“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant On What Consciousness And Selfhood Might Be

4rainbow_3“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:

Rainbow_2“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.)

Brain_2I 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.

Phantoms_in_the_brainWhenever 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.

NeuronmatrixThe 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.

Alzheimers_disease__mriBecause 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.

Gravestone(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.)

JudgementThe 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.

The Usefulness of Anger: No. 864,726

ScreamIn case anyone was still wondering about the usefulness of anger in the atheist movement — or any social movement — I direct you to new blogger Lee of the Stone.

Who was inspired to start her blog by my Atheists and Anger post.

I got (and am still getting) an awful lot of amazing feedback on the Anger piece. But of all of them, this is the one that’s made me the happiest.

She started a blog because of me.

I’m kind of speechless.

And it’s a very good blog. A new one, obviously, since it started about a week ago, but it already has a nice body of smart, interesting, well-written stuff. I encourage y’all to visit — I definitely will be.

Carnival of the Godless #78: Haunted House Edition

CarnivalSo you thought you’d take an innocent visit to the Carnival of the Godless? See the godless sights, ride the godless rides, make yourself pleasantly sick on godless cotton candy?

Your visit is about to take a ghastly turn. Hand in your tickets, step through these gates, and abandon all hope. You are about to enter…

THE GODLESS HOUSE OF HORRORS!

Bwa ha ha ha ha!

Hell_houseThose right-wing haunted houses, with the blood-stained abortions and the same-sex weddings performed by Satan — they have nothing on us. I scoff at them. Ha, I say, and yet again: Ha. We have atheist nightmares far worse than Ray Comfort’s bananas.

Pregnant women, people with heart conditions, and children under four feet tall: please step this way to the simple list format version of the Carnival. No bad imitations of Vincent Price will emerge there to haunt your dreams.

Those of you with the constitution and courage to face the House of Horrors… come this way.

[Read more...]

A Feminist Pioneer in the Digging Industries: My Past Life Diagnosis

Very silly meme up on Pharyngula, one that tells you who you were in your most recent past life based on the day you were born. Several of the Pharyngula commenters got to be prostitutes born in 750, but I got stuck with this:

Shovels

I don’t know how you feel about it, but you were female in your last earthly incarnation.You were born somewhere in the territory of modern USA North-West around the year 1850. Your profession was that of a digger, undertaker.
Your brief psychological profile in your past life:
Person with huge energy, good in planning and supervising. If you were just garbage-man, you were chief garbage-man.
The lesson that your last past life brought to your present incarnation:
You are bound to learn to understand other people and to meet all difficulties of life with a joyful heart. You should help others by bringing them a spirit of joy.
Do you remember now?

So let me get this straight:

I was a female gravedigger or ditchdigger born in the Pacific Northwest in 1850.

Hm. Didn’t think there were too many of those back then. Even now, I believe the grave- and ditch-digging industries are fairly male-dominated.

It does suggest an enticing second career, though.

But then we have this:

“You should help others by bringing them a spirit of joy.”

Wouldn’t that fit better with the prostitutes born in 750?

I’m just sayin’, is all.

Shameless Blogger Self-Promotion Day!

Computer_keyboardI’m going to be spending most of my blogging time for the next couple of days frantically getting the Carnival of the Godless ready. I’ll have time for a cat blog, maybe, and that’s probably about it until Sunday when I’m hosting the Carnival. (If you want to submit a godless blog post, you have until midnight on Friday.)

So let’s play Shameless Blogger Self-Promotion Day! If you’re a blogger, here’s your chance to do the naughty, and shamelessly promote your blog in the comments. Tell us about your blog, and give a link or two to a recent post or two that you’re particularly proud of.

No commercial content, advertising, sales, marketing, etc. However, if you’re an artist or activist or something, and you don’t have a blog but you have a Website, please feel free to link to that instead. There are a bunch of new people visiting the blog lately, and I’d like to find out more about who you are — and I’d like the new folks to meet the old ones. So go nuts in the comments, and I’ll see you on Sunday with the Carnival!

Blog Carnivals: Liberals, Feminists, and Skeptics

Carnival_1Carnival time! Carnival of the Liberals #50 is up at That Is So Queer. Faith has done a lovely Edgar Allen Poe theme for this Carnival. And I’m extra excited this time: Carnival of the Liberals is a selective carnival, they only pick the ten best submissions for each roundup… and this time I have not one but two pieces in it! Short Memories: AIDS Denialism and Vaccine Resistance, and Atheists and Anger! They like me, they really like me! My favorite other piece in this carnival: I Write Letters by Melissa McEwan at Shakespeare’s Sister, on how slamming Ann Coulter for her looks makes you no better than she is.

