“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant On What Consciousness And Selfhood Might Be

“I think the soul is something like a rainbow. It is not a thing in itself, it is a relationship between physical things. The most important of these things is the body, and under all conditions we understand by evidence are possible, the soul dies with the body and sometimes expires before the body.”

This was said by Eric, in a comment in the Daylight Atheism post Emptying the Haunted Air. It struck me very strongly as both beautiful and true, and it crystallized a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately re: consciousness and selfhood. So I wanted to quote it and talk about it a little.

First, I should explain what Eric means about the rainbow. I’ll just quote him again:

“Without science we might have mistakenly believed a rainbow is a thing just independently out there. It is not. A rainbow is a *relationship* between an observer, a light source, and water vapor.”

In other words, a rainbow isn’t an object or substance. Not in the same way that, say, the sun or rain are.

Yet it exists. Sure, it’s essentially a relationship between light and water and an observer — but that doesn’t make it not real. It’s not an object or a substance, but it is real. It’s an actual phenomenon, one that can be observed and studied.

And the same could be said for consciousness, and selfhood. (What Eric calls the soul; although I don’t like to call it that, since the word has strong metaphysical implications that I don’t like.)

I think a lot of people are troubled by the idea of consciousness as “merely” a product of the brain. I certainly was during my woo phase. And not just because I was frightened at the idea of the permanence of death, and desperate for some hope that my consciousness and selfhood might somehow be immortal. It troubled me because it seemed so reductionist, so mechanistic. It seemed to reduce the ineffable amazingness of human existence to a set of biochemical stimulus-response machines. Lumps of meat in a massive Skinner box; dogs salivating at the sound of Pavlov’s bell.

In other words, it made it seem not real.

Whenever I heard or read the idea that consciousness and selfhood were constructs of how the brain worked, it made them seem fake. Illusions, self-deceptions. Stories we told ourselves in order to live.

But now I don’t think that’s true.

The rainbow is essentially a relationship between light and water vapor and an observer. But that doesn’t make it not real. And if consciousness and selfhood are essentially a relationship between the billions and billions of neurons in our brains — and between those neurons and the rest of our bodies, and arguably between our bodies and the rest of the world — that doesn’t make them not real, either. It doesn’t mean that consciousness and selfhood are fake, or illusory, or self-deceptive. They are real constructs of our brains and the rest of our bodies, every bit as real as emotions and ideas and sensations.

Now, while the constructed nature of consciousness and selfhood doesn’t mean that they’re false, it does mean that they’re transitory.

And that, we’re just going to have to suck up.

Because the evidence is overwhelming that consciousness and selfhood are products of the brain. Everything we know tells us that physical changes to the brain chemistry and/or structure — even very small changes — can make radical changes to our consciousness and selfhood. Illness, injury, drugs (recreational or medicinal)  all of these can drastically alter consciousness and self, even eradicate them altogether, temporarily or permanently. Talk to a stroke victim, a person with Alzheimer’s, a depressed person on medication, a club kid on Ecstasy, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. And of course, the greatest physical change of all — death — seems, from all the evidence we have, to completely eradicate consciousness and selfhood, very permanently indeed.

(Don’t talk to me about near-death experiences. I’ve gone over that at length elsewhere in this blog. Near-death experiences are simply another form of altered consciousness, and if they do sometimes produce an unusual state of mind, it’s no more unexpected than the unusual state of mind produced by sleep deprivation or LSD. Near-death experiences may tell us something about what happens to the mind when the brain is temporarily deprived of oxygen for a couple of minutes. They tell us absolutely nothing about what happens to the mind when the brain permanently rots in a grave for years until it crumbles into dust and nothingness.)

The evidence is overwhelming, and it’s increasing every day: Consciousness and selfhood are not independent objects or substances. There’s no metaphysical energy, no aura, no invisible self leaving your body on death to ascend to Heaven or burn in Hell or move on to inhabit another body. Consciousness and selfhood are products of the brain and the rest of the body. They change when the body changes, and they disappear when the body dies.

But that doesn’t make them not real.

It doesn’t make them illusions or self-deceptions.

And it doesn’t make them meaningless.

