Rocka My Soul; or On Consciousness, the Self, and the Body

I’m not much for woo woo. I generally believe life is a series of largely random events strung together by coincidence and not-so-random “what did you THINK was going to happen when you stood on a rocking chair to change a lightbulb” kind of chain of events. I don’t really WANT to be this hard-eyed sometimes. I’d like to believe that there is some power at work with us, within us, without us. That there is Something else. But mostly I’m pretty sure there ain’t.

But in the way that happens sometimes, my various reading material has been coalescing recently. Coincidence? Recently, I’ve been conscious of consciousness, and what people are saying about the mind and the self.

A New York Times article stated this on 7/5/16: “Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, suggested … that consciousness is a kind of con game the brain plays with itself. The brain is a computer that evolved to simulate the outside world. Among its internal models is a simulation of itself — a crude approximation of its own neurological processes. The result is an illusion. Instead of neurons and synapses, we sense a ghostly presence — a self — inside the head. But it’s all just data processing.”

And I thought, yup, that makes sense. We’re flesh, bone, electricity. That’s all.

But then, Marilynne Robinson had this objection to the state of neurosicence research around consciousness in her essay “Humanism” in The Givenness of Things:

“The amazing complexity of the individual cell is being pored over in other regions of science, while neuroscience persists in declaring the brain, this same complexity [as a cell] vastly compounded, an essentially simple thing.”

And I thought, well, maybe she’s right. Maybe we’re not being open to the possibilities of what could make up the self, could explain the -ism of being human.

Robinson suggests that neuroscience essentially lacks the imagination that physicists have used to posit the surprising things they encounter. Can’t there be more to matter than matter, they ask? Perhaps there is anti-matter, they suggest, and seek to explain what they see by way of this new idea. Robinson wants Graziano and his ilk to get past the data processing simplification and see the magic of human consciousness as possibly containing, well, some magic. Some spirit — something Else.

There seems to be power for the body in positive thinking, exercising the body can lighten the mind, imagining your tennis stroke can improve it. The mind/body wall is melting. But does that mean the body is all in the mind; or the mind is all in the body? Am I my body? Is my body’s encounter with the world the ingredients of “me”? Am I more than that?

But this mind/body question was brought viscerally home to me with this statement by Ta-nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me:

“I believed, and still do, that our bodies are ourselves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”

And I thought, yes. That’s some powerful thinking, especially in the context of the cold reality of being a black man in the U.S. The tender flesh — there is nothing else.

But then I saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater the other night.

Oh, my, the magic in those moving bodies. The spirit. Shit, you all. That was Something Else.



3 thoughts on “Rocka My Soul; or On Consciousness, the Self, and the Body

  1. Pingback: Rocka My Soul; or On Consciousness, the Self, and the Body | Marilynonaroll’s Blog | word pond

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