36 Me, my Body and I: Part 2

To begin I want to dwell for a minute on Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the human personality. It’s a secular formulation, not surprising as Freud was an atheist. I’ll get to more religious formulations in a bit but Freud shows how personality can be conceived as being made up of three ‘parts’: the id, or libido (sexual energy), the ego, and the superego. The ego, in this scheme of things as I understand it, is the part of the personality where the needs of the id and the superego are negotiated and worked out. The superego is that manifestation of the human personality that accounts for social norms, values and morality. The fact is that the id, ego, and superego are not really ‘parts’ of the human personality, but manifestations of the various and often contradictory needs inherent in the id and superego. In other words, they are not things and can only really be identified by what they do or manifest.

For example, the id of a young man (I can attest from personal experience) may be consumed, or at least, pre-occupied with thoughts of sex, sex and more sex. The superego, on the other hand says, wait up there cowboy, you can’t have sex with anyone or anything at any time. There are social rules around these things. Listen up! NO sex with your sisters, brothers, or your mother, nor with sheep, goats, or monkeys! You hear? The id counters by arguing: well, what am I supposed to do with all this energy? You tell me I’m not even allowed to masturbate! That’s not fair! In these ‘debates’ sometimes the id wins, more often the superego does. There are people who have no social conscience or social ‘brakes’ to their behaviour. We call them psychopaths or sociopaths. People with rampant, out-of-control ids can be very dangerous as sexual predators and can be uncontrollably violent. Freud’s scheme has to be considered along with other aspects of what it means to be human such as bodily integrity, intelligence, and upbringing. Personality is very idiosyncratic if you haven’t noticed. It’s all very complex but it’s what accounts for our individuality.

What Freud’s personality scheme does for my purposes here is to highlight the fact that we can easily conceive of our personalities made up of semi-independent parts. This idea is integrally important to the religious, spiritually-minded, and Christian (certainly) notion that we are made up of body, consciousness, and soul, different aspects of us that are related but have a life of their own, so to speak. To think of the soul as immortal, it’s critical to separate it from the body which dies although some religionists, especially Darbyists* (who would probably find the 1991 film Rapture right up their alley), would prefer to go to heaven with their bodies intact. Rapture (the film) depicts end-of-time second coming of Jesus and the ascension of the human body and soul to heaven. Some religionists are very keen to see their physical bodies live eternally but they’ll settle for their consciousness or soul carrying on after their bodies die.

This is the position of Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish Basque scholar who was for a long time the don of Salamanca University in Bilbao. I introduced you to Unamuno in one of my recent posts. I refer to Unamuno here because he is such a keen advocate for the immortality of the soul. He published The Tragic Sense of Life in 1920. It’s a rambling poetic rant and an impassioned plea to realize the limitations of reason in coming to grips with the most important problem he reckons facing us all and that is the immortality of our souls. For Unamuno, the longing for the immortality of our souls is what makes us human. He writes:

“That is to say that you, I, and Spinoza wish never to die and that this longing of ours never to die is our actual essence. Nevertheless, this poor Portuguese Jew, exiled in the mists of Holland, could never attain to believing in his own personal immortality, and all his philosophy was but a consolation which he contrived for his lack of faith. Just as other men have a pain in hand or foot, heart-ache or head-ache, so he had God-ache. Unhappy man! And unhappy fellow-men!” (from “The Tragic Sense of Life” by Miguel de Unamuno, Kindle Edition, page 43)

According to Unamuno, except for a few minor and aberrant individuals and groups, humans have throughout history consistently believed in the immortality of the soul. That commitment and longing for immortality that is at the very core of our beings and is effectively an instinct of perseverance as Unamuno sees it is our membership card in humanity. If we don’t believe or if we insist on finding a logical, reasonable explanation for the immortality of the soul then we are evil, wicked people who refuse to be a part of the human community. Unamuno can surely be called a hero in the social imperative of death denial. He finds atheists and non-believers of all sorts abhorrent. “If consciousness is, as some inhuman thinker has said, nothing more than a flash of light between two eternities of darkness, then there is nothing more execrable than existence” writes Unamuno. Life, for Unamuno is absolutely meaningless if the immortality of the soul is not the prime human fact and goal. Unamuno is very keen to separate reason from life. He says reason cannot prove one’s immortality, only life can, and it’s a question of faith. The soul has primacy in Unamuno’s scheme of things and is his ticket to immortality. Interestingly, he’s not as concerned with the existence of God as he is in his own immortality.

