Speaking of Bodies
It is incredibly difficult to speak abstractly, clearly, and objectively about the thing that defines, translates, and enables our existence in the world. Instead, we often speak ‘analogically’ about the body. Analogical thinking is, for all practical purposes, metaphorical in its approach. We make best case assumptions about what the body is up to by saying, “My experience is like…”, or “The movement of blood in our veins is similar to…”. This is thinking by analogy. It presumes that when an action, thing, or observation resembles another action, thing, or observation that those separate things are similar, that they are related ‘by analogy’. Analogical thinking is an interpretive way of approaching new ideas and also discovering new ways of looking at the world. In the world of science, it is often used as a way of establishing the hypothesis of an experiment. In philosophy, it is a gateway into understanding action and behavior in others and the self. In religion, it is a goat’s path, well-worn, sometimes hidden under weeds, to insight into how the divine is working in the world.
The language and analogy of technology to describe and explain the body and what a body is is not a new idea. The body as a technological device of some sort is a profound analogy which has allowed us to make some exceptional assumptions about how the body functions throughout history. And, just as beavers have a peculiar and particular talent by building dams and crows use tools to pick ants out of trees and bees build elaborate hives, humans primarily define themselves by the creation and use of externalized technologies in the world. What we do in the world as humans is technology, probably beginning with the generation of language and the manipulation of fire. “What could be more human than the use of fire?” biologist Richard Wrangham says.
Pumps, Watches, Glass, and Computers
For quite a few centuries, we thought of the body as a kind of thermodynamic pump, moving various ‘humors’ from one part of the body to another. The ability to move liquids from one place to another and the dynamics of liquids is the focus of the study of thermodynamics. In the middle ages, the waterwheel and the hand-pump for wells were invented and spread rapidly. When doctors of the day listened to hearts and observed how people took on illnesses, it looked a lot like the action of a pump or waterwheel. And so, the new technology, the thermodynamics of the humors, was applied to the function and understanding of the body. The analogy falls apart rapidly when it becomes clear that the idea of humors was based on pure conjecture. However, the thermodynamic behavior of blood and fluids in the body has lasted into the modern era.
Then, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, after Newton’s laws of gravity began to take hold in the scientific world, the universe and the body looked like a highly complex watch or clock. “The Grand Watchmaker” was the Deist understanding of how God ‘worked’ in the world. The machine was wound up, or primed, and then allowed to run until it ran out of tension and power to run itself. To fix a body was seen as the same as fixing a watch or clock that failed to function properly. That attitude has lasted all the way up until today. Of course, there are problems with the analogy here as well. Organic elements harbor far more chaos than a watch, and organisms grow, change, and radically alter over time, unlike a watch. However, the preciseness of certain activities in the body has allowed us to target medicines and interventions in very successful ways.
For a short period in the beginnings of the Enlightenment era, there was a grand delusion that overtook various people. Right around 1650, the mass production of glass was invented. Glass rapidly proliferated throughout Europe, and with it the delusion that one’s body was actually made of glass. Miguel Cervantes has a short story called “The Glass Graduate” that explores this, though his story predates the mass production of glass. In fact, variations of this delusion happen with the development of lots of new technologies. Sometimes, the delusion presents itself as a thought experiment that is taken seriously by a significant number of people. For instance, the idea that we are a computer simulation is exactly the same kind of thinking as being made of glass or built like a watch or a series of pumps. The movie The Matrix could be thought of as a person’s inability to break the delusion they are a simulation in a giant AI computer. The only difference is that the computer simulation theory may actually be closer to the truth than any of the other ideas. Here, in these examples, the analogies of the body have run amok. Being made of glass is easily disproven; the delusion that one is made of glass is much harder to shake.
Even so, when I talk about the body as a device or an instrument, I mean it very much in this sort of historical and analogical way. Once we are beyond the ‘meat-suit’ understanding (itself an analogy of the most material kind), the purely physical functions of a human body, I am not sure there are any other ways but the analogical way of thinking about the body. Which brings us to our first consideration of three answering the question, “What is a body?”
A Transport Device
I had the good fortune of spending a week in Chicago at the Parliament of World Religions in the middle of August. (I will write a reflection on my experience there for next week). While I was there, I felt healthier than I have in several years. My body was cooperating with me in a way that was invigorating. Normally, I struggle with chronic pain issues that have hounded me for about 4 years. Instead, while in Chicago, I felt I could ‘carry myself’ in a way that promoted more invigorating interaction, like a rechargeable battery that ‘carries a charge’.
When I left Chicago, my flight back was uneventful and even comfortable. I still felt good. That evening, I had a scratchy throat. But it was lovely weather in New York City, and the pollen count was through the roof. Being allergic to everything means a scratchy throat for me for a significant portion of the year. Then on Sunday, I was really congested. By Monday evening, I was testing positive for COVID19. This meant my spouse and I had to separate in the house, I couldn’t leave (nor did I want to – I felt awful), and I had to quarantine, per my doctor’s advice.
When I say one of the aspects of the body is that it is a transport device, I mean it very literally. We are transport devices for, in this case, viruses and bacteria. Virus and bacteria, here COVID 19, hitch a ride with whatever body they can find so that they can reproduce in them, and then find other bodies to hitch a ride with, using fluids, surfaces, and, for Covid, the air to get to another body. It is a circular argument, to quote Erik the Viking in the eponymous Terry Jones movie. Viruses and bacteria use us as transport devices to reproduce so they can find other transport devices to be transported to new transport devices.