“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant On What Consciousness And Selfhood Might Be

15 thoughts on ““A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant On What Consciousness And Selfhood Might Be

  1. 1

    Well said. I think that the hardest thing for me to accept as an atheist was physicalism, in my case because of the ethical consequences of monism, rather than the loss of self. This resistance continued up until I was thirty because of my fear of determinism.
    I eventually had to realize that it was inescapable to someone who respects science, and I let it go. It was probably the most unmooring feeling I’ve had in my life. After a while, it wasn’t difficult to accept that determinism is a part of our lives anyway. I’ll still pick chocolate over vanilla ice cream any day of the week, given the choice, because my brain is wired for the chocolate happy-land.
    The real ethical questions are about freedom and coercion, and the quandries are still very rich.

  2. Lee

    Excellent post. Getting over the fear of death or, to be more precise, the fear of the dissolution of my identity was the biggest and last hurdle I faced when I was transitioning from a place of weak belief to fairly strong atheism.
    I remember reading a few articles about Phineas Gage and other people who had experienced a total change in their personalities as a result of frontal lobe damage and realizing how fragile our identities truly are. It was what made me realize that my identity, my life, was important yes and as real as anything can be but it could all change or end in an instant and there was no ‘after’ to count on so I better make the most of it.
    Finally coming to terms with it made my life more meaningful, not less.

  3. 3

    I have recently been thinking about the same thing! It took me only 26 years to get it. Have we been victims of Christian brainwashing? =D
    Can anyone answer me this:
    What supposedly makes souls so great and the existance we know so worthless?
    Soul would have to be part of some great magical system and exist in some sense. Right? But the same thing is true for the physical brain.

  4. 4

    I’m actually not sure what the difference is between a rainbow and a physical body. Eric says that the soul, like a rainbow, “is not a thing in itself, it is a relationship between physical things. The most important of these things is the body.”
    I would say that the body, too, is not a thing in itself but a relationship between physical things, organs, chemicals, atoms. When you get right down to it, nothing is as solid as it seems. And perhaps that is what Buddhists mean by illusion.
    Illusion doesn’t mean that the thing doesn’t exist. The atoms do exist. And the relationship among the atoms, which creates the experience of the body, does exist. Illusion means that perhaps things are not as solid and individual and separate, ultimately, as we perceive them to be.

  5. 5

    Wow. Interesting thought.
    If it’s real, it should be amenable to observation. Someone smarter than me could probably think of an experimennt that would reveal information about the nature of this idea of consciousness.

  6. 6

    The second half of Dan Simmons Hyperion series (Endymion and Endymion Rising) deals with very similar issues. I won’t spoil it, because everybody should read it, but it goes into a lot of what makes up our idea of the soul, and is very humanist in its execution.
    Plus its got some cool sci fi sex scenes in it.

  7. Ben

    For me, it’s like this:
    Our ability to, for instance, feel love might has a biological component (to put it mildly). It is the product of our evolution. It certainly confers certain benefits on our ability to pass on our genes.
    That doesn’t make love less real.
    It makes love more real.

  8. G

    Oddly enough, Aristotle had a similar idea of the soul, which he saw as being an active relationship amongst the parts of a thing. Despite the fact that medieval Catholic scholars willfully read all sorts of nonsense into his writings, Aristotle’s conception of the soul was of a mortal, entirely embodied, relational nature.
    In other words, everything old is new again…

  9. 9

    Great post. I always had a hard time with the use of “soul” yet believed in one on Earth. That is, the essence of who you are. But the immortal implications are enough to never use the word. The idea of an immortal soul living forever is just selfish! But a relationship… thanks to you and Eric for putting it this way.

  10. 11

    This is a good post, and I too agree with it… but I can’t help but wonder if it is that “relationship between things” we theists are referring to when we talk about the soul.
    I know, I know, I know – you want me to stop trying to interject God into science. I am nothing if not a devils advocate. Sometimes, it’s far too easy to disagree with someone, just to learn latter that the disagreement was a matter of semantics. This is sort of how I view the disagreements between Atheism and Theism (reasonable Theism – not radical blind faith) – we say the same things, but use different language.
    Regardless, what I would like to say is that I find the analogy of consciousness as being like the relationship between water, air, and light that creates the rainbow. Really good stuff. 🙂
    – John

  11. 12

    It all seems self-evident, with just one reservation. If I were sitting back with eyes closed, headphones on, completely absorbed in the Ninth Symphony, and you were to interrupt me to ask, “Is Beethoven alive?”—-
    somehow I would hesitate to give an unqualifed “no.”

