a host of experiences, illnesses, decay, and events will create in the future. What is the relationship between the self I know today and the body they will put in the ground at some point in the future, the self remembered by friends, family and enemies? We are many selves in the course of a life time, is there a real self among them?
My self in fact requires that multiple selves exist, and be in relationship with it to know something that approaches my true self. My self requires all of these selves I’m in relationship with to exist, and we exist together with our brains, our bodies, our stories and our lives.
The Self and the Body
Many of us are now familiar with computer technology. When we think about our computers we don’t think about how data is stored or what data is. Data on a DVD drive are little divots in the physical strata of the drive. The DVD drive’s laser reads these little divots and interprets it as zeros and ones and creates the picture for the screen. On a magnetic drive the little zeros and ones are recorded as positive and negative charges. These charges are read and reinterpreted into the data we experience. The data is incredibly small, we can’t see it or detect the tiny magnetic charges, but it exists.
Ray Kurzweil and others are predicting the technological singularity, where machines outstrip our ability to think. What will it mean if future generations figure out how to download the data from our brains and put it into a more powerful thinking machine no longer subject to our decaying meat organs? Will it still be us?
It is not hard to imagine that the thing that is you is not really your body and yet it’s not really you without your body. Many people experience this. I remember my elderly grandmother telling me how shocking it is to look in the mirror and see an old woman. Inside her mind she was still a young adult.
It is a bit harder to imagine this thing that is us existing apart from us. If we recognize that in a small we our self exists in the minds of others, and others exist in our own minds and memories. We hear this idea all the time at funerals. “Daddy isn’t gone, he’s there in my heart.”
We know this isn’t the whole truth, and we know that the “daddy” in your mind and heart is seriously diminished from the one that used to inhabit your world, yet part of us knows he exists.
We are not whole without our bodies, that is a piece of our self, but we are also not wholly contained by our body, parts of our self exist between us, among us, dependent upon the community we are existing in and being seen by.
It doesn’t seem implausible to talk about selves apart from their physical bodies. We all experience this all the time, yet also know we are not fully ourselves apart from our bodies. We’ll get to that question in time as well.
What we can begin to see is that the self actually lives in relationship to other selves. Apart from other selves it does not exist.
Can We Understand Spirit in this space?
Think of spirit as the marketplace of morphing selves as we inhabit space together.
Imagine a coed high school gym class. During a game of basketball one boy “pants” another boy, pulling down his gym shorts. The kid who did the dead and his friends laugh at the intended humiliation. The victim is embarrassed, the whole class sees, and a new story exists very much tied to a group of persons. A spiritual even has transpired and multiple selves have been impacted, perhaps in a small way, for some perhaps in a large way.
What has happened physically? Certainly light reflected off the tighty whiteys of the victim picked up by the eyeballs of the observers and brain plasticity has been engaged to create new neural pathways and memories in those who saw, and all who would hear about it, but that data, those chemical/electrical charges carry meaning for everyone involved. There is an entire world of meaning that is being hosted by the meat brains but is also in some way independent of them as long as some host exists.
The question of meaning and humanity existing beyond our meat host selves depends on the existence of an during host that is not dependent upon the physical universe that we know. The only way we will endure beyond our own death, the death of our sun, and the eventual death of all suns in our universe is if there is a host for all of our stories that is no dependent upon it.
A Host Beyond The Physical Universe that Hosts Me Know
What if there is a self, or selves that existed prior to the big bang and are not dependent upon it? What if these selves know all, endure all, and can impact all. Via these selves all meaning, all value, all culture, all purpose can in fact endure beyond the death of all things and if they were responsible for the physical universe we now inhabit they can reconstitute a universe without decay where our selves and our stories can continue.
Can I demonstrate from this observable universe that such a self exists? No, because this self isn’t dependent upon the universe. Without these selves, however, I have no reason to believe there is any such thing as meaning, as love, as beauty, as community, or that all of the treasures experienced by selves in time on planet earth will have any enduring value.
I would also be wholly dependent upon those selves for my future existence and the meaning of my story.
One way to understand the Christian story is in this way. Resurrection is our rehosting onto a new host universe, creation 2.0. Jesus in his death and resurrection goes from creation 1.0 to creation 2.0. God re-members us in his kingdom.