I want to thank my good friend, Nick, who inspired me through his post hereon how networks and the self emerge. When I first began writing my response to his article I did not think it would unleash the torrent of writing it has. So, there’s going to be at least three parts to my reaction. The first will be a reaction to the article he cites, the second to thoughts on interconnection and the Soul Matrix inspired by the NPR article and his post, and the third will be a response to his post itself.
It got me thinking on how I relate to these things as a Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheist.
To go into the first part where he explores NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture Blog article,“Is Neuroscience Rediscovering the Soul?” I can tell you that, no, neuroscience is not rediscovering anything. Further, there is nothing adverse or knee-jerk about presupposing that the soul, or as in the Northern Tradition, parts of the soul are numinous. If anything, I find it deeply irritating that a science blog would lead with such a clickbait headline.
Neuroscience is not really here to tell us anything in regards to spiritual experience or spiritual phenomena. The science is not equipped to. It can test claims and show what spiritual experience and phenomena express in terms of our reactionto them, but until and unless there is a method and way to measure, say, spiritual force or a way that science may identify the soul or soul parts, there’s not much use in this article using the word soul itself.
Now, to be sure the questions the article raises are worth thinking about.
But what if we revisit the definition of soul, abandoning its canonical meaning as the “spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal” for something more modern? What if we consider your soul as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?
However, I see no reason to revisit the definition of the soul. There are plenty enough words within our language to express and understand what it is that neuroscience is digging into without muddying theological orscientific waters with the understandings we have emerging from current scientific research and thought. To abandon the notion of a soul as something other than physical is not a threat in and of itself. My hugr, or thought, the part of my Soul Matrix that will stop upon my death because my thoughts will stop, will cease to be. However, my hugris not all I am.
Certainly, if we consider the the soul “as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?” then my hugr, my munr (memory)and possibly my lich, my body,would beall that I am. It denies the other parts of the Northern Tradition and Heathen Soul Matrix.
This boils down the soul itself to a purely materialist concept, dispensing entirely with the numenous. It may make the concept of the soul more palatable to ‘modern’ people, but it is poor theology. It is like saying “All I am is my cells.” While strictly true in a physical, materialist sense, it belies the creativity with which I write, the life I lead. “What of my mind and my individual will?” for example, is a concept poorly explained in such a system. If indeed we have any notion that we are other than living in a mechanical, purely material universe, then this notion ignores our will, and the mind itself. If the concept of the soul merely boils down to “You being you is merely the result of your genetics, and the way your brain is formed and wired”, then it not only neuters the understanding of the soul, it outright destroys it. What use is the word soul at all if the meaning behind the word is rendered other than what it means?
The author of the piece goes on to think about aging and the prolonging of life through the uploading of the ‘soul’.
Can all this be reduced to information, such as to be replicated or uploaded into other-than-you substrates? That is, can we obtain sufficient information about this brain-body map so as to replicate it in other devices, be they machines or cloned biological replicas of your body?
These questions are among many thatscience fiction has explored and looked into for quite a while. The anime classic The Ghost in the Shell explored the implications of these questions quite well, as did The Matrix.While we may not be able to do so now, soon or even in the far future, I think there are a set of powerful questions that we ought to ask, among them being “Should we?” and “What do we potentially lose in such a process?”
This would be, if technologically possible, the scientific equivalent of reincarnation, or of the long-sought redemption from the flesh — an idea that is at least as old as organized religions in the East and West
Again, this is the problem of science trying to take over ideas in religions. If science fields want to take words or concepts from religion, or if science bloggers want to take religious concepts out of their element and try to apply them to science, then there needs to be a clear reason to do so. The author’s assumptions only work if we accept the notion of the soul purely as a result of physical, material phenomena. Since I do not accept a purely material view of the soul, and the use of the word soul has no place in the field he’s talking about, then thinking about the soul in this manner, and reincarnation or redemption from the flesh simply does not make sense. What he is describing is transference of consciousness from one mode of life/living to another. There is no need to try to take the word soul, no need to grasp for religious words and concepts. There’s plenty that work for the phenomena he wants to talk about without appropriating religious words.
Further, he is not even accurate. The redemption of the flesh is a Christian concept because Christianity views the body as being full of, or potentially full of sin. Transfering one’s spirit into another body would not stop such a theological view, nor would it resolve the sin the Christian is hoping to remove through accepting Christ as their Savior.
However, it becomes pretty clear to me why he is using this kind of language, and trying to twist religious language to suit these concepts, as soon as the next paragraph comes up.
