Since I suffer from several chronic illnesses, I got my genes scanned to see how they might relate to some of those illnesses. One of my doctors wanted to see how my genetics might guide our search for better treatments, specifically, how my genes were related to the effectiveness of several types of drugs. So this was medical testing, but I think it has a spiritual side. My test was expensive, but mostly paid by insurance. And I had to get a prescription for it from a doctor. But there are many genetic testing services that will do large-scale genome scans at fairly low costs (though still far from cheap). So you don’t need a doctor – you can do this on your own initiative.
According to Aristotle, the soul is the form of the body. The soul is not some ghostly mind. It is the patterning in the flesh, the logic that governs the way the body runs itself. Every living thing has a soul. Since your cells are alive, they have souls. The soul of any cell is the form of that cell. The most natural way to think of this is to say that the soul of the cell is just its genome. The soul is the form, that is, the information, encoded in the DNA of your cells. Of course, since not all your cells have the same genotype, the soul of your body is a mosaic of many different cellular souls. But let that pass. Most of your cells will be sufficiently similar to let the genome of a typical cell stand for the genome of your whole body. The soul of your (typical) cell, multiplied a trillion times, makes the soul of your body. If Aristotle is right, then getting your genome scanned is getting a scan of your soul. It’s the natural way to study your soul.
One of the Delphic maxims, inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, was “Know thyself”. Inscribed in the temple of a god, this is a spiritual imperative. But how can you know your self? If your self is your mind, then perhaps you should just somehow look into your mind. But how could you do that? How would you test whether your self-insights were truths or delusions? One way to study your mind is to study your brain. For naturalists, minds just are brains. So to study your self is to study at least your brain. But your brain does not exist without your body. So to study your self is to study your body. You can look at your body. But that isn’t very scientific. Naturalists, including spiritual naturalists, turn to science. We study our bodies using scientific tools.
You can use scientific instruments to reveal the numbers of your body. You can scientifically study yourself by weighing yourself on a scale, or taking your temperature with a thermometer, or by measuring your blood pressure. More deeply, you can get your DNA scanned, like I did. Genes are like little biological gods. They are not quite immortal, but they can be hundreds of millions of years old, passing their information down through the generations. Only rarely does a mutation in a single gene determine some specific features of your body or your behavior. The forces that genes exert are vague; they work in concert to shape or sculpt your body.
People have different variants or flavors of the same gene. These flavors are known as alleles. Different alleles mean that the genes perform their functions differently. Several of my genes showed up as having unusual alleles. These genes don’t function normally. For instance, my MTHFR gene had the C677T allele. This is a mutation in which the normal “C” letter at position 677 is replaced with the letter “T”. It’s like a strangely spelled word. The gene still does its job, but it does it weakly. One of the functions of the MTHFR gene is to convert folic acid into its useful form, L-methylfolate. So my body doesn’t do that very well. And my COMT gene has the met/met variant, which means it functions at a very low level.
Genes are like words, and once you know the spelling of the word, you still have to figure out its meaning. So what do my unusual genes mean? To figure this out, you have to apply some science to your self. You need to learn about metabolic pathways in your cells, and how genes affect them. To the Google! Unfortunately, the web is filled with sketchy medical articles, lots of pseudo-science and quackery. I turn to academic medical sites, like Medline and PubMed. Now it gets complicated and hard. It’s hard to figure out what genes do, because cells are complex, medicine is difficult to understand, and sometimes very little is known about what the genes do. For instance, it’s thought that my MTHFR and COMT variants have some large effects. But it’s not at all clear what those effects are. The science isn’t there yet. But the medical literature suggests that my MTHFR allele has impacts on my mood and cognitive health.
