Atheist Dreams

Picasso_dream
Do any of you ever have atheist dreams?

I don’t mean atheist dreams, as in, “dreams and hopes for a better, more atheist- friendly world.” I mean atheist dreams, as in, “I dreamed that Christopher Hitchens was trying to sell me life insurance,” or, “I dreamed that the ghost of Thomas Aquinas appeared at my dinner table and told me it was okay to be an atheist.”

No, those aren’t real dreams. I made them up. But I did have a real one a little while back. I was waiting in line with a group of friends to see Richard Dawkins read at a bookstore. But I’d won a contest, and the prize was that Richard Dawkins stood in line with us and hung out with us while we waited for the bookstore to open. He was a surprisingly good sport about it, and was good company, but we were all a little star- struck and didn’t quite know what to say to him. (I woke up feeling slightly baffled by the recursion conundrum of Richard Dawkins waiting in line to see himself read.)

I forgot to log it in the dream diary at the time. But it’s stuck with me, and it’s made me ponder the degree to which atheism and the atheist movement have entered my subconscious. (I have other atheist dreams, too, usually about blogging or reading other atheist blogs. Most of them aren’t that interesting — although I’m still tickled by the one about atheist plumbing — but I have them fairly often.)

And I was wondering: Does this happen to anyone else? Do any of the atheists reading this blog — or any of the non-atheists, for that matter — ever dream about atheism? If so, what do you dream about? When did it start? And how do you feel about it? (My atheist dreams make me feel a little bit nerdy, but in a good way.) I personally find it slightly odd to dream about something so abstract — to dream about the non-existence of something, essentially — and I’m curious if this is a widespread phenomenon or not.

The Last Taboo

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Taboo
You’ve almost certainly heard this phrase before. If you’ve been paying attention to sex in society and popular culture, anyway. You may have read it in a political debate; a conversation about porn; even a movie review.

“(X) is the last taboo.”

Now here’s the weird thing, the thing that should be making your bullshit meter go off with clanging alarms and flashing lights: You’ve probably heard this phrase used to describe half a dozen or more sexual practices.

Last taboo
You might have heard that homosexuality is the last taboo. Sadomasochism. Incest. Bestiality. Necrophilia. A very quick Google search on the phrase “the last taboo” adds scatology, pedophilia, sex among the elderly, and even virginity to the list (along with a wide assortment of non-sexual topics, including atheism, abortion, cannibalism, menstruation, death, consciousness, anti-Palestinianism, money, mental illness, and the discounting of business-class seats on airplanes).

Okay. Reality check number one: Not all of these things can be the last taboo, can they? At the very least, doesn’t one of them have to be the next- to- last taboo, and another one the next- to- the- next- to last, and so on? Unless every one of these taboos is miraculously falling at exactly the same time… in which case I suppose they could all be the last taboo. But that doesn’t seem very likely, does it?

Reality check number two: Does anyone actually believe that any of these sexual preferences and practices is the last taboo? Does anyone really think that the taboo against, say, sadomasochism is truly the last sexual taboo in our culture? That if the taboo against it fell and we completely and casually accepted SM, our society would then, for better or worse, be a sexual free- for- all, entirely devoid of any sexual taboos whatsoever?

Have any of the people using this phrase taken a look around them? At, you know, the world?

The world is full of sexual taboos. Loaded with them, up one side and down the other. And I’m not just talking about the big ones like necrophilia or incest. We have taboos against having sex in public. Having sex with someone much older or younger than yourself. Having sex with your best friend’s ex. Leaving your porn out on your coffee table. Discussing the details of your sex life with anyone except your partner, your therapist, and your very closest friends. Interracial sex is now less taboo than it once was (although the taboo is far from gone)… but sex with someone of a radically different social or economic class is still a forbidden thrill. Etc., etc., etc.

