What quackery is this?! Is your pronoun going to be “that”, or is “that” already taken? No woo-woo here, folks. I’m not saying I don’t have a shape, color, or gender, or that those things don’t have importance, I merely point out what should be so obvious that everyone takes it for granted. It is our minds that make humans exceptional among all living organisms, and it’s what we do with them after we are born that truly matters. However, in the 21st century, we’ve woken to discover we are merely the body, and our core identity was defined before we were born. Curiously, according to this belief, we find ourselves with little or no agency to self-determine who we are. On the contrary, I believe that at our core, we are the self-determining agency itself, and that is both our freedom and our burden. The soul is an excellent metaphor for the invisible thread of sentience that maintains continuity throughout our lives (even as most the cells of our bodies are completely replaced) and witnesses our every action.
Oddly, in my lifetime, there’s been an ongoing, concerted effort to eradicate the concept of a (literal or figurative) soul, and this includes arguments against free-will; attempts to expunge certain religious beliefs; and the more recent insistence that we are defined by race, gender, age, nationality, and culture, all of which share that they are external forces we have no control of. We are assumed to be almost entirely conditioned by biology and circumstances: we are merely along for the ride. Some scientists will even argue that consciousness has no purpose, and is just an after-effect. All of this is shooting ourselves in both feet. Surely we are the fully conscious, thinking, reasoning, imagining mind that experiences and remembers; makes choices; makes plans; and acts in the world. We are responsible for our actions and our decisions, and I suspect part of the resistance to acknowledging our free-will, or the notion of a governing soul, is a desire to shirk the perpetual burden of responsibility and accountability.
In this way we appear to liberate ourselves to do whatever we want, right or wrong, and may go so far as to say the only crime is getting caught. We may believe that we can do no wrong ourselves because anything we do is a consequence of our subjugation by the ultimate wrongdoing of an oppressor. But to the degree right or wrong are relevant, ones true judge and jury is oneself, in any and all circumstances. No matter how minor a part we may find ourselves playing, or how few options are available to us, we can’t evade the perpetual necessity of making decisions and acting. Any act is meaningful, as it reflects on the quality of our shared nature of being an actor. A single movement of a pawn can win or lose a game of chess. We might say that it’s our duty to make the most of whatever situation, and we can’t escape being part of a greater whole which we compromise by being weak or self-defeating. The worst hand can be played brilliantly, and it is better to be the brilliant player than to have merely been dealt a winning hand.
On Trusting Your Own Mind
At 55, I’m old enough that I don’t defer to authority. I’m discovering, to my surprise, which individuals are younger than me, as I tend to assume famous, influential, or powerful people are older. Joe Rogan, I recently learned, is younger than me. Damien Hirst is my same age. Being older that 55 isn’t an advantage over me, either, because I’m clearly old enough to have my own opinion and frame of reference. On top of that, I was never one to yield to authority.
When I was in high school my favorite band was Gentle Giant. The only other person I knew who listened to them was my best friend, who I introduced them to. Everyone else was listening to AC/DC, Rush, Van Halen, and whatever was on continual rotation on our two Los Angeles FM rock stations: KLOS and KMET. I knew a keyboardist who liked Emerson Lake & Palmer, which was a bit out of the norm, but in keyboard circles they would be admired. There was no internet to confirm the greatness of Gentle Giant: no external affirmation of what I could hear with my own ears. I discovered them by buying a used record in a sleeve — there wasn’t even an album cover — and putting it on my turntable. I was the direct judge of the music, and didn’t care what anyone else thought; that none of Gentle Giant’s songs were ever played on the radio; or that none of my peers had ever heard of them. It was the most interesting, complex, challenging, intricate, and thus satisfying rock music I’d discovered. They were also the weirdest and sometimes, initially, the most irritating.
[The following is the first song of theirs that really hooked me.]
