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On bodies, souls, and indigenous ontologies

Note: this is not a full essay, but a segment taken from a longer piece sent to subscribers. If you want to receive essays in your inbox periodically, subscribe here.


Is the soul a separate ghost or the imprint of the body?


Insofar as the soul is acknowledged in our society, it is perceived as a fixed, unchanging ghost that


floats above the body, outlasting it. This sense of ensoulment struggles to grasp the feeling of not being yourself when you come down with a virus or start taking medications that alter your brain chemistry. Or, more severely, the identity loss caused by a brain injury, dementia, or Alzheimer's disease. The person you love has vanished—you wonder if they ever existed at all—and little hope remains of their retrieval on another plane of existence. Who is this self who is so easily lost? Did he or she ever exist, if held intact by such fragile strands of bodily balance?


There are other ways to think the soul. For example, in indigenous ontologies, two things are assumed: one is the ensouled nature of everything. The other is that “the soul is the idea of the body,” not a separate ghost, but the simple self-knowing of one’s embodiment in space and time. The first assumption could be named a kind of animism, though this term is already an emissary of Western ideology. As the Oxford definition of animism is “the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena,” its very definition assumes the primacy of the “inanimate,” requiring an “attribution of a soul” to inherently dead matter. Note that this soul is also assumed to be a uniquely human construct (since it requires attribution or bestowal from the god-like human onto the earth), which makes animism vulnerable to charges of anthropomorphism.


But this point must be emphasized: the indigenous assumption of universal ensoulment is not a human soul draped over a non-human “natural” environment (implying also that the human is somehow supernatural, a distinctly conscious entity). Rather, this soul is an impersonal substance shared between each visible thing. You could say this shared substance is what makes the world mutually intelligible, as we can only grasp difference between beings against a common background of sameness. The impersonal soul is the common background that facilitates all sensory conversation, each entity incarnating this intelligence according to its physical form.


The second assumption is that the personal soul is the idea of the personal body (both human and non-human). Rather than being a fixed and separate entity, this soul ages and changes with bodily changes. Personal traits are a function of genetics, bodily structure, and environmental factors that insinuate themselves into the body. The soul isn’t reduced to the body, as the imprint of a body outlasts death in many traditions (in many cultures, the soul even has a double that travels to other realities while the person sleeps) but the general assumption is that little is lost at the death of the body, even if personhood alters radically. We could summarize this assumption as: the soul is shared and natural, while individual personhood—as captured by the body— is secondary and socially constructed.


In the Western worldview, the opposite is true: bodies are natural while the soul is socially or culturally constructed. In other words, no one doubts the ontological solidity of the body, but the soul— in its various terminological lives like “mind” and “consciousness”— is hotly contested. These debates are illustrated in questions like: Will AI ever become conscious? Does Chat GPT have an inner life? Or even, do other humans have inner lives (also known as "the problem of other minds")? Many of these questions would not make sense in an indigenous ontological framework.


For example, the question of AI and consciousness could be restated as: can AI experience the world like humans can? But this is an absurd question if you believe that the body does not generate consciousness but only incarnates consciousness according to its bodily container. Being disembodied, there would be no question of large language models obtaining a human-like consciousness. As the indigenous worldview sees the soul as given, not constructed or emergent, an organized mind cannot magically arise from matter, and a human mind can be experienced only when organized in and through a human body.


Do we start with the One or the Many?


The body that the Western world affords ontological primacy is not just the human body but all plants, animals, vegetables— each visible, material shape. In contrast to the indigenous worldview—which begins with one substance—our ontological foundation is a dizzying diversity. How can we find oneness, having begun with “the many”? I believe that the “one” that is not a given must be constructed artificially, through unifying ideologies like “equality” “race,” “nationality,” and “religion.” This “imposed oneness” can also translate into the “one path” paradigm, that there is one path to good government, one path to fulfillment, one way to be a woman or a man, one path to God.


