Blog: The Selfish Story (2): is your soul a story?
In the first part of this series of articles I have argued that stories — or, in their most condensed form, memes — control a large part of our perceived reality. Similar to genetics, it’s their selfishness that make stories so powerful and ultimately accounts for their viral spreading, only loosely — if at all — grounded in a verifiable truth. In this part, I’ll take a closer look at two story-related items: worldviews and “epimemetics”.
Most likely every living person has such a thing as a worldview, a more or less conscious story we tell ourselves about the world. A person’s worldview is integral part of what psychologists call “personal narrative”, the fundamental story we believe — but not necessarily tell — about ourselves AND the world. It might seem odd to subordinate the worldview to the personal narrative and not the other way around — after all, we are part of the world — but in fact all stories we tell to ourselves start are told first-person and thus our subjective reality precedes any story about the world, or worldview.
Perhaps the most debated and arguably the central problem of the philosophy of all times — is the nature of human consciousness, a.k.a. “the hard problem of consciousness”: how come that we seem to directly experience a story about ourselves in the first place ? In other words: how come that we seem not only to live a life, but also experience it from a first-person view? It’s a sheer impossibility to enumerate, let alone explain, the countless worldviews generated by millenia of philosophy and centuries of research in a short article, so I’ll have to grossly oversimplify things here. One can generally, at a very coarse level, distinguish two main patterns of worldviews. In order to preserve some generality and hopefully avoid confusion with already established terms, I’ll call them bottom-up and top-down worldviews, respectively.
For example, the materialist worldview is essentially a bottom-up hierachical construction: starting from the most fundamental levels of reality we know from the laws of physics (sub-atomic particles, fields, energy etc.), all the rest is built up: chemistry builds upon physics, biology builds upun chemistry and so on up the chain until somewhere in this unimaginable complex “onion hierarchy” of reality consciousness emerges as a mental reality.
In contrast, the different flavors of idealism and most religions are top-down worldviews: something, this time at the upper layer of the same observed “onion hierarchy” of reality, is the fundamental substance out of which everything we observe emerges. How that something is called depends on the particular worldview: typically the “mind” in non-theistic philosophy and “soul” in most religions.
Needless to say, worldviews are competing stories about reality. Like any viral stories, they are fundamentally selfish in maximizing their spreading. But how well are they grounded in a verifiable truth ? Similarly to how genes express themselves and interact with their environment — epigenetics, memes interact with observable reality to a greater or lesser degree: I will call this “epimemetics”. I will attempt a short critique.
The materialistic worldview has been typically associated with modern science. Because it did a tremendous job at explaining reality at different levels (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), materialism has been uncritically promoted to a dogma in some circles, mostly in the form of universal reductionism — or “constructivist hypothesis” as P. Anderson has called it . In short, universal reductionism states that everything at a given level of reality can — and should — be explained 100% by the laws of the layers below: chemistry is nothing but applied physics, biology nothing but applied chemistry and so on up until the human mind and its mental reality being completely reducible to movements of atoms. This is probably the widest spread philosophical “fake news” of all times! In reality, universal reductionism is plain wrong: while every level of reality does rely on and obey the laws of the level below, “the ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe”, as P. Anderson notes . D. Deutsch spends an entire chapter debunking the universal reductionist myth in his book . Nevertheless, as with any selfish story and due to “weak epimemetics”, universal reductionism still seems to stick around ad probably will for some time.
Ironially, it is precisely the pretense of universality of this “straw man” reductionist materialism that makes it vulnerable as a philosophy of the mind to the following line of arguments: if everything is ultimately reducible to the properties of matter and movement of atoms, then we are nothing but some moving atoms and our lives are “meaningless”. Our struggle for knowledge, our pain when a beloved one dies and obviously love itself would be nothing but a chain of chemical responses in our brains and bodies, so the argument goes.
But that is far from an unavoidable conclusion. As we have seen, the argument is fallaciously rooted in the false idea of universal reductionism debunked above. Love is a chemical response only if one looks at the chemical level, thereby ignoring the vast emerging complexity of systems at higher levels — the fallacy of reductionism is forcing the observer to only consider a certainl level rather than the entire system. Still, I’ve seen so many intelligent people fooled by it and, because it sticks around so well it has been used to fuel up a competing selfish story: that of a soul.
