Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Body and Soul

You know Bob, right? Isn’t that him over there? He’s not been himself lately. Maybe he’s been taken over by some alien pod creature or something.  It is kind of bizarre how we identify people. That looks like Bob. And yet we also recognise knowing someone by their personality and character. So, if Bob had been body-snatched then that may be Bob’s body, but it’s not Bob. We make a distinction between Bob the body and Bob the soul within that body, with Bob the soul taking precedent in regards to Bobness.

In our dealings with others we recognise a certain unique spark that we call the soul. In death the lights go out there is nothing there but a vacant shell. So it is easy to imagine how our primitive ancestors, seeing that spark one moment and then gone, contrived a separation of body and soul as two distinct parts with one being the shell and the other being the life essence within the shell.

From this simple starting point, human beings of every culture throughout history have added to the collective lore concerning this thing called the soul, but one thing is generally agreed upon. The soul is this unique thing that makes us who we are. It is what makes Bob Bob.

From a scientific perspective, there is a study devoted entirely to the study of the soul. Its name come from the Greek word psyche, meaning soul, and the familiar suffix –ology, meaning the study of something – though most people would hardly consider psychology to be the study of the soul. Nonetheless, when we speak of the soul we are indeed referring to the psycho-emotional make-up unique to each individual rather than some mystical energy force.

The study of neuroscience gives further insight into the functions of the brain and therefore the functions of the soul. For the soul is not independent from the body. All that comprises it are the product of a complex electro-chemical computer called the human brain. We know this because some victims of severe brain trauma undergo radical changes in personality; in old age, we often see a personality deteriorate; and under the influence of certain drugs a person changes into someone else – very Jekyll and Hyde. In light of this understanding, we should start thinking of the soul in physical terms, but old habits die hard and we still grant it a supernatural position transcending the affects of the flesh.

I predict that in the distant future it will be possible to input a DNA sample from a newborn baby into a computer and from that create a slideshow of how that body will develop through the decades and into old age. You will be able to see how this infant will look at forty. Within our DNA is the blueprint of what our bodies will become.

Of course this future DNA imaging will not be entirely accurate. The infant may develop eating habits that will lead to obesity or become a slim and muscular health fanatic. An accident may twist his form or acne may scar his face. The child’s personality may imprint a dour expression or one filled with hope and joy. There are so many variables that can alter the base-line form established from our DNA slideshow, but that essential form will still be fixed despite these divergences.

The same holds true of the soul. There is a fixed and immutable baseline of who we are as individuals that cannot be changed any more than we can make ourselves taller or shorter in body. However, as with the flesh, variations on this basic theme occur.

There is a saying that no good deed goes unpunished. A person who is naturally kind and generous may find themselves constantly taken advantage of by others and unappreciated. This may lead to a bitter and miserly soul, not unlike the body of a beautiful person twisted by hard living. Just as a naturally scrawny man may use bodybuilding to bulk-up, so too might a naturally lazy soul develop positive habits to be more industrious.

Also, some templates are naturally different from others. Looking at two year old children it is not difficult to distinguish the future athlete and from the future philosopher with his “old soul”. Just as one child has the physical form inherited from his parents that will make him a future athlete, another child has the hardwired soul, also from his parents, that will make him a future philosopher.

Some athletes die from heart failure in their thirties while fifty year chain smokers live into their eighties. It’s all in the genes. This has led many to consider predestination. To what degree do our genes predetermine the direction and limitations of the development of our bodies and souls? To what degree can we truly affect the positive changes we desire?

A 2011 film called The Adjustment Bureau addresses this topic. A man discovers the existence of an agency, which is implied to be divine, that keeps people moving along a life path determined by “the chairman”, aka God, but our hero is determined to make his own choices in spite of their meddling. He succeeds in the end and is told by an angel figure:

Most people live life on the path we set for them, too afraid to explore any other. But once in a while people like you come along who knock down all the obstacles we put in your way. People who realize freewill is a gift that you'll never know how to use until you fight for it. I think that's the chairman's real plan. That maybe one day, we won't write the plan, you will.

