Meat jockeys ride again and again

A tiny person sits in a movie theater inside a human head, watching and hearing everything that is being experienced by the human being. An illustration of the Cartesian theater. By Derivative work: Pbroks13 Original: Jennifer Garcia (Reverie) (Image:Cartesian Theater.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons Soul, Self, Consciousness, Mind and Personhood may not be the same thing, but they are the same kind of thing.
  • They all refer in one way or another to the essence of a person.
  • They are all of the same nature: they’re immaterial ie non-physical.
  • They all do the same job: they’re meat-jockeys, riding embodied brains.
  • And they’re all immortal*, at least in theory (unlike the body, which can’t keep it together after death).

To a duellist the mind doesn’t matter, it’s immaterial. Instinct and intuition are critical in a fight to the death where there’s little time to think. Also immaterial is the soul. There’s little love or joy or oneness when you’re piercing eyeballs with a rapier. The body, on the other hand, is very material to a duellist: you can’t duel without one. In fact, you can’t even duel with one: only two will duo. Duellists understand how one opposes another, which equals two.

Opposition implies two-ness, duality. Dualists** believe that there are only two kinds of stuff, matter and non-matter, in the whole of Reality including but not limited to the material universe. In contrast non-dualists believe that Reality and every thing in it comprises only one kind of stuff. For some non-dualists, what matters is matter (which is equivalent to energy, per Einstein’s equation) and people are nothing more than walking sacks of meat. For other non-dualists, what matters is consciousness: they believe that Everything, and every thing in it, is pure consciousness.

Many people insist they are conscious but deny they have a soul. They insist that they have a mind, that they can and do think. But they can’t accept that the domain in which their thoughts exist might also be the perfect home for such other immaterial things as souls, selves and personalities.

Many people insist they have a self, that there is such a thing as the self, the boss, in charge of body and mind. But are you really the boss of you? Maybe you only think you are. (Maybe you only think you is. Maybe you is not.)

Maybe there is no one single boss of you, no-one in charge permanently. Instead, bits and pieces of you get together and form alliances to take temporary control for as long as they can defend their right to rule against all other contenders. According to some, there is no “central meaner”*** whose job it is to create and maintain the meaning of and in your life. There’s no homunculus, no little man in the control room of your brain, turning levers and flicking switches.

Homogenous, monadic selfhood is an illusion. Selves are never found on their own within a person, but only ever in the company of others, mainly fractional others: sub-selves. The politics and governance of the mind involve fractions and factions of selves constantly battling each other for control. And when they do get control, it’s only temporary. Every self and sub-self up to and including the CEI, the Chief Executive of I, is employed on rolling short-term contract. All permanent staff members were made redundant ages ago, early in human evolutionary history.

Or so they say.

Another argument against the existence of self, is that “you” are always changing. In other words, you never stand still for long enough to be you.

Your physical body is not the same from moment to moment: old cells are dying and new cells being born all the time. Nor is your mind ever the same from moment to moment: new thoughts, memories, emotions and understandings are constantly being born, often replacing or modifying earlier thoughts, memories etc. You are not who you were yesterday, or who you were when you were born. When you say “I’m not feeling myself today” you’re not talking about a failure to masturbate (a very self-ish activity!). You’re talking about a gap, or a barrier, between who you think you are, and who you think you have been.

Consciousness and self are different aspects from different perspectives of the same underlying thing. If self is a pattern, ie static, then consciousness is a process, ie dynamic. And what goes for self goes for consciousness: there is no homogenous, monadic consciousness permanently residing within a person. For one thing, most people experience a big break in consciousness every day, when they go to sleep. And when they dream, they experience a different consciousness or type of consciousness.

And just as the illusion of a singular self is built on a slippery base of sub-selves, unitary consciousness is an illusion constructed out of bits and pieces of consciousness, fractional and factional, including sub- and super-consciousness (neatly corresponding to the Freudian “id” and “super-ego”, or “higher self”, kinda’!).

But there’s a problem: how do they all stick together for long enough to form a cohesive, monadic consciousness that persists over time? It’s called “the binding problem” because the neuromancers cannot explain how datasets from different parts of the brain bind together to form an integrated, holistic consciousness (whatever that is, if it exists, terms and conditions apply).

The binding problem is “…the problem of how the unity of conscious perception is brought about by the distributed activities of the central nervous system”**** and it arises because some aspects of reality are processed in some parts of the brain, and other aspects in other parts of the brain. We’ll look at the binding problem in more detail a little later. I don’t have a solution to the binding problem other than to suggest that a little more logic might be in order: If cohesive monadic consciousness is an illusion, if it doesn’t exist in its own right, then what’s the problem?

