Let’s talk about the non-locality of consciousness and the other faculties and powers of the essential self, and let’s see whether the terrible afflictions of age like Alzheimer’s and dementia affect the soul.
We cannot deny that if I hit you on the head really hard, you may end up non compos mentis—you may not be able to think straight. Doesn’t this prove that your mind and your sense of self are dependent on a healthy brain and body? And if this is true, how can the Baha’i teachings simultaneously assert that the essential self—the soul—is independent of illness of body or mind or emotion or of any other sort of physically related dysfunction?
Here is where the analogy of our body to a TV receiver or a computer can help us understand our indirect relationship with reality. Our body is the obvious means by which we express to the outer or physical world who and what we are through our words and actions, through our demeanor and comportment. Our body and its senses also provide the means by which we ourselves get feedback about who we are and how we are doing, so long as the associative relationship with the body endures.
For example, we can view and talk to a friend through computers, even if the friend is thousands of miles away. If suddenly the face of our friend starts to become distorted with squiggles and lines, we do not conclude that our friend has undergone some physical transformation: “Jane, your face! Your face just mutated! What can I do to help you???” What you can do, of course, is to fix the internet connection or else take your computer to the shop, or tell Jane to do the same thing. In short, you have relative confidence that it is the associative relationship with Jane through the computer that has been botched up, not that Jane’s face has melted or morphed.
Fortunately for us, this is precisely the same conclusion that is warranted when we get old and see our own face get squiggles and lines in the mirror. We know there’s nothing wrong with the real us, and, unfortunately, we know that most likely there’s nothing wrong with the mirror, not matter how much we may wish it were so.
But what if we are getting feedback about our real self that we find disturbing? What if we feel depressed? Naturally we know that one of two things is occurring. Either something external is disturbing us and we can try to fix it, or there is some dysfunction in our emotional well-being.
In extreme cases of disparity between our emotions and reality, there may be some obvious illogical or dissociative response to reality. We may hallucinate and believe that we see people or hear voices that are not really there. What we then hope for is some means of fixing our personal neurological communication system, through surgery if a tumor is causing our brain to malfunction or through medication if there is some problem with treatable malfunction of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin.
The point that we can be assured of, as can our friends, is that there is nothing wrong with the “essential” self, even if the cause is some form of dementia resulting from an incurable deterioration of brain function, as in cases of Alzheimer’s. Our sense of “self” and of reality has been distorted by improper feedback. With good medical help, this back-and-forth communication can sometimes be restored to transparency and health. But regardless, it is an axiomatic fact, at least from the Baha’i theory of self, that the spirit, the soul, the real “self,” is in no way injured by this faulty communication:
Know thou that the soul of man is exalted above, and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind. That a sick person showeth signs of weakness is due to the hindrances that interpose themselves between his soul and his body, for the soul itself remaineth unaffected by any bodily ailments. Consider the light of the lamp. Though an external object may interfere with its radiance, the light itself continueth to shine with undiminished power. In like manner, every malady afflicting the body of man is an impediment that preventeth the soul from manifesting its inherent might and power. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 153-154.
The question then arises as to what happens when the communication system or the transceiver is irreparably damaged, so that not even distorted information about reality can be sent or received. Is the essential self still unaffected, or once this occurs, is the associative relationship severed? We can hardly side-step the question if we want to define the parameters of what constitutes human life.
So long as the essential self associates with reality by means of, or through the intermediary of, the body and brain, then the sense of self is affected. If we are depressed, even if because of faulty brain chemistry, we cannot function well physically, mentally or spiritually. If we are delusional, our human powers are likewise diminished. If we are so traumatized or dysfunctional as to be catatonic or if we are afflicted by a disorder such as autism, then to outward seeming, our lives might seem to be little more than dislocation, solitude, and misery.
The same thing holds true for the illnesses that produce dementia, in which all outward traces of self seem to evaporate and, doubtless, the subjective sense of self is likewise a blur, or muddled, or available to us only in bits and pieces. Doubtless the subjective experience of this association with a dysfunctional transceiver is deeply troubling. Daily life may be experienced in botched images or disconnected words and phrases, as if we were on some hideous ride at a fair, but unable to stop and get off.
But however discomfiting and confusing such conditions may be, and whatever psychical pain must be endured, the Baha’i teachings assure us that these conditions are merely temporary. For as soon as the associative relationship between the essential self and the body-brain temple miming that self is severed, all encumbrances between the self and reality are likewise severed. Baha’is believe that no permanent effect on the “essential self” occurs. Likewise, if an individual experiencing such consternation emerges from the fog of this association with a malfunction transceiver (brain or body), they can often describe the internal struggle they have endured. Ultimately, their “essential self” will most likely be the stronger from having been stressed and stretched in the attempt to achieve normalcy.
Next: Five Things We Know About When Individual Life Begins