Spear It in the Sky: Pinning Down the Utility of the Term “Spirit”

“While we scoff at them, what we don’t realize is that these shamans, in speaking of ’spirit,’ are using ’spirit’ to describe a highly complex and technical reality, much the same way that physicists use the term ‘quark.’ ” -Terence McKenna, reconstructed from memory.

Every few years, our bodies cycle through almost all of their constituent atoms, so that a given person is not half the same material being they were, say, seven years prior. And yet in the face of this material flux, 99.999% of all human societies have found it essential to treat humans as individuals, as entities which are self-identical across time, in the very teeth of the fact that said entities experience not only the aforementioned material flux, but also physical growth and decay and mental growth and decay.   Most human societies tend to convene on such abstract matters as this, in order to establish and consult rules by which to attain goals of peace, justice, harmony, collective survival.  In the case of our own society, we hash out these matters in the legal sphere, but you don’t have to look to hard to find similar “legal spheres” in the remotest tribal councils.  The matter of human identity, has as its chief purpose, in our society as in most others, that the Mr. X who murders in one year can be identified, under certain conditions, with the Mr. Y put on trial the next year; or, again, that the Mr. X who makes wedding vows one year can be identified with the Mr. Y who shows up in divorce court a year later.  Note that the material body, being in a constant state of flux, is not the basis of legal identity; what must be established for justice to occur is that the conscious self of Mr. Y is in a particular sense the same as the conscious self of Mr. X.  Granted, to some extent, matching the material body is necessary, hence the use of facial identification, fingerprint identification, DNA identification, but these are necessary conditions to establish ID, not sufficient-if the mind of Y is not the mind of X, Y cannot be held to account for the actions of X.  To put it another way, a non-material mental continuity needs to be established between X and Y, for it to even be possible that X/Y is guilty of a crime; if nothing else, X and Y need to share a history, a set of memories from the same point of view, as well as a basic ability to reason about those memories. (To make the ultimate determination of Mr. Y’s actual guilt or innocence requires that a few more intrapersonal conditions be examined, which conditions I’ll explore in a future post on free will.)

Presuming that Mr. Y is in fact Mr. X, you might think of what X and Y share as a spirit-after all, that’s exactly how a majority of human beings have thought of it, and continue to think of it. If you don’t like the term “spirit,” you might try thinking of what they share as a kind of software, as what’s stored and run on the hardware that is Mr. Y’s body and was Mr. X’s body-their shared history is a set of software files, and their shared ability to reason about that history is a shared software program for accessing those files. (Even in the aforementioned matter of matching X and Y’s DNA or DNA-determined physical details, note that what’s ultimately being matched is a piece of biochemical software.)

Now we modern sophisticated westerners all accept in the case of software that it’s a “real” thing, and “software” a useful term, even though software is by definition immaterial, independent of any particular hardware-change the hardware, and software is what can remain. Despite this fundamental immateriality or transmateriality, nobody locks a computer programmer up in a psych ward for talking about software; no consortium of skeptics, materialists, atheists, or agnostics gathers regularly to debunk claims of the existence of software.

Well then, in the case of the legal identity of human beings as established in legal spheres, I submit that we rely upon a concept, named or unnamed, very deeply analogous to software-we might well, as in times past and many places presently, call this concept “spirit.” Now, as a general principle, if we rely on a concept as a basis for something as essential and no-nonsense as legal proceedings, that tends to suggest that we find said concept integral to our psychosocial health, our civilization’s health, our culture’s health.  If nearly every human society relies on some such concept, that tends to suggest that said concept is flatly necessary to our survival.  And I hope to show that by deep analogy to the concept of “software,” “spirit” is not just a necessary crudity of thought, but a very nuanced concept not necessarily freighted with superstition or faulty reasoning.

Now, some would argue that the concept of “spirit” is precisely freighted with superstition or faulty reasoning because it implies the transmigration of souls, as well as immortality and an afterlife. To the first charge, I would say yes, “spirit” implies the transmigration of souls… from one material body to another, whether that change of body happen gradually or suddenly. Few claim to have seen a spirit suddenly change bodies, but we’ve all seen it happen gradually, first- and second-hand, as many of the atoms making up our brains and bodies are swapped out over the course of years. Perhaps because this gradual form of transmigration is so universal, we don’t really have a problem imagining a sudden form of the same process-all that’s needed is a mechanism for transferring the identifying patterns of our minds-the files and programs, the software-to new hardware. We already know one such mechanism, other than the natural swapping out of atoms-communication. I.e., to the extent that a person X manages to copy their “files” and “programs” to person Y, through this or that method of communication, we say that the spirit of X lives on in Y.  This brings us to the second charge-that “spirit” implies immortality and an afterlife.  To which I say yes, “spirit” implies at least the possibility of immortality, or at least some degree of afterlife.  Hence the common belief in human societies that a person outlives their body insofar as they are memorialized in song, in stone, in their children’s minds and personalities, in their followers’ continuance of their teachings. 

