Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On Souls

Yes, yes, long time, no write.  I have been as busy as the King of Couches - that is, Sofa King busy.  In fact, I should be sleeping right now, because I have to be awake in about five hours and if I don't get my happy ass outta bed then I won't get to do all the super cool things I need to do tomorrow.  Anyway, in bed, I was reflecting on a conversation I'd had earlier about emotional intimacy.  I said at some point that it was "souls touching," and my interlocutor asked, "But aren't you an atheist?"

"Well, yeah."

"So you don't believe in souls, right?"

"Of course not.  But that's still what I mean.  That's still what it feels like."

This "clarification" did not help things.

But laying in bed and thinking about it, I was reminded of my difficulty some time back convincing a few people on the internet that yes, atheists can still be spiritual (and not just dictionary atheists).  And it was just really tough to get the idea across that you can have a sense of wonder and contemplation that is entirely (un-super-)natural but still have totally valid feelings of a spiritual nature that characterize the experience - and calling it a "spiritual experience" for that reason is accurate and not cheapening.  When you have happy feelings, you are feeling happy; when you have spiritual feelings, you are feeling spiritual.  In the same way, atheists can also speak of the human spirit, a spirited person, or the spirit of a law - none of those has any supernatural connotations, either (at least not when an atheist uses them), yet we have no problem with the spirit there.  I'm starting to think this is part of being post-atheist; like, I'm just tired of arguing about hokum, and getting on with my life.

It's the same thing that got me sick of philosophy, really:  philosophers not being up on their science, and me being too impatient to wait for the conversation to move forward.  Now, I mean, I don't expect every scholar to be up on every field (or even all the finer points of every discipline in their own field), but for goodness' sake, there's got to be some cross-pollination!  Take "knowledge," for instance:  the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's articles on Epistemology and Knowledge Analysis both lean heavily on the "justified true belief" framework of knowledge.  Even when they depart from the problematically circular truth condition, reliabilism is vulnerable to the same circularity.  By contrast, in library & information science, we lean more on the "data-information-knowledge" framework.  Wikipedia's article on it is good for generalities across disciplines, but here's how I use it in my work*:  data is just numbers, like 1 or 3; information is data with context, like 1 gallon or 3 dollars; knowledge is information that is interrelated to other information, like 1 gallon of milk costs 3 dollars American.  To complete the DIKW pyramid, wisdom is a distillation of a broad range of knowledge for a practical purpose (action wisdom!), like knowing whether $3.00 USD is a good price for a gallon of milk in your area.  This relational aspect of knowledge is key, and the framework in general more closely tracks how we actually use knowledge in our day-to-day lives.  This is a simple knowledge web, but it's just the price of milk; imagine the sorts of webs you'd need to talk about the Magna Carta, or the wisdom to judge whether someone else "really knows about it" (and how to develop, examine, and document that knowledge is the stuff of curriculum development, which I am also studying!).  And these guys are stuck on friggin' Gettier problems?  Give me a break!

Now, OK, I know philosophers have a lot to say about epistemology, but here's the thing:  I don't care any more.  I'ma just be over here, doing my work, merrily presupposing a real world and deliberately not examining exactly what I mean by that in any great detail, and y'all can go pound salt.  :)  Love and kisses.  Similarly, as a post-atheist, I'm just kind of tired of arguing about it, and that helps me be more open to things like "atheistic spirituality," which for me, just means finding a sense of wonder and awe in contemplation of the Universe and my place in it (and caring less that it's not "really spiritual," like that means anything anyway).  It's entirely based on a scientific understanding of the world, I'm thinking about science when these things happen, but the feelings have this character that is unmistakably "spiritual" to me.  I'm comfortable with that.

So.  Sooouuuuul-touchin'.

It's like this connection with someone, right?  But it's not the same as "clicking" with them.  It's getting to know them, who they are, where they come from, what's their story - and you learn a little more of each other's stories, and understand a little more about where you each come from.  (This is unlikely to happen very much between people who don't get on well.)  And when you share your stories like that, it's like, it's like...

