How dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?
(Ali, Successor to Muhammad,
quoted by Bahá’u'lláh in ‘The Seven Valleys‘ page 34)
Near death experiences come to the same conclusion as Ali:
As I indicated at the outset, what I have quoted here from our conversation describes only a portion of Mellen’s NDE, but it is enough, I think, to make clear that his vision is one of absolute wholeness in which all things are connected in a living cosmic web of organic unity. The visible universe is a universe of vibrating fields within fields, a dance of exquisite harmony, where, as Blake said, “Energy is eternal delight,” and everything sings of God’s immanent presence. At its core, exfoliating from the Void, is that radiant Light, which some have called the Central Sun, and which metaphorically may have its physical representation in the Big Bang, the genesis of it all, including the star-stuff we call ourselves. Because all things are truly one within this vision of life, we human beings-indeed, all living creatures-are one body indivisible and, as such, not separate from God either, but His very manifestation.
(‘Lessons from the Light‘: page 291)
Reductionists, those who would explain everything in the simplest possible material terms and insist there is nothing left over, find all such experiences irrelevant to an understanding of ‘reality.’ When we explore the issue carefully though, it is my belief that we will find a way of reconciling the idea of a soul and a limitless interior (inscape as I called it in an earlier post) with ordinary human experience.
Let’s start relatively small.
The Ghost in the Machine
The argument rages over whether the ghost in the machine, the pilot in the cockpit of our being, really exists or not. The question would then become not ‘Are we a self or a soul?’ but ‘Are we even a self?’
Daniel Dennett is clear. There is no ghost whatsoever in the machine. It’s a myth. Serial consciousness is itself an illusion. We also kid ourselves if we believe for one moment that the self we feel ourselves to be is really in charge.
I’d better say, right at the outset, I’m not a philosopher as Dennett is. I am or was until I retired an applied psychologist by profession
and before that a teacher of English Literature. When it comes to philosophy I’m about as advanced as Dr Johnson when he kicked a lamp post to refute Bishop Berkeley‘s solipsistic claim that things existed only as ideas in our minds placed there by God.
I will argue none the less that Dennett is fundamentally mistaken.
He produces what for him is compelling evidence that our complex brain has plotted and initiated its responses before we were even aware of what we intended to do let alone had the faintest possibility of making a decision about it. The fact is though he is talking about a response time experiment when we also know, for instance, that athletes delegate their decision to react to the gun to parts of the brain that respond subliminally before conscious attention gets the signal. That’s one of the reasons you get false starts.
But the decision to delegate is not made by those parts of the brain. So that we do not get eaten all that often by tigers and the like, evolution has shaped us to be able, in emergency situations, to react faster than we can think: that does not mean we choose to do that all the time. It’s not how we decide to buy a house or write a book. If it were ‘Consciousness Explained‘, the Dennett book in which this theory is propounded, would simply be the product of the automatic processes of a complex calculating machine not the purposeful carefully wrought creation of a person.
The brain has also evolved to automate well-learned skills such as driving a car. We’ve all had the experience of driving several miles on ‘automatic pilot.’ To suppose, as Dennett seems to do, that this is the same kind of process as deciding where to drive is treating mud as though it were cheese. Even if we were blindfolded with a peg on our nose, the latter error would become immediately obvious when we put the mud in our mouth. Unfortunately we do not have a similar palate wired in for distinguishing logic from confusion. So, Dennett gets away with his extravagant overgeneralisation. We end up believing, if we are not very careful, that my decision to go and visit my cousin in Manchester was not an act of will but of unseen processes in the brain automatically unfolding.
I’m afraid free will is a lamp post for me. When I decided to write this blog I kicked it and it was definitely there. (The brain’s complex automation adds a further complication to this which, for simplicity’s sake here, I am deferring to a later post: in spite of it I still can kick my lamp post of free will!)
But if there is still some kind of ghost in the machine what kind of ghost and what kind of machine are we talking about?
Identity, Self, Character and Soul
Previous posts on this blog looked at some of the arguments and evidence as to whether or not we will enjoy some kind of afterlife. If this belief has substance, then we have some kind of soul. What are the implications of that for our identity?
`The inherited character’, which he sees as the source of weakness of strength, most closely corresponds in layman’s terms to the idea of `temperament’ or `constitution’. ‘The acquired character,’ which for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the source of good and evil, has no simple equivalent being a composite of all that results from our life experiences: the concepts that stand closest to it are the `empirical self’, (which interacts with others, performs social roles and meets the gaze of introspection), and, perhaps, the `personality’ (which, it is claimed by some, can be measured by questionnaires and tests but generally has no moral implications for the psychologist who studies it). The last, `the innate character’, is described as `purely good’ because it is a `divine creation.’ This seems to relate it closely to the human soul: `The personality of the rational soul is from its beginning; it is not due to the instrumentality of the body . . .’ (SAQ, page 240).
This description suggests that our sense of who we are is likely to be a composite and we may choose at different times to identify with these different aspects. We could be a self and a soul on this model, and not have to choose between the two as the title of this post suggested.
It is easy to see how we come to identify with our body and with the character we slowly develop as we grow and learn from interactions with the world and with other people. It may be harder, if not impossible for some of us, to experience our soul at all let alone identify with it.
How do we do that? What does it feel like?
Those are big questions and will have to wait for the next post.