The Atman, Part 4
Part 4 of 10: Definition of the Atman
In Part 1, I introduced two “mind-blowing” questions:
Question 1: How is it that I’m me and you’re you?
Question 2: How (and why) does consciousness exist at all?
I went on to argue that it is impossible to answer either of these questions by using science alone. Since science can’t do it, I like to answer them by using philosophy. Specifically, I use the concept of the Atman.
I am getting the word “Atman” from Hinduism. Personally, I am not a Hindu; however, I chose the word “Atman” for this series because it is the word that most closely matches my own conception of this thing in our heads that makes us conscious. Within Hinduism, my conception of the Atman is probably closest to that of the Dvaita Vedanta school, although I do not necessarily agree with everything in that school.
I originally titled this series “The Soul”, but I eventually realized that the word “soul” is closely tied to concepts of morality and character, while my own conception of it has nothing to do with morality or character. So I decided that “soul” was the wrong word. My next idea was to use the word “self”, but I didn’t like that either. Eventually, I realized that the Hindu concept of the Atman is actually the idea that most closely matches my own. I will elaborate on this in my next essay, Part 5.
Anyway, in my view, we can use the concept of Atman to answer the two “mind-blowing” questions. The reason that I’m me and you’re you is that Atmans inhabit bodies. In other words, the reason that I got to be Matthew Gliatto is that I (my Atman) inhabits the body that is known as Matthew Gliatto, and the reason that you got to be you is that you (your Atman) inhabits the body that is known as [your name]. Meanwhile, consciousness exists because conscious beings possess Atmans.
But this begs the question: what exactly is an Atman? I define it as follows:
The Atman is a metaphysical, immaterial entity that resides within the brain. It is the ghost in the machine. It is the self. It is the I whenever you use the word “I”. It is the thing that makes you alive. It is the thing that allows you to be conscious. It is the thing that makes you experience the world, rather than just being a bunch of flesh and blood (a philosophical zombie).
As you can see, I am a dualist. I think that there is the physical organ of the brain but that it has an immaterial entity (the Atman) floating within it. The Atman cannot be scientifically detected (because it’s immaterial), but I conjecture that it exists anyway, because it seems to me to be the best way to answer the two “mind-blowing” questions.
Dualism also makes it easier to answer a series of hypothetical questions about personhood. For example, there’s an old philosophical question about what would happen if two people exchanged brains. Let’s say that Barack Obama and I both went into surgery and we exchanged our brains (you have to suspend your disbelief here). The question is: after the surgery is over, would I be Matthew Gliatto or would I be Barack Obama? Under my dualist worldview, the answer is simple: I would be Barack Obama. Remember, the Atman is the I whenever you use the word “I”. It is the self. And it’s located in the brain. Thus, even if my brain moved to another body, it still contains the same I. It still contains my Atman, which is me. So after waking up from surgery, I (my Atman) would now be located in the body that is known as Barack Obama. Therefore, I would be Barack Obama. And Michelle would be disappointed that her husband’s personality has changed.
I do not pretend that I am certain that the Atman exists. I am not. While I claim to be 95% confident that the answers to the two “mind-blowing” questions lie beyond the realm of science, I am only about 70% confident that this immaterial entity (the Atman) exists within our brains. The other 25% belongs to the possibility that consciousness is some sort of non-scientific phenomenon, rather than being an actual entity. So it’s still outside of science, but it’s not a thing in itself. But anyway, I only claim to be about 70% confident that this immaterial entity (the Atman) exists.
Also, even after introducing the concept of the Atman, I still haven’t completely answered the two “mind-blowing” questions, because I only described the Atman as an “entity” (not very specific). Also, I still failed to address how my Atman landed in my body when it could just as well have landed in anyone else’s body, and I still failed to explain how it is that your Atman is your own whole universe. Even after I proposed the existence of an Atman, those two questions still blow my mind. And they always will. But by appealing to metaphysics rather than science, I have made it clear that an answer to the questions exists, even though we’ll never understand it completely.
The phrase “ghost in the machine”, while a pejorative term, is actually the perfect way to describe the Atman. This phrase was coined by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his 1949 book The Concept of Mind. Ryle coined the phrase as a way of ridiculing the idea. He thought there was no such thing. In his view, there was only the brain. And he coined the phrase “ghost in the machine” as a way of expressing how silly he found the idea of an immaterial mind.
But I do not agree with Gilbert Ryle. I don’t think the immaterial mind (a. k. a. the immaterial Atman) is a ridiculous idea. I think it is a reality. But I will make use of the phrase that he invented, because I actually think it is the perfect way to describe it.