It's like you're touching souls.  Like your soul is your story.  And if you think about it, our stories do a lot of the things that we want our souls to do.  They're a non-physical** part of who we are.  They're that central thing that makes us be ourselves.  A little change here or there might not be much - or it might change a whole lot!  In a way, our stories go back way before our own lives began - way way back, depending on how you look at it.  And they will go on long after we die.

Of course, in a very real sense, our stories do end at our deaths.  Other events will carry on, and others will carry our stories with them as they live out their lives, but for us us "us" - that is, the "I" that we care about at the helm of our individual consciousness - that's still snuffed out.  We still want that to live on, we want that to be the way the story continues.  It's entirely understandable, and of course we'd tell ourselves stories about how that's really the way things work, whether that's true or not.

But yeah, our stories really make us who we are.  The remembered and the unremembered parts, both; and even that changes over time.  The remembered parts are the most salient bits, while we remember them, and I suppose also to the extent that we remember them, and how much of that story we share is how much of our soul we bare.  There are parts we hide, parts hidden even from us.  Parts that shine, parts that are rusty; bright parts, and dark parts.  Messy parts, complicated parts, beautiful parts - sometimes all three of these at once!  To quote Rise Against, "How we survive is what makes us who we are."

Think of books.  Storybooks.  "The Little Red Hen."  What's the story?  Go through it in your head, think out the story on your own.  Where did you first hear it?  Do you remember hearing about it?  I remember being read the story as a small child, but only a few times.  Do you know any other versions of it, or where you heard them?  I can think of the Stinky Cheese Man (and other fractured fairy tales), but it's pretty fuzzy.  OK, so there are all these books, right?  Oh, and oral versions, each time it was told.  Hell, even each time the different books were read, I bet there were loads of unique readings (and if you've ever read a story to a kid, then you know I mean unique readings!).  But what's the story?  I don't mean like a ship of Theseus problem, we have the same problem when we're talking about "what is a duck?" type of stuff, too.  I think we can all agree that there's no single authoritative version of "The Little Red Hen," just like there's no physical archetypal duck to refer to:  because there's no established original version, because it was a folk tale that evolved probably from several different stories being mingled before it in a complex chain.  The duck comparison was not chosen idly, we have the exact same problem identifying the borders between species (ring species, anyone?).  It's messy and complicated.  That's OK.

Librarians, of course, have a way to handle this.  The Group 1 items of the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (we pronounce it "fur-brr") are works, expressions, manifestations, and items - and yes, these all have highly technical meanings.  Here's a diagram from the Wikipedia page, and I promise a fill-in-the-blank below:

This is totally clear to me.  Isn't it clear to you?

OK, here's how you use this beautiful beast:  I, as in me, have an item.  This item is a copy of Sun Tzu's Art of War - Ralph D. Sawyer's translation (smile!), actually.  OK, so let's just recap briefly:  this one item is my copy, that I own, of Ralph D. Sawyer's translation of Art of War (1994 edition).  That last bit, the 1994 edition, that's the key to "manifestation," because there are actually a few different editions of "Ralph D. Sawyer's translation of Art of War," if you can dig that.  The last link there is an eBay auction of the 1996 edition cloth hardcover, which I say not because I want it, but because it is distinct and likely to be a dead link in the near future.  I mean, I want it, but don't get it for me.  My one is enough, I am out of bookshelf room, and I have no more room for more bookshelves.  Please do not send me any books, it is becoming a problem because my room is small.  My point is that the manifestation is the 1994 edition of Ralph D. Sawyer's translation (i.e. the set of all items which are the physical books themselves), and the expression is Ralph D. Sawyer's translation in all its editions (i.e. the set of all manifestations which are published at different times/places).  The work itself is Sun Tzu's Art of War, and for that reason I keep it under Sun Tzu and not Ralph D. Sawyer.  So people and corporate bodies create works, and these works can be expressed in various ways (in various languages and media and formats and such), and these expressions take on a particular manifestation at publishing time (defining our way to victory), which results in a run of items.  Many times, that run is 1, as with Duke Somethingname's 1542 illuminated manuscript, On the Making-Up of Historical Works.  An original text, never since reproduced, this single item is itself the only item under this work's umbrella, but its manifestation was still produced over a period of time as an expression of this work - translations and annotated editions, should they be made, would flesh out different expressions with various manifestations themselves.  So good, or no good?

