Existential crisis over consciousness and the Soul

Thanks for reminding us what philosophy actually is, Adam. It’s something that I think we often lose sight of in discussions such as this. There is a core of rigorous analytical thinking at the heart of it, as you say. Unfortunately it isn’t always well taught (or even taught at all) in schools, and I think that’s a shame.

I think that what @St.Roymond is talking about here is the tendency of modern philosophers to add a layer of what appears to be complete crackpottery on top of the rigorous analytical core. That’s where you get things such as postmodernism coming from, for example.

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They don’t examine anything but their own thoughts – if you want to examine the “basic structure of reality” you become a particle physicist; it you want to examine consciousness you become a biologist.

Metaphysics is just conjecture in a fancy suit.

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Among other things.

I was mostly thinking about how philosophers will read of some research and act as though the concepts were theirs when they’re just riffing off people who really do study things.

Also that in the final analysis Descartes showed us the limit of what just human thought can tell us about reality when he stated “Cogito ergo sum”, “I think: therefore I am”. Our own thoughts can know nothing for certain beyond our own existence; beyond that it’s necessary to invent postulates that can’t be proven.

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I made an (only partially tongue-in-cheek) comment yesterday about how philosophy is “the most practical of all possible degrees” - because it is literally … about everything. My son responded (maybe with something he’d heard in his own turn) - that historically, all the subjects of philosophy (or … natural philosophy) that turned out to be practical got spun off into their own fields of study and departments. So that what’s left of it now is just the stuff that didn’t!

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This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered that thought. My professor in History and Philosophy of Science held that the only philosophy that remained relevant was the sort he taught, thinking about other fields.

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Apparently Galen Strawson is a panpsychist - thinks consciousness is everywhere. I don’t see how that fits with episodic consciousness. It seems that the first Buddhists believed in episodic consciousness but the idea was later given up. If you yourself experience consciousness in a continuous (albeit changing) way, then I would say that’s good enough. I don’t think Strawson speaks for many others - I certainly haven’t found it. In my opinion you can set this odd idea to one side. Have a good meal with some friends and enjoy yourself!

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I cannot really help with your existential crisis because you don’t say exactly what ideas you feel are threatened. I certainly see no reason to credit the ideas of this philosopher (just a philosopher, who can say just about anything). I think consciousness is a basic feature of all living things but highly quantitative. All living things are not equally conscious but all collect information about both their environment and themselves in order to respond to it. Of course this is ultimately a discrete process with each bit of information which is collected. But I do not understand why this discreteness is a problem for you.

I do not believe this. I think consciousness is a mostly physical phenomenon. I don’t think “the soul” is a Christian idea at all but comes from Greek philosophy and other religions. I believe in the eternal spirit, a product of our choices, and the principle question is whether it is alive or dead. Either it connects to source of life in God, or it is devoured by its own self-destructive habits.

I do not say this. Consciousness is a property of all living things. Though the animal’s nervous system and brain is a vast increase in consciousness over living organisms without it. But I don’t think it stops there. Human beings also have a mind - a self-organizing construct in the medium of language and the consciousness this gives us is vastly greater than what we have from the brain alone. But again I see no reason or evidence to bring anything non-physical or spiritual into this. I don’t think the evidence supports the idea of a non-physical puppet master controlling our actions.

I believe in the spirit but I think the role of the spirit is something quite different – but perhaps continued existence is a big part of it. It is not that I have a problem with the idea of nonexistence – sounds great to me, too good to be true frankly.

??? That sounds like a rather strange definition of the word “dies” to me.

Perhaps the difficulty is simply giving too much significance to time or rigidity in your understanding of it. Physicists don’t believe in absolute time anymore. We know your measure of time greatly depends on your physical circumstances – and thus we all have our own personal measure of time. But in that case there is no reason why you should expect or worry about some external time where your consciousness does not exist. All that really matter is the continuation of your own personal time, and there is no reason why that cannot skip or jump relative to some other measure of time. Frankly this is a frequent human experience with the loss of consciousness for various different reasons. For example, jumping from before surgery to afterwards with nothing in between.

