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Anna Donald: Who are we?

28 Aug, 08 | by BMJ Group

Anna Donald I’m in the middle of an exciting and depressing thought. Basically, that with the demise in the West of theology we have no valid way of talking coherently about existence. I know this is true from a practical point of view because writing this blog is difficult. I am forever stumbling over words and concepts to express my experience of living in the shadow of death. Psychobabbling. So what makes it so hard (apart from my literary ineptitude)?

I’ve just heard a magnificent radio lecture by an economist, Clive Hamilton, who argues the following (at least this is my rendition of it):

After World War II, the philosophers who invented post-modernism (Sartre, Foucault and the like) and whose main project was to dismantle oppressive institutions and groups who abused power, ripped through Western thought and assumptions with their powerful tools of conceptual (materialist) deconstruction.

But they left behind something of a black hole when it came to questions of life and death. The church, which, like other religious institutions, had well established ways of approaching such questions, was discredited as a power-abusing and moribund institution (which it proved itself to be, in no small part, without help from any philosopher, in its paltry response to the Holocaust and other war atrocities). Positivist philosophy: the idea that The-Truth-is-Out-There, was torn to shreds and replaced by the idea that ‘the truth’ is always subjective and relative to the observer. And that human beings are nothing more than lonely beings who exist only unto themselves.

I’m not sure it was these philosophers’ intention to create this awful and awesome void: no God, no origin beyond our physical make-up, and ultimately reducing our existence to fleshy blobs. DNA-robots that like motor racing and shopping. Rather, it was an insidious side effect of an otherwise spectacularly successful project – the conceptual and actual deconstruction – breaking down and building up again – of concepts and institutions that has unfolded into all aspects of Western life, including medicine and science. Because while materialist institutions and projects can be rebuilt and explained through deconstruction, it han’t seemed to work so well for the rebuilding of our understanding of non-materialist forces, such as love, existence, connectedness, spirituality (which it denies exists).

The human genome project, for example, was a manifestation of the idea that all of our being is contained within and revealed by our robotic code: DNA. The shock on the day it was completed was how much it did not explain. It revealed, for example, that we were very close in structure to earthworms, but precious little, if anything at all, about psychological and temperamental differences between people; races; ethnicities. Its absence of revelation of the depths of human nature suggested that, at least as far as consciousness is concerned, we were more nurture than nature. Consciousness just didn’t seem to be something DNA (or RNA) ‘does.’ Of course it produces the proteins that create the mechanical structures which consciousness inhabits: the brain, the autonomic nervous system and so forth. But not consciousness itself.

Yet, consciousness – how we perceive the world – does affect our DNA. As Sir Michael Marmot’s Whitehall study (among many others) has persistently and robustly demonstrated, if we perceive that we’re lower down the pecking order, whatever the facts of the case, we’re much more prone to illness. Our biochemical and immune systems (including neurotransmitters, macrophages and the like) seem to be incredibly sensitive to our perception (rather than objective