Maybe consciousness doesn’t exist in its own right, as a first-order phenomenon. Maybe it’s “simply” a so-called epiphenomenon of a wholly material universe — a footprint not a foot, a shadow not the thing that casts the shadow. Well I don’t know. But even if consciousness is “simply” a “mere” epiphenomenon, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If consciousness is an illusion, it’s a real illusion: There really is such a thing as the illusion of consciousness!

Does consciousness continue after death? Does self continue after death? I don’t know the answers (though I do sometimes claim to know!) but I know they are two different questions. Continuity of consciousness after death and continuity of self after death are not necessarily the same. The continuities are discontinuous.

To me, self seems manufactured, synthetic, artificial. In contrast, consciousness seems “natural”, “organic”, “unmediated”. Self is a collaboration between individual humans and the society/culture in which they are embedded. Consciousness is a collaboration between the brain and reality.

Nor are selfhood and personhood the same. In my time I’ve met one or two relatively self-less persons (present company excluded) but I’ve never met a person-less self. Maybe nothing is not a person or part of a person.

Life-after-death vs reincarnation is another discontinuity. The reality or otherwise of reincarnation does not affect or depend on the reality or otherwise of life-after-death. Neither concept is a prerequisite for the other. They’re not mutually dependent. I can’t imagine how the number of incarnations could make any difference to whether or not life continues after death. The possibility (or impossibility) of uploading consciousness to a computer, or to a disembodied brain-in-a-vat does not depend on the number of incarnations associated with that consciousness.

The terms “consciousness”, “life” and “mind” are equivalent and interchangeable in the context of what happens after the death of the physical body. To examine whether a life can continue in another body is to examine whether a mind can continue in another brain is to examine whether a consciousness can continue in another person.

And just as life or mind or consciousness can in theory continue in the absence of reincarnation, so too can reincarnation take place in the absence of continuity, i.e. souls can reincarnate without continuity of consciousness. Or so they say. Most people have no memories of past lives. Or is it that most people don’t remember their past lives?

And finally, just to complicate things, there’s spirit, which is thought by some to be not the same thing as soul. But let’s not go there for now. My head hurts.

Soul, self, consciousness, mind and personhood may not be the same thing, but they are the same kind of thing, and they all work in the same kind of way.


*The potential immortality of mind relies upon whole brain emulation (WBE), a concept that in theory involves encoding consciousness into data. WBE has not yet been achieved in reality, but there’s nothing in principle that disallows it. In theory, once a person’s mind has been encoded, the data could be uploaded to a computer. The data could be uploaded any number of times to the same machine, or to multiple machines in parallel (simultaneously) or in series (“rinse and repeat”!) for all eternity — or at least a bit longer than three score years and ten. According to Wikipedia (28th February 2015, WBE is “…the hypothetical process of copying mental content (including long-term memory and “self”) from a particular brain substrate and copying it to a computational device … The computational device could then run a simulation model of the brain information processing … The simulated mind could be within a virtual reality or simulated world ... Alternatively, the simulated mind could reside in a computer that’s inside (or connected to) a humanoid robot or a biological body.”

**Dualism according to Wikipedia (27 February, 2015, is the view that “… mental phenomena are … non-physical, or that the mind and body are not identical. … Dualism is closely associated with the philosophy of RenĂ© Descartes (1641), which holds that the mind is a nonphysical substance. Descartes clearly identified the mind with consciousness and self-awareness and distinguished this from the brain …”.

***The term "central meaner" is the invention of philosopher Daniel Dennett. The term is used, with extensive discussion, in Dennett's book, Consciousness Explained, first edition published in 1991.

****Revonsuo, A.; Newman, J. (Jun 1999). "Binding and consciousness."


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mgeorge said...

Imagine you are one of the billionaries now involved in similar projects. You have done the copying and are about to cross over. Your trustworthy underlings who preceded you to onlinehood or robothood say they feel normal, except for specific physical inconveniences. Copying is one thing but shutting down the old body goes against every instinct, unless one is in very bad shape. Yet, the longer you wait, the more your brain deteriorates, and diverges from that copy. There is also the little matter of neurons outside the central nervous system. Surprise: there may be as many neurons outside as inside - though I have not come across confirmation on this.

You would have ensured that your pet legislators gave that copy full human rights. What if someone activted it while you were hesitating?

masterymistery said...

Hi mgeorge, difficult and penetrating questions indeed. What are the indispensable components of a person? You can lose a leg or an arm and still claim with some justification to be the same person you were prior to the loss. Except for the fact that all of your cells will have been replaced in the interim. And who knows what memory is. Anyway, lot's to mull over -- thank you!