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I think your right. I might have got his arguments wrong. What I’m still a bit worried about is the Buddhist idea. It seems some people are still running with that idea including some atheist philosophers and some neuroscientists. Basically the self isn’t real. They say we have no self or entity that is always the same behind our thoughts, memories etc. Instead we are just our constantly changing minds that only exist in the present and won’t persist in the future. It doesn’t seem to be common view but its just a scary idea to think about.

I’m a bit worried about the Buddhist idea of no self. It seems some people are using this idea and building on it including some atheist philosophers and some neuroscientists. Basically they say the self isn’t real. They say we have no self or entity that is always behind our thoughts, memories etc. Instead we are just our constantly changing minds that only exist in the present and won’t persist in the future. Some say we evolved this way and it was beneficial for us to feel like we are permanent entity when its actually an illusion. It doesn’t seem to be common view but its just a scary idea to think about. Is there any way to know for sure we have a real self or entity behind our thoughts and feelings?

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I think that there is so much that is fishy in Buddhist doctrine (which exists in many forms) that one shouldn’t worry about it. They also believe in zillions of rebirths. Christian (and Jewish and Moslem) teaching is of just one life. This seems very reasonable. The Christian teaching is of body, mind and spirit, and all are real and interconnected. (Since the body exists continuously, the other components presumably exist continuously too.) I woud encourage you to follow the Christian teaching, and especially to focus on Jesus in the gospels. Jesus certainly taught nothing remotely like the Buddhist teaching you mention. We have it that God loves us and so since God is permanent, so presumably are we.

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Some people think the Earth is flat, but I don’t worry about dropping off the edge of the Earth.

What I know is that I feel like a person. My experience of life sure seems like a continuous thing. That’s good enough for me.

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I don’t think this is a belief in Buddhism that there is no such thing as a self, but a strategy of meditation to achieve detachment which many believe is helpful in attaining enlightenment.

Seems to me people jump on this idea of not being real for all kinds of things. I frankly think they don’t have a clear idea what they mean by “real.” (perhaps what they should say is just that these things may not quite be what many have thought – which seems all too likely anyway). What is that line in the movie Matrix?

“What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

In other threads we talk about objective reality which I argue we have excellent evidence for in science for the existence of an objective reality even if it isn’t directly accessible to us.

Perhaps a good answer to those denying something is real is to say we have even more cause to challenge the very concept of reality itself. If there is no reality then the claim that the self isn’t real has no meaning anyway. Perhaps the point here is that there are many things like “self” and “reality” which are difficult to define clearly and it is easy to have definitions or ideas about them which make them meaningless.

I like the idea of Kierkegaard that philosophy which is out of touch with our experience of human existence is meaningless and a waste of our time. And both self and free will are such fundamental human experiences we have good cause to throw philosophical approaches which deny them right out the window as garbage.

I think this is similar to the fear people have when they think that death is the end of our existence. Personally I think the fear of nothingness is irrational and so I suspect this fear of nonexistence is largely a matter of ego. And many think letting go of such ego is a valuable thing to do which is why the Buddhist try to do this.

As for the spirit which I believe in and which is the answer to both of these (self and continued existence), there can be no proof or objective evidence. But perhaps I have let go of that ego which makes this scary to think about and so the idea of being wrong about the existence of an eternal spirit doesn’t bother me so much.

Hi Jessica,
Welcome to BioLogos. I understand struggling with anxiety. Try to keep in mind, though, that ALL concepts about God, the Soul, consciousness are human concepts. Don’t regard any human explanation or conception of anything as fact. It isn’t, it’s just people’s thoughts and ALL people’s thoughts are limited and, thus, missing something. Only God’s thoughts are not limited.

But there are some unequivocal things we can say about the soul.

