Saturday, 12 March 2011

Pretentious philosophical post

The insoluble problem of human existence is defining its goal, its direction, its purpose. The great minds of our species sparked with electric impulses, neural pathways connecting in hitherto unnoticed ways, as their owners wrestled with their membership of this elite caste called humanity, and the consequences of such an association for the activity of the independent brain.

What separates our cognitive biology, in tissue terms, from that of the so-called lower animals, is well known to our psychologists. We have a larger brain in proportion to body size. This, from a purely biological perspective, tells one all there is to know about the mystery of human consciousness. Darwin tells us in The Descent Of Man that “No one, I presume, doubts that the large proportion which the size of man's brain bears to his body, compared to the same proportion in the gorilla or orang, is closely connected with his mental powers.” That, then, may well describe why we have intelligence. We are even beginning to learn from which segments of the brain certain actions and ideas are controlled; the prefrontal cortex, to take a simple example, governs the prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and complex decision making, it is hypothesized. These are known as executive functions: an ironic title, given that they seem all too frequently absent from our senior businessmen and political leaders.

Nevertheless, there is much we do not, and, many would say, cannot, know about the human consciousness. What is inbuilt, what comes from the environment outside – are we at source as bees in a hive or the empty hard drive of a shiny MacBook? Whence comes compassion, whence hatred, whence love? In what sense is there a target for our existence – service to a higher conscience, devotion to an ideal or ideology, or the elimination of worldsuck, perhaps? These questions can be assessed, say the scientists, by their emotionless, empirical method. But there is, it seems, a deeper meaning under the purely measurable, further complexities that underpin the human psyche. Here exists the difference between merely electrocuting flesh and bones, and creating what Mary Shelley’s tale calls “the modern Prometheus”.

A newly created true Man, were such possible, would have more than cells, tissues, blood and mucus – as hidden within the physical cage sits the metaphysical other, the unknowable soul, the undistillable essence of humanity.  Such a concept cannot be understood by a rock, or a table, or a pencil, for precisely the reason that such objects lack a soul of their very own. Without any way of attesting that one lives, one cannot live. Cogito ergo sum, it would seem. When the writers of the Enlightened Age told us that the new extra-human science could explain away superstitious notions of love, God, spirit, they gave up understanding what life means to those that live it. Our goal must be to die without wasting the brief span of breaths and heartbeats on impossibilities; to drive forward the boundaries of understanding, yes, but always to understand that at the centre of our humanity lies a thing, an idea, an essence, that elevates us into sentience, and, as far is it is possible to tell, into a position of free will, of power over our biological instincts, and of liberty to live as beings, and as thinkings, within this universe of our own minds.

NOTE: I am not a psychologist, nor in fact any kind of academic. If the science is wrong, so be it; the philosophy is mine and mine alone.

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