  12. Tim

    Very well wrought.
    I like how you invite us to get “insight-mileage” into the ontology of consciousness by considering a humble rainbow. I, too, like to look for insights by examining pedestrian things, before swooping towards the ethereal–in this case, the nature of consciousness.
    “Sure,” you write, “[a rainbow]’s essentially a relationship between light and water and an observer — but that doesn’t make it not real.”
    I wonder, though. “Rainbow” strikes me as an expression with more than one meaning here. I think we can tease two of the meanings apart via a simple query:
    “If there were no conscious observers, would there still be rainbows?”
    Unless I’m mistaken, I think the most complete answer is, “Yes and no. (1) Yes, the electromagnetic fields–the physical substrate of rainbows, as it were–would still exist. But (2) No, the technicolour experience we associate with (which is caused by) those electromagnetic fields would no longer exist.”
    As I’m sure everyone will guess, the same equivocation is the “punch-line” of the old saw, “If a tree fell in the woods, and no one were around to hear it, would it make a *sound*?” Parse “sound” physically, and the answer is ‘yes’; parse “sound” sensually, and the answer is ‘no’.
    But isn’t there a disanalogy between rainbows and phenomenal consciousness, in the following respect? Consider:
    (a) These colour-sensations are how such-and-such electromagnetic waves *appear to us*. The electromagnetic waves are what color *really* is; versus
    (b) These pain-sensations are how such-and-such neural fibre-firings *appear to us*. The neural firings are what pain *really* is.
    The latter claim sounds ‘odd’ in a way that the former one doesn’t. When I drop a hammer on my foot, I don’t just feel an *appearance of* C-fibers firing, or an *appearance of* pain. No, ma’am–I feel *pain*, simpliciter. *Real* pain.
    The above, anyhow, is how I’ve tried to explain Thomas Nagel’s points to myself (from his essay “What is it Like to be a Bat?”). For his part, Dan Dennett has some intriguing remarks, trying to finesse this puzzle, in his essay, “Quining Qualia.”
    I remain quite perplexed, meself.

  13. db

    Wonderful analogy!
    Tim, lots of things that are not material objects exist independently of any consciousness. Like the temperature of the sun, the circle or the number five. Phenomenal consciousness can exist independently of consciousnesses other than itself in the same way. Qualia is what the rainbow of the mind looks like from the inside point of view.

  14. Tim

    db, I certainly agree with your first sentence–Dennett always lists “centers of gravity” along with numbers and temperatures. I don’t think I can deny these items’ mind-independent existence without sounding like a follower of Berkeley’s Idealism. That wouldn’t be prudent. 🙂
    Your last two sentences, I think, restate the bedrock point which divides Qualiaphiles and Qualiaphobes. I’ve never seen a Qualiaphobe who would disagree with them (Paul Churchland, Dennett, etc.) But I’ve never seen a Qualiaphile who would grant such a phrasing (John Searle, David Chalmers, Nagel, etc.)
    I use a grammatical analogy to explain this “Qualia Divide” to myself. Friends of qualia like to describe the situation this way:
    (1) *There are* facts about vegemite: some of them are physical facts (e.g., its consistency), and others are phenomenal facts (e.g., *what it’s like* for us to taste vegemite)
    (I borrow this example from David Lewis’s “What Experience Teaches.”)
    Qualia’s friends take the quantifier, “there are” tearfully seriously: there are these first-person phenomenal facts which need reckoning. Problem is, say Nagel et al, is that the phenomenal facts refuse to be *reduced* to any collection of physical facts. There’s always, as they say, an “explanatory gap” between the base of “Third Person” neural facts, on one hand, and “First Person” phenomenal (or intentional) facts, on the other.
    Foes of qualia, on the other hand, would prefer to render the situation described by (1) this way:
    (1′) We can learn facts about vegemite in two ways: via impersonal empirical inquiry or *via conscious experience*.
    This way of rendering the issue suggests that, as your last sentence points out, consciousness is less misleadingly rendered, not as a *noun* or *adjective*, but as an *adverb*. On this view, consciousness just gives us a different *way* (a first-person way, via “the inside point of view”) of accessing the same facts which we can also access in a third-person way.
    On this view, then, a brilliant neuroscientist who experiences pain for the first time on Tuesday doesn’t come to know any*thing* s/he didn’t know on Monday. S/he just encountered the same facts via a new (conscious, first-person, “inside-view”) perspective. (Yes, I’m stealing Frank Jackson’s famous example of “Mary” here.)
    The problem is, friends of qualia insist just as mightily that our envisaged neuroscientist *does* learn some*thing* new.
    Despite years of acquaintance with this “divide,” it’s not obvious to me how we can defuse this standoff, short of just “casting our lot” with one side, or the other.

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