Note: A video version of this article is available on YouTube.
I am going to describe myself two ways: as a “thinking being” (processing perceptions and beliefs in ways we all recognize), and as a “confluence of influences” (explained later).
The “thinking being” part of me is, it appears, based upon my body — particularly my brain. If, say, I drink a bottle of vodka, or I'm hit on the head with a baseball bat, the “thinking being” part of me will lose awareness as I slip into unconsciousness. If I die, my opinions rot with my brain cells.
If all of my intellectualizing is located in my body, what else is left of me? Am I just my body?
No. The confluence of influences remains. It is arguably more authentically “me” than the connections my intellect invents by mixing and matching beliefs about reality. That's because I don't actually know much about reality; I mainly know my representations of reality.
I think I know people, but I don't know the actual people. All I know is the models I have of them in my mind. That is all I (or anybody) can ever know of somebody else: the model one builds in one's mind. So if Jeff is a friend of mine, Jeff has a model of me in his mind, which he continually updates — especially when interacting with me.
Now note the following: when Jeff does interact with me, his “copy” of me will affect his behavior. That will in turn affect my behavior.
So when I am interacting with people who know me, I am facing an older version of myself. The model of me in the other person's brain reflects back at me, reinforcing my previous behaviors. This can reinforce any mental image I may have of who or what I am. So the bits of me that reside in Jeff come back to affect the bits of me within me.
But those external copies of me aren't really me, are they?
Consider the following ...
My computer's printer broke yesterday. I couldn't fix it, so I was forced to go to the store and buy a new one. The breakdown of the printer caused a change in my behaviour. It did not select the precise time, nor did it “decide” to break, but it did bring about the necessary conditions. The printer was an influence; it caused me to behave in certain ways for several hours: I visited several stores and spent money. So for a time the printer was part of what makes me “me.” (And since I'm writing about it now, it still is, even though it's no longer here.)
There are countless influences out there, both objective things like printers and subjective things like beliefs. Science studies objective things carefully and these are becoming better understood. Subjective things, however, get short shrift by many scientists. Some consider them mere imaginings, unworthy of serious evaluation.
Yet if a group of people share a common belief they will tend to direct their behavior in a similar way; they will act in relative unison. One might say they are an “in-group.” One might say they are a gang, or a tsotl. Alternatively, one might say “they have love among themselves.”
A prophet such as Jesus of Nazereth gained millions of followers, each of whom has “Jesus Bits” (mental models of Jesus) in his or her mind. If old copies of my self can be reflected back at me and thus affect and re-create me, then in this sense one could say that Jesus still exists.
Are these just word games? Arguments will surely arise as people debate about that word “exist.” They may insist that Jesus exists only if he's like a person one meets on the street. But that probably won't happen, since (as far as I can tell) the man Jesus became a corpse and does not have a body any more.
The fragments of his existence continue on, however, evolving over time, getting reflected back and forth. All those Jesus Bits are being bounced around just like my Timothy Bits — the pieces of me inside other people's minds. But of course there are far more Jesus Bits out there than Timothy Bits.
In that sense, Jesus can be considered much “bigger” than I am. He can even be considered “more real,” if all of the effects of the Jesus Bits are tallied up. In fact, the sum of the Jesus Bits can be considered more intelligent than me: More brains are working on re-creating him than me. (John Lennon once noted that there was a time when The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus.” At the time he may have been correct!)
The Jesus Bits do not have my intellectual capacity per se. People hold wildly varying views about Jesus, so the Jesus Bits are too contradictory to arrive at the kind of consensus typical of an intellectual conclusion. Nonetheless, pockets of similarity (such as individual religions) exist, and the people in these pockets can dedicate their creativity to furthering the cause of the Jesus Bits. Add up all of their creativity and that exceeds mine by a huge margin (until they start arguing, anyway).
The descriptions I'm giving here sound like a bunch of robots running programs. That's one way to look at it. If this was another century I might have chosen a different way of explaining all this. I might have told parables, for example.
I might find my ego offended by all this. Am I just a robot? Am I nothing but an ongoing creation of the world? Am I simply a sophisticated stimulus-response unit? A pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding machine?
Is that such a bad thing?
When I perceive my unbreakable connection to reality — this ongoing creation of the thing I call “me” — I see the commonality of my experience with that of others. I also see my own lack of specialness, because I have never created anything from nothing. All that I do is, ultimately, borrowed from an earlier source — including the inventive connections I was carefully raised, groomed and trained to make.
How does one make sense of this “continually being created” phenomenon? One solution people have found is to identify with the Jesus Bits they carry around inside their minds. Once they accept (and come to trust) that powerful influence the other (non-Jesus-based) influences seem less offensive.
How do they accomplish this? Perhaps they can let the Jesus Bits make choices through what may feel to them like a guided intuitive capacity. What is actually happening may just be neurons firing, but the subjective experience is that of receiving direction — guidance — from a part of the mind that one does not monitor intellectually. Thus, by “turning their life over the Jesus” they find a way to deal with living with uncertainty in this seemingly harsh universe.
Alas, many make the mistake of believing their Jesus Bits are something specific — an actual person, perhaps. This is a dismal downside of religion, yet the phenomena being addressed by the reality-model (for example: the contingent nature of the self) aren't going to go away.
Jesus Bits make life more tolerable for millions. They also hurt millions. As solutions go, it's not ideal. For now, though, it's all many people have, and it does the job for them.
Do you ever wonder what Jesus of Nazereth would say about what people think he said?
(The original, very similar, version of this article was written Mar. 22, 2007.)