09 November 2009

Self Identity

Who are you? What makes up... you?

Are you a collection of cells? Are you a brain? A personality? Memories? This seems like such a simple and fundamental question, but the answer is not apparent. If you are your body, then chopping off a finger or arm would reduce your essence, but that doesn’t happen. A person may lose all 4 limbs and still be considered a whole person. Likewise, a person may lose their memory entirely, but still keep their intellect intact.

You can’t live without a heart. Is the essence of you in your heart? No, it just pumps blood. What about the brain? After all, your brain is where it feels like your “thinking” takes place. Your brain controls your nerves, processes your senses, gives you endorphins when you do what it likes, but your brain is not you. If you switched brains with Barack Obama, which one would be you? The body with your brain? Or your body with his brain? The brain would retain much of the memories of your life, but where is the thing that makes YOU.

When you wish to reflect upon or consider a matter, you consult something within you. You say, shall I do it, or shall I not do it? Is it better to make this journey or abandon it? Whom do you consult? Who is within you deciding this question? Surely there is a distinct power, an intelligent ego. Were it not distinct from your ego, you would not be consulting it. It is greater than the faculty of thought. It is your spirit which teaches you, which advises and decides upon matters. Who is it that interrogates? Who is it that answers? There is no doubt that it is the spirit and that there is no change or transformation in it, for it is not a composition of elements, and anything that is not composed of elements is eternal… the body may become weakened in its members. It may be dismembered, or one of its members may be incapacitated. The whole body may be paralyzed; and yet the mind, the spirit, remains ever the same. The mind decides; the thought is perfect; and yet the hand is withered, the feet have become useless, the spinal column is paralyzed, and there is no muscular movement at all, but the spirit is in the same status.”

After some time passes, your body will get old, your brain will falter, your hair will grey, and you will get old. Is that old person you? After all, that person will likely not remember anything you’re doing right now, and will probably have different values and priorities. You will work for decades putting away a retirement fund for that old person to spend on vacations to Italy. Think back to when you were in second grade, was that you? That young person who if you met now you might be annoyed with. Is YOU a momentary thing? Are you only YOU right now at this moment?

Let’s say that you are your brain. If that’s true, then what part of your brain? If you cut out whole chunks of your brain, the rest will still function. And what’s a brain? A bunch of cells, billions of neurons connected by synapses, running trains of electrical pulses that even with today’s technology cannot even be dimly deciphered. What does a brain get us anyway? Jellyfish get by without a brain, and they are able to hunt very intelligently.

The mind which is in man, the existence of which is recognized—where is it in him? If you examine the body with the eye, the ear or the other senses, you will not find it; nevertheless, it exists. Therefore, the mind has no place, but it is connected with the brain.”

Obviously there is something special about the human brain, because we have self-consciousness. Modern humans are called Homo sapiens sapiens, which means, “earthly being who thinks about thinking”. We don’t just think, we think about what it means to think. Yet we can never fully comprehend our own self identity, the rational faculty of our minds.

Having recognized thy powerlessness to attain to an adequate understanding of that Reality which abideth within thee, thou wilt readily admit the futility of such efforts as may be attempted by thee, or by any of the created things, to fathom the mystery of the Living God, the Day Star of unfading glory, the Ancient of everlasting days. This confession of helplessness which mature contemplation must eventually impel every mind to make is in itself the acme of human understanding, and marketh the culmination of man's development."

Religions of the world teach of this conscious self as continuing on after physical death. This, in a sense, is the essence of religion, and the next world is taught to be the real world.

Thou hast asked Me whether man… will retain, after his physical death, the self-same individuality, personality, consciousness, and understanding that characterize his life in this world. If this should be the case, how is it, thou hast observed, that whereas such slight injuries to his mental faculties as fainting and severe illness deprive him of his understanding and consciousness, his death, which must involve the decomposition of his body and the dissolution of its elements, is powerless to destroy that understanding and extinguish that consciousness? How can any one imagine that man’s consciousness and personality will be maintained, when the very instruments necessary to their existence and function will have completely disintegrated?
Know thou that the soul of man is exalted above, and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind. That a sick person showeth signs of weakness is due to the hindrances that interpose themselves between his soul and his body, for the soul itself remaineth unaffected by any bodily ailments. Consider the light of the lamp. Though an external object may interfere with its radiance, the light itself continueth to shine with undiminished power. In like manner, every malady afflicting the body of man is an impediment that preventeth the soul from manifesting its inherent might and power. When it leaveth the body, however, it will evince such ascendancy, and reveal such influence as no force on earth can equal...
Consider, moreover, how the fruit, ere it is formed, lieth potentially within the tree. Were the tree to be cut into pieces, no sign nor any part of the fruit, however small, could be detected. When it appeareth, however, it manifesteth itself, as thou hast observed, in its wondrous beauty and glorious perfection. Certain fruits, indeed, attain their fullest development only after being severed from the tree.”


  1. Hey Bryan,

    You might find this Yale online course interesting: http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/death/

    Dr. Shelly Kagan energetically refutes the idea of an eternal or metaphysical soul that lives beyond the body through a series of lectures to his undergraduate class.

    Since 'Abdu'l-Bahá was working within an Islamic neo-Platonic framework, he wouldn't have been familiar with the philosophical objections to the idea of the soul, and this is reflected in his writings and lectures.

    In fact, the idea of a soul that sustains human identity has been almost completely abandoned by academic philosophers for centuries now. It's only the Bahá'í Faith and other religions that depend on this doctrine that perpetuate its popularity. Unfortunately, these religions also teach their adherents that they possess a truth beyond challenge from "mere human thinking" neglecting the ironic fact their own doctrines are the product of that very human thought (although they deny it).

  2. Mavaddat, I read over most of sessions 2, 3, and 4. It would be quite a task to read all the sessions, though I imagine it would be thought provoking.

    The philosophical objections to the idea of the soul presented by Prof Kagan are unconvincing. My blog was intended to create a reflection on the nature of consciousness, a point that Prof Kagan agrees is beyond the explanation of the materialist. Regarding the logic behind his points, from what I read his argument relies heavily on the abilities displayed by computers, a phenomenon which he clearly doesn't understand. Meanwhile he missed more fundamental questions that differentiate our physical/genetic and spiritual/virtuous desires and goals. His main argument against belief in a soul is that the phenomenon of human consciousness and intelligence can more easily be explained by material phenomenon, but he also admits that there is no material explanation for it. The tricky part is that I believe material phenomenon does lead to the soul, and that the soul is a capacity that comes first from physical composition, through evolution, and is manifested in civilization. The presence of a soul is undeniable, as it's defined by phenomena that can be observed. Its immortality, however, is another subject.

    Through personal reflection I've come to two reasons for believing in God and a soul. First is human intelligence; that through the processes of nature came a creature that could understand the world and be attracted to righteousness. Second is the Prophets.

    Regarding the truth beyond challenge, the first and foremost principle of the Baha'i Faith, as you well know, is the independent investigation of truth. The very fundamental doctrines of reality are supposed to be challenged.

  3. The ideas of one Living God, and a soul that survives in the Hereafter were the reason Socrates was martyred. If we have to, we will be martyrs too for these important beliefs. Life is relative, and the lower cannot comprehend the higher. There is rudimentary life in the mineral domain (how can minerals, oxygen, sunlight an water contribute to living things that which they do not possess?), but there is not conciousness. Likewise, we cannot grasp the nature of life in the invisible realms; but we can employ the faculty of faith, and that is what will serve us best in the Hereafter, when brains and bodies have disintegrated.