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You Are Not Your Body

A physical explanation of souls.

If the history of the universe were shrunk to one year life would have started today, September 21, and human life would have started about 3 minutes before midnight next New Years.

Happy Life Day to you. Amazing to consider how of all the atoms in the universe yours are lucky enough to make a creature that can think about itself, its past and future, its home and its universe, anything in the great universal ball of wax.

I hope you’re making good use of this rare opportunity. It can be fun, though also stressful, striving to get by like you do.

Today is a good day to ask, just what is life? What are you? What are these creatures that emerged on September 21 of the Universe-In-A-Year.

I’ve been an atheist for decades. I have no use for the supernatural realm at all. I think of it as a cheater’s wild-card, forever off limits to a scientific challenge, a non-explanation pretending to be an explanation for anything. Dress it up all you like in proud faith and lofty values, it’s still a cheater’s wild-card, as accessible to vile causes as good ones.

I’m a monist, not a dualist. A dualist thinks there are two universes, the natural and supernatural. A monist thinks there’s just the physical universe and if we can’t explain something that happens in it, we should admit it rather than reaching for wild-card supernatural explanations, no better than “A genie caused it.”

For the past 16 years I’ve researched the origins of life with a Harvard/Berkeley life scientist, Terrence Deacon. Recently our research has led me to a surprising conclusion:

I am not my body. There really is something to the idea of a soul, though not like the soul imagined by the supernaturally inclined. I can give a strictly physical account of the soul—what we are if not our bodies. Though we are not our bodies we are strictly physical phenomena and could not exist without our bodies.

We are neither our viscera nor our DNA. All of the material we’re made of remains after we’re dead, but our selfhood is gone. Deacon’s research has been an attempt then to figure out what a self is and how it emerges in — what all the scientific evidence so far suggests is — a universe that for the first 10 billion years (from January 1 to September 21) had no selves at all.

Things matter to selves, so the question is also how mattering emerges from matter. How do you go from chemical cause and effect change to living means to ends behavior, behavior that matters to selves.

For all our scientific progress on matter and mattering independently of each other, we haven’t had a scientific explanation for their relationship. As a result, our universities have split personalities. If a physical scientist talked about Higgs Bosons, atoms, molecules, rocks, planets or galaxies as striving for what mattered to them, we’d think they were losing their minds. But just down the hall, life as social scientists are encouraged to talk about things happening because they matter to selves. Why the double standard? We don't have an answer to that question.

Life remains a mystery, and no, it’s not solved by evolutionary theory. Evolution explains how selves and mattering evolve but not how they emerge, and they had to have emerged before evolution. Evolution hones only selves and their functional traits, the traits that matter to them. Inanimate things “survive” different durations, but they don’t evolve. To claim that natural selection explains life is like claiming that erosion explains mountains. Erosion and natural selection explain how, but not what’s honed. To explain life you have to start before evolution with the first evolvable entities, systems that strive to keep on keeping on in a way that no non-self does. If scientists start by explaining the first selves and mattering you gain insights that apply to everything downstream from those origins.

We are not the material of our bodies, but we are their organization. What’s gone when we die is the organization, not the stuff. Still, what is organization? It’s physical and yet not material. Organization has no mass, volume, charge, etc.

Organization is, I’ll argue, internally-generated constraint, a restriction on the range of dynamics of the parts within a system and therefore, the states it can be in. Take all the molecules in your body, bag them loosely in a garbage bag and shake them. They can be in a vastly wider range of dynamic interaction and states, but somehow that range is constrained while we’re living selves. We are that constraint.

A dead body’s materials can be in a whole lot more states than a live one. Life is a narrow subset, not an add-on to physics and chemistry. A body’s organization is a constraint on what the material in our bodies does, and a peculiar constraint at that, a self-maintaining constraint, a constraint that channels work into maintaining itself, organization that channels energy into maintaining the organization. Machines don’t do that. Galaxies don’t do that. Only selves do that.

What prevents our bodies from visiting all of those other dynamics and states while we’re alive? Not some outside force that imposes constraint, nor some thing, an inner or outer boss or material that maintains our organization.

Instead, it’s the interactions between the molecules throughout our bodies that constrain each other. To get an idea of how internally-generated constraint happens, consider a whirlpool (though I’m about to argue that we’re different from whirlpools, since they’re not self-maintaining.)

In the formation of whirlpools, turbulent currents become impasses to each other, whereby one current can’t pass through another current, and, therefore falls into a path of least resistance around the impasses. Through a process of elimination, currents blocking currents, whirlpools formed. Water flow falls into paths of least resistance, basically a naturally occurring “self-organized” roundabout, the fastest way to keep cars moving as they enter and exit an intersection at various angles. Lots of processes generate internal constraints in a process called self-organization, even though there’s no self that is doing the organizing. A whirlpool is not alive.

A whirlpool’s internally-generated constraint is not self-maintaining in three ways: It doesn’t regenerate the energy and resources the constraint depends upon. In fact, a whirlpool depletes them, since water runs faster out a bathtub when there’s a whirlpool than when there isn’t one. It’s not constraint-preserving. When the whirlpool is gone it leaves nothing behind that preserves the constraint making the whirlpool more likely to restart. And it’s not constraint-reproducing: While it’s going, it doesn’t generate baby whirlpools that might “live” on.

In contrast, an organism’s internally-generated constraint is self-maintaining by means of constraint regeneration, preservation and reproduction. Basically, a living being’s organization is a constraint that channels external sources of energy and resources (like a whirlpool does) into work that maintains the constraint itself (unlike a whirlpool).

Deacon has a molecular model for how the first self, the first evolvable entity emerged, as a synergetic combination of two self-organizing processes. It’s actually damned simple (it would have to be what with no engineering or evolution yet possible in the pre-life universe). Here’s a video I rough-edited illustrating the model.

It was only about six months ago that it dawned on me that the fallout from this research was that we are not our material bodies. As a staunch atheist I’ve assumed that I was a materialist. Materialism is an antidote to supernaturalism. It argues that we must explain everything in terms of material objects and their interactions. But now I think of materialism as an overstep in the right direction. I still reject supernaturalism, but also materialism, because materialism doesn’t have a way to account for the way internally-generated constraint makes new things possible. There are plenty of new things under the sun; things here today that couldn’t have been here billions of years ago, though not because these new things defy the laws of physics.

I’ve coined the term “remainder logic” for how to account for constraint and organization. What exists is what remains after alternatives have been constrained out. This is the logic behind evolutionary theory: The survivors are what remain in a process more aptly described as the non-survival of the unfit selves, the termination of lineages not selected by some natural process that picks and chooses what matters to it, but simply the failure of a self’s organization to maintain and reproduce its constraint in offspring.

Remainder logic is also the insight behind information theory (the source of our bits and bytes talk), where information is measured as what remains after a process of elimination (for example getting a “yes” from “yes or no?”).

Deacon applies remainder logic to explain what happened on September 21 that has us here today, living selves striving for what matters to us. Mattering is real. Selves are real and they’re not the matter that we’re made of, or are more aptly “made through” since we don’t just “rent beer” but all the resources that make us. Selves and mattering were always a possibility in the universe, just not a realized possibility until selves and mattering emerged and, as a result, evolution started honing them.

In psychology, materialism still reigns, though it shouldn’t. You hear it in the way we continue to think we can explain all human behavior mechanistically, the cause-and-effect interaction of machine parts, the false notion that what you feel and care about is explicable as chemical secretions and “hardwiring.”

And you are not your body, though when it’s organization goes, you go too. Enjoy this while you can, and happy Life Day!

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
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More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
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