40 year old virgin
And it’s not like taboos come in a limited supply, a cookie jar that’ll be empty once we eat them all. One taboo can disappear, only to be replaced with another. We have, for instance, a disappearing taboo against sex before marriage… but we also have a new taboo that we didn’t used to have, a taboo against being a virgin past the age of, say, forty. In fact, some things are now considered taboo that were once not only accepted, but positively endorsed. Marrying your brother’s widow would now be considered kind of icky, not flatly incestuous but not exactly showing the best boundaries in the world. But if that widow was childless, then in the Old Testament days this was not only accepted, but actually required.

And, of course, old taboos can come roaring back again. The permissiveness of the Roaring Twenties was followed by the restrictiveness of the Boring Fifties. Ditto the legendarily free-spirited Sixties and the equally legendary Reaganite Eighties. Pendulums swing back and forth.

I once read an anthropologist (I can’t remember her name — I really should have smoked less weed in college) who wrote that, when it comes to very large, important aspects of human life that have a tremendous impact on us — sex, food, drugs, that sort of thing — the mere fact of having taboos is more important than what the specific taboos are. Having taboos is what makes us feel like we have a modicum of control over these huge, powerful things. The ability to sort sex (or food, or drugs, or whatever) into the Good Kind and the Bad Kind gives us the feeling that it’s us who’s in control of this stuff… instead of the other way around. And whether a taboo is rational, whether it helps us reduce potential harm that might be caused by sex or drugs or whatnot, is very much a secondary issue.

Reefer-madness
Now, I don’t agree that all taboos are created equal. Some taboos do have a basis in reality, are guided at least somewhat by genuine ethical or psychological concerns. Others are so irrational as to seem almost completely random. (Drug taboos, for instance, bear almost no relationship with how much harm the drugs in question can do. If they were, marijuana would be available at every corner store, and the possession of alcohol would be what got you time in the hoosegow.*)

And the fight against totally irrational taboos is not a pointless fight. The last fifty years or so has seen an incredible rollback of a whole host of stupid, none- of- anybody’s- business sexual taboos: from contraception to masturbation, oral sex to pre-marital nookie. And that’s largely been the result of a sustained public relations campaign on the part of people who insisted, loudly and repeatedly and in defiance of the prevailing winds, that these taboos made no sense.

I’m just saying this: Sexual taboos will always be with us. If my anthropologist is right, then as long as sex is a viscerally powerful force in our lives, human beings will feel the need to gain control of it — or the illusion of control, anyway — by sorting it into boxes marked Naughty and Nice.

So I’m going to issue a taboo of my own.

Edict
I very rarely issue edicts and insist that everyone stop doing what they’re doing and instead do what I tell them to. But I’m going to do it now. From now on, at the risk of incurring The Wrath of Greta, everyone has to stop using the phrase “the last taboo.” Especially when it comes to sex. It’s sloppy writing. It’s sloppy thinking. It’s a cheap way of bringing melodrama to your topic. And it’s simply not true. If you need to bring cheap melodrama to your topic, come up with a different way. I don’t care what sexual taboo you’re talking about. Whatever it is, it’s not the last one.

*For the record, I’m not advocating the criminalization of alcohol. I’m just saying that it demonstrably does much more harm than marijuana, and that having it be a legal and relatively taboo-free drug while marijuana can get you actual prison time is a perfect example of drug taboos bearing no relationship to reality.

Who Marriage is For: A Tale of Two Weddings

Who is marriage for now?

And what is it, anyway?

I want to tell a story. Two stories, I guess, about two weddings, that show how radically the answer to that question has changed in just the past few years.

In front of CIty Hall 2004
The first time Ingrid and I got married at City Hall, the whole thing had a very different feel. Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision in 2004 to authorize same-sex marriages in San Francisco came totally out of left field, and everyone knew that it would probably be overturned by the courts. (Which, of course, it was.) So underlying the exuberant joy was a feeling of urgency: a knowledge that there was an axe hanging over our heads that could drop any time, and an almost panicky feeling of needing to get your joy in under the wire.

