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December 2014
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Samldanach [userpic]
What am I, anyway?

In order to explain several aspects of my personal belief system, I need to start way back with the basics. Today, I'm going to follow in the footsteps of Descartes. What am I?

No simple answer to this question is ever correct. But, as I am writing a small blog post present my belief and not a fleshed out essay defending it, I shall keep my answer as simple as I can. I am a synthesis of two parts, the mind and the body. (Technically three parts, as I also ascribe a "soul" to all things, but that's a part for another day.) The difference between the two is easy to understand, but the line between them is tricky to draw. They are constantly influencing one another, with information flowing back and forth. The mind can make the body perform incredible feats (look at nearly any Olympic or professional athlete), or can make the body fail (e.g., psychosomatic illness). An injury to the body can change the way the mind operates, and we all know that illness and fatigue in the body slows or distorts the function of our mind.

The existence and presence of our bodies is, I hope, fairly self-evident. Denying it goes rapidly down the rabbit hole of Berkeley and "all of existence is an illusion". Which, while an interesting intellectual exercise, is neither an intuitive truth nor a particularly useful one. We have mass. We consume and produce energy. Et cetera. A body without a mind obeys all of the laws of physics.

The existence and presence of our minds is a bit more controversial. There are materialists, who are able to reduce the working of the mind to an emergent quality of the exceptionally complex function of our brain. (If you like that theory, I highly recommend I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter.) There are (to use a word fraught with connotation) spiritualists, who ascribe all sorts of qualities to our minds (or spirits, or souls, or whatever term you prefer), and in many cases argue that we are actually beings of pure thought (or other energy) "trapped" in these physical forms. I fall decidedly in the middle. Our physical bodies are not prisons, or millstones about our metaphysical necks. But there is something there that goes beyond the merely physical.

There is an aspect to living creatures that is qualitatively different from non-living objects. That much is fairly apparent. For one thing, living creatures can make decisions. Rocks cannot make decisions. But even the simplest life forms take actions that are not determined by pre-existing conditions (even if the creature is too simple to really be considered to be making a "choice" per se). And, inevitably, living things stop making decisions. At which point, we consider them "dead".

What is this aspect, that divides life from non-life? It is the mind. Every living creature, from viruses and molds up to trees and whales, has a mind. Some are so simple as to be nearly indistinguishable from physical processes. What separates humans from other life forms is that our mind, for whatever reason, advanced enough to be able to turn around and actually look at itself. That small change initiated a feedback loop that is responsible for all of human civilization.

That small change is what allows us to do magic.