Existential crisis over consciousness and the Soul

Hello. Sorry if this the wrong place to post this, I’m new here. I have a bad anxiety disorder and I’ve been having an existential crisis over consciousness recently. I saw a reddit post discussing a philosopher named Galen Strawson. I don’t know much about philosophy or metaphysics so its hard for me to understand his views. What I gathered is he believes consciousness or self identity dies every moment and is constantly replaced. He doesn’t believe people are continuous beings but rather we live moment by moment in separate beings called SESMETs. The discussion on reddit talked about how consciousness only feels continuous because of our memories. Is anyone familiar his view on this or other philosophers who have a similar view? And is there any way to refute this idea? This idea really scares me and I’ve been having bad anxiety over it the last few days.

I’ve also heard some Christians believe consciousness and the soul are basically the same thing. Others say consciousness is only from the brain and the soul is separate. If consciousness is only from brain functions does that mean what we view as “me” dies every moment but we don’t realize it because of our memories? Sorry if this doesn’t make much sense. I’ve been having a really hard time dealing with this and any help would really be appreciated. I tried making a post on reddit and other forums but no one would reply. Thank you.

Also I found a couple papers that better express his ideas and tries to challenge them but I’m not sure if they success or not.

https://philarchive.org/archive/XUTNV

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/theo.12442

Here are the links if anyone wants to look them over. Thanks again.

From the perspective of a relatively conservative Bible believing Christian…

  1. I am very skeptical when what others tell me is not particularly logical. So in response to what you have obtained from Redit…if i were you i would see that response, that consciousness and self identity dies every moment, as a big red flag.

Here’s why…

Genesis 2
7Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being.d

The bible tells us that we remain a living being until we return to the dust from which we were created. I think this goes against any notion of cyclical death and resurrection on a moment by moment basis.

One of Australia’s richest men (the late Kerry Packer) died for a short time and those working on him managed to revive Kerry after i think from memory it was something like 7 minutes.

“The good news is there’s no devil. The bad news is there’s no heaven. There’s nothing.”

—Kerry Packer, speaking about the time he spent clinically dead after a severe heart attack (quoted in a Reuters News Service article on Dec. 27, 2005).

The Christian bible tells us…

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten .Ecclesiasties 9:5

When you sleep at night, do you have any memory of time?

Have you ever lost consciousness during your life (ie passed out for some reason)? Do you remember what went on around you whilst you were unconscious?

Have you ever been to a rock concert where they turned on the rotating mirror ball or a strobe light? (Its quite the experience for those who haven’t)

Ok, to cut a long line of questions short, the above i think starts to demonstrate where I am going with this…

If you died every moment, then i think that you would feel like you are inside a rock concert where the mirror ball/strobe light is on …life would be full of blank moments and logic tells me if i experienced that i would absolutely know about it even if i knew of no other type of consciousness in life.

Also, when we fall asleep at night, we usually do not realise that we have fallen asleep until we have woken up again…its when we awake that we realise we have been asleep. This to me is a significant observation that refutes the claim consciousness is momentary with death in between.

I know that one could argue “electrical impulses…death in between them” but that’s playing games i think.

I note that you said you are anxious about this dilemma…Im wondering why exactly? If you are worried about dying so often (ie moment by moment) two things comes to mind:

  1. if a moment was say a second and you were 30 years of age, that would be about 950 million seconds…you have died 950 million times and woke up again. Your body is therefore amazingly reliable doing everything it should and that’s absolutely bloody fantastic.

  2. I am Christian, not because I’m worried about not dying but because I’m worried about what happens AFTER i die (because i know one day i will kick the bucket). Wouldnt your anxiety be less if you worried less about dying and more about life after death?

For me its a rather simple equation (stupid for some, but it works for me)

I think of Two individuals, the atheist and Christian…

  1. If there is no God, both end up the same
  2. If there is a God, only the Christian will experience life after death

In the above, the atheist stays kaput in both scenarios.

Some argue that Pascals wager is stupid and doesnt consider other options for salvation. I would argue that unless one believes in a deity, its impossible to ever have life after death in any scenario.

I’m yet to find an atheist who claims any belief, and if they arent striving for something after this life, then they don’t seek an afterlife.

i cant see how i can be wrong on this because the only thing we know is that we will die, however, we have zero examples i think, where we can point to someone who has returned to us from the afterlife and said…“hey this is what comes next” and i wouldn’t call what Kerry Packer described as an afterlife!

A late thought…i would rather overthink salvation than overthink hopelessness.

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They are as Jesus would say, badly mistaken. Consciousness is a mystery, but there is no doubt that I am able to act. It’s fun to engage these types, like Susan Blackmore, as to whether or not they are able to act.