Anyway, this is super-useful for organizing collections of books, but not so much for connecting souls to stories.  The point is that it's messy and complicated, and we have a system to handle it but it's tailor-made for organizing books and isn't useful for too much else.  So with our taxonomic classifications.  But what we have works for us, in terms of what we use it for.  So no, we don't have eternal souls that outlive our bodies and sustain our minds*** beyond death.  But we do have stories that outlive us, that go back before us, that truly make us who we are and form the basis of our strongest attachments to others.  If we let our stories be our souls, I think they can work for us.  Hell, they'll be the best souls we've ever had!  After all, they don't even start to end until we die.

* - I first encountered explanation of data, information, and knowledge while writing a philosophy of technology paper for a class in 2005.  I was reading Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil, and while he uses different specifics to explain a different purpose, the hierarchical pattern of explanation is his.  He talks about how his computer can access all the information in the Swiss molecular biology archive, but he knows nothing about DNA transcription even though he might get a ton of information on it in his possession.  If I recall correctly, his point was that access to information by itself doesn't make us smarter - we may say "duh" now, but people back before the turn of the millennium were pretty caught up in it.  (Yes, there were some who were saying "duh" all along - ten internet points if you were one of them!  But it was a popular notion, nonetheless, and he was writing the book to burst that bubble, hence the title.)

** - OK, technically, our story (i.e. our past) is entirely physical, it's simply all the physical moments that comprise our life.  Time, scientifically speaking, is a dimension very like the three spatial ones, and we are in freefall through it (just as the heavens themselves are in freefall around each other).  When you're falling, what's above you hasn't ceased to exist and what's below you isn't waiting to come into existence.  A friendlier analogy might be driving down a highway:  the road behind you doesn't cease to exist and the road in front of you is there the whole time.  Similarly, the past and the future still exist just as really as the present, and thinking otherwise is like thinking that only the rectangle of asphalt you're driving on exists (and only while you're driving on it).  In this sense, it is all physical (after all, time is in the domain of physics).  And our stories as we remember them, and all our thoughts about them, are also entirely physical to the extent that they are instantiated on our neural machinery.  "The Little Red Hen" does not exist in any Platonic Form, it is simply the sum of all its instantiations:  digital, mental, print, and all their permutations (as far out as you'd like to carry it - categories, after all, are made-up and you're not cutting Nature at its joints anyway so just slice wherever you'd like and be prepared to explain why or at least how).  These are all physical.  When I say "non-physical" in the foregoing, I mean strictly in the colloquial sense and not at all in the technical sense.  I am often a technical person and so thought I should point this out.  ;)

*** - Don't forget!  All of your conscious experience, including your every dream and waking thought, is a story your brain tells itself about what it's doing on its own.  :)  Your "first-person self" is a kind of story.


Steve Bowen said...

First of all...about fuckin' time! I missed you.
Second, like you I read constantly and widely and sometimes the connections between apparantly unconnected subjects can send me in a spin for days. i can come out the other end with a new perspective on, say, thermodynamics having read a book about colonial India. Boundaries are artificial though convenient, except when trying to file stuff on my kindle which is by the way the answer to your shelving problem.

Anonymous said...

Glad you're back.

Reading something new from you is like seeing the jonquils that erupted from my lawn this week.