Now, here we approach one of several reasons that the concept of spirit is tricky:  it’s unclear whether spirit is individual or divisible, a count noun or a mass noun. If, for instance, we say the spirit of X lives on in Y, we don’t mean ALL of the spirit of X, we mean some portion of X’s spirit, and we certainly don’t mean that Y somehow has two whole spirits, its own and a copy of X’s. Similarly, we don’t mean that X is conscious within Y’s skull. Spirit can be a sort of content, or an individual entity.

Another reason “spirit” is tricky: while software is often tied strongly to a particular language or programming code, spirit is tied strongly to the idea of transcending not just material, but also language-if I say I’ve read the Brothers Karamazov, I don’t mean the Russian language text; I mean a translation thereof into English, which translation more or less IS the Brothers Karamazov in the sense that it has the same spirit. We also invoke this translingual quality of spirit when we say (even within the strictures of a legal setting) that we must honor the spirit of a law.


So, we might accommodate some of this trickiness by saying that “spirit” is transmaterial and translingual content, while “a spirit” is a transmaterial and translingual entity.

Note that this definition doesn’t ensure that “a spirit” means a person, nor a human. And perhaps it’s just as well-if “spirit” is to be useful to us, it’s as something other than a synonym for “person” or “human.”

Instead, the value of “spirit” and “a spirit” may lie precisely in the fact that it doesn’t mean “person” or “human being.”

“My experience has been that beyond a certain point there is only pathology-you’re not dealing with a personality anymore; you’re dealing with a kind of hardwired pathology, you’re dealing with a neurochemical entity that doesn’t have much to do with who the person it’s manifesting in was.” -William Gibson, No Maps for These Territories

We speak of the spirit of an age; of evil spirits; of attitudinal spirits (”We’ve got spirit, yes we do!”). We speak of spirits of lust, vengeance, greed, and ones made of alcohol. What do they all have in common? They all fit the definition of a spirit as a transmaterial and translingual entity. Lest this seem vague to the point of uselessness, consider that the term “software” encompasses a similarly broad ecology of invisible entities, from operating systems to smaller programs to viruses to worms, bots, spiders, trojans… not to mention non-program content-data, text files, images, video, audio. Referring to all of this as software serves in part as a reminder to computing designers and users that all of these entities have a common nature, and that they therefore can bleed into each other, infect each other, and complicate each other in innumerable ways, regardless of their respective origins, purposes, sizes, complexities, languages. And that they’re likely to.

In other words, by referring to one’s own very constructive word processing program, and the very destructive malware that threatens to cripple it, and the operating systems it must be compatible with, all by the same term “software,” one keeps foregrounded an awareness that the word processing program’s integrity depends on its ability to stay hygienic, to stay separate from the malware and to stay compatible with certain operating systems. Through the term “software” one can ignore the relative size of the programs being considered, as well as their origins and purposes… one can become very objective about the ecology surrounding one’s own software program if one views everything it interacts with simply as software.

Likewise, I submit, the “spirit” paradigm: some spirits are whole persons, and some are more like subroutines, applets, or malware. Example: As suggested by William Gibson’s quote above, beyond a certain dose, the spirit of, say, PCP, takes over a person, and a distinct behavioral pattern and personality emerge which are particular to PCP. PCP, then, would be analogous to a form of malware-much simpler than a whole human self, but like the human self a spirit, an immaterial pattern whose identity is independent of any particular material manifestation. So, too, with a “spirit of greed,” or “high spirits,” or a zeitgeist (”spirit of the times”)… by using the term “spirit,” we foreground an awareness that any of these entities can, if we’re not vigilant, bleed into, infect, and complicate our selves, compromising our functionality. As any Alcoholics Anonymous veteran can tell you, many a human life has been destroyed when a human spirit failed to recognize the kinship between itself and the “spirits” in a bottle of alcohol, instead choosing to say to itself something like, “I am a strong, smart, grown person with free will. Alcohol’s a mere chemical. Surely there’s no comparison between the two kinds of entity, and therefore no reason to fear that this alcohol might get the better of me.”