Consider 1 John, we know what we know based on eyewitness testimony “which we have seen with our own eyes,” prophetic testimony “it is the last hour,” and the self-evident testimony of the Spirit “by this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”

“I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you.”

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Thank you for your reply. I guess what I’m worried about is the next consciousness wouldn’t actually be me, I’d just exist for a moment then cease to exist. I know it doesn’t make sense. I’ve read most philosophers think we’d still be the same person even if this happened since we have the same brain or same soul. Strawson doesn’t believe in souls or a constant self from my understanding. I think he believes the self or consciousness dies many times every second, constantly becoming a new person and we don’t realize it happens because of our memories. I don’t believe this myself but I sometimes latch onto ideas like this and have a hard time letting them go. It makes me very worried and I feel like I can’t look forward to things anymore. I try to avoid reading about philosophy for this reason.

Hi, Jessica - and welcome to the forum!

Can you explain what about this idea appeals to you? Or not -“appeals” - you’ve made it clear that you don’t like it - but what makes you think that some random claim on a Reddit thread has any plausibility that it need be taken seriously? Even if it is apparently sourced by somebody with a philosophy degree. I know it’s too glib to just tell somebody ‘not to worry’ about something when they are actually worried about it. But maybe one way to help alleviate fear, at least for enough time to give your brain some breathing room to find traction and step back for a cooler appraisal done on your own terms and within your own understandings, would be to realize that many other voices, surely every bit as much qualified as this one, can and do make exacly opposite claims from their own wisdom and research and experience. And yes - one can still then just claim that it’s now just one against another as if they’re equals. But to me, if one of the claims is more outlandish, and not the view of a great majority of well-read and really intelligent people, then it is the outlandish claim that is in need of a whole lot of evidence. And without having read the papers you link, I’m betting his ‘evidence’ will be in short supply. Just as I’m not much disturbed by flat-earth claims just because somebody says so, even if they have impressive letters after their name. There is a lack of evidence to even take it seriously to begin with - so no need to waste time with all the stuff they may want you to read or argue with them about. It isn’t an equivalence situation.

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Thank you for your reply. That does make me feel a little better. I read that most philosophers think we are the same person our whole lives. I had worries before about philosophers who felt the self didn’t exist at all and I was able to get over that from you’re reasoning. So many people disagreed and said why. I think I’m really worried about this certain argument because its very obscure and I can’t find much information about it online. He also agrees that self and consciousness exists but doesn’t think its continuously the same observer, at least from what I understood. His books and papers are very technical and the papers I linked that discuss his ideas are also very technical. I have a hard time understanding what they mean. This confusion adds to my worry too. I know I shouldn’t worry about what so few people believe but in the back of my mind I sometimes think people may have found out something others haven’t but it hasn’t gain popularity yet. Because reading philosophy is so confusing for me, I was hoping someone here would have more experience with ideas like this or even know of Strawson’s ideas themselves and maybe ways his thinking is wrong. I understand if things like this aren’t often discussed here but I was ignored on philosophy forums and I don’t have anyone to talk about things like this to in person.

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That’s odd. The view that we are not capable of making choices is more prevalent. I wouldn’t give this person another thought like Mervin said.

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I tend to not worry too much over philosophical ideas, because they are pretty much just words. But, if You extend the analogy of that one to a plant, every day new cells grow and it changes and ultimately bears fruit. We do that as well, few of the molecules that make up our body are the ones we were made of at birth. And yet, we are both the same person and yet far different. Perhaps it is reassuring to know that we change and grow into something new and different, as it is tragic when we do not.

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I wouldn’t worry at all about these issues. From what I have seen, the soul is considered to be something mysterious and ineffable so I would be skeptical of anyone trying to make assertions about ties between physical brain function and the soul. I don’t think there is anything a neurobiologist could discover that would be problematic for the Christian view of the soul or the consciousness. As an analogy, it would be like judging the experience of having breakfast with family and loved ones by how the sausage was made.

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Thank you for your reply. I understand. I’ve seen a lot of people talk about the changes the body goes through and I think that the contents of the consciousness are constantly changing but we have something that continuously keeps us the same. Like the soul or brain itself. What has me most worried and a little stuck on mentality is an idea someone on reddit mentioned and I can’t find much information about. He stated: “The tricky thing is there’s no way to prove your consciousness is continuous. You can focus really hard and say okay I’m gonna focus on existing for 5 seconds and by the end you’ll go haha yes I had a continuous consciousness, I am still me. But how do you know that at the end of the 5 seconds you aren’t just a different person from the start but just with the memories of having focused for 5 seconds?” I know its just words and something a random person said but its really freaks me out. Is there anything wrong with his thinking or logic that would refute his idea? He also said the continuity is only an illusion from memory. He’s not a philosopher and has been worrying about this idea for years. I just hate even knowing about this idea and want to settle it.

