Monday, July 19, 2010

Know You Don't

Eagleman is quick to make it clear he’s not saying there’s a force X; he doesn’t want to be lumped in with the folks peddling New Age flakiness. He just wants to keep an open mind, which is what he thinks science is all about—extend the pier but don’t forget about the vastness of the ocean, expand what we know but remember that what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t know.

[...] Does that mean Eagleman-the-writer wants to believe that he has both a brain and a soul? How does he respond to the question, “Does David Eagleman have a soul?” He pauses again.

“So, I can answer that in two ways. I can tell you from my internal experience, and from my scientific training. Internally, I have felt as I’ve gotten older that I am not the same as my body, despite all of the neuroscience. How do I put this? What’s clear is that I depend entirely on the integrity of my body. As things in my brain change—if I were to develop a tumor, for example—that could completely change who I am, how I think. So I’m somehow yoked to my brain in a very strong way, and the question for all of us is, are we yoked to it 100 percent or is there some other little bit going on? From the inside, I have an intuition that I’m not just equivalent to my body. That said, intuitions always prove to be a very poor judge of reality. So, if you ask me, ‘do I have a soul?’ I would say ‘you know, I kind of feel like there’s something about me that’s a little separate from the biology.’ But I have no evidence for that.”

- KTB

Fair enough. I don't have a problem with what-if scenarios per se; I found Nietzsche's idea of the eternal recurrence to be a useful thought experiment, myself. At least he admits he has nothing to go on but a feeling to support his hope for a soul. And I think it's clear he does indeed hope there is one. I say that because most people don't spend much time passionately pondering possibilities that they feel are ludicrous on the face of it.

My mom is big on UFOs, ferzample. I don't recall who it was that suggested that the whole postwar UFO phenomenon was basically the attempt of a modern, scientific age to believe in the idea of a new type of higher intelligence taking an interest in us and watching over us to replace the old Bronze Age deities, but I think it definitely applies in her case. While I've always conceded that the possibility of extraterrestrial life is interesting, certainly, I've never been all that worked up about it. It seems obvious that most of the true believers are slightly mad or seeking attention, so my feeling has always been, well, when they land on top of the White House or in the middle of the halftime show of the Super Bowl, rather than abducting trailer park denizens to experiment on with strangely retrograde medical tools, then I'll pay attention. In the meantime, there's enough interesting stuff right here that we don't know much about, and my life doesn't change if I accept, deny or shrug at the possibility or likelihood of intelligent alien life.

The struggle between the brain of a scientist and the soul of a writer continues in Eagleman. Maybe the brain allows itself to imagine a soul in order to take the sting out of mortality of the brain. Maybe the soul allows the brain to pretend to be in control, secure in the knowledge that the soul is immortal.

Hard to say, but in the space between the materialist and mystic, anything’s possible.

Anything's possible. Today, I could meet the love of my life. Or maybe win the lottery. Perhaps it won't be pleasant, though; maybe I'll die in a freak auto-erotic asphyxiation accident. Or maybe the dumb bastard who veered off the road a month ago and smashed through my mailbox and the neighbor's fence before hitting the side of the other neighbor's house will do it again, only this time while I happen to be standing by the side of the road. Hell, we could play this game all day if we want to get creative; these are just mundane examples.

What's likely, though, is that, having already finished work uneventfully, I'll eat, sleep, read, work out and spend time online, like I do many days as a matter of routine. Of course I'm always aware that something unexpected could come up. But it's rare that something completely out of nowhere just barges into your life and throws all into chaos. There's a core pattern that persists and it takes a herculean effort sometimes to dislodge it.

And maybe we'll get lucky and we'll both live again
Well, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, don't think so

Well, you tell me what you saw and I'll tell you what you missed
You missed where time and life shook hands and said goodbye

You wasted life; why wouldn't you waste death?
You wasted life; why wouldn't you waste the afterlife?


The afterlife is another topic that's certainly interesting in and of itself, especially to see how concepts of it have changed so much over the millennia. But once again, when you see clearly how unlikely it is that primitive conceptions of the self (thoughts and feelings that magically exist independent of brains or sensory organs, possibly contained within a diaphanous spirit resembling the physical body) are still worth entertaining given what we do know about the body and the mind, it kind of takes the zest out of wondering if it's still a possibility somehow.

This sort of agnosticism - regardless of whether you brand it with a new name like "possibilian" - always strikes me as disingenuous. Of course we don't know everything, but we have no choice but to make do with what we've seen to work so far (and once again, sorry, there's nothing but wishful thinking to stand as evidence for these old cherished beliefs). No one can actually live and function in a realm of endless possibility; at some point, you just have to act, even though you'll never have all the relevant information pertaining to your situation. The pertinent questions are: what would you be doing differently whether you believed or disbelieved? And what about your individual existence is so vital that you think it should continue forever, and why would you even want it to?

1 comment:

noel said...

Also, it's precisely those things that we want to be true that we should be the most careful about. Belief in an afterlife is just an extension of the will to survive; it is, of course, a fantasy. To be fair, Eagleman says his mind is "yoked" to his brain, which pretty much means no afterlife. The bit that seems "separate" reminds me of the consciousness as flame analogy.