The Atman is what distinguishes you and me from a philosophical zombie. Philosophers define a “philosophical zombie”, or p-zombie, to be an organism that is identical to a human in every way except that it isn’t conscious. A p-zombie would have a normal human brain. They would have eyes and ears just like us, and in the physiological sense, they would think, speak, have sensations, and respond to their situations in life just as we do. They would be indistinguishable from anyone else. But they’re not really there. If you are in a room with your friend, you are not alone, but if you’re in a room with a p-zombie, you are alone. You are the only conscious being in that room.
Obviously, p-zombies don’t actually exist. But they are not logically impossible, either. In other words, even though they don’t exist, they could exist in some hypothetical universe.
Anyway, the difference between you and me and a p-zombie is that you and I have Atmans, while a p-zombie has no Atman. A p-zombie is just a human without an Atman. It’s the machine without the ghost. Anyone’s brain is a machine, but a human brain has a ghost in the machine, while a p-zombie’s brain does not.
Before I continue with this series, I need to make two important distinctions. First, I need to distinguish between being alive and being conscious. Second, I need to distinguish between immaterial and supernatural.
Being conscious is not the same thing as being alive. Obviously, you can be alive without being conscious, like when you’re asleep, or when you’re under anesthesia. However, if you’re not alive, you certainly can’t be conscious. Therefore, being conscious is a subset of being alive.
Now, I said that the Atman is the thing that makes you alive, and I also said that it’s the thing that allows you to be conscious. That makes sense: since you have to be alive to be conscious, and the Atman is the thing that makes you alive, the Atman is therefore the thing that allows for you to be conscious. With this new understanding, let me redraw that diagram:
So if you’re asleep or under anesthesia, you still have an Atman, but you’re not conscious. I would say that your Atman is in the dormant state. I hypothesize that the Atman has two states: conscious and dormant. It’s like turning a lamp on or off. When you’re awake, the lamp is turned on, and you’re conscious. When you’re asleep (or unconscious for any other reason), the lamp is turned off, and you’re not conscious. But even if the lamp is turned off, it’s still plugged in. It’s not until death that they pull the plug.
Please note that my little hypothesis in the last paragraph about the two states of the Atman was only a guess. My confidence in that guess is less than 50%. I am only guessing.
Second, I need to clarify the distinction between immaterial and supernatural.
Something is immaterial if it exists outside of science. It can never be seen, heard, or felt. It can never be observed scientifically. No scientist could ever explain it, or even find it. But nevertheless, it exists.
An example of something that’s immaterial would be God. God, if he exists, is outside of science. No one has ever seen him or heard him. No scientist has ever found him. Nevertheless, (according to a majority of people in the world), he exists.
(By the way, metaphysical means basically the same thing as immaterial, which makes my definition of the Atman a little redundant.)
But immaterial is not the same thing as supernatural. In fact, supernatural is a subset of immaterial.
Something is supernatural if it defies science. You have doubtlessly heard of many supernatural events, most of which did not actually happen. For example, the Bible has countless stories that contain the supernatural. Examples include the parting of the Red Sea, the plague that killed the firstborn children of Egypt, Jesus walking on water, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. All of those events would defy the laws of science. And in my opinion, I don’t think that any of those events actually happened. I think they are just stories in the Bible. You’ve also surely heard of the supernatural in books and movies. For example, the Harry Potter series is all about the supernatural. If magic were real (which it’s not), then it would defy the laws of science.
Since supernatural is a subset of immaterial, it is possible for something to be immaterial but not supernatural. Something could be outside of science without defying science.
An example of something that’s immaterial but not supernatural would be a deist’s conception of God. Deism is a philosophical theory that was popular in the 18th Century. According to deism, God exists and he created the universe, but once he created the universe, he never did anything else. He never affected the universe in any way. He just sat back and watched the history of the world unfold. So according to a deist, God is immaterial but not supernatural. He exists outside of science, but he never defies science.
I have stated that the Atman is immaterial. Is the Atman also supernatural? Ultimately, I think the answer is yes. I will return to this question in Part 10. But for now, the point is just that it’s immaterial.
In my next essay, Part 5, I will discuss the distinctions between five different terms that people use to refer to their own selves: the brain, the mind, the soul, the self, and the Atman.
[Author’s note, February 2021: I am not thrilled with the current version of this article. Sometime in the next few months, I will revise it, and I will add an Addendum. But the main ideas will not be changed.]
Other parts of this series:
Part 1: Consciousness is Beyond Science
Part 2: Responding to Counterarguments
Part 3: We Need Not Fear Immateriality
Part 5: Brain, Soul, Self, Atman, Mind
Part 6: The Views of the Philosophers
Part 7: [under revision]
Part 8: The Atman is the Definition of Life
Part 9: Are We Always the Same Person?