Every day I ask myself “Who am I?”
Of course, I know my name. I know what I look like. I know what my favorite foods are and what makes me laugh.
I seem to know things about me, but I have never felt that I actually know me.
What does it mean to be me? Why am I me and not someone else? Do I become a different person when I make choices? Am I a fixed being? How much of who I am is predetermined? Why didn’t I come with a fucking manual?
Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I spend too much time in my head. Maybe I have such a small number of problems over here in the first world that I let my imagination run wild with anxiety that doesn’t actually exist.
Either which way, coming to terms with being me has been incredibly difficult. I’ve spent countless hours reading books, watching films, wandering streets, and gazing at landscapes in an attempt to try to understand some unknowable aspect of what it means to be alive. To be conscious.
I still don’t think I have any definitive answers. But I think I’ve done enough research to at least begin to better delineate the problem.
So here’s the first entry in a series of posts I’ll be writing that cover the myriad of issues we face every day as we attempt to rationalize our existence.
Let’s Talk About Consciousness
What is consciousness and where the hell does is come from?
I think, therefore I am. I know I exist because I can perceive my existence.
This is quite a unique ability. Think of all of the other arrangements of protons and electrons in this universe that didn’t elicit a sentient form of life.
All of these things exist around us, and yet life, consciousness, only manifests itself in such a small number of objects. And of all of the living beings, none of them possess the level of awareness that is present in humans.
Why is this? And how is this possible?
In all that we can perceive in a seemingly physical world, where does our consciousness come from? How do we explain the dichotomy between the physical world of all we can see and smell and touch and that of the non-physical world that allows us to perceive all that we can see and smell and touch?
All of these answerless questions come together to form what is known as the Mind-Body Problem.
One of the oldest examples of the conundrum of consciousness was framed by 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes. Put most simply, the problem is that the mind, a non-physical entity, is encapsulated by the body, a physical entity, and there seems to be no easy way to explain why this is.
The problem is typically approached with two different philosophies: Monism or Dualism.
What is Dualism?
The idea that the mind and the body are not made of the same substance is known as Substance Dualism, or Cartesian Dualism, as it was proposed by Rene Descartes. 1Robinson, Howard, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (2016). Dualism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
As a Catholic, Descartes’s religious opinions influenced his philosophical thinking. His belief in dualism was a response to his belief that each person’s conscious mind is a fragment of their soul.
In Christian thought, it is believed that each person possesses a soul, which serves as that person’s essence. When that person dies, their physical body, which existed wholly separate from their soul, is left behind in the physical world, and their soul is transported to some version of a Heaven or a Hell, which exist in some other metaphysical realm.
In order to accept that the soul can exit the physical world to enter the metaphysical world, one must be able to accept that the physical and metaphysical worlds themselves are separate.
Thus, dualism is a direct response to a theological opinion. One typically arrives at dualism as a valid solution to the mind-body problem as a justification for one’s theological beliefs.
So if you believe in an afterlife, or a realm in which your soul is able to live within absent of the physical world, then you are already a de facto dualist.
Dualism might seem like an appealing way to approach the mind-body problem while allowing certain religious beliefs to remain intact, but it really only proposes a further conundrum: how can the physical and metaphysical worlds, made up of two different kinds of substances, be able to interact with one another?
This is known as the problem of interaction, and it is really only a restatement of the Mind-Body Problem.
For all of these reasons, I do not find dualism to be a valid model for explaining away the Mind-Body Problem.
As I have written before, I am an atheist. I do not believe in the idea of God, nor do I believe in Heaven or Hell or souls.
For theists, or more specifically, Christians, the mind-body problem isn’t a problem at all. The idea of the soul, or more simply an eternal consciousness, is taken as a given and the rest of the philosophy of dualism unravels from that point. It is the only way for theists to rationalize their irrational thoughts.
But a goal of philosophy is supposed to be the utilization of logic and rhetoric to uncover truths about the world. You cannot begin your search for truth with one unjustified assumption and then claim that you have contributed to the philosophical discussion.
Removing the religious nuance from the Mind-Body Problem leaves a sea of people with no justified reasoning for their belief in dualism. There may still be people who latch on to their belief in dualism absent of religion, but I have yet to encounter anybody who simply likes the idea of two separate realms of existence who does not feel that way because of some religious influence.