In other words, the “spirit” paradigm allows us to avoid the hubris of personhood, the hubris of thinking that just because we’re complex beings with free will, we can achieve a snare-free existence with little in the way of vigilance or humility in the face of simpler entities. Likewise, by using the “spirit” paradigm, we bear in mind the useful awareness that spirits may serve as harmonious components of a larger spirit, while retaining their own identity, just as small programs may serve as components of larger ones, and just as large programs combine with operating systems to create a useful computer, and just as useful computers combine to form useful arrays and networks.

One might well ask, if the spirit-software analogy is truly so deep, why bother using the term “spirit” at all? Why not expand the meaning of software to include what we’ve been calling spirit? Well, one reason: by retaining the term “spirit,” we establish the strongest possible connection between our own modern understanding of spirit and the hard-won insights of our ancestors, which ancient insights tend for some reason not to be couched in terms of “software” as we moderns might prefer. A second reason: by using the term “spirit,” we establish the strongest possible connection between our own understanding of spirit and that of our less computerized contemporaries. A third reason: since software has only the most tenuous foothold in human history, we do well to anchor our understanding of the reality of spirit in a term and analogy more sure to be accessible to our descendants. In short, while “spirit,” a term born of an analogy between “transmaterial and translingual content” and breath, may not be an entirely universal analogical term, “breath” certainly beats “software” as an analogy almost everyone can understand.

That said, there’s no reason we should discard the “software” analogy when in the company of those who could understand it; ideally, we can see the utility of both terms and use them in tandem to establish an understanding both broad and deep of matters transmaterial and translingual. 

So then, without further ado, I’d like to demonstrate the usefulness of the term “spirit” in a particular case:

Jimmy is afflicted with an unclean spirit. Unclean meaning foul, befouling, unholy, un-integrable, the way an HIV virus is unclean among the DNA software of a human body; the way a computer virus is unclean among the software on a computer. In particular, the unclean spirit Jimmy is dealing with is the spirit of heroin. Granted, at first glance, heroin seems like a molecule more than a spirit. But in large doses, when it has thoroughly infected a host mind like Jimmy’s, it manifests a very identifiable set of what are clearly personality traits-lethargic, low on libido, high on phantasmagoric imagery, prone to grand larceny, antisocial and treacherous, combined with an inability to find reward in anything more abstract or difficult than sensuous input. Considering that heroin in large doses tends to manifest these personality traits more or less en suite, we might observe that it has in some sense a more well established and coherent personality than does its host, Jimmy, whose personality is relatively nebulous and undeveloped.

Some might object that calling heroin a spirit nevertheless invokes faulty superstitious imagery, such as the idea that a spirit is something that literally flies around until it lands in a body, or the idea that a spirit is always something with will, purpose, intent, consciousness. To both of these charges, I’d answer that “spirit” is deeply analogous to “software,” and that when we invoke the term “software” we are seeking to avoid the very questions of origin and purpose-we are not interested in where the software came from, we are not interested in whether it was designed to be malicious or not, let alone whether it is conscious or not, willful or not-we are highlighting that it belongs to a set that includes both constructive programs and malware. Likewise, the term “software” serves to occlude considerations of size and of complexity and of language-a piece of software can be widget small or Windows big, can be simple or complex, can be written in FORTRAN or the latest greatest programming language. And so with “spirit”-by invoking the term, we are considering the spirit of Jimmy and the spirit of his beloved heroin as two entities which can bleed into each other, infect each other, complicate each other, and therefore the term serves to set aside questions of origin, purpose, size, complexity, language.

So we invoke the term “spirit,” and thereby help Jimmy understand that the entity with which he is dealing is one which, quite aside from questions of origin, purpose, size, etc., can override his personality with one of its own, one which can physically kill him. Again, as any recovering addict can tell you, the keystone to recovery is the recognition that one is damn near powerless to overcome one’s addiction. The spirit paradigm allows one very quick access to this humbling and salvific recognition that Jimmy has little ontological advantage over his adversary. So that’s one way in which “spirit” comes in handy.

There’s a second way in which the concept of the “spirit of heroin” comes in very handy, and that’s in externally identifying heroin’s presence in Jimmy. Analogy: imagine a world in which computing is very primitive, and only programs of a certain moderate size exist, programs of a few thousand lines of code. Viruses and operating systems are very limited players on the scene, and so no such generic term as “software” exists with which to encompass viruses, programs, and operating systems. Now say that in such a world, a primitive virus emerges. Imagine the difficulty one might have in identifying the presence and nature of this virus, given the lack of a conceptual framework that imagines a varied ecology of software of widely varying sizes, languages, origins, purposes, complexities. So with Jimmy and his heroin: imagine that they are incomparably different entities, and you will be slow to pick up on the power and scope of the parasitic relationship that has developed between them. Presume, instead, that heroin has a spirit, and suddenly it becomes readily identifiable as an entity present alongside the entity that is Jimmy.