Licenses on City Hall steps 2004
There were huge lines out City Hall doors. Dozens of ad-hoc officiants who had been specially deputized to perform weddings. A dozen or more weddings happening all over City Hall at any given time, all day, every day. It was a lean, mean, fast-moving wedding machine. We couldn’t even get very dressed up, because we didn’t know if we’d have to wait in line in the rain all day (we got very lucky and got a dry day for our wedding); we signed our papers on the steps of City Hall.

Kissing on City Hall steps 2004
And, of course, the overwhelming majority of those weddings were same-sex. If you were a straight couple wanting to get married at City Hall that first week, and you hadn’t already made an appointment, you were out of luck. It was a happy, joyful mob scene… and it was all about the queers.

So the whole thing was less like being welcomed into society as first-class citizens, and more like a massive act of queer civil disobedience. (Improbably led by the Mayor of the city.)

In front of City Hall 2008
Last month’s wedding, the second time Ingrid and I got married at City Hall, was different.

There was no mob scene, no line out the door. There is a possible deadline — the court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in California could be overturned by a ballot initiative in November — but November is a ways away, and nobody was feeling that if they didn’t get married that day they might never get the chance.

Vows 2008
There were certainly a whole lot more weddings happening than there would normally be on a Thursday at City Hall, with extra officiants on hand and a host of volunteers there to shepherd everyone through the process. But it was much calmer, much more business as usual, than the weddings in 2004. It still felt like history in the making, and everyone there was aware of it… but it was a much more peaceful joy, a gentle folding of a new flavor into the batter.

And here’s the thing, the point I want to make:

It wasn’t just same-sex couples getting married that day.

There were plenty of opposite-sex couples getting married at City Hall the day we were there. In fact, when we signed in for our appointment to get our license and have our ceremony, the schedule listed the couples as “Same sex” or “Opposite sex.” And just from a quick glance, it looked like it was running about half and half.

So there we were in City Hall: a City Hall dotted with women marrying women, and men marrying men, and women marrying men.

And it struck me:

This is huge.

This is the change: the change we’ve been working and fighting for.

This is exactly the way it should be.

Licenses 2008
In California at least, marriage has changed. It’s not longer a relationship and contract between a man and a woman. It’s a relationship and contract between two people. Any two people.

In California at least (and Massachusetts, and Canada, and Spain, and a few other places around the world), marriage is no longer about maleness and femaleness; the man’s role and the woman’s role in the family; the husband and the wife. It’s about two people. Spouse 1 and Spouse 2, as they put it on the forms we filled out.

Ingrid is my wife, and I am hers. And that means essentially the same thing as the fact that our friends Tim and Josie are husband and wife.

I think this is what I was getting at when I wrote How Gay Marriage Is Destroying Normal Marriage — No, Really. Same sex marriage is changing what marriage is — for everybody. For the men and women getting married in City Hall the day Ingrid and I got married, marriage won’t be the same. The fact that Ingrid and I were getting married the same day that they were means that their marriages won’t be the same. They won’t mean the same thing.

The 2004 weddings were about the queers. June’s weddings were about everybody.

Equality california
Important note: The deadline is a few months off, but there is a deadline. In November, there will be an initiative on the California ballot, asking voters to amend the state Constitution and ban same-sex marriage. If you think this issue and this movement are important, please consider supporting Equality California. If you donate through their Love Stories program by July 31, your donation will be part of a matching program which will make your donation even more valuable.

Oh, and to any polyamorists reading this: Yes, I think it should be available to more than two people. Hopefully that change will come someday as well.

Dream diary, 7/28/08: The Shadow Government

Shadow 2
I dreamed that there was a secret organization — a corporate organization, but also connected with the government somehow — that was controlling people through subliminal signals created by shadows falling on their bodies while they slept. In the dream, I “woke up” to see some shadows in the corner of the room: the shadows began forming into patterns, and I recognized one of the patterns as the logo for this organization. I was very excited — at last I had proof that this was really happening — but I was also completely terrified, as it was happening to us, right now.