The point being made here is that most people will naturally follow the course predetermined by their genes and only wilful action can change that, however I believe that even then there are limitations. Just as a short body cannot be made tall, certain aspects of personality are also fixed. Or as the prayer says, we must “accept the things we cannot change, have the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

In the field of human development and personality, the long running debate is Nature vs Nurture. The question is, “Are we predominantly the product of our inherited genes (Nature) or the product of our environment (Nurture).” The answer tends to swing back and forth over the decades as to which is predominant and these days we find that Nature seems to be winning by several percentage points.

We have inherited the physical aspects of both of our parent’s genetic soup to become a genetic amalgam, so too is your soul a mix. Hence the mother’s cry, “You’re just like your father” or the adage that all women eventually become their mother, or that “the apple does not fall far from the tree”, so you can judge someone by their family.

In contrast, the Victorians accepted the Tabula Rasa theory, known as the colloquially as the “clean slate”, dating back to Aristotle. This view holds that we are born a clean slate and our identity is manufactured during our development. They were wrong of course, but they were right.

Today, we encourage children to “be themselves”, let them develop naturally, and we only interfere when their “natural” behaviour becomes annoying, threatening, or politically incorrect. Looking at the body, we encourage children to eat right and get exercise. We do not just let them be natural, yet we as a society do not impose the same regiment on their souls as our Victorian forebears had done. The genetically preordained nature of body and soul is not inherently right, necessarily desirable, or automatically advantageous. So we fight against it.

The reason I chose to write on this topic is because of a conversation that I recently had with a friend of mine concerning a past relationship of mine that did not work-out. I mentioned my failures and she pointed out that being incompatible does not denote failure.

When we think of the soul of a mystical force that transcends the flesh, we are setting ourselves up for failure. There is a human tendency to imagine the subjective as whatever we wish it to be. We see this phenomenon in religion. I do not like homosexuals; therefore “God hates fags”. The same holds true of the soul. We can imagine ourselves to be whatever we want to see ourselves as regardless of objectivity. This leads to inflated egos, solipsism, arrogance, and a sense of failure when we do not live-up to expectations of ourselves or others.

This thing we call the soul is just as objective as the rest of our bodies. By continuing to think of the soul in subjective terms we put it into the realm of ideas, imagination, and wishful thinking. This denial of reality can only lead to frustration and disappointment as we try to change ourselves, or others, into someone we are physically incapable of becoming.

If we hold the soul to the same criteria as the rest of the body, then we realise that positive change takes work that does not happen simply because someone wishes it to be so. Building the soul, like building the body, takes wilful effort and years of constant habit to yield consistent results, even then the best we can hope for is doing the best with the body or soul that we inherited.

So when we look at past relationships, or any past actions, with regret because of the outcome, we can take some comfort in the fact that we could not have acted any differently. Our behaviour was dictated by our soul and our soul is as fixed as our body. Acting differently would be the physical equivalent of suddenly running a marathon that you are not prepared for and then berating yourself afterwards for not even coming close to finishing.

I appreciate that what I am suggesting here may endorse complacency. I am who I am and cannot help my actions, so be it. However, we also see this is the realm of the flesh. Some people accept their physical forms regardless of how unhealthy or fat they are. While others are conscientious and constantly seek improvements while at the same time recognising that they are not at their desired state. The same hold true of the soul. We can just accept the neural pathways that have developed and say “so be it”, or we can strive to open new ones and be ready when that unexpected marathon comes along.

Just as some people are naturally athletic and others fat, so too are some born with certain neural functions that make them naturally industrious, for example, and others lazy. This has been a source of frustration for me personally when I realised that many of the Romantic virtues I espouse are gifted to some by nature, whereas I have to work at them.  But just as the natural athlete can squander his gifts to become fat or the naturally fat work to become more athletic, so too can the gifts of the soul be wasted or improved upon. The only difference is that one is visible and the other the product of the invisible workings of the human brain.

It has been said that this is the next frontier – achieving an understanding of the human mind that will allows us to mould our souls in the same way that we mould our bodies. For now we must stick to the tried and true old ways when it comes to the workout for the soul found in religion, meditation, hypnosis, and self-discipline to create new patterns of behaviour – new self-made souls.

Monday, 20 August 2012

What’s Your Story?

I once heard a story about a teacher instructing her young students on the period of Scottish history covering William of Orange, who was no friend to Scotland, when one of the boys shouted, “Our King Billy wouldn’t do that to us” and stormed from the classroom. Obviously, the boy was from one of those families that march every July.