The signature transmaterial and translingual characteristics of such a spirit as heroin can be remarkably particular, almost as much so as the signature characteristics of a developed human personality. For instance, consider that each of the following texts was written by a different opiate addict (warning, these quotes are not for the faint of heart):

“I own my own pet virus/I get to pet and name her/Her milk is my shit/My shit is her milk.” -Kurt Cobain, “Milk It”

“…and from this sickness comes the belief in the one true power, that cure that promised to erase the symptoms that stood between you and your goal… That’s seductive to hear, that offered relief and comfort without disturbing the faulty system of your beliefs, the belief in the one true power, forever and ever, one nation, under (god)…the father, the son, and the holy (spirit)… in Jesus’ name, Amen. Greasy filthy hand jobs in truckstop restrooms, Hot Carling, all over the place… Hot Carling… I turned that into a verb, I hope you apreciate it… Carling, Hot Carling Academy, it’s a school where you go to learn how to buttfuck. They don’t have blowjobs there because they are uncircumsized, and that is just disgusting so they have to buttfuck, which is also disgusting because that extra forskin traps all the germs and the poop, and the buttfucking residue within, and that is why British people have bad teeth, Amen.” -Deftones, “Pink Cellphone”

“Your pussy’s glued to a building on fire/I paint my mind/just cuz I’m alive.” -John Frusciante, “Your Pussy’s Glued to a Building on Fire”

“It would be unwise to condemn as irrational the practice of devouring the heart and liver of an adversary while yet warm. For the highest spiritual working one must choose that victim which contains the greatest and purest force; a male child of perfect innocence and high intelligence is the most satisfactory.” -Aleister Crowley, Book 4 (Magick)

“White smoke of burning flesh hangs in the motionless air. A group of children have tied an idiot to a post with barbed wire and built a fire between his legs and stand watching with bestial curiosity as the flames lick his thighs. His flesh jerks in the fire with insect agony.” -William Burroughs, Naked Lunch

“When the smack begins to flow/Then I really dont care anymore/about all the jim-jims in this town/And everybody putting everybody else down/and all of the politicians makin’ crazy sounds/All the dead bodies piled up in mounds, yeah… Wow, that heroin is in my blood/And the blood is in my head/Yeah, the god’s good as dead/Ooohhh, God that I’m not aware/I just don’t care/And I guess I just don’t know/And I guess I just don’t know.” -Lou Reed, “Heroin”

In each quote above, we see an irreverent organicism combined with a focus on power dynamics and metaphysics. The irreverent organicism owes itself, probably, to the tendency of heroin and other opiates to focus a person on their own body as the instrument of their supreme satisfaction and as an amusing playground incapable of threatening them due to their immunity to pain. The focus on power dynamics and metaphysics probably springs from the tendency of heroin to enslave its user while at the same time freeing the user from the pain by which merely physical circumstances can confine a person, leaving them to contemplate metaphysics as the realm in which a user may encounter limitations and novel experiences, and to contemplate power as the essential dynamic by which they interact with other humans-dealers with power over them, or the victims of their theft and fraud, over which they must exercise power to extract money for their dealers. We might conclude that even judging based on something as tertiary as a person’s textual output, we can begin to determine the presence of a given infecting spirit in said person. Of course, this conclusion isn’t news to narcotics cops-it’s a fundamental tenet of their trade.

While the spirit of heroin serves as an interesting example of a nonhuman spirit, not all nonhuman spirits are embodied in a particular chemical compound. For instance, mental illnesses are defined essentially as spirits-identifiable patterns of mental activity not confined to any particular material (brain) or language. Similarly, certain philosophies or perspectives resulting in identifiable patterns of mental activity are known as spirits-Spartan spirit, the can-do spirit, mean-spirited, low spirits.

The great diversity and interactivity of these entities point toward the possibility of ultimate entities. If one were to identify, for instance, a core program or code at work behind every virus in a given software environment, one would have identified a sort of ultimate maladaptive entity. Likewise, if one were to discover that all harmonious software in a given environment shared some core compatibility with an overarching system, one would have identified a sort of ultimate beneficent entity for that environment. So it may be with spirits-we may well upon further investigation find useful not just the term “spirit,” but also a term like “arch-spirit” or “overspirit” serving to define large systems of spirits based on the core principles around which they seem constructed and the purposes they seem to serve. In other words, we may find ourselves speaking of, say, a holy spirit, and an evil one.  But that’s for another post. 

We’ve Got an Overspirit, Yes We Do; We’ve Got an Overspirit, How ‘Bout You?

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