This was a genuine night terror, the first I’ve had in a long time. I woke Ingrid in a panic, but was completely unable to explain why I’d woken her. This was easily the most abstract night terror I’ve ever had, which made trying to form words to describe what was happening even more difficult than usual. Weirdly, the process of trying to explain what was happening forced me to try to make sense of it… and the process of trying to make sense of it made it eventually dawn on me that it didn’t make sense, it was ridiculous, and I’d woken my wife up out of a sound sleep at two in the morning to warn her about the evil government shadow puppets.

The “Pick Two” Game, Or, Do Believers Really Believe What They Say They Believe?

Figures question mark
Do y’all want to play a game?

It’s a game with a semi- serious point, about theology and whether people’s religious practices line up with what they claim to believe. But for now, let’s just start with the game.

The game: Design your own Christian theology.

And here are the rules.

A couple of days ago, I ran a piece here about how much more sense Christianity would make if it weren’t committed to the blatantly illogical proposition that God is all- knowing, all- powerful, and all- good. The comments have been smart and funny (I’m especially taken with Paul’s thought about “the problem of unfishiness,” and am already working on a post about that). And then Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism fame chimed in with this comment:

I like that comment about picking two – it could be the basis for some actually interesting religions. Maybe God is all-powerful and all-good, but just doesn’t realize human beings are suffering. The whole point of the religion could be to get his attention – blowing trumpets, banging pots and pans together, yelling at the sky, that sort of thing. I, for one, would find it amusing. :)

Which immediately inspired the idea of the game. And which brings me to the rules:

If there were a religion in which God were any two of the following — all- powerful, all- knowing, or all- good — what would that religion look like?

I’ll get the ball rolling with my suggestions.

Fireworks
If God were all- powerful and all- good but not all- knowing? Well, I think I’m going to go with Ebon’s idea on this one. God would be like a smart and popular but absent- minded professor, or a mom with lots of kids — smart and cool, but easily distracted — and religion would mostly consist of trying to get God’s attention. Lots of loud noises, colorful outfits, sending up flares, setting off fireworks. (It might be a fun religion to belong to, actually, albeit one that would make you feel a bit small and helpless.)

Soviet_poster_didyouvolunteer
Second: If God were all- powerful and all- knowing but not all- good? That one’s a lot less fun. God would be like a really powerful dictator with spies everywhere, or like an abusive parent or partner. And religion would consist of trying to appease him: trying to figure out exactly what his rules are, and sticking to them as closely as you can; trying to keep track of his shifting moods, and walking on eggshells to adapt to them; trying to figure out what you did wrong — or blaming each other — when the hammer comes down.

Person_at_desk
And finally, if God were all- knowing and all- good, but not all-powerful? That one could be interesting. God would be like a smart and good- hearted mid-level bureaucrat in the office where you work. And religion would pretty much consist of looking after yourself. You’d praise him and express your gratitude for all his hard work, and you’d ask for his advice and counsel periodically… but you’d know that, when it came down to any real practical problems, you were pretty much on your own. He could give you guidance and emotional support, he’d be a good shoulder to cry on, but that’d be it. He’d really like to help you, but his hands are tied.

And now, here’s the serious part.

I think this is very much like what Christian religions are like.

Eerily so.

Which brings me to my actual point: Most religious believers don’t act as if they believe their God is all these things. They may say they believe it; but their actual practice reveals a lack of faith in God’s perfect power, perfect knowledge, or perfect goodness… and in many cases, more than one of these.

Let’s look again at my made-up religions.