Once we accept that dualism is not a valid solution to the Mind-Body Problem, we are able to approach the issue in another way, and the possible solution that we come to is Monism.
What is Monism?
While dualists believe that the mind and body are two separate entities, monists maintain that they are ultimately one.
Monism is the idea that the entirety of our universe is made up of one substance, known as the monad. If every tangible and intangible thing were to be reduced down to its most basic component parts, monists argue that we would be able to observe one distinct element that merely arranges itself in different ways to allow the multitude of forms of objects we see every day appear to be wholly separate.
Monists also put forth the idea that if our entire universe originated from one infinitesimal point in spacetime, everything, including both our physical and metaphysical selves, must be comprised of one singular substance.
Monists who believe that the physical and metaphysical can be equally reduced down to the monad are known as Neutral Monists; they are monists in the purest, most traditional sense. 2Mastin, Luke. (2008). Monism.
In the same way that apples and oranges are both comprised of monads at the most basic level, the physical and metaphysical are too comprised of the same essential substance. Thus, the physical and metaphysical are neutral in reference to one another because they are essentially just two different ways of organizing the same phenomenon.
Other monists disagree. Idealists believe that only the mind is real and that the physical world is merely a manifestation of the metaphysical world.
Perhaps this is the case. Perhaps our subjective perceptions of the physical world are the best representations of the physical world itself, and all that we observe objectively about the physical world is nothing more than the projection of Plato’s forms. Maybe we’re living in some type of Matrix or some shit.
On the other hand, Physicalists believe that only the physical world is real and that the metaphysical world is a manifestation of the physical world.
Most contemporary philosophers follow this line of thinking. It is thought that the universe was created some 13 billion years ago, life somehow began on Earth, creatures evolved into other creatures, and eventually us humans carved our existence into the third rock from the sun.
Our physical bodies as parts of this physical world, then, would have preceded our metaphysical consciousnesses that would later bloom as evolution took place. Our ability to perceive the world is a fairly new one in the grand scheme of abilities, and thus our metaphysical selves are merely representations of the incessantly firing neurons of our brains.
Although the disparities between Neutral Monists, Idealists and Physicalists seem great, they are quite small when simultaneously compared to ideals of Dualism.
But What Does This All Mean?
Fuck if I know.
The bottom line is that we can only know what we can perceive, and we can only perceive the physical world. Our perceptions may indeed manifest themselves from the metaphysical world, but we can’t perceive our perceptions, so the assumption that our perceptions are manifestations of the physical world (i.e. our brains) is the best assumption we currently have. (Does your brain hurt yet?)
So in a nutshell, monism seems to be the only appropriate way in which to come to any sort of conclusion regarding the Mind-Body Problem. Specifically Physicalism.
Because once you accept that Dualism is a flawed and irrational way of understanding the Mind-Body problem, any need for things like heaven or souls or gods go out the window. In the 21st century, we are perfectly capable of explaining phenomena without relying on illogical metaphysical systems.
The past few decades of research regarding the brain and how it functions are shedding new light on this issue, and perhaps in the next few years, this problem may be able to be reframed as a scientific one instead of a philosophical one. Maybe we’ll even learn a little more about the nature of consciousness and what it means to be conscious. That will sure as shit make it a little easier for me to sleep at night.
But in the meantime, we should be able to at least find some peace with this little diddy of information: our consciousness is not special.
Sure, we are unique as a species because of how we are able to perceive the world in a way that no other species can. And you are unique in that only you can perceive the world in the way that you do.
But your mind as a piece of the metaphysical world, your life force, your “soul” (for those of you still clinging to habitual terminology), is wholly unimportant at worst, and entirely disconnected at best. And it is not eternal in both regards.
There is no meaning to be sought and no answers to be found in the question of what we are to do with our consciousnesses.
There are no moral or ethical duties tied unto us upon the physical world that will allow us to reap benefits in some metaphysical one. 3This is not to say that we have no moral obligations, though. Just none that will benefit us after we die.
Any meaning we want to ascribe to our lives, to our consciousness, needs to be done so here, in this world.
Pinning hope on a long game of eternal life that will never come to fruition will yield nothing greater than a squandered life. We may be responsible for deriving our own meaning for our own lives, but that does not mean it isn’t still a damn shame to see someone idling by this world waiting for a train to the next one that will never come.
This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.
Tick tock motherfucker.
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