Because materialism in the form presented has been deemed to fail us miserably (raise your hand, who wants to be degraded to a meaningless bunch of atoms ?), both idealism and religions propose a top-down solution. Instead of different layers building up to our complex mental reality, they postulate that mental reality is fundamental and all other layers beneath are either constructions of the mind or belong to a different realm altogether (mind-matter dualism as present in most theistic religions).
Religions, particularly, stand out in the diversity of competing worldviews. Unlike rational worldviews which attempt, at least in principle, to establish some ever-evolving correlation between their story and the observable reality, the “act of faith” proclaims a story as the absolute, unquestionable ground truth, period — essentially a zero-epimemetics story. Faith thus explicitly becomes the ultimate selfish story. This is most likely the reason why for many people, including myself, religion is incompatible with critical thinking, because critical thinking fundamentally requires the possibility to question any story — at least in principle.
The only logical way for religion to be compatible with science is by making sure their stories do not overlap or, if they do, at least they don’t make conflicting predictions. Indeed, many scientists seem to be religious claiming exactly this. But most religious stories do make a lot of predictions that compete with scientifically verified — or verifiable — truths. Many of those predictions cannot be simultaneously right in both science and religion.
One of them is the story of a soul, a powerful cultural meme with variations in all religions (with the notable exception of buddhism). In modern times, the idea of a (often immortal) soul sticks with us for several reasons: 1. the undeniable experience of a self 2. the perceived lack of a better explanation for 1 3. fear of death and, importantly, 4. because it is a viral selfish story. It is massively fueled up by the “fake news” around the supposedly absurd consequences of materialism I’ve discussed above, incorrectly and abusively used to derived a nihilist world devoid of meaning.
But the critical thinker bears the obligation to look at competing stories in a critical manner. Both materialistic (debunked as above) and idealist worldviews exist that are exclusively rooted in rational thinking and require no act of faith. Because each layer of reality brings up its own “meaning”, there is nothing in materialism preventing the rich mental reality we are living in, in spite of many attempts to prove otherwise (mostly along the lines of Searle’s chinese room argument ). We are on the brink of Artifial Intelligence and there is hope that some “constructive proof” will come from there. Conversely, idealist views exist that attempt to explain the same reality top down, encountering complementary problems like the combination problem . At te moment, my money would be on the materialistic approach to shed light on the matter, simply because we have better tools there: mathematics, Turing machines and computers.
So what if it turns out that your immortal soul going to heaven is really the wrong story, or a “bad explanation” as D. Deutsch calls it, and you are “just” the rich mental entity you experience everyday ? Should you feel lost,sad, angry and your life meaningless or worthless ? As I have tried to argue in debunking universal reductionism, my stance is clear: not at all. Except the immortality part (hey, you can’t have everything..) you’d still be the most marvellous thing in the known Universe, able to understand and change it — and hopefully not destroy yourself in the process.
Missing the immortality part ? It’s not hopeless. First of all, we might die at individual level, but we “live on” in the memory of the people we touch during our lives or, if we live a particularly meaningful life, in the collective memory of humanity. So live a meaningful life — this life, right here, right now.
Still not happy ? We already talk about transhumanism: if the materialistic hypothesis is true, then it predicts we should be able to upload ourselves in a different “brain” or computer. It sounds far-fetched, but nothing seems to prevent it in principle and the Sherlock Holmes principle for science applies: “whatever is not forbidden by the laws of nature must be possible”. Maybe that’s what really meant with the afterlife, immortal soul and ressurection in religions: powerful — albeit vague — selfish stories that ultimately come to shape our reality rather than the other way around.
We’ll hopefully find out one day.
 P. W. Anderson “More Is Different”, https://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/08/bblonder/phys120/docs/anderson.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1DNr3wwYfhGHUCCg8WZzv3kd-GsxCx4dYrJwEqMzI8JHvx278ZiZ-FFq4
 D. Deutsch, “The Beginning of Infinity”
 Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Meme” http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,22988-1,00.html