Church1The one where God is all- powerful and all- good, but not all- knowing, and your religious practice consists of getting his attention? That’s Catholicism. Burning incense; lighting candles; loud choral music; huge ornate churches and cathedrals; religious officiants dressed in lavishly ornate outfits; repeating prayers over and over again. What is that but trying to get God’s attention? And if God were perfectly knowledgeable, why would you need to get his attention?

Jimmy_swaggartThe one where God is all- powerful and all- knowing but not all- good, and religion consists in tiptoeing around trying not to piss him off? There are elements of Catholicism there, too: the rigidity of the rituals and rules, the strictness of the authority system, the prayers that have to be said just so. But I’m going to go with Christian fundamentalism on this one. Fundamentalism is the ultimate “my way or the highway” religion, with a focus, not on how wonderful and loving God is — that seems almost like an afterthought — but on the extensive and rigidly strict rules that God expects you to follow, and the terrible fiery punishment that awaits you if you don’t toe the line. (Not to mention the focus on blaming people you don’t like for natural God-created disasters.) It gives lip service to the idea of God’s perfect goodness… but it doesn’t seem very convincing, or very convinced.

New Spirit
And the one where God is all- knowing and all- good, but not all-powerful, and religion consists of saying how great he is and then taking care of business on your own? That’s modern progressive Christianity. The Christianity that doesn’t expect prayers to be answered, that sees prayers as a conversation with God and a way to listen to God in your heart but that doesn’t expect him to give you any actual practical help. The Christianity where God is a warm summer breeze, a smile on a child’s face, the love that we have for each other… but he doesn’t heal sickness or relieve pain, make the rain fall or the crops grow. The Christianity that acknowledges that the world basically operates by laws of physical cause and effect, but can’t quite let go of the idea that God has something to do with it all somehow.

This is something I’ve noticed before, and that a lot of other atheists have noticed before. Theists often don’t act as if they believe what they say they believe. The afterlife, for instance. Why would you grieve so terribly at the death of a loved one if you really believed you’d be seeing them again someday? Sure, it’d be sad — but wouldn’t it be like saying goodbye to someone who was moving to another country for a few years? Why do theists grieve every bit as hard at the death of the people they love as atheists do? Why do they act as if… well, as if someone died?

And take hell. If you really believed that anyone who didn’t think and act exactly right was going to be hideously tortured in a fire — not for a minute, not for an hour, but for centuries and millennia and into eternity — wouldn’t you feel morally obligated, and indeed emotionally driven, to try to stop it? Wouldn’t every single Christian who believed in hell be out there on the street corner, desperately imploring people to save themselves before it’s too late… instead of just a handful of crazies?

And it’s now occurring to me that this is true for the All- Powerful, All- Knowing, All- Good belief as well. Believers say they believe it… but when you look at how they actually practice their religion, it becomes clear that they don’t act like they believe it. They act like they believe in a religion made up in a game: a religion where they really only believe in one or two of these things, but have to pretend they believe in all three.

The Eroticism of Exercise: The Blowfish Blog

Gym_weights
Please note: This post, and the post that it links to, contain information about my personal sex life. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff are advised that they probably don’t want to read this post.

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. And no, it’s not about cheating, or anything to do with cheating. I’m done with that for a while. It’s about the eroticism of exercise. The title, oddly enough, is The Eroticism of Exercise, and here’s the teaser:

I really wish I’d known about this years ago.

If I had, I would have gotten my ass to the gym long before I finally did.

I wish I’d known it years ago. Which is why I’m telling all y’all. It’s this:

Working out is hot.

I don’t mean that it makes you look hot and attractive: i.e., gives you a firmer body, better posture, a healthier and more attractive appearance generally. It does, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

And I don’t mean that it makes you feel hot and attractive: i.e., increases your libido, gives you better energy, makes you feel more comfortable in your own skin. It does, but that’s not what I’m talking about, either.

I mean that the activity itself is hot. Arousing. Sexually pleasurable.

Or it can be, anyway.