There are two kinds of history. There is the history of the head, dealing with facts, key figures, dates, and legislation, and then there is the history of the heart which has more to do with our sense of identity.

In the film, Blade Runner, the protagonist Rick Deckard realises that the latest model of manufactured humans, called replicants, comes equipped with memory implants. Dr. Tyrell, the owner of the company manufacturing the replicants, tells him:

We began to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.

What memories are to the individual, history is for the group of individuals that we call society or culture. There exists a grand narrative in which we see ourselves to be a part. Within this story we are not simply a part of the existing group but also among those members long dead. It is self-identification.

Just as Dr. Tyrell observed in Blade Runner, controlling how people perceive that history is a key part of controlling them. This is why determining the history curriculum in any school system is critical for those wanting their view of the society to be the dominant one. It is much easier to teach children the history you want believed than to convince adults that the history that they were taught was wrong.

In 1985 a television mockumentary appeared called, “The History of White People in America” presented by comedian Martin Mull. In one scene there is a class where the teacher asks the students to tell their heritage. The black student tells the typical African-American narrative of slavery and emancipation. The Jewish-American student gives the typical Ellis Island story. The white boy she asks is at a loss and described how his family first lived on Elm Street and then moved to Maple Street. The non-white children have a grand narrative of the heart, but the white kids have nothing.

This scene illustrates what historian Professor Niall Ferguson wrote concluding his book, Civilization: The West and the Rest: “…the biggest threat to Western Civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.”

Pusillanimity is the vice of being timid and cowardly and thus not living up to one’s full potential. So if we go back a hundred years in America we find the grand white narrative of pilgrim forefathers, invention and industrialisation, and Western expansion. In Britain, we see the glorification of an empire upon which the sun never set. Today, those heroes of the past are seen as the villainous murderers of natives and the enslavers of Negros. No wonder the “white race” seems to recoil from its history. The ignorant bury themselves in modern consumption and the learned give only apologies for fear of offending someone. To speak openly and proudly of this narrative is to risk accusations of racism or white supremacy – so best not to mention it.

Imagine if we were visited by an alien race that was a thousand years ahead of us technologically. There are some who welcome such a prospect and look to the stars for salvation. Others fear the threat of hostile invasion from an advanced alien force.

How would these alien visitors perceive humanity? Would they see us as an inferior species and benevolently seek to help bring us enlightenment? Would they teach us their philosophy, introduce their wondrous machines into society, establish advanced government institutions, and extend our ability to produce food, end diseases, and prolong life spans.

Or would they see us as an inferior species fit only for the most menial of tasks? Would they enslave us as a cheap labour force, take our lands from us, defile our great monuments or take them away to their planet. We would fight, but the harder we fought the more ruthlessly they would fight back, especially if we posed a constant danger to their civilians.

The first depiction of such an event came in 1898 with the publication of The War of the Worlds by HG Wells. The author speculated what if Britain was invaded by a superior technology just as it had invaded other less advanced countries. But Wells had the over-simplified view that comes with the history of the heart.

British and American imperialism cannot be so easily reduced to fit either the benevolent bringers of enlightenment or the ruthless genocidal conquerors, although both narratives have been spun and propagated. To focus exclusively on the good creates an appearance of racism whereas highlighting only the bad is to become the victim of racism as the white devil.

Like the alien visitors with technology and social systems a millennium in advance of our own, so too were the European visitors a millennium ahead of the peoples that they encountered. In such a situation the outcome does not bode well for the primitives. If the visitors are predominantly benevolent, then they destroy the native culture. If they are predominantly hostile, then they destroy the native people. There is no version of the story in which the natives are not victims and the visitors not victimizers. It’s just the way the deck is stacked.

Part of the white man’s narrative is our much over-looked “Never Again”. The phrase is the motto for the Jewish Defence League and refers to “never again will we allow another Holocaust”. The same concept emerges among Feminists who will “never again” be relegated to the kitchen or the African-American “never again” returning to slavery and discrimination.