Carnival of Feminists #46 is up at Cubically Challenged. My piece this time: Male Dom Female Sub, from the Blowfish Blog. My favorite other piece in this carnival: In Search of My Rhetorical Penis by Grrlscientist at Living the Scientific Life (a blog I clearly need to check out more), on why female science bloggers get overlooked.

And Skeptic’s Circle #72 is up at Quackometer. I’m not in the circle this time around, but it’s a good blog carnival nonetheless. My favorite piece: Holford Watch, on why newspapers only print “miracle cure” stories and not “negative findings.”

If you’re a liberal, feminist, or skeptic blogger and want to be in an upcoming Carnival, here are submission guidelines and info for the Carnival of the Liberals, Carnival of Feminists, and Skeptic’s Circle. Happy reading, and happy blogging!

Not Going There

Please note: This piece discusses my personal sex life, and my personal sexual tastes and fantasies, in a fair amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that, please don’t. We’re having some good conversations about the meaning of death in a godless world, and, far more importantly, the sexual orientation of fictional characters. I encourage you to check those out instead.

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Not Going There
by Greta Christina

Triumph_of_the_willI’m not sure what made me start thinking of it. I was thinking about stuff I’ve read about very intense, very un-PC kinky role-playing scenes. Jewish people doing Nazi scenes; African-Americans doing slave-owner/ slave scenes; that sort of thing.

And I was realizing: I don’t know if I could go there.

Consensual_sadomasochismI don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing that way. I can see why people would want to play that way. I support, not only people’s right to play that way, but people’s right to play that way without being scorned by the SM community.

I just don’t think I could go there. Not just as a bottom — as a top, too. As a top maybe even more.

Even if my partner were into it. Even if they were the one suggesting it. Even if they were completely enthusiastic about it and wanted it more than anything. I don’t think I could do it.

Here’s the thing. When I do any kind of role-playing, in order for it to work I have to find the grain of truth in it. I have to find the part of the role — whether it’s top or bottom — that overlaps with a part of who I am.

Sexually_dominant_womanSometimes that’s fairly easy. I can easily find the part of me that’s a selfish, controlling perfectionist who wants exactly what she wants exactly the way she wants it. It’s a bit unsettling, actually, how easy it is to find that. And I can find the part of me that’s helpless and malleable and wants someone else to make all the decisions. Again, a little disturbing how easy that is to find, but there it is. I can find the part of me that feels powerful when I hurt someone, the part that’s hungry to be the center of attention, the part that feels like suffering is proof of devotion.

And I’m happy to let those parts of me come out and play.

Springtime_for_hitlerBut there are some roles that I either don’t have in me — or that I don’t want to tap into if I do. I don’t want to find my inner Nazi, or my inner slave-owner. If I have one, I don’t want to get to know it. I don’t want to make friends with it. And I really don’t want to get off on it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people who do, any more than I think there’s anything wrong with me for getting off on my inner martyred doormat or my inner sadistic bitch. I just don’t want to go there.

And it suddenly occurred to me:

Oh.

I bet this is how men who don’t want to spank women feel.

Lucy_needs_a_firm_handI see a lot of letters in sex advice columns from men saying, “My girlfriend/ wife wants me to spank her but I don’t want to, she keeps saying it’s okay and she wants it but I don’t want to hurt her.” Or from women saying, “My boyfriend/ husband doesn’t want to spank me, I keep telling him it’s okay and I want it but he just says he doesn’t want to hurt me.” And until now, my attitude towards these men has been a somewhat dismissive, “Will you just spank her already? She says she wants it. It’s okay to do it if she wants it. And it’s not that fucking big of a deal. Will you get over the willies already and just smack the poor girl’s bottom?”

BeltBut when I started thinking about all the places in my head that I don’t want to go, I suddenly got a lot more sympathetic. I bet that for a lot of these guys, it’s not just about, “I’m afraid I’ll hurt her.” I bet for a lot of them it’s about, “I don’t want to hurt her.”

Or more precisely, “I don’t want to want to hurt her.”

