Saturday, March 18, 2006

That which we cannot understand

What makes a person a person? What makes us different than animals? Naturally a person would reply, 'intelligence' or 'consciousness' or even 'our higher mental process'. But are not all these answers trying to describe the same thing? And what is intelligence? Problem solving abilities, rationality, abstract cognitive abilities, emotions, etc. These are all things that can simply be describes as 'thoughts'. But what are thoughts? Where do they come from and where are they stored? In the brain of course. But where?

The human self is a marvel when considered. The physiology alone can leave a person in wonder at the complexities. A never ending tunnel of mysteries- each door leading to the next. We can never fully understand it, and the chances of it all coming together by random chance are as good as hoping for a computer will build itself and run perfectly. Unfortunately this never happens even with human help.

But put the physiology aside for a moment. What is the self? What makes us truly who we are? We are certainly more than well placed, working parts functioning together as a whole to keep us living. If this was all we were, we would simply be a machine -if what we mean by 'machine' is a collection of working parts. We use many such machines, and the obvious difference being they are artificial and we are organic. However that is hardly the true difference between us. We are who we are- wholly unique from each other with distinct personalities and thoughts and emotions and the other myriad of things that make up what has come to be known as 'cognition'.

But what is cognition truly? Where are these thoughts stored? Naturally one replies, 'the brain'. But where? In the neurons? In the cells? In the chemicals that make up the cells? In the elements that make up the chemicals? In the atoms that make up the elements? In the protons or neutrons that make up the elements? No one truly knows. Psychologists can confirm that the thoughts are there and that various parts of the brain function to produce them at certain times, but what are they? They are an abstraction.

A computer houses its information in chips- silicon, plastic, wires, and whatever other properties that store the electric signals. But, ultimately, everything done or produced on a computer can be broken down into a binary code. A series of ones and zeros. A sort of Morse Code. This is understandable. But a computer isn't intelligent. It produces what it is told to, nothing more. A human often produces things it was never specifically taught. There is an infinitely higher level of intelligence (I use this word for lack of a better) that cannot be explained, but must be simply accepted.

Like the wind, we can feel, experience and study our own thoughts and personalities. We can run experiments, predict it, learn about it, counsel it, and teach it. But what are we talking about exactly? Thought. Personality. These are merely abstract concepts that can only be truly defined as, 'that which we can study, but cannot understand'.

I would suggest that this abstraction, this thing which we cannot understand stands as proof to the existence of the human spirit or soul. That which makes us different is that which made us in God's image, that which makes us spiritual beings. Where do our thoughts reside? No where. Everywhere. In our 'soul'. In our personality. The person you pass on the street, the friend sitting beside you, the child that refuses to listen. The actually person is not the series of mechanical parts all working in unison like a great orchestra. It is the personality. The spirit. That which we cannot understand.

Our thoughts cannot, like a computer reside in a series of chips, or, in our case, even neurons. Our thoughts are outside the bounds of biology and chemistry. We can study them, learn about them and help them even. But the spirit cannot be captured and it cannot be measured or quantified. It is simply that which we cannot understand.

This evidence of spirit must in turn point to a God. A spirit (like the wind, present yet invisible) cannot create itself, rather it must have been created by God. Sure we can meet people, learn about them, talk with them, and even know them, as is true of men and God. But if we are ever pinned down and forced to explain what it is exactly that makes us who we are, a satisfactory answer cannot be given. It is simply a soul. A spirit. That which can be experienced, but never fully understood. At least, not until we stand before God.

As a psychology major we all learn about personalities. We learn about development and learning and memory and language and many other things. But ultimately what are we studying? And is it not like a perpetual labyrinth? If we are honest with ourselves, we cannot define psychology as the study of mental processes and behavior, for that is ultimately to say the study of the soul. The study of that which we cannot understand.

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