To find out more about exercise as a natural aphrodisiac, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

All-Knowing, All-Powerful, All-Good: Pick Two, or, How Christian Theology Shoots Itself In the Foot

There’s a pattern I’ve noticed in atheist/ theist debates in the blogosphere.

Blake_ancient_of_days
And the pattern in this: Christian theology — specifically, the belief that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good — is making these debates a whole lot easier for atheists. The religious apologetics consistently founder on one of these rocks: God’s supposed complete knowledge, or total power, or perfect goodness. Or, as is more usual, some combination of the three.

You know the arguments; you’ve seen them a hundred times. If God is all these things, then why is there suffering, what’s the point of prayer, isn’t everything pre-ordained, why were we created with the propensity to evil, blah blah blah. I won’t get into them all here. And I’m not even talking about the logical conundrums, the “Could God create a burrito so big that he couldn’t eat it?” stuff. What I’ll say is this: Theists always have to either concede at least part of one of the Alls, some degree of God’s power or knowledge or goodness… or they have to cop out with some version of “mysterious ways” or “I know it in my heart.”

And if they weren’t so stuck on God being the All Everything, they’d have an easier time of it. I still think they’d be mistaken — I think the case against the supernatural is strong, even without the Omnimax Divine Theater — but the debates wouldn’t be quite so much like shooting the same slow fish in the same barrel, over and over and over again.

Or, as Eclectic has said in this blog: “All-knowing, all-powerful, all-good — pick two.”

Crowley tarot universe
Take my own now- abandoned religious beliefs. Back in my woo days, I believed in a World-Soul, a metaphysical substance that infused all conscious life forms with, well, consciousness; a being made up of all the souls of all the living things in the world, but that was more than just the sum of its parts, a being that had some sort of selfhood or identity.

It wasn’t a belief that was supported by any evidence. It wasn’t supported by anything, particularly. Except by my own personal vague feeling that consciousness couldn’t just be a function of the physical brain, because… well, because it couldn’t be. Because it just didn’t seem that way.

But at no point did I think that the World-Soul was all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-good. In fact, it was very clear to me that it wasn’t. I didn’t think it was any of these things, much less all of them. Actually, back in my woo days, I often said that the meaning of my life was to add to the learning and enlightenment of the World-Soul. I thought of the World-Soul as a powerful being, certainly wiser and more powerful and more knowledgeable than me… but I still saw it as limited, flawed, with room to learn and grow.

And this made my belief much easier to cling to… and much harder to let go of.

It wasn’t a tremendously defensible belief. But it was a lot more defensible than the belief in the completely perfect, completely powerful God who created, and regularly intervenes in, this profoundly flawed world full of cruelty and pain.

Aachen_Amazement_Gods
In a way, I appreciate the desire to have one’s God be perfect. The old polytheistic pantheons weren’t much to admire or aspire to. Selfish, small- minded, mean- spirited, dishonest, backstabbing, gossipy. They were a lot like my junior high, actually, except with more incest and murder and devouring of body parts. I can see why people wouldn’t want their creator of their universe to be like that. I can see why people would want their creator to be… well, perfect.

But in many ways, the old, flawed pantheon made a lot more sense. It was certainly more consistent with the world we live in: a flawed, complicated, messy world of mixed motivations and conflicting forces. I love this world, I feel more passionate about it and connected to it every day… but it sure as hell doesn’t look like a world created on purpose by a perfectly powerful, perfectly knowledgeable, perfectly good being.

And every time a theist tries to defend and explain and rationalize that being, I feel like they’ve handed me a gift.

Good Stuff, or, Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival #1

CarnivalI’m going to do something a little new today.

I often run across great blog posts that I want my readers to know about. I often get inspired to write posts of my own about them, praising the writer and exploring my take on their ideas. I often then get distracted (or just don’t have time to do it). So I often wind up doing that stupid thing where you don’t do something at all because you can’t do it the way you want to. (For more on this stupid thing, see my post on The Harm Reduction Model of Life.)

