What is all this?
My bookshelves are stuffed to overflowing with works on religion, theology, philosophy – speculation generally. And despite all this reading, I have no more clarity now than I did when I started.
Consider one small corner of "this" – what is a person? Hmm? Go even smaller: what am I really?
There seem to be a few main answers to that question:
I am "really" a soul which happens to be in a body
Though the body is made up of matter, there is something eternal and imperishable within that matter, bringing it to life. This imperishable, eternal self pre-existed me, will continue to exist beyond me, and is the "real" me underlying the accidents of body and personal experience.
I am "really" only my body
My body is the beginning and the end of my existence. I am matter, like any animal. All that I am, have been, or will be is grounded somewhere in, and arises from the matter of my body. Because there is nothing beyond physical matter, my experience of a "self" is the product of a complex chemical reaction happening somewhere in a three-pound organ in my skull. Upon the death of the body, that chemical process with cease, and my "self" will be irrevocably destroyed.
I am "really" a manifestation of the universal Self
The cosmos is a single unified being, without beginning or end. Everything that exists within this cosmos is, in some sense, the cosmos itself. We are a thing that the universe is doing. There is no separate existence – and any experience of being separate, disconnected, small, or perishable is an illusion caused primarily by Ego.
I am "really" neither body nor soul
My experience of myself is a construction of my mind, and my mind is constructed by experiences, and my experiences are constructed from judgments about sensations, and those sensations are just the points of connection between this body something external that I have no direct access to – I have only the sensory response of my body and the interpretation of those responses in my mind. These are all I am. If they did not exist, I would not exist; if I did not exist, they would not exist. The sense of "self" that I'm so worried about is useful for navigating the world, but not especially important.
What I "really" am is not knowable
It is not possible to step outside of my "self", so I cannot access to the perspective that would be necessary to find the answer. My situation is like a two-dimensional figure in a three-dimensional world: I cannot even conceive of the dimension in which the answer is to be found, so there's no hope of getting a satisfactory answer.
All spirit. All matter. Both. Neither. And who knows. There are a lot of special cases and variations, but thought on human existence all ultimately comes back to these five themes.
The early Christians asked the same questions of Jesus: was he a wholly divine avatar of God merely masquerading as a human being? Was he a wholly human prophet – a man like any other? Or was Jesus both fully God and Fully man in some mysterious way? Or was he none of these things? Or is this simply a holy mystery, never to be solved? The Nicene creed is the orthodox answer – "Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father" – but all those other Christs never really went away.
Five possibilities, representing an abyss of doubt. If any of them were persuasive, or provable, who would bother with the rest? The truth would out sooner or later if any of the available options were provable. This, to me, suggests that there's some other way to answer this question that I haven't come across yet.
I find myself most convinced by #3 and #4, but neither seems right: #3 is too vast a concept to fully grasp, and #4 is too intellectual for me to internalize and embrace.
Not that those are the qualifications that a theory has to meet to be true – but if I can't grasp the answer, can't embrace the answer, and can't internalize the answer, then what good is that answer? It would be like finding out that the truth of existence is to be found the smallest seed of the largest pumpkin in the garden of Sue Ellen Hughes of Kenosha, Wisconsin: great, good to know, but… so what? What am I supposed to do with that information?
And that's really the thing, isn't it? I don't want the answer – I want the ought that would follow from that answer.
If what I am is a spirit in a body, then I ought to concern myself with the fate of that spirit – and leave the body behind. To bastardize the Buddha, the body then is like the boat you use to cross a river: useful for its purpose, but to be abandoned when no longer needed.
If what I am is matter, and who I am will be annihilated when I die, then I ought to concern myself with the welfare of my body. My goal should be to live as long as possible, because existence is inherently better than annihilation. And that existence should be as pleasurable, comfortable, and trouble-free as I can contrive it to be.
If I am simply a thing the cosmos is doing, and therefore not a separate entity from the cosmos, then life is just a dream: I (the cosmos) am experiencing my life (as me) and interacting with the world (also the cosmos) in an endless dance (with itself) from which I periodically wake up and realize my situation. Life then becomes a game, and I ought not be too serious about it.
If I am none of these things, and am instead just an illusion created by an infinite web of connections, then I ought to concern myself with what new connections I create, and how I interrelate with the world: do as little harm as possible, and don't hold on to anything because anything you'd hold on to is just another bundle of interconnections.
If the answer is not knowable, then I ought forget the entire line of inquiry and have a sandwich.
All of these things are me asking for someone to hand me a script. /O king, but name the play and we shall perform it most dilligently for your pleasure and amusement, and you may judge our quality through it./ Hamlet is easier than improv.