The white man’s “never again” is boldly expressed in the song “Rule Britannia” which declares that Britons shall never be slaves. The song first appeared in 1740 during a critical period in Anglo-American history. Here’s the story…

During the decline of the Roman Empire, people sought refuge from the barbarian raiders on the great estates of the wealthy in exchange for work. This evolved into the feudal system of the Middle-Ages when most people lived short, ignorant, and miserable lives on the feudal estate. However in Britain things were slightly different. The Celtic and Anglo-Saxon tribes of Britain were largely free until the Norman invasion when feudalism was imposed upon the people as part of the conquest, but the spirit of freedom remained.

In time, this kernel of freedom grew and became empowered through the forces of the free market, the rise of mass communication through the printing press, and republican government in the Seventeenth Century. By the time Rule Britannia was penned we are seeing the rise of the common man from slavery moving closer to full expression in the ever growing middle-class challenging the noble order.

From the ideas of the Enlightenment to their manifestation as action during the Romantic Era emerges the central idea of Classical Liberal thought and modern Libertarianism. I am an individual, I am free to make my own choices, and I shall never be enslaved.

This is our “never again”. We shall never again be serfs on a plantation. We shall never again be slaves to the state. This spirit of defiant individuals is what is fuelling the modern global libertarian movement. Those of us who know our history possess an extended memory that transcends the limited boundaries of our lives. We “remember” the slavery that was and how it was fought against and freedom secured. We say “never again” as the signs along the road to serfdom present themselves with ever more frequency.

Yes, some of the people who first made that statement owned Negro slaves and some even made their fortunes trading in them. What is forgotten is that as soon as the realisation dawned that these comparatively childlike primitives, a thousand years behind us technologically, were in fact human, the abolitionist movement began in full force almost over-night. Britain and America turned its back on one of the most profitable industries of the day and fought through the marketplace of ideas and with gunboats to stop the global slave trade. Although the causes behind the American Civil War are debatable, many individuals signed-up to fight and die not just to preserve the Union, but also to free the slaves. White Britons and Americans died so that black men could be free.

So when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown publically apologised for Britain’s role in the global slave trade what he should have said was, “You’re welcome”. But that does not fit in with the popular narrative required of the penitent descendants of the white devils.

The French philosopher Voltaire famously said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”, recognising a human psychological need for the divine, likewise he said that history is a fable agreed upon. This too is a psychological necessity. Each of us carries within ourselves our unique sense of the history of the people we instinctive claim to be our own. It is our own unique history of the heart. Some stories may be vaguer than others and some truer to the history of the head than others. Like the boy and his “King Billy” in my opening story, the history may be propagandistic nonsense, but it serves a purpose. It’s the fable that binds his community together and the same holds true for national cultures.

As for my country, the United States, it likes the fable of being a nation of immigrants. Of course it’s not true. My ancestors were not immigrants to the United States. My story does not fit-in with the nationally accepted narrative. My ancestors were colonist landing on a rocky shore surrounded by a mysterious dense forest from which they built the Plymouth Plantation. It’s more than a question of semantics to recognise that a colonist arriving in a wilderness is not an immigrant arriving in a city. Likewise, the migrants from one part of Britain arriving in another part of Britain are not immigrants. Those people who called themselves the “True Americans” in the 1860’s and their descendants are being white-washed from history in favour of the more popular “nation of immigrants” identity.

I agree with Niall Ferguson that our culture’s pusillanimity will be our downfall. In the name of timidity and cowardice we no longer teach our national story to our children except in the negative. Some participants seek to distance themselves from the perceived sins of our fathers, such as the Scottish National Party trying to teach a history of Scotland that excludes the disproportionately large role the Scots played in the Empire. Another example comes from the city of Portland, Oregon where a statue of a pioneer family intended for the entrance to the history museum was relegated to a residential neighbourhood for fear of offending the Indians. The message to the people of the Anglosphere is clear. Reject your history, denounce the Empire, and condemn the Western Expansion. or be damned as right-wing racists. My answer to that is no.

I am descended from the Scottish Royal House of Dunkeld, the English Royal House of Plantagenet, and the English noble House of Percy. My ancestors landed on Plymouth Rock, one of whom was the first governor of Massachusetts, another ancestor took the first British prisoner of war in the American War of Independence, at least three great-grandfathers fought for the Union during the Civil War, one of whom was the cousin of one of the fathers of American literature, and my grand-father fought in the Great War. I am a proud British-American and “my people” in Britain and America literally created the modern world through their imagination, invention, industry, enterprise, and perseverance. That’s my story. What’s yours?