Are we more than molecules?

Mark Haddon in The Telegraph:

Altered-states_1-xlarge_trans++_oqvr5xv1DI8J4mbtuVdXULDf84Rje06YPeY-hsRtRwMy son’s nine-year-old friend Yahya said it most succinctly. Why is life in the first person? We think. We feel. We are aware of ourselves and the world around us. We have consciousness. We are made of the same raw materials as bacteria, as earth, as rock, as the great dark nebulae of dust that swim between the stars, as the stars themselves. But somehow, a vanishingly small fraction of that brute stuff (you, me, chimpanzees maybe, chickens possibly, worms probably not) has been cunningly arranged into objects which experience what the American philosopher William James calls “subjective life”. How is that possible? Why do most of us feel that we are something more than molecules? Why are even ardent materialists haunted by the sense of being something insubstantial inhabiting a physical vessel? The ancient Egyptians had a sophisticated model of a five-part soul attached to an earthly body. Doubtless simpler models go back much, much further. It is a puzzle which, in its manifold cognate forms, has fascinated, divided and defined human culture for at least as long as we have been able to write about these things. What do we mean by the soul? Does it live on after death? Can we be reincarnated in the body of someone not yet born? When does consciousness begin and when does it end?

When I was nine years old I was obsessed by a question similar to Yahya’s. Why am I me? It seemed extraordinary that of all possible times and places I was born in England in 1962. It gave me a thrilling shiver to think that I had narrowly escaped one of the terrifying lives I knew children lived in other centuries and in other parts of the world. I knew, even then, that there was something wrong with the question. It wasn’t possible for me to be anyone else. I was this body. I wasn’t a blob of spiritual jam which had been squirted into a material doughnut when I entered the world. It was this life which had made me. But that knowledge didn’t drive out the conviction that I was on the inside looking out. Turning this paradox over and over in my mind I felt as if I’d stumbled on a missed stitch in the fabric of the universe and that if I tugged and worried at it for long enough I might be able to tease out a loose strand and discover what the world was made of.

More here.