Well, depending on who you talk to, this final transcendence of human into information is either around the corner — a logical step in our evolution — or an impossibility — a mad dream of people who can’t accept the inevitability of death, the transhumanist crowd.
Transhumanism is “The belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.” Many of its central features sound a lot like Rapture-based Christianity: there is a coming moment or series of moments where we will Transcend this flesh, but through Science rather than Jesus. All ills can and will be cured, but instead of through faith in God, it is faith in and access to the right technology.
Transhumanism is essentially as close to a salvation-based religion one can get while being devoid of religion. It is a secular, generally atheist view of the world while retaining a salvation/Rapture narrative. It is one of many secular worldviews that have emerged from Progress-based narratives, which themselves by and large have emerged out of Protestant theologies, such as Calvinism and Prosperity Gospel movements. Writing on transhumanism and similar outlooks from my view as a polytheist would be a whole other blog post on its own, so I’ll leave critiques and thoughts on transhumanism for another post.
As the article goes on, it talks about two initiatives that Google is developing:
Google’s company Calico states right upfront thatits missionis to tackle “aging, one of life’s greatest mysteries.” The company’s approach is more one of prolonging life than of uploading yourself somewhere else, but in the end the key word that unites the different approaches is information.
Another Google company, DeepMind,is bent on cracking AI: “Solve intelligence to make the world a better place.” Google is approaching the problem of death from both a genetic and a computational perspective. They clearly complement one another. Google is not alone, of course. There are many other companies working on similar projects and research. The race is on.
Approaching death and aging as problems to be solved, rather than simply being part of the human condition, is one that I find worrying on a number of fronts. First among them is that I look at aging and dying as natural phenomena to be embraced among being a living being on this planet. We already see great problems with humans interrupting the natural life cycles of animals, plants, and indeed, entire interconnected systems of life through our intervention. In intervening in this fashion with our own makeup, assuming of course that we can advance our ability to age and stave off death at all, I really question what the consequences of such a thing will be.
If we are seeing the impacts of ecological collapse on a number of fronts, especially getting faster and heavier since the dawn of the Industrial Age, what would be the point of prolonging human life? We extend a human’s life, thus extending its ability to consume resources that are already dwindling to grasp at a few more years? If we accept that the world is full of Gods and spirits, at what point do the concerns and rights of the Gods and spirits to exist override the desires of some to eternal life?
Gods and spirits die. In the case of Gods of rivers, when the river dries up and disappears, that God could be said to have died. Likewise, the spirit or spirits of a river. I hold no illusions that Gods are incapable of dying and humans are indeed able to kill some of Them by our actions. An example from my own childhood is when the woods were bulldozed behind my neighborhood. Countless trees and plants, animals, insects, all dead to make room for more trailers. I have no doubt a great many landvaettir were killed. My reaction as a child to losing this place was grief, like grieving someone I lost. Because, in essence, I had. I had lost not only a safe place to explore, but I lost an entire world that I and my friends and brother had spent a great deal of time in.
How much pain and grief will we, as a species, need to inflict on the world’s environments to achieve the extension of aging and staving off of death? How much pain and grief will we, as a species, be willing to accept so that we may extend our lives on and on? The other side of this, is how few of us will be able to enjoy this at all, on base line of fairness? Will it only be those investors in companies like Calico and DeepMind? Will it be only the workers and shareholders? Or will it, as is often the case with technological advancements, only in the hands of the most wealthy or rich?
Exactly how much suffering will the rest of humanity be willing to endure so a few can enjoy an extended life? What of our leaders, and the implications for systems of democratic government in the face of what could threaten to unbalance the ultimate leveler: death? How many Gods and spirits are we willing to kill for a shot at a longer life? How much of the planet are we willing to bend till breaking so a few us can live a couple of more years?
As a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen polytheist, the idea of interrupting something so fundamental as death is disturbing. Death should be something we welcome and develop a good relationship with, not somethingto be conquered or overcome. We have such a horrific relationship with death in our overculture already, with treatments to prolong the life upheld at all costs, including one’s death with dignity, andour treatment of the Dead as something to be avoided or that is ‘over there’,that this looks nothing less than a continuation of stigamtizing death and dying. Rather than approaching our end with dignity, care, and honor, this approach of elongating our lives or seeking immortality looks quite desparate and utopian. We’re born to life dying. Our end happens at some point. Far better, to my mind, that we greet death and our ends with care, dignity, and respect, than to seek out every method to elongate our existence.
For Part 2 I’ll go into how this article made me think on relationships and interdependence in a Northern Tradition and Heathen view.