A more contemporary aficionado of the immortality of the soul is Ram Dass who just died recently. He believes that the soul must exist and it must be immortal because otherwise our earthly lives are meaningless. He writes:

“To be here for fifty to eighty years only to be annihilated at the end just doesn’t make sense. Nothing else in the universe is that inefficient. We have to be here to learn; otherwise our difficulties are truly meaningless. For the Ego, the roles we grow into and the positions we hold at the pinnacle of aging are the culmination of life. For the Soul, learning is the culmination. When we expand our self-image to include the Soul, we notice a marked shift in our personal consciousness, a liberation from the small egotistical self into a far more spacious context. From this Soul level, we are able to view our Egos from the outside in. This allows us to observe our minds and bodies in ways that will seem new and surprising, as if the trapdoors of the “self” have been opened and we can finally step outside, enjoy the view, and put a welcome distance between who we are (from Soul’s perspective) and the suffering we experience at the level of body and mind. Thus, with practice, we cultivate the tremendous healing of knowing ourselves as spiritual beings, too.” (from “Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying” by Ram Dass, page 28)

Well, I see a lot of problems with Dass’ non-sequiturs to start off . Why doesn’t it make sense that we are annihilated at the end of lives? And ‘nothing else in the universe is this inefficient’? What kind of silliness is this? Efficiency as a criterion for the immortality of the soul is ridiculous. Dass would be much better off just borrowing arguments from Unamuno than putting forward illogical ‘reasons’ for the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, he argues that we can see ourselves from “this Soul level”. Magical thinking indeed! But Dass appeals to a large audience of people intent on believing that when they die, they don’t really die because their souls carry on into eternity. I can seriously say that I’ve explored the implications of this idea through years of study, introspection and meditation, including, like Dass, the use of hallucinogens. Frankly, I just don’t see the point in adding a fictitious construction called the soul to our personalities. In a way (and I’m sure I’ll get up some people’s noses for saying this) it strikes me that believing in the immortality of consciousness or the ‘soul’ requires a great deal of collective narcissism and chutzpah. Where do we get off thinking we’re so special under the sun that we get to live eternally and no other life forms do? Note that I write ‘collective’ narcissism. As individuals we have no reference other than social ones to decide what to believe. We can be the humblest of individuals yet still be trapped in the overarching cultural imperative for apotheosis via immortality.

Of course I DO argue that in a sense we DO live eternally, just not in our current human configuration or through the ‘soul’. I know that I’m now a long way from discussing myeloma and my daily grind under its treatments. That is so. However, it’s important for me, as I approach my inevitable death whether it happens in six months or ten years, to clarify my point of view. There’s a certain amount of catharsis going on here, no doubt. Most people want to live forever. Not me. I’m perfectly happy to see my consciousness evaporate when my heart stops and at that point all the atoms and molecules that made up my body will be free to go. Have fun, little buddies!

In the third post in this series coming up shortly, I reflect on the works of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker. Both worked as social scientists. Durkheim died in 1917, Becker in 1974. Both had a lot to say about the soul and the sacredness of society as a source of the personal sense of immortality. Both have played a large part in my intellectual life but Becker sticks with me much more viscerally than the cerebral Durkheim. Both argue in their own way that the power of religion lies in society.

Stay tuned.

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* “Though Darby may have burned his bridges, his message gained a larger and larger following. Today his dispensational premillennialism is the view of many modern fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals.” From: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/pastorsandpreachers/john-nelson-darby.html

35 Me, my Body and I: Part 1

I’m quite attached to my body. Frankly, it is a long way from perfect, but I’ve grown fond of it over the years and have become increasingly tolerant of its idyosyncracies and foibles. It’s served me well in lots of ways. One special way it’s done so is by helping to create my two daughters thus ensuring genetic continuity for me and Carolyn. It can’t take a lot of credit for that, Carolyn having done most of the heavy lifting, but still, there were moments of joyful participation in the magical process by which my daughters were conceived and born.

Now, however, my body has decided that it’s getting time to move on. It seems to be quite relentless in this idea. My body has an intelligence of its own, as does all life on the planet. It’s not going to sit still. Life is about change. I’ve pretty much come to grips with dying. I understand it intellectually and am now in the throes of living it. Death is an ultimate form of disengagement from the world for me (I), but in another sense it’s just another form of re-engagement for all the atoms and molecules that make up the complexity of the structures in my body.