One, it is not material and is not dependent on physical form. This is the case in the Bible, but also in many other cultures that have a concept of the soul, particularly those of India.

Two, it is eternal, neither being born nor dying, although—according to Jesus—being destroyable by God (and only by God).

Three, because of the first two, it is unknowable by us, at least while we are in this world, because in this world, we can only know what we can detect, which is limited to material things.

Whatever the soul actually is, we cannot know. Our cells are constantly dying and being replaced. We know this for a fact. The body you inhabit now is not actually the same body you inhabited a year ago. None of the cells of your previous body are in your current body. Yet, this change happened without anyone’s awareness. We only know it happened because we’ve studied cells and learned how they exist.

Yet, even this replacement of your body has been going on for as long as you’ve been alive, you body has been constant and continuous through all that time. That’s because it isn’t particular cells that make your body what it is, but rather the patterns of their organization and activities. Imagine if you made a lego figure and then replaced one of the white rectangular pieces with an identical rectangular piece. It would still be the same figure, right?

That’s how it is with our bodies, and I can’t say that there isn’t some equivalent thing happening with our souls—something along the lines of what Strawson claims. I believe I can say, though, that if there is, this is as irrelevant to the eternal continuity of our souls as it is to the continuity of our bodies.

I’m highly skeptical of Strawson’s claim, though, because in the case of the body, as i said above, the constant replacement of cells is NOT a constant replacement of the body. The body is not changed by this. It seems to me that if there is some equivalent thing going on with our souls, that our souls also would not be changed by this. They would remain eternal, because whatever it is about them that is changing, is NOT what makes the soul what it is and eternal is what it is.

I hope you find this helpful.

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Well, you have to define “real.” What makes something real?

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Hi Kevin, while I haven’t looked into it very much, I am aware of a fairly significant view within protestant and possibly catholic theology that rejects the eternality of the soul.

My own view, in a round about way, understands that I am contingent in being, but neccesary with respect to my acting.

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Buddhism is about learning to see through the false self of the ego (a construct we all develop in the first few years of our lives) to the real self, which is what most would understand as the soul; that is, non-material and eternal. But the great benefit of spending some time with Buddhism is what it reveals about the nature of the mind and our perceptions of things. It is a shame, IMHO, that so many Christinas regard Buddhism as a pagan religion or something, which it is actually a form of science; Matthieu Recard calls it a contemplative science, which to me is appropriate.

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How does the Bible support a view of the soul as not being eternal?

I don’t know off hand, but I can look it up.

What do you see in the Bible saying it is?

I think there is considerable difficulties and confusion between what the Bible actually says and is clear about and what is actually from other sources. I am skeptical regarding what is sometimes translated as soul in the Bible which people are taking as references to the concept in Greek philosophy and other religions. I don’t think the original text is referring to anything of the sort.

The most clear part of Bible on anything like this topic is 1 Corinthians 15 which is about resurrection, which it says is a bodily resurrection to a spiritual/supernatural body not to a physical/natural body. And it is pretty clear about the physical/natural body coming first and the spiritual body second. It is also clear that while the physical/natural body is weak and temporary (perishable), the spiritual body is powerful and imperishable. The first being made of dust (the stuff of the earth) and the second being of heaven.

And then there are problems with what is reasonable to believe in light of our scientific discoveries. The idea of a non-physical puppet master controlling the body does fit the evidence. So the popular ideas of the soul as some non-physical thing controlling the body and moving around apart from the body is not such a reasonable understanding of the Bible.

My biggest issue is with this idea of some nonphysical thing being what makes people alive or a person. What makes us alive and a person is what we see right in front of us and how it works and not some woo woo magical otherworldly entity of some kind.

Very well said. Whether regarding the body or the soul what we are is not a thing and the tendency to see us as something fixed and constant is a holdover of the physicalist mindset. Unfortunately I think that mindset is as active among Christians as it is among nons.