Consciousness, self, soul

De Anima is the Latin title of Aristotle’s book about the soul or psyche. The less well known Greek title is Peri Psyches. We still wrestle with this concept, or if we don’t we should. Charles Sherrington, the great physiologist wrote The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, and although his methods were that of an experimental scientist he saw that a dynamic synthesis was implied in the neurological organisation which underpinned responses to environmental challenges. In later life, in his Gifford Lectures, published as Man on his Nature, he explored the limitations of the scientific method, and the wonder of the neurological loom (his metaphor), which weaves patterns in space and time. And yet consciousness resisted explanation. He was a broadly educated and thoughtful man who ended like Max Planck meditating on the wonder and complexity of the material world and the limitations of scientific method in providing answers to what most deeply concerns us.
I have long sensed philistinism or a lack of inwardness behind materialistic and reductionist creeds. One would like to hear people with such views discuss the tragedies of Shakespeare or the gradual degradation and moral collapse of Baron Charlus during the great arc of Proust’s roman fleuve. I also fear for how a materialistic philosophy may be used to justify the expediency of political despots in making their citizens objects of state technology to enhance central control. So it is good to remember the great scientists who remained humble before the mysteries of the natural world, and the striving that has given us human civilisation. The twentieth century gave us particularly pure and evil forms of state tyranny. The humanities need to be cherished as expressions of human values, not parodied as tools of state propaganda
The massive complexity of the brain, and the singularity (no doubt imperfect) of consciousness should give us pause. One might say that an analogy would be the simplicity of television picture with all the enabling electronic wizardry completely invisible. But this is wrong. Without a sentient creature looking at the screen there would be no image, just an abstract pattern. Without sentience, neither coherence nor meaning. And without a sentient creature inventing it, there would be no electronic wizardry tailored to our perceptual attributes. Or more simply there would be no reflection in a mirror without a sentient point of view looking into it.
Consciousness and neural activity are incommensurate. What does this mean? It means there is a gulf between two descriptions which is unbridgeable. Einstein put it aphoristically, ‘Not everything that counts can be counted.’ Or experience cannot be reduced to number.
Consciousness could have no conceivable role in a person who was a very complicated machine. It would be as though a person was swept along by natural forces while consciousness watched on helplessly, having no point of purchase in the physical world. The obvious role for consciousness is to enable us to exercise choice between possibilities. Martin Gardner in his essay ‘The Mystery of Free Will’ expresses it thus : ‘Free will, in my opinion, is another name for self-awareness or consciousness. I cannot conceive of one without the other.’
Einstein made this remark for which I have found no adequate analysis: ‘God does not care about our mathematical difficulties. He integrates empirically’. We know that Einstein did not believe in a personal God, but that he was attracted to the philosophy of Spinoza. Spinoza is usually described as a pantheist and here is a condensed proof he offered of the existence of God. No two substances share an attribute. One substance (God) has infinite attributes. It follows that the existence of that one infinite substance contains all attributes and precludes all other substances.’ He also said ‘That eternal or infinite being we call God or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists.’ This is heady stuff and not many of us think like this today. But there is no doubt Einstein used the word God as a way of expressing his wonder at the sense of design in the Universe. So what was Einstein expressing? Perhaps that Nature unfolds unhesitatingly, coherently and without effort. But does the notion of God/Nature integrating empirically suggest something more? To me it suggests something like the phrase in the Four Quartets, ‘In my beginning is my end’, or that integration is a creative unfolding or revealing.
Some other observations about consciousness. The brain is a necessary condition of human consciousness, but it is not a sufficient condition. There must be an external world to which it is attuned, for it to achieve its full potential over time. Why is the world attuned to the brain? Perhaps not because brain arises from world, but rather because both have a common origin. And I would follow Kant in saying there are a priori conditions of experience, even if he did not reveal them satisfactorily despite his labours. Peirce’s insight that mentality, intentionality, measurement, meaning depend on irreducibly triadic relationships must be part of those a priori conditions of experience. And Heidegger’s intuition of the beginning of all sentient beings in Being, suggests monism can be preserved in an account of becoming which is decidedly neither deterministic nor random. Then becoming may indeed be described as held in the womb of time

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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