So instead, I’m going to do what I’ve seen other bloggers do: a round-up of recent blog posts that I’ve especially liked. (I’m calling it a blog carnival, though, since I think the word “round-up” is boring.)

Compulsory Reading. Comic artist Alison Bechdel (“Fun Home”), on the literary canon… and the guilt readers feel when they haven’t read it.

Big Sur Burn. Susie Bright on the California fires… and the connection with low taxes and “small government.”

Great Atheist Quotes Award. Flinging Dust quoting Milo, on religion as Stockholm syndrome.

More cases for consequentialism: abortion and euthanasia. The Uncredible Hallq, carefully and thoughtfully exploring some of the moral issues of medicine, life, and death. (And citing Judith Jarvis Thompson, who rocks.)

10 Commandments of Smut. M. Christian, on 10 all too common mistakes that porn/ smut/ erotica writers should avoid.

And An Exercise in Empathy. Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism writing on marriage, and on unjust marriage restrictions. And making me all weepy in the process.

Enjoy!

Blog Carnivals!

Carnival
Blog carnivals!

Humanist Symposium #22 (always my favorite blog carnival) at Faith in Honest Doubt. This one has a nifty theme of questions and questioning.

Carnival of the Liberals #69 at Stump Lane (where they somehow managed to avoid stupid jokes about the carnival’s number — good for them!).

Skeptic’s Circle #91 at Sorting Out Science.

And Carnival of the Godless #96 at Sean the Blogonaut. (Who picked mine as one of the top five posts of the carnival — thanks, Sean!)

Happy reading, everybody!

Why I Don’t Believe in the Soul

Got soul
I spend a lot of my time in this blog arguing why I don’t believe in God. Today I want to do something a little different. I want to talk, not about why I don’t believe in God or gods, not about why some particular religion’s belief in God is mistaken or contradictory… but about why I don’t believe in the soul.

A lot of people who don’t believe in God per se still believe in some sort of soul, some sort of metaphysical substance or animating spirit that inhabits people and other living things. And I think this is mistaken. I think it’s every bit as mistaken an idea as God is.

And today, I want to talk about why. I want to talk about why everything that we think of as the soul — consciousness, identity, character, free will — is much more likely to be a product of our brains and our bodies and the physical world, than a metaphysical substance inhabiting our bodies but somehow separate and distinct from it.

Much, much, much more likely.

Brain question mark
Here’s the thing. I know that there are enormous unanswered questions about how the mind works, and indeed what it is. The questions of what consciousness is, how it’s created, how it works… these are questions that we don’t really have answers to yet. Ditto identity and selfhood. And we’re not sure that free will even exists, much less how it works. The science of neuropsychology, and the scientific understanding of consciousness, are very much in their infancy. In fact, I would argue that “What is consciousness?” is one of the great scientific questions of our time.

But infant science or not, there are a few things we know about consciousness, identity, character, the ability to make decisions, etc.

Prozac
And one of the things we know is that physical changes to the brain can and do result in changes to the consciousness, the identity, the character, the ability to make decisions. Changes caused by injury, illness, drugs and medicines, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, oxygen deprivation, etc., can and do result in changes to everything we think of as the “soul.” Even some very small changes to the brain — small doses of medicine or drugs, injuries or interventions to just a small area of the brain — can result in some very drastic changes indeed.

In some cases, they can do so to the point of rendering a person’s personality completely unrecognizable. Physical changes to the brain can make people unable to care about their own families. They can make people unable to make decisions. They can make smart people stupid, anxious people calm, happy people irritable, crazy people less crazy. They can render everything we know about a person, everything that makes that person who they are, totally null and void. Read Oliver Sacks, read V. S. Ramachandran, read any modern neurologist or neuropsychologist, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s fucking freaky, actually, just how fragile are mind and self, consciousness and character.

