In a nutshell, what is this theory of the soul?
The thesis of the book may be simply stated. For all of us, awareness is an everlasting experience: there is no oblivion. But awareness is always awareness of being something in the universe, a sentient being. And so, when ‘I’ am not aware of being the person ‘I’ am now, ‘I’ am aware of being some other sentient being. This sentient being is literally any of the other sentient beings that exist in the lifetime of the entire universe.
But who is ‘I’ if it is not the person or sentient being referred to?
The inverted commas around ‘I’ acknowledge this glaring question. Rather than dismiss this ‘I’ as an artefact of the person pondering these matters, as many philosophers and scientists would, the theory suggests that it is essentially ‘awareness of being’ or ‘sense of self’ (what I have called ‘the soul’). It is thus not an entity or thing as ‘the soul’ is traditionally conceived. It is an activity. The apparent locus of this activity is the nervous system of the individual concerned, but the theory conceives of it as an activity of the universe in its entirety. This point will be elucidated in due course.)
The idea that within our own lifespan our conscious awareness is continuous is not so counter-intuitive. We do not, by definition, experience discontinuities in our awareness – i.e. oblivion - such as arise in certain stages of sleep, severe intoxication, and concussion and under general anaesthesia. But surely, science, rational thinking, and common sense tell us that outside of our lifespan – say after we are dead – there is no awareness; there is, indeed, total oblivion.
True. More generally, unless we invoke religious or mystical beliefs, it seem to us that before we are born there is unawareness; we are then continuously aware of being one and the same person for a certain period (with regular episodes of oblivion associated with unconsciousness); then we cease being aware for ever. Now, in the Prologue of the book, I list some of the questions that arise when we adopt this everyday way of thinking such as: ‘Why was a born me and not someone else?’; ‘If I hadn’t been born the person I am, would I have been born as someone else?’; ‘If not, how come all the billions of circumstances necessary for me to be born at all just happened to be in place?’; and so on.
These are all reasonable questions but one answer may simply be ‘That’s just the way the universe is’. Hence, your ‘soul’, your awareness of being, is inseparable from the person you are. In a manner of speaking, the two of them are born, live, and die together and therefore awareness is not an eternal experience.
That may be the case, but it still leaves the unanswered question ‘Why was I born the person I am and not someone else?’ and I believe that this is a valid question.
Most people can understand this question and religious teachings may provide us with an answer. But how can you justify this assertion on rational grounds?
One way is to challenge the idea of continuity of person identity over time – i.e. that we are ‘the same person’ over the duration of our lives. In Part II of the book, as a result of various deliberations and thought experiments, it is considered quite appropriate to set aside this compelling assumption. One of the thought experiments concerns the perfect replication of a ‘Host’ (the physical body of a person) and certain paradoxes that arise from this and variations on the theme. The point that is being illustrated is that our own sense of being ‘the same person’ over time (the same person in the past as the person we are now and the anticipation that, until our demise, we shall continue being that same person) needs to be, and can be, set aside in order to progress towards answering the questions posed.
Is there any other basis for setting aside the assumption of preservation of personal identity?
Yes. In fact this outcome could have been anticipated earlier in Part I of the book from the discussion of objects versus activities. Saying that something is the same object at different times is different from saying the equivalent of an activity. Activities do not exist over time; there is no preservation of identity of activity in the same way that we think of objects being identical over time. Importantly, we are able to say that what we mean by ‘a person’ is not an object but an activity performed by that individual’s physical body, especially his or her brain and nervous system – what the theory calls a ‘host’.
Where does this take us?
Having made this step it then appears a more reasonable proposition that one’s awareness of being is not restricted to the individual we identify as our ‘self’; and it may indeed be ‘an eternal experience’.
It seems that there is no definitive reason why this cannot be so, but there are clear obstacles to be negotiated if one wants to take this further. Notably, we need to ask, ‘If the ‘I’ in the initial questions is not just confined to my current self, who or what else is ‘I’ associated with? Who else am ‘I’ aware of being?’
One answer would be to invoke the concept of simple reincarnation. When the person I am dies ‘I’ will be aware of being another person who comes into the world after my death. Is this what the theory proposes?
No! Despite claims to the contrary, this idea has no firm empirical support. (Logically, it is hard to see how this could be demonstrated, but I’ll not go into this here.) Neither does it answer any of our questions; for example, if on my death ‘I’ am ‘reincarnated’ as, say, John Smith, I would then be asking, ‘Why was I born John Smith and not somebody else?’
So what is the solution?
The solution proposed is that the object of, say, my awareness of being – my self - includes any and all sentient beings in the universe. Thus, in a manner of speaking, there is only one ‘I’, one unitary ‘awareness of being’ or soul (though we must remember that this is an activity, not ‘a thing’). Nevertheless, at any one time, my awareness of being can only be associated with one such self; it is clear to me that I cannot experience simultaneous awareness of more than one sentient being.
