New Year, New You?

People change. At the beginning of a new year, many people try to change themselves. Sometimes I wonder if I can change so much that I’m a different person. Was I myself ten years ago? Will I be the same person in fifty years? Thinking about all the change, I realized I wasn’t sure what the constant was. Am I constant in some more fundamental way than my body? Do I exist in a deeper sense than just my brain state? Over break, I read Derek Parfit’s chapters on personal identity in his book Reasons and Persons. He aims to show that personal identity is not something like a soul or a “separately existing entity.” We are entirely physical, entirely subject to the laws of physics. Unpleasant, I thought.
I wanted to believe we have a spiritual nature or an essence or something—that we are not just neurological processes. I really do feel like it feels like something to be me, and I don’t see how that feeling couldn’t be the non-physical, ineffable, subjective experience I think it is–the experience of some non-physical spirit, whether it’s divinely created or somehow naturally arises to transcend the non-conscious. Spirituality afforded me what I thought was an indispensable foundation for value. What is objective value in a physical universe? Valued by who if not by some spiritual creatures? Why would physical machines valuing anything matter at all? Beyond reasons for abstract value, spirituality also often comes with the value of community, and those relationships could not be less real to me. I grew up in a large and friendly church. My dad’s a pastor and so was his; my uncle’s a priest. I respect them. I think they’re intelligent and kind people, and I want them to accept me. 83% of Americans believe they have souls. I don’t particularly want to alienate myself from all but 17% percent of people. Spirituality as a practice has many benefits.
But spirituality seems very hard to reconcile, both intellectually and emotionally, with what we see. My grandma has dementia and gradually forgot everything. People can lose their most precious memories. People can lose their most essential beliefs. Medication and brain trauma can change personalities. We seem electrochemical. If we believe in souls, we believe in convoluted things, things that we may not need to explain ourselves. What seems to have the most explanatory power and the least burden of proof is that consciousness or awareness, whatever you call it, is not non-physical. My memories are information stored in the brain. My experience of those memories is my attention (a computational signal-enhancing method) acting on that information and my brain telling itself that those memories are its own and that it is aware of them in the moment. It’s not magic. It’s physical information processing. I can’t explain it well. Michael Graziano wrote the book though. Consciousness and the Social Brain. His office is 281 in the Neuroscience building.
But back to my tight grasp on my belief in a “more-than-physical.” Do I really want to believe I’m just a physical mechanism? How does that idea make a person feel? Soulless does not have a good connotation. Reductionism, or rejecting spirituality, might seem to lead to nihilism and alienation. It feels a bit like turning away from the people you love and thinking about jumping into an abyss. Why would we do that? What is the point of such a gloomy exploration?
What’s weird to me is that even as I can’t find reasons to take down deeply unsettling theories claiming I’m not what I thought I was (quite more than biology, I thought!), the sublime isn’t any less sublime, whether or not I believe I have a soul. I still experience overpowering wonder and awe. I still love people with the same intensity. I still enjoy food. Why should food suddenly taste less good, love feel less powerful, or the stars look less pretty? So a perspective shift about what I am doesn’t seem to take away what I value. But knowing my headache is just a computed process in a mechanistic brain doesn’t stop the pain either. And seeing dementia still makes me cry. So was all of that reading I did, and those conversations I had, and what I’m writing now actually at all valuable if it didn’t change anything? In lively debates with my roommates and friends, sometimes we all just concede that the point doesn’t really matter, and that we’ll go on living basically as we have.
That being said, I think all those conversations and explorations have been valuable. I especially find this new perspective to come with meaningfully different applications to living. Like Parfit said it did for himself, his new perspective may provide some relief:
My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness… When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.
This resonated with me. Letting go of our spirituality should make us feel closer to other people. All people. Closer to animals, to the natural world. We should let go of our idea of spiritual entitlement to use nature. Our ideas of cosmic justice working itself out. Our allegations that people are spiritually evil. I think we’d be better off grounding ourselves. I’ve been using the language of “without”: “without spirituality” and “without a belief in a soul.” Letting many beliefs go. But I’m realizing this perspective shift isn’t just a negation or a narrowed field of vision. It’s a new lens—not rose-colored, but clearer. Clearer is better if you think the world is beautiful. Through that lens, I think the stars are even more mysterious for why they make me feel anything. Through that lens, I think my relationships have to be the basis of any value beyond myself. Through that lens, I see myself less seriously. I’m here so briefly, experiencing such an infinitesimal swath of the total. I like this Huxley quote from Island: “I was so preposterously serious in those days… Lightly, lightly—it’s the best advice ever given me.” Trying to be less heavy-handed than I may have been, I present a poem sketching a finish to this essay, taking us back to where we started from and suggesting we’re not just our brains. If we’re just information, or just computations of information, then we also exist in each other’s minds as well. I find that closeness comforting.

I was cutting my fingernails and eavesdropping
On my friend’s phone call conversation
When I realized I love it when people say my name
Just that “I think the group picture was on Emmett’s phone”
Or a “Say hello to Emmett”

Hearing my name makes me feel so much more real
Because sometimes I feel not really here
You ever just look at your hands?
They seem so divorced from what’s behind my eyes
When I look at my eyes long enough I wonder what’s looking at me

I’m here without my fingernails,
Without my arms and legs and
Without 98% percent of my body,
aren’t I?
Is that all there is of me?

Sentience is somewhere between a mollusk and a shrimp, Singer says
Somewhere in between my ears, I suppose
But I’m not even that and I’m not just that
Those three pounds of pinkish grey
Are essential but not enough, and not all there is to me

I’m not just a brain, but a brain in a world
I am a person because we are people together
Alone, I wouldn’t have happened
Alone, I wouldn’t have come up with a language to think with
And without me, several people wouldn’t be the same

Someone will say my name for the last time someday
I wonder when
And in what context
For now, I’m glad to hear my name
I’m glad to exist in that way too