In other words, I bet you that some of these guys just don’t want to go there. They don’t want to find the part of themselves that gets off on hurting women. They don’t want to find the part of themselves that gets off on controlling women, or punishing them, or asserting power over them, or causing them physical pain.

Christian_domestic_disciplineWhich I get. Finding those parts of yourself can be weird and hard. And I think it’s especially hard when the power dynamics being played out in the bedroom are a direct reflection of the ones being played out in real life. After all, I’m a lot more comfortable playing, say, “serving wench” than I would be playing a scene with racist content. I work too hard to combat the racist parts of me to have any fun at all letting them out to play. And I could see how men who work hard to be feminist might feel the same way about spanking the women they love.

SpankNow, I do think spanking is on a very different scale from Nazi or slave-owner scenes. Maybe it’s just because it’s become so common, mainstream almost; but I don’t see it as having quite the same kind of gravitas or emotional hair-trigger. And therefore I do think that, if you want to be what Dan Savage calls “good, giving, and game,” you should at least seriously consider getting over your qualms about spanking if your sweetie really wants to do it, and at least give it a try.

Topping_bookI’m just saying that tops have just as much right to have squicks and limits as bottoms do. Including having a squick or a limit about being a top at all. And I’m saying that, if I want my unwillingness to go there with a Nazi or a slave-owner scene to be respected, then ultimately I have to respect a straight guy’s unwillingness to go there with a spanking scene.

Dumbledore Is Gay: Good Guys and Literary Closets

Every single person I have ever met in my life has sent me this piece of news.

I wonder why. :-)

Dumbledore_2The news: J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books (yes, I’m a fan, suck it up), announced recently that the headmaster character, Dumbledore, is gay. It came up at a recent reading at Carnegie Hall; a fan asked about Dumbledore’s love life, and Rowling answered, “My truthful answer to you… I always thought of Dumbledore as gay.” She went on to explain that Dumbledore had been in love with the wizard Grindelwald in his youth, and that Grindelwald turning out to be evil was the great tragedy of Dumbledore’s life.

Half_blood_prince_movie(As it turns out, the subject of Dumbledore’s sexual orientation had come up previously during the making of one of the movies; the director had some reference in the script to a girl in Dumbledore’s past, and Rowling had to pass him a note to gently point him off that track.)

I pretty much have just three things to say about this:

One: Neat.

Dumbledore_1I think it’s cool that Dumbledore is the moral center of the book, the apotheosis of goodness, the one character that all the good guys look to for both political and ethical leadership.

And he’s gay.

That’s just nifty.

Two: I think it’s too bad she couldn’t have said so in the books themselves.

Heather_has_two_mommiesDon’t get me wrong. I totally understand why she didn’t. If she’d made Dumbledore overtly gay in the books, then in the general public eye, that’s what the books would have been about. Everything else that the books are about — moral complexity, the realities of a resistance movement, what it’s like to be a child growing up and figuring out that the adult world is seriously messed-up, all the lovely and ridiculous magic stuff — would have become suddenly and dramatically secondary. It would have become the children’s book series about the wizarding school with the gay headmaster. It would have become the seven-volume fantasy version of “Heather Has Two Mommies.” I think it was the right decision, and if I’d been Rowling, I would have done exactly the same thing.

I just think that’s too bad.

I think it’s too bad that we live in a world where the mere presence of a major gay character in a children’s book automatically makes it a Kids’ Book About Gay.

DracoI think it’s too bad that I now have to wonder: How many other characters did Rowling envision as gay, but wasn’t able to say so? (My money’s on Draco…)

I think it’s too bad that the single most popular author in the known universe, the one author who could write her own ticket more than any author living today, still had to keep the gayness of one of her central characters a secret until the series was completed.

AwrinkleintimeIt is better now than it used to be, forty years ago or even twenty. Imagine if L. Frank Baum had announced that Glinda the Good Witch was gay. Or Tolkein with Gandalf. Or Madeleine L’Engle with Mrs. Whatsit. There would have been a shitstorm. But it’s a different time now, and the people who are mostly going to be upset about Dumbledore are the fundies who aren’t buying the books anyway because they promote witchcraft.

Harry_potter_sorcerers_stoneBut I still think we have a long way to go. I still think it’s still too bad that a major children’s book can’t have a major gay character in it without that becoming the central defining feature of the book.

Maybe in twenty years.

Harry_potter_deathly_hallowsThree: Now I have to read the whole series again. Or the last book, anyway.