Thanks for the reply. I’m not sure if I got Strawson’s argument right or not. His writings are very technical and he’s often vague. Like usually he’ll say only certain people view themselves as having an episodic conciseness or he himself has doesn’t feel continuous but I think he once augured that everyone is this way. I’m more worried about a statement from someone on reddit. He wrote: “The tricky thing is there’s no way to prove your consciousness is continuous. You can focus really hard and say okay I’m gonna focus on existing for 5 seconds and by the end you’ll go haha yes I had a continuous consciousness, I am still me. But how do you know that at the end of the 5 seconds you aren’t just a different person from the start but just with the memories of having focused for 5 seconds?” Basically the continuity of consciousness is only an illusion from our memories. It kinda goes along with Strawman’s view according to him. I think if that could be proven wrong somehow I’d feel a lot better because the other theories of self and consciousness are continuously me.

  • There’s proof, and there’s what Trump discovered last week in court: “Beyond a reasonable doubt.”
  • Existing and ongoing research at the Division of Perceptual Studies, University of Virginia,
    • " Scientific Study of Extraordinary Experiences
      Founded in 1967 by Dr. Ian Stevenson, the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) at the University of Virginia is a research group devoted to the rigorous evaluation of empirical evidence for extraordinary human experiences and capacities.
    • "The primary focus of DOPS is investigating the mind’s relationship to the body and the possibility of consciousness surviving physical death. In general, this process involves studying phenomena that challenge mainstream scientific paradigms regarding the nature of human consciousness.
    • “DOPS also studies the impact of these experiences on people, explores the implications for scientific theory, and disseminates this information broadly to both the public and scientific communities. It is our hope that other scientists join in addressing the serious study of the nature of consciousness and its interaction with the physical world.”
  • Sure looks like “There’s life outside the body” to me. Great video at: 0:00 Is There Life after Death? Fifty Years of Research at UVA

Screenshot 2024-06-07 at 12-11-08 Is There Life after Death Fifty Years of Research at UVA - YouTube

  • On top of that, those of us who claim to be Christians believe (or darn well, should believe) that Jesus appeared on the third day after his crucifixion and death:
    • 1 Corinthians 15:1. “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as ]to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”
    • 1 Corinthians 15:17. “…and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”
  • I could say more, but that’s all for now, … unless you’re interested in more…

outside of the bounds of the fundamental questions of Epistomology, i completely agree with JPM on this one. I would suggest that sometimes academics get far too intoxicated with their endeavours and start to get carried away when playing with the Freudian notion of “id”!

( According to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality, the id is the personality component made up of unconscious psychic energy that works to satisfy basic urges, needs, and desires .)

The above highlights the contrast between the the view that there is a spirit that survives death and the reality according to the scriptures…I fall back on Eccesiasties 9:

5 For the living know that they shall die : but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.

Thanks for the info. I’ve been thinking about souls and living on after death. Its been helping to comfort my feelings on this. I don’t think the ideas I described could happen if souls exist. I’m a Christian and believe souls do exist. I just have an anxiety issue and have a hard time letting certain ideas go. From a materialist view I’m not sure if consciousness could be dying every with memories being only sense of continuity like Strawson and the reddit post described. Someone told me since memories can’t be recalled instantly it goes against their idea. I also read that consciousness and memories wouldn’t be able to be separated. I think it was saying memories are contents of the consciousness. Do you and others here agree with these statements and think they could refute what I’m worried about? Sorry if I keep going on about the same things, I know it can be annoying. I’m just trying to find a way that will totally settle this in my mind which can be hard sometimes.

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First, does this guy have a biology degree, preferably at least an MS, that entitles him to be talking about consciousness? If not, well, my experience with philosophers is that there’s not much to philosophy these days except what qualifies best as “making stuff up” in order to have something to say, and the more shocking/disturbing the ideas the more traction they get (which is also an observation my favorite philosophy professor in grad school made years ago). Philosophy is really unhinged from reality as far as I can tell, so unless the philosopher in question actually has a degree in whatever area he’s sounding off about I consider reading the comics in a Sunday newspaper more rewarding and useful.

That said, from what I’ve read memory is holographic in nature, but making memories is discrete, i.e. happens in little bursts of neuron activity. Since our brains are made up of neurons, and neurons firing takes time, then our brains are sort of like assemblies of billions of little motors than proceed in run-stop-run-stop-run succession as opposed to running continuously. Where this fits with the holographic nature of memory is that the hologram is continuous but the “pixels” that comprise it get updated as our neurons fire. And since it takes time to do the updating, we in effect live a fraction of a second in the past – which is true about what we see and hear and otherwise experience anyway because synapses take time to fire.