Thinking about bodies as transport devices requires us to radically shift how we normally think about ourselves and our purposes upon the physical planet. We, because we have conscious awareness and believe we function in the world as a singular, self-identifying entity, believe we are the primary agent that makes the decisions about where we are going and how we are going to get there. But this thought may be an artifact of consciousness itself as a way to justify our sense of individuality. Instead, our decisions may be secondary to the desires of drives and forces much, much smaller than we are.
Genes and Memes
Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous biological scientists of the past 50 years and one of the evangelical atheists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, upends the idea that we are the primary agents in our ways in the world with one of his early books, The Selfish Gene. In this book, Dawkins presents genes, the fundamental elements that determine much of our physical existence, as the units that are in control of most of our decision making. Genes want to make more of themselves and will use whatever means necessary to get from where they are to where they want to be, which is in other people, thus the sex drive. We are, at our core according to Dawkins, vehicles for genes to get from one place to another. This is true of every living thing, according to this view. In fact, a human body is a highly complex alliance between many different microbes and organisms seeking to get from one place to another. We just happen to be a fabulous transport device to get from one place to another, like an amusement park cruise ship is for us. Our decisions are primarily driven to achieve this transportation goal for the genes, cells, microbes, viruses, parasites, and bacteria within us.
In and of itself, this is a novel understanding which has been highly influential in the study of biology and genetics. But Dawkins moves it up a notch and also coined the term “meme” way back when he wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976. Memes, for Dawkins, are thought-forms that function in a similar way to genes. It explains why, for instance, calculus was discovered at the same time by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz way back in the early 1700s. It is why the idea of evolution arose at the same time in England, even though Charles Darwin and Arthur Russell Wallace didn’t know one another. It is why the history of science is filled with simultaneous discoveries. Thought forms develop a life of their own when they enter into the world and their structure holds from person to person, leading the humans who engage them to similar conclusions even if they have never met the other person researching the same thing. Memes, by way of Dawkins’ view of genes, also explain how ideas on the internet and in social media can catch fire so quickly and spread to millions within a day. Memes use our minds as transport devices.
Genes and memes use us as vehicles to make more of themselves and get from one place to another. This is why I say the body is a transport device.
Body and Soul
For a long time, from Plato onwards, people have thought of the body as a transport device for the soul. How often have we heard the phrase “you are a spiritual being having a physical experience”, or “her soul has gone to her true home” after someone dies and leaves their body to the dust? These phrases and many others derive from the entrained and entrenched idea that the body and soul are separate, the soul is a higher form of being than the body, and therefore, the body is merely how the soul gets around on this plane of existence. It is a compelling idea, and it is so deeply ingrained into our thinking that I have no interest in trying to dislodge you of this notion.
I would only say, however, that if the body is a transport device for the soul, why wouldn’t it also be a transport device for all sorts of other things as we move down the ladder of physicality? If bodies are transports for souls, they would also have to be transport devices for thoughts, ideas, ways of being, feelings, externalized technologies, fluids, viruses, bacteria, cells, and atomic structures. Once we start thinking this way, to claim anything as our own, authentic, original, or individual shows itself to be a pure construct of the mind seeking to differentiate itself from the flow of things, an attempt to control things such a mind no control over in the first place.
Technologies of Body, Technologies of World
Of all the interesting elements of the body as a transport device, for me anyway, is the constant presence and need of the human creature to generate technologies. All our technologies have as their purpose to either get something from one place to another, or to hold the things we have received from someplace else in one place for a while, such as an office building or grocery store. Technology functions as an external intermediary physical form which allows for the transfer of something to get someplace else.
I think of my refrigerator. A solid, stable, immoveable device that stands in my kitchen. It, however, functions as a transport device for the transport device of my body. The refrigerator is essentially a holding point for the transfer of, say, a carrot from the farm in which it was grown to the processing facility that bags it up to the grocery store where I buy it to the refrigerator where I store it until I transport the carrot into my body and it is transported to be used by my body and the unused elements are transported out. Each stage of the transport requires a human body to participate in the movement of the carrot. This is as true for ideas and feelings as it is for a carrot or anything else. Is this not what your cell phone is doing, transferring thoughts and ideas from one place to another for our use in our physical being? Not only do we use analogies to discover new things, we externalize our analogies in order to create technologies that serve our analogies.
It is easy to read this essay as if I am speaking in totalities and universals. I assure you I am not. My desire is to play with ideas about the body, the device with which we experience the world and how to think about that experience. What does it mean to be consciously aware of oneself as an individual? Why do we think about that individuality as separate from our bodies and our awareness of said bodies? What is this thing, this body, that moves us from one place to another in the world?
The body is an endless abyss of questions that only lead to more questions. Or it is a mystery to be engaged and discovered with the eyes of a child and explorer. The body is the locus of pain and pleasure, action and rest, thought and expression. Bodies are exquisitely weird, whether human or any other creature. That we are aware of having and/or being a body and can wonder about it makes the experience of it even more weird.
After a brief interlude comprising a review of the Parliament of World Religions, we will look at the body as a translation device, another kind of technology.
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Peace to all!