So there I am this morning, having a bit of a think about how ridiculously lovely my life is right now and generally feeling quite delightfully chipper, and my thoughts, naturally enough, turned to death and how we deal with it.
Yes, that is how my brain works. And no, it didn’t spoil my good mood.
What I was thinking about is what of us survives after we don’t, and how to frame that in a very real, physical kind of way. Bear with me with this, because I think it’s a good one. By the way- none of this is a thing I can back up with a single citation or reference. It’s just how I think about it.
I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife. I also believe that even if there is an afterlife of some sort, the fact that it’s quite doubtful means that we should life this life as if there was nothing else*. Carpe-ing the diems like there was no tomorrow, that sort of thing. However, recently I’ve been thinking about the nature of what it means to be an individual, and how much of our actual selves does survive the cessation of our consciousness.
I am my brain, but I am more than just my brain. My brain is an expression of my genes and environment, which are themselves created largely by the expressions of other brains. My brain doesn’t exist in and of itself- by its existence it, by necessity, changes and creates the world around it. That’s what brains do.
Some of these effects** are more direct than others. My arms and legs and toes and eyes and mouth are things that I experience as being part of myself. I am intellectually aware that I could have most of those amputated and survive perfectly well, with no discernable difference in the nature of my consciousness bar a growing sense of irritation, but that’s not how it feels. And nothing of them would be what it is were it not for my brain. The processes that create my brain create, by extension, my currently full stomach and my slightly tired legs from cycling, the shape and strength of my muscles.
In a similar way, the same could be said of the world around me, and around you. It’s not just that we create change in the world around us. It is that those changes are fundamental to our existences, they are as important and as intrinsic to the processes that create us as are the patterns and connections in our brains. Our actions are part of us. They are us. And our actions not only alter our environments, and our own brains. They alter the brains of those around us. The things which make us who we are- our genes, experiences, environment- create patterns in those around us as much as they create patterns in ourselves. They may not be experienced as our own consciousness, but they are, nevertheless, ourselves as much as our hands and our toes and our livers.
We are not just our brains. We are our relationships with other people- these are real, physical and concrete things which alter not only what we do, but what we are. And as anyone who has lost someone they love is far too aware, those relationships carry on after us. Have you ever imagined conversations with lost loved ones? I sure have. Have you ever realised how much of your preferences, your feelings, your most ingrained reactions are things which were created by the people around you?
I have a scar on my chest. It’s about an inch tall by two inches across. I’ve had it since I was around two years old, when I got under my granny’s feet as she was picking up a pot of potatoes in boiling water. I’ve always loved that scar, but I could never quite work out why- when I was younger it just felt like a thing that was mine and mine alone. More recently, it’s become something a bit more. Even though she is dead, that scar is a visible, tangible reminder that there are ways that she was, there are patterns of hers which exist in me, and in the many others who knew her. Her actions continue to exist. While most of them are less visible than scars on my chest***, they are no less physical, tangible, and real.
And that is kind of lovely, I’m sure you’ll agree.
*I’m the agnostic kind of atheist. I do not believe in any gods/afterlives/etc. I also don’t have any positive belief that there aren’t any. I see their existence as unlikely, and besides, largely irrelevant to how I live my life. Supernatural dudes with big sticks don’t get to bully this argumentative, uppity biznitch, I’ll tell ya that.
**affects? I have a blind spot for effects/affects. It’s quite irritating, for someone as picky about grammar and accurate communication as myself.
***without very expensive scanners of brainses. Which may not even exist yet. Medical tech is not my area!