There’s a funny thing about Vincent Van Gogh that I think people miss. We think he was crazy not just because of the ear incident, but for staking his life on the obsessive pursuit of paintings that were ridiculed as clumsy and ugly. The problem here is that he knew what he was looking at, and what we would all come to discover. The village idiot, out getting heat stroke in the wheat-fields, hopelessly slathering paint on canvas, was creating paintings that were so vibrant, luminous, and energetic that they would become a permanent fixture in art history. There is an element of discovery and excitement in realizing imagery nobody has seen before: the same enticement that explorers will sacrifice their lives for. When we consider that this fascination with what he could uncover with his own brushes spurred him on, and that he was aware he was creating phenomenal paintings, his sacrifices seem less crazy than simply a matter of necessity.
If he wasn’t out at night making a spectacle of himself — painting with burning candles mounted on his hat so that he could see — the Starry Night would never have materialized. Here’s my favorite of his nighttime paintings:
Was it madness to make this painting, or would it have been madness not to? Would it have been sane for him to have remained as an assistant in an art gallery where he worked as a young adult, and to have maintained a comfortable existence, with his evenings free to indulge in whatever entertainments or distractions?
How did he know his paintings were great? How was he so sure it was all worth it? As plainly evident as it is to his true admirers today, it was to him, but coupled with the thrill of the paintings unfurling before his eyes at the tip of his fingers. To capture the night sky reflected in water, while painting outside, and to make the dark colors brilliant, and then to carry it home and admire it indoors by lamplight, must have been glorious.
And so, Vincent is, for me, a bright, shining example of being true to your own internal compass, trusting your own eye and mind. Yes, he may have been more than a little mad, and may have even driven himself to it. But to invent a fresh, potent, and gorgeous style; to develop and manifest his personal vision; and to do this in concord with a profound understanding of human civilization and the human condition, required a great depth of clear, brilliant sanity.
The soul as metaphor
No, I’m not talking soft-headed, wishful thinking, spirituality for bored housewives here, folks. Au contraire. We’ve lost something in abandoning the notion of a soul, because it’s an excellent metaphor for the immaterial consciousness. We’re guilty of being overly materialistic, to the extent where we conceive of ourselves as bodies with minds instead of as minds with bodies. We’ve come to define people by their DNA. Race and gender are now all important. People will preface what they are about to say by qualifying it with the fact of their DNA, “As a woman of color…”. And yet, if you were burned in a fire to the point where you were unrecognizable, and you’d even lost limbs, you’d still have your identical mind.
The body is a set of circumstances the mind endures (or celebrates). This is not to say that the mind isn’t dependent on the physical brain for its existence. We only see evidence of consciousness where there is an advanced, living, biological brain (which is also why conscious AI, with its own volition, is unlikely). However, the essence of the conscious mind is not material, hence the old phrase, “mind over matter”. There is no contradiction in recognizing that the immaterial state of consciousness is wholly dependent on the physical body. A flashlight is solid, opaque, and can’t fly: but it can create a beam that illuminates its surroundings, soars at the speed of light, and can pass through glass. In the same way a simple flashlight can create a beam of light which is entirely unlike itself, so can the most complex biological brain create an immaterial self-awareness.
Imagine if you suddenly found yourself in the body of a preying mantis. What would be the most important trait that distinguished you from other mantises, or insects in general? Would it be your sexual organs? Your carapace? Your diet? Whether you could fly or not? Or would it be that you were self-aware, could think, imagine, and deliberate? We’ve ended up defining ourselves and our fellow human beings in the same way we define insects: by their bodies at birth. And so you find yourself a fully conscious, rational, preying mantis, who thinks in English, and you have convinced yourself that your most important trait is whether you are a green or brown insect.
If that analogy was too far fetched, let’s go with a more established sci-fi scenario. Your brain is transplanted into another person’s body, and vice-versa. Pick someone of a different race and gender. Now, which person are you? Are you your old body with a stranger’s brain in your former skull? Or are you where your mind is at, in the new body, with all your old memories?
This is not to underplay the societal barriers placed on, exploitation of, and persecution of people because of their biology, or what is associated with it. To begin with, most such social crimes are based on the belief that some biological types are inherently inferior, possess certain deleterious qualities, or are automatically guilty. If we conceive of people not as fixed bodies, but as invisible agents, then not only does it not make sense to suppress or harm anyone else, it’s the reason to oppose practices that do, as well as the reason we can overcome such obstacles if given the chance.