If you know that some part of your body doesn’t function as well as it should, then you should want to try to improve that dysfunction. Either you repair the dysfunctional part, or you try to figure out how to compensate for it. Since my MTHFR gene doesn’t function as well as it should, I want to try to improve that dysfunction. If we had gene-editing technologies, I’d change it to its normal C677C form. If genomes are souls, this would be a small change to my soul. I’d be changing my old soul into a new soul. Should this be cause for spiritual alarm? I don’t think so. Souls and selves are flexible. If I changed this gene in every cell in my body, would the result still be me? I think this is a strange question. I’m not identical with my genome. Moreover, old cells in our bodies often get replaced with new mutant cells. Life is change. I don’t believe in any substantial self that remains self-identical through time. Of course, this discussion is mostly science fiction. Safe gene editing techniques don’t yet exist.
Given that I can’t change my genes, perhaps I can do things to compensate for their poor performances. In the case of MTHFR, it’s easy. Because of this gene, my cells don’t effectively convert folic acid to L-methylfolate (just call it LMF). So, I can just take some LMF to compensate. My genetic self-knowledge yielded an actionable therapy: supplement with LMF. And it’s easy to buy LFM supplements. Along with learning about LMF, I also learned that it works best when supplemented with other B vitamins. And perhaps the C677T allele means I also have trouble methylating B12. So I found a supplement with LMF as well as methylated B12.
If you take a nutritional supplement, or any other drug, you’re experimenting on yourself. You’re doing self-experimentation. The scientific method demands that you keep records of your experiments. At the very least, you have to be alert to the specific changes. You have to measure and track variables. Self-experimentation is self-hacking. It involves a loop: (1) Figure out some specific features of your body that you want to optimize. (2) By doing scientific research, come up with a plan of action to optimize those features. (3) Put the plan into place. (4) Regularly check whether following your plan is optimizing the features you wanted to optimize. (5) If so, keep it up. (6) If not, then go back to step two to figure out another plan. This is the method of iterative design. You are designing a new body for your self. You are upgrading yourself. By running through the iterative design cycle, you are hacking some problem of your body.
Self-hacking is using the scientific method to solve your personal problems. It is using the scientific method for self-optimization. For a spiritual naturalist, this is a spiritual discipline. It is a spiritual practice. Self-optimization aims at least at health, which is a positive value. Positive values are spiritual values. Of course, health is not the only spiritual value. Virtue is another spiritual value. Health and virtue are often linked. For example, my moods are often disorderly. This is a health problem. But it’s also an ethical issue, since disordered moods make me irritable and angry. I can behave in ways that are at least impolite, and sometimes even vicious.
There are important ethical issues here. If self-hacking is going to be spiritual, then it needs to serve the good. It’s not enough to serve just health. And it’s not enough to serve vulgar values like making yourself more competitive. Self-hacking isn’t fully ethical if it just serves your personal will to power. Body-power is important. If you’re too sick and weak to do anything, you’re also too sick and weak to do anything good. But aiming for power alone isn’t ethical. Getting more energy isn’t good if you’re going to use it to do more evil or to be an immoral person. You have to aim for benevolence. As a spiritual practice, self-hacking ultimately aims to make you powerful in a good way. It uses the scientific method to optimize your benevolence.
So I started an experiment on myself: I started taking a vitamin B complex with LMF and methylated B12. And I had a list of variables I wanted to track for changes. Very quickly, I saw that my sleep changed. I was remembering more dreams and more vivid dreams. I was able to get out of bed more quickly in the morning. To measure other cognitive variables, I use chess. I can easily count the number of blunders I make and percentage of games I win against players with similar ratings. My chess scores improved and my blunders went down. As for mood, it’s harder to track. I wish I had a more scientific way to track my moods. But I’ve noted some definite and significant changes, mostly positive so far. Still, some skepticism is called for.
Anything that can induce any kind of change can induce negative change. So I need to be alert for the downsides. I’m more activated on these vitamins. More activation can lead to more anxiety, more obsessive-compulsive symptoms, even dysphoric mania. I don’t worry about these things, but any medication can cause side-effects. I’d like to avoid those outcomes. So far, no worries. But prudence demands proceeding with caution. At this point, I’m going to cautiously keep this experiment running.
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