Gravestone
And, of course, we have the rather drastic change to consciousness and character and coherent identity and the ability to make decisions, known as “death.”

Simply cut off oxygen or blood flow to the brain for a relatively short time, and a person’s consciousness and self and ability to take action in the world will not just change but vanish — completely, and permanently. (Attempts to find solid evidence supporting life after death have been utterly unsuccessful: reports of it abound, but when carefully examined using good scientific methodology, they fall apart like a house of cards.)

Now.

Force
Think about any other phenomenon in the world. When Physical Action A results in Effect B, we think of that as a physical phenomenon. Apply heat to water, and get steam; apply force to an object, and get motion; apply electricity to metals in certain ways, and get magnetism; apply vinegar to baking soda, and get gobs of rapidly expanding foam. These are physical events, every one. Only the most hard-line religious believers insist that God’s hand is in every physical action that takes place everywhere in the universe. Most rational, reasonably- well- educated people understand that the physical world is governed by laws of physical cause and effect.

So.

We have a phenomenon, or a set of phenomena: consciousness, selfhood and identity, character and personality, the ability to make decisions. There’s a lot we don’t know about these phenomena yet, but one of the few things we do know is that physical changes to a person’s brain will result in changes to the phenomena. Small changes or drastic ones, depending on the stimulus.

Doesn’t that look like a biological process?

Doesn’t that look like phenomena that are governed by physical cause and effect?

Even though we don’t fully understand them, don’t these phenomena have all the hallmarks of a physical event, or function, or relationship?

Gravitation-Solar_sys8
I mean, even when we didn’t know what gravity was (which, if I understand the science correctly, we still don’t fully grasp), once we got the idea of it we understood that it was a physical phenomenon. Once we got the idea and began studying and observing it, we didn’t try to explain it by invisible spirit- demons living inside objects and pulling towards each other. We could see that it was physical objects having an effect on other physical objects, and we understood that it was a physical force.

In other words, we don’t need to completely understand a phenomenon to recognize it as a physical event, governed by laws of physical cause and effect.

And when you start looking at the “soul,” you realize that that’s exactly what it looks like, too.

Bell_brain_cut
Everything that we call the “soul” is affected by physical events in our bodies, and those events alter it, shape it, and eventually destroy it. Apply opiates to the brain, and get euphoria; apply a stroke to the brain, and get impairment in the ability to understand language; apply vigorous physical exercise to the brain, and get stress reduction; apply repeated blows to the brain, and get loss of memory and intelligence. Apply anesthesia to the brain, and create the temporary obliteration of consciousness. Remove blood or oxygen to the brain, and create its permanent obliteration. It looks exactly like a physical, biological process: a poorly understood one as of yet, but a biological process nonetheless.

And there’s no reason to believe otherwise. The theory that the soul is some sort of metaphysical entity or substance has no solid evidence to back it up. Just as with life after death, attempts to find evidence for a spirit or soul have consistently withered and died when exposed to the searing light and heat of the scientific method. And there’s never been any good explanation of how, exactly, the metaphysical soul is supposed to influence and interact with the brain and the body.

Not to mention why it can be so drastically altered when the body alters.

Is there energy inhabiting our brain and our body? Yes, of course. There are electrical impulses running through our brains and up and down our nerves; there are chemical signals being transmitted through our muscles and guts; we consume food energy and radiate heat.

But is there some sort of non-physical energy inhabiting our brain and our body? Is there some sort of non-physical energy generating our consciousness, our personality, our coherent identity, our ability to make decisions?

There’s no reason to think so.

We have an enormous amount yet to learn about self and will, consciousness and character. But everything we know about them points to them being physical phenomena. And the more we learn about them, the more true that becomes.

Other posts in this series:

“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant On What Consciousness And Selfhood Might Be
A Lattice of Coincidence: Metaphysics, the Paranormal, and My Answer to Layne
How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist: Part 3