I’m probably explaining this badly, but what it boils down to is that our conscious mind consists of those things that our brains consider important out of all that sensing and updating, which means that consciously we are unaware of most of what our brains are processing, but that doesn’t mean our consciousness flashes on and off since the hologram that is our mind is continuous.

And that totally neglects the issue of a soul – but since we have no way to detect, let alone measure, anything about our souls, all we have is conjecture.

Anyway, even if our consciousness is “choppy”, I don’t think that’s enough to say it turns on and off; I suspect it’s just a quantum phenomenon like so much else, due to our living in a quantum-grained universe, so even if it advances in click-click-click fashion I don’t see that it means it vanishes between clicks any more than we stop moving between our feet hitting the ground when walking.

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Thank you for your reply. I think he only has a philosophy degree. I also think I understand what your saying here and I may have read something similar that made me feel a bit better. Basically the continuous hologram is consciousness or pure awareness itself and the “Pixels” are memories or thoughts that we think of. Like what we think of as ourselves is thoughts, feelings, memories, etc and they live a fraction of a second in the past. But those things aren’t actually me, we have a pure mind or pure consciousness in the background that always stays continuous and is actually me?

It’s strange to think about what makes us who we are.

As far as I know we don’t know exactly how consciousness works, or how free will works or if
It even exists or how memories work. We have some ideas, but it’s not something really teased out and worked through in its entirety.

Consider things like when we get drunk, we may behave very differently than when we are sober. If we are on medication for some kind of disorder it can alter who we are. In severely traumatic events, it can reshape how we think in that fight and flight mode. Things like dementia can completely erase memories and change our behavior. Some people have had brain damage and it’s changed how they think and act. 

Free will is another very interesting thing. How many things do we just naturally seem to like or dislike. Most of us don’t choose what kind of physical traits we are attracted to or repulsed by. We don’t choose why we like chocolate over vanilla or why do some enjoy the flavor of anchovies and another hates it. One person things broccoli smells delicious with earthy tones and another thinks it smells like rotten eggs when being cooked. Some people are just “naturally” morning people and others are night owls. What made you like the music you like and dislike others? We know that nurture plays a role in all of this, along with some of it being biology with taste buds but some of it just seems to be inherently whose you’ve been since you were a kid.

One of the answers to these “instincts” can be seen in breeding and in epigenetic. Stray puppies will often still wag their tail and come to humans. Domestication. Not only have we selectively breed physical traits we like we also have selectively breed behaviors we like. Dogs that were nicer tended to be kept around more and their nicer puppies were and so on and so forth. So does the dog in the pound wag its tail because of free will and it choose to love you, or did it just instinctively feel a magnetic pull towards you and you instinctually want to pet it and give it treats and so this mutual instinct is manipulating both of yall but it’s ok. You like it. Which brings up things like why do we see some families running through with drugs. Kids of kids of kids of kids all drunks or addicts. Epigenetic also plays a weird role very similar to instincts. Studies have shown how what happened to a grandmother can naturally shape how the grandchild may be inclined to eat and so on.

So it’s odd to think how much is you by choice and how much is you because of natural selection, epigenetic and so on.

It can be frightening to some that we may just be robots running off of an operating system a billion years in the making.

As for the soul and spirit and what happens afterwards. We honestly just don’t know. There is zero proof that is demonstrable of someone knowing for sure there is or is not an afterlife or how it is. We accept it by faith. What’s interesting though is that in the Bible it seems to say that the soul means living body. The opposite of a soul is a corpse. Even animals in genesis called “living creatures” is the same word for soul. Spirit is also something that it says both humans and animals have and the same word for spirit can and is used as breath and wind. The Bible Project and Genesis Marks the Spot both talks about it. “Nepesh” videos for TBP.

Ultimately, whatever is the truth is beyond our control. It either is or it’s either not. Since we can’t control it despite it being concerned, best thing we can do is train ourselves to be less concerned with it and take thoughts captive.

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???

Major branches of philosophy are epistemology, ethics, logic, and metaphysics. Epistemology studies what knowledge is and how to acquire it. Ethics investigates moral principles and what constitutes right conduct. Logic is the study of correct reasoning and explores how good arguments can be distinguished from bad ones. Metaphysics examines the most general features of reality, existence, objects, and properties.

It is because of the area of Metaphysics in Philosophy that i have to seriously question your statement St Roymond.

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the basic structure of reality. It is often characterized as first philosophy, implying that it is more fundamental than other forms of philosophical inquiry. Wikipedia

inquiry into the conceptual schemes that underlie human thought and experience.

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