For me, as I’ve noted before, we are the stuff of stars. Translating that into language closer to home, it means that the material that makes up my body and all life on the planet has always existed and will always exist as long as the universe is around to sustain it. According to Brian Cox, the universe itself is finite so all bets are off as to what happens to matter and energy in billions of years when the universe itself is worn out and darkly still. For the moment, however, we can say that the universe is the ultimate driver of life on earth and anywhere else it might exist in the cosmos. “Life” here needs to be conceived in very broad terms and not just related to biological organisms. Galaxies can be said to have a life span, mountain ranges and continents too. Nothing is forever. Nothing.

There are two aspects of myself that are of interest to me for this discussion: what happens to my body after death and what happens to my consciousness. These are no longer arid philosophical considerations, they have never been closer to home in a real visceral sense for me, and are mobilizing all of my intelligence and emotional energy.

Without sounding too arrogant, I think I have both of those pretty much figured out after fifty years of study, thought and introspection. As far as my body goes, it’s quite simple, really. I’m a big proponent of simplicity in the search for solutions to life’s problems. That means that I adhere to the philosophical principle called Occam’s razor, or the idea (without being too simplistic) that the simplest solution to a problem is probably the best.

“Antoine Lavoisier described the law of conservation of mass (or the principle of mass/matter conservation) as a fundamental principle of physics in 1789.” That formulation was followed later by the law of the conservation of energy and later still, after Einstein, by the law of the equivalence of mass and energy or the idea that mass can be transformed into energy and vice-versa, but neither can be lost in the process. Bringing this idea down to my level, it is my sense that what makes up my body has always existed and always will, giving me a real sense of connection with all life on the planet and a very real sense of continuity with all life, past and present, including with my ancestors. Put simply, when I die, my body and all of its constituent elements return to the pool of raw materials available for the construction of new forms of life, as I’ve noted before. I can’t emphasize enough the notion of continuity here. In the face of my immanent annihilation, I take solace in the notion of my intimate connection with life in the cosmos and as part of an ongoing process of life. That still leaves me with a problem. What about my consciousness?

I think that my consciousness, when my heart stops beating, will no longer exist in any way, shape or form. Why should it? My consciousness is organically tied to my body and cannot exist without that living connection. Break that connection and the light goes out. So, in anticipation of my death, I may mourn the loss of consciousness above all. That doesn’t mean that I think it has any means or justification for existence beyond the demise of my body. Remember Occam’s Razor. I see no need at all for any supernatural intervention in all of this, something I think is unnecessary given the perfectly plausible and simple scientific explanations available to explain life and its continuity. It seems I’m probably in a minority on this one.

Now, if I were to write a play based on what I’m going through at the moment, I would surely incorporate as a basic plot line the plethora of imaginative constructions (ideologies) that argue that consciousness does not die with the body, but has a life of its own and goes on ‘living’ after the heart stops and all brain activity ceases. I’d have to put my own ideas of continuity up against the age old ideas of the perpetuation of consciousness beyond bodily death. I can envision a Waiting for Godot or My Dinner with Andre type of play. Frankly, I’m perfectly content with the idea that my consciousness will not outlive my body. It’s the simplest and most elegant solution in my mind although it has some serious social implications that I need to explore next. However, in the play I envision, proponents of the immortality of consciousness and/or the soul would need to have their say.

It’s not a huge stretch to go from the perpetuation of consciousness after death to the idea of the soul and its existence independent yet connected to the body and its survival post-death. The ethnographic literature is full of descriptions from ancient cultures about the role of the soul in human life and its immortality. Sociology addresses modern versions of this idea. It seems that for millennia, humans have been loathe to entertain the possibility of total and absolute death and have been, across the board, wedded to the idea of the immortality of the soul even more than they have espoused the existence of God or any other supernatural force. Thousands of religions and their associated churches or societies have come up with often contradictory ideas related to the makeup and activities of the soul and its place in the universe. These contradictions have often been the source of violent confrontations and pogroms, because if my idea of how to get to heaven is the right one, yours has to be wrong and I’ll kill you to show how much more powerful my conception is to yours. These are ideas I need to explore in part 2 of this post.

Stay tuned for part 2 which I’ll release on Sunday, March 8th.