"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.