Damn. What a shame.

SnapeOh, and P.S.: Snape.

No, I’m not saying he’s gay. I’m just saying: Snape. Because I am constitutionally incapable of writing an entire Harry Potter post without mentioning Snape.

The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many

1_gravestoneWe talk a lot about the meaning of life. I want to talk for a bit about the meaning of death.

In the most straightforward literal sense, when you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, there is no meaning of death. Not in any external, objective sense. In the godless universe, death just happens. It doesn’t serve a purpose — there is no purpose. There’s no intention behind its When and How and Why; no designer picking people off according to some mysterious master plan. Death happens because of the laws of cause and effect in the physical universe, the laws of biology and chemistry and physics. It happens because it happens.

Peace_sign_painted_on_rock_1And along with many atheists and other godless folk, I don’t find this idea depressing or nihilistic. This may come as a surprise to many religious believers, but it’s true. It’s taken me a while to get there, but I actually find this idea rather comforting.

3_potterySee, the cool thing about godlessness is that you get to create your own meaning. Contrary to popular opinion, a godless life isn’t a life without meaning. It’s a life in which we create our own meaning. Our meaning of life, of course — but also our meaning of death.

So that’s what I want to talk about. Not, “What purpose does death serve for the non-existent designer?” But instead, “What meaning can death have for us? How can death shape our understanding and experience of life? What meaning of death can we create?”

And one of the things that works best for me is to see death — permanent, designerless, physical cause-and-effect death — as something that intimately connects us with the universe.

My mother died of cancer at the age of 45, when I was 17, two months after I started college. I don’t talk about it much. It was terrible. It was traumatic. It was unbelievably shitty timing, mostly for her but for me as well. It was unfair.

4_scotland_skye_cliffsExcept that it wasn’t unfair. Any more than a star going nova is unfair, or a cliff collapsing into the sea.

5_god_sistineWhen you don’t believe that all death happens by design — the grand cosmic design of an All Powerful, All Knowing, All Good God who theoretically loves you — then you don’t have to torture yourself wondering what you did wrong. You don’t have to twist yourself into contortions trying to figure out why you’re being punished, what lesson you’re supposed to learn. When people die young, when people die in terrible pain, when people die freakishly for no apparent reason, you don’t have to pile onto your pain and grief any extra guilt about being punished… or any extra guilt because you’re trying to see a reason for it and can’t.

6_dead_treeInstead, you can see death as part of the way the world works. We are an animal species in the physical world, and animal species in the physical world get sick, or get in accidents, or get birth defects, or die in natural disasters. Sometimes good people, sometimes too young. And if it happens to you, or someone you love, it’s not because you/ they did something wrong. You can accept it, and grieve over it, and move on.

And when it comes to contemplating your own death, you can see it in much the same way. Death is the thing that will ultimately separate you from the universe… and yet, paradoxically, it connects you with it as well.

8_aerial_gardenferns_on_a_tree_2Death sucks, and premature death sucks worse. But it’s part of the package deal of getting to be alive. It happens because you, and all the people around you, are part of the world: the physical, natural world, with all of its wonders and horrors. It’s a world that doesn’t really care whether you live or die, whether you suffer or rejoice, and to some people that can seem bleak and cold. But it’s a world of which we are a part, a world which we are intimately connected to down to our very molecules — not a world that stands apart from us and punishes us for reasons we can never fathom.

GalaxyAnd without a God, you don’t have to figure out what purpose your death is serving. You don’t have to torture yourself trying to figure out the motivations of the physical universe. It doesn’t have any. So you can accept its inevitability, and get on with your life.

This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: This little blog post isn’t intended to answer this question for everyone on the planet once and for all. Hence the “Part One of Many” in the title. I’ve written before about death — Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God was the first piece of overtly godless writing I ever did — and I know I’ll be writing about it more in the future. And lots of other godless writers are wrestling with it as well.

On that topic: I actually started forming these ideas and putting them into words in a discussion on Ebon Muse’s Daylight Atheism blog, a discussion in which Ebon and many other people had thoughtful and insightful things to say on the subject. Parts of this piece were poached from my comments there. Other parts were poached from my piece on this blog, “Give her an out”: Prayer and Terminal Illness… which in turn was inspired by the Bless the Child? piece on Sid Schwab’s Surgeonsblog. So big shout-outs to Ebon and Sid on this one.