Speculations on the Soul

Regular readers will know metaphysics has been on my brain the last few years. Between reading books on quantum mechanics, pondering mystics and gurus and even watching a funky metaphysical movie I can’t seem to escape it. But I haven’t gone off the deep end. Seeing What the Bleep Do We Know? for example hasn’t had me rushing off to learn more about the Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. I prefer to make sense of fantastic things in my own murky, mysterious way rather than grab one of those prepackaged solutions off the shelf.

Today you get to go on my little roller coaster ride on the nature of soul, and why I think souls exists. Buckle up.

Ironically these thoughts come from being a programmer. To me trying to understand what software really is is very hard. There is no tangible difference between a CD ROM that is formatted or unformatted. Certainly a formatted CD-ROM with software on it can do some amazing stuff when executed by certain classes of computers and certain operating systems. But a formatted CD-ROM weighs no more nor less than an unformatted CD-ROM. The only thing that can be said about it is that its state was subtly changed. Using laser light a small portion of a track on a CD-ROM changes its properties from translucent to opaque. If an opaque value is read then a value is inferred differently than when it is translucent. A floppy disk works in a similar way, except the magnetic voltage of a spot on the disk determines the associated binary value. Neither the floppy disk nor the CD-ROM is really materially changed after encoding. Only its properties are changed so that when a spot is observed (by a recording head) a value is inferred. It remains the same “stuff”. The amount of matter before and after encoding should be identical, except for a tiny loss of matter resulting from friction imposed by the drive.

Now let’s think about our own brains. Neurologists can tell by looking at the brain of a child compared to an adult that there are fewer neural networks in the brain of a child. No surprise there. A child does not have as much experience written to his brain. A child is like a partially written disk. One might even say that upon birth a child is like a formatted disk with just the operating system on it. Over time and through experience a child’s neural network grows. Experience gets encoded. Paths are created in the brain to facilitate more and better memory recall. It’s like a computer in that it gets more software placed on it.

But software by itself is not meaningful. It is only when it interacts with external data and renders results for humans that it becomes valuable. Similarly a brain that knows the complete works of Shakespeare is not useful in itself. But when this knowledge impacts other people, perhaps through the performance of an actor, it takes on meaning.

Brain size reaches its peak around age four. Brain weight peaks out around age 5 and stays stable until you reach age 20. After age 20 the brain’s mass decreases by about a gram or so a year. Like a floppy disk the brain is clearly not indestructible. Over time neurons die, brain cells are replaced and new pathways are created. We constantly program and reprogram ourselves so that we can work more effectively in our environment. The state of our brain constantly changes, just as your computer’s hard disk constantly changes as you process work with it. Eventually though we get a permanent hard sector error that renders the media unusable and we die.

Is there a difference between your brain and your mind? I would say yes. Your brain is an organ that appears to be the center of control for your body and is the repository of your knowledge base. A computer’s brain consists of its hard disk and memory chips. What is your mind exactly? The mind is essentially the direction of will informed through the senses and through the experience encoded in our brains. The computer’s brain is its central processing unit. This is the thing that takes those binary 1s and 0s and manipulates the external environment. It allows the human to experience the work of the computer. Without the CPU the computer is nothing. The hard disk (brain) has no value by itself. But what is our mind really? There is no real answer. My answer begs the question. The mind is a gestalt: “A physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts.”

Which brings me at last back to metaphysics and my ponderings from the movie What the Bleep Do We Know? The mind, like software, is really virtual. And yet it seems to exists in some sort of medium. Our brain seems to be more than just a large hard disk because it seems the CPU is in there too. The brain’s CPU though is cranking away and providing a show … but where is it exactly? There is no spot in our brain that we can truly identify as our mind. We know if certain parts of the brain are removed or if it is injured enough that we will die. But there is no specific mind organ or gland unless it is the whole thing: the brain as a complete organ. And that doesn’t answer the question of where the mind is. But the evidence seems to be that the mind is not one spot in the brain. Which means it is either some larger thing, or it is not there at all.

We eat. Matter is broken down and energy is released. The energy from food is used to construct new things, like new blood and brain cells. But what is energy? It is not matter. At its root energy is the capacity to do work. And work is “physical or mental effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something.” Energy is the means to do that which matter itself cannot do. An apple sitting on a shelf cannot do anything. Something must be alive in order to do work. Matter must be transformed into energy for the accomplishment of something, for some act of work to occur and by inference for something to be alive.

We know from Einstein that E=mc2. Consequently matter is converted to energy all the time. The reverse is true too: energy is converted back to matter. I would argue that from the human perspective energy is virtual but matter is real. (It’s not that energy is really unreal, it’s just that we can’t perceive it as real because it is intangible to us. And it is intangible because it doesn’t carry a steady state.) You can measure energy but you can’t really contain it separated from matter. Energy in a battery is contained because of the properties of the battery’s matter. It’s a yin and a yang thing. To possess energy we have to see it in the context of its relationship with matter. Perhaps this is because to us only matter feels real and enduring.

Odd, this is the same as my analogy of the mind to the brain. The mind seems virtual because we can’t touch it but the brain seems real because we know it is there. So to me the mind – our minds – our consciousnesses — are in reality just energy. I think it must be a complex form of energy because we are complex compared to most life.

The laws of thermodynamics tell us that neither matter nor energy can be destroyed, they can only be changed from one form to the other. A log burned in our fireplace is not destroyed; its matter is transformed into heat. E=mc2 happens right in our fireplace. So if our mind is virtual and is nothing but pure energy, does it make sense to suggest that when we die our consciousness also dies? I don’t think so. It seems unreasonable and flunks my Occam’s Razor test. Yet that seems to be what a lot of us trained in the Western school of thought truly believe in our gut. If we didn’t then the anticipation of death would not be so universally traumatic. When our bodies die the energy wrapped up in keeping the body growing and maintained is released in the form of heat. And since the body can no longer sustain itself entropy asserts itself fully and our bodies decompose.

It may be that upon death that the energy that makes up our consciousness also changes form too. Or, since superstring theory suggests eleven dimensions, perhaps it just slips into one of these other higher vibrational dimensions that we can infer but not detect. It does this I suspect because it can no longer sustain the relationship with our host body that tethers it to our reality. If I am right we will all find out in time. If I am wrong no one will be able to argue with me about it after the experience of death. But there are enough psychics and mediums out there with decent track records not to be able to dismiss all of them as flakes.

That is why after so many years of pondering while I am still scientifically an agnostic I have a faith. While I do not necessarily believe in God in the classical sense I do believe in soul. I believe I have a soul. I believe that my consciousness is an aspect of my soul – my energy. It is intrinsically bound at present to the matter that contains my body. But upon my death it will be free to move elsewhere and perhaps inhabit some future body.

Time seems to be infinite. Space for all practical purposes is also infinite. I think this life is a breath in a much longer series of lives. And though it sounds corny to this agnostic I think we are all on a much larger spiritual journey. Its nature would take our breath away if we could but comprehend it.

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