How does this answer the question ‘What happens to ‘I’ when the person ‘I’ am ceases to exist?’ If my awareness of being is universal, how can I experience being any person who is alive at any point during my lifetime? Surely if, once I die, I become aware of being another self, that ‘self’ must be born after I have died. So we are back to the idea of serial reincarnation over time (being born, living, dying, being reborn as a different person, and so on).
Not necessarily. Before arriving at the present position, Part III of the book provides a solution to the above problem by observing that our concept of time as fixed and flowing in a forward direction is based on our subjective experience and does not have to represent what happens in reality. Importantly, what constitutes ‘now’ is personal to each one of us. Events occur before, simultaneously with, and after a given event (such as a conscious experience), but there is no objective ‘now’ in the universe and therefore nothing that objectively defines what is in the past and the future. There is still such a phenomenon as ‘time’ but we can detach existence from time so that ‘everything in the lifetime of the universe exists’. We achieve this by thinking of time as a fourth spatial dimension and conceive of the universe throughout its lifetime as a four-dimensional object. ‘Now’ is equivalent to ‘here’ and thereby undefined except by our individual selves; likewise past and future are equivalent to ‘there’. Of course this requires a very different conception of what is meant by ‘something exists’ than our normal understanding provides for us.
We can thus understand how ‘I’ can experience being any sentient organism in the lifetime of the universe. What a particular sentient organism experiences as ‘the present time’ is confined to him, her or it and does not apply to any other sentient organism within or outside of its own lifespan.
So what is this universal ‘awareness of being’? Is it some kind of supernatural force, energy or spirit that permeates the entire space-time universe?
Certainly not! In Part IV of the book I suggest that it is valid to consider the entire universe as one organic whole in space-time and that anything we categorise as a separate object should be considered as a part of the universe, likewise any activity. Thus for any object involved in any activity, whereas usually say ‘X (a thing) does Y (an activity)’, we can equally say, ‘The universe engages in Y’. This goes for consciousness and self-awareness: we may say, ‘The universe engages in the activity of being aware of itself and its own activity at rare and minute localities in space-time where its structure is appropriately organised to do so’. These localities are ‘sentient beings’ or ‘hosts’. Thus ‘awareness of being’ or ‘soul’ is something the universe does; it is not an isolated property of certain objects.
Is this a scientific theory?
When I developed these ideas, I did not start out with the theory and then attempt to ‘prove it’: I followed a series of arguments without having any particular result in mind until the above conclusions suggested themselves. I have not based the theory on entities or processes that are unknown to or contradicted by modern science. I have not had to rely on mystical or metaphysical notions, sacred writings, or any claims to ‘divine inspiration’. Indeed I have proceeded by setting aside assumptions that we make about our world based on our subjective experience and adopting radically simplified ways of thinking about it. Hence I believe that the conclusions are reasonable and may have a significant chance of being correct, although they probably cannot be tested in the manner of a scientific theory.
How does the theory account for consciousness or self-awareness?
In the book I do not put forward any ideas as to how consciousness and self-awareness occur, notably in the human brain. This is the business of neuroscientists. Neuroscientists naturally adopt a ‘bottom up’ approach (based on studies of the brain), whereas I describe my approach as ‘top down’. I believe that the latter is as essential as the former in any account of these matters.
If the theory is correct, what difference would it make to anything?
If the theory is valid, the implications for any individual are awe-inspiring - exciting but also terrifying - as I describe in Part VI of the book. For example, someone who accepts the possibility of the theory would have to think about how he or she is to behave towards others, as according to the theory, ‘What you do unto others you also do unto yourself’.
This surely contradicts the theory, since the theory itself implies that the universe is fixed and immutable in space-time.
Yes, the theory as it stands is both highly reductionist and deterministic and, without any further consideration, does not allow for the possibility that events may sometimes be undecided until the exercise of ‘free will’. This omission would represent a weakness of the theory if, as is not incompatible with current scientific thinking, indeterminism, including free will, were possible in some form.
Accordingly, in Part VII of the book I have put forward some speculations about the nature of free will. I have speculated that free will or conscious choice may be associated with momentary states of uncertainty in the outcome of brain activity. These states may occur at those times when we actually do experience uncertainty about what action to take next and we have the sense of making a conscious choice. I speculate that the two or more possible outcomes available to us are allowed to co-exist in different versions of our universe. In this I am influenced by the writings and theories of modern physicists but I claim no specialist knowledge of these matters. Whether these speculations are correct or not does not affect the tenability of the Theory of the Soul.
I’m not sure I have really understood all of this
Quite a number of people who have read Universal Awareness tell me this. One reason for it may be that the book is badly written but this is not what readers say. Another reason is that the reasoning behind the theory is so fundamentally flawed as to make it incomprehensible, and I don’t realise it. Again this is not what readers say, although some may consider that I am wrong in my assumptions and arguments. The real problem, it seems to me, is that understanding the reasoning behind the theory requires one to set aside one’s normal way of thinking about the material world, such as identity, existence, time, and causality, and to think of these things in a strictly objective fashion. I refer to this process as ‘objectivisation’. I have more to say about this in my discussion of Premise 1.