Other ideologies that are less recognized but just as distorting include the widespread belief that objective sciences are the one true way of attaining legitimate knowledge of the world. This is accepted on an intuitive level by pretty much everyone. Even the most obvious observations— let’s say “people don’t like working for an impatient boss”—attain an aura of legitimacy when translated into statistical significance, like “79% of workers express dissatisfaction when working beneath an impatient boss.” Science deniers are no exception: this stubborn crowd does not really deny science; rather, they cherry pick and misinterpret their scientific evidence. Not deniers but outliers: they stand outside of the scientific establishment–– not for hard-fought principles, but on principle, so that even if the establishment were to adopt their claims, they would be forced to find another conspiratorial theory to carve themselves a place outside the mainstream that must—again, on principle— always be corrupt. Theoretically inconsistent, and yet not deniers: even they do not question the science’s legitimacy, but simply claim the establishment has distorted it for their own gain.


For good reason, of course: science as we know it has revolutionized our lives, increased our comfort, even given us women’s liberation with the advent of birth control. But problems arise when we begin to listen to high profile scientists—including Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and Neil deGrasse Tyson— who exclude everything but science from the realm of valid knowledge. This doesn’t just invalidate literature, art, or spirituality as modes of genuine truth-seeking (as opposed to mere psychological self-soothing) but even philosophy has been dismissed by deGrasse Tyson as “distracting,” by Dawkins as“a social construct” (unlike science, which is beyond such categories), and was declared “dead” by Stephen Hawking since it hadn’t “kept up” with the other sciences. This shocking dogmatism could only arise with such frequency in a society that cannot tolerate a diversity of truths because it has no grounding in ontological unity.


Why ideologies cannot unify


All ideologies aim to unify reality under one principle or dogma, but can only fail, as they begin with an inversion of the one/ many relationship. Oneness cannot be constructed without being distorted, transforming unity into an abstract principle that necessarily excludes wide swaths of reality. The ideology of Western religions typically offers unity only for those who belong to a system of belief or the human family, and the ideologies of nationalism are unifying only to those belonging to that particular nation. The ideology that “all men are created equally,” even if expanded to include women, is still species-specific. Its corresponding idea of “human rights”—aside from the theological origins of these rights— struggles with more recent attempts to apply rights to rivers and trees in order to protect the environment from human interests. Its application to non-human entities always seems a bit anthropocentric—if not absurd— as its logic is distinctly legal, born of human social relations.


The truth is, there can be no one true anything. This is not to say there’s no absolute truth, but that the moment the absolute is spoken or seen, it enters the world of relative forms, thereby ceasing to appear as One. The broadest possible belief, statement, or ideology may claim to encompass all things, but it cannot encompass itself, as it must stand as a bounded object in the world, and no object can embrace itself. What is ultimately true must remain outside of language, belief, or ideology: it must not be a thing, but the fabric that nets all things, the background upon which all distinct objects appear. It remains sensed, but unspoken, fed but unseen. In the space between beings, the One shines forth, sensed in contemplation, service, prayer, or other non-discursive ways of being. Until we can re-ground oneness as the foundation of all our knowledge, we won't be able to combat ideological attempts to unify us artificially (and incompletely) under abstract principles.


(these blog posts won't allow regular footnotes as far as I can tell, so I'll include some general notes below)


Note 1: The particular elucidation of the soul as the idea of the body is offered by philosopher Carlos Segovia, who reads Spinoza as a form of “savage thought” (to use Lévi-Strauss’s term), but it is also consistent with other anthropological accounts of indigenous ontologies.


Note 2: The theological origin of "human rights" is argued by historian Tom Holland in his book: Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.


Note 3: One of the implications of the indigenous worldview is that by accepting a foundational oneness, diversity can then be accommodated without threat (for the Westerner, diversity is a given, but "equality" and "unity" must be imposed, often with irrational effects). There seems to be empirical evidence that this is the case. Anthropologist Viveiros de Castro notes the "inconstancy" of the indigenous peoples when they encountered Jesuit missionaries. They seemed to embrace and then abandon Christianity with equal ease, which de Castro traces to their radical openness to the Other, their lack of ideological rigidity. In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, David Graeber and David Wengrow also note that "civilizations" used to be much more agile and fluid, that various systems of governance were utilized and then abandoned based on the needs of the moment.


Note 4: It would be short-sighted, reductionistic, and problematic to say we should all embrace an "indigenous" worldview, of course. Our current civilization—whether you like it or not— is built on Western assumptions, and can only be improved in conversation with what is already here. But understanding alternative ontologies is liberating for the simple reason that we can realize there are other valid paths to carve into the future, other ways of being.


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