Those of us that have started to get a bit older may marvel at how we’ve lived as long as we have, and through so many different chapters. A little surprise is that even as the body ages, if one is healthy than the mind doesn’t especially. You may find that your aging body doesn’t represent who you are. Are we the same person we were when we were 18, or 12, or 6? Which body should we identity with? Was I most essentially me at 30, or at 18, or now, at 55?
Which is the real William Shatner?
His body has completely transformed, but he’s the same individual.
When I think back to my teens, it’s odd to imagine that that Eric and the one writing this post are the same person. Fortunately, I saved all my childhood art for a very long time, and photographed or scanned most of it (especially as it may all now be landfill). When I look at an old drawing, the connection between me now and the teen me becomes more seamless.
The ballpoint pen drawing above is from 40 years ago, when I was 15 or 16 years old. See the long, slender pipe in the back? I can still recall the decision to make it partially covered, and to put those rectilinear gaps in it. I’m planning to recreate this vehicle in Blender.
Below is something I completed last week.
What continues? What is the thread between the 15-year-old and the 55-year-old me? While many cells regenerate within 7-10 years, it turns out that the gray matter of the cerebellum remains with us since we were two years old. Almost every cell in my material body, with the exception of that gray matter, is not the same. In effect, I have undergone a brain transplant. If we want to define ourselves by our physical person, and for that physical being to have continuity throughout our lives, then we are all essentially only our gray matter. That gray matter, though, independent of a changing body, is mere sludge. People who preface what they are about to say by stating the fact of their relevant physical embodiment, would be more precise if they said, “As an amorphous blob of gray matter, I maintain that …”.
Obviously, you aren’t a schmear of hideous grey cream cheese. You aren’t the same physical matter you were 50 years ago, or 5 years ago. You aren’t what you outwardly appear to be. You aren’t what everyone else sees. You are what you see. You aren’t the objective physical thing: you are the subjective immaterial experience. You are the movie you watch on the inner screen of your consciousness. For anyone else to truly see you, they’d have to be able to watch that same movie running in the theater of your inner mind. You are not the proverbial cover of the closed book, but the contents of the words contained within.
If your brain were transplanted to another person, what would then matter most is what you would do from then on. What decisions would you make, and how would you behave in the world? How would you manifest your inward reality?
Which is the more accurate and important depiction of Hieronymus Bosch? Is it the posthumous sketch of his visage made in 1550, or just a detail of his depiction of hell, from 1995-1505?
The former is the external perception of him. An alien species of superior intelligence, if they were to visit our planet and discover only this drawing, wouldn’t know that the animal depicted wasn’t just a pet who its owner clothed for amusement. But if they saw Bosch’s painting, they’d know that whoever or whatever created it was conscious; intelligent; imaginative; deliberated on right and wrong; and lived in and thus could depict a vast reality teaming with sentient beings.
And this is where my browser went into some twilight zone of perpetual auto-saving that never finished, and the rest of my essay was lost. I don’t want to rewrite it, because my “rants” are fairly stream of consciousness, and I can’t recreate the flow (though I did go back later and edit what I’d already written, but hadn’t lost). So, there’s a big chunk missing, but some new additions and clarification.
And so I will leave it off here. I’ve probably said enough. I’ll just include a couple more images I produced, which were part of additional paragraphs.
I probably don’t need to spell it out, anyway. You can intuit the rest on your own. The gist was that it’s far better to think of people, including oneself, as an invisible agent than as a glorified zombie. I was going to tie in thinking for yourself, and being a soul, to the self-preserving necessity of resisting narratives that define you by your biology, which places false limitations on the scope and capacity of our humanity. That might have gotten a little political, so it may have been fortuitous that an internet fluke killed the second half of my essay. It’s enough to remember that one is an invisible actor, who is not defined or limited by biology, and that every actor and every act matters. Whether the pawn or the king is moved by the grandmaster* chess player, it is the grandmaster who made the move. You are not the pawn: you are the grandmaster. It’s up to you to play like one.
- Grandmaster is a familiar term for the best chess players. Think of a black belt in karate. My use of the term is for convenience, and has nothing whatsoever to do with masters of slave plantations, or gender, or any social hierarchy. Everyone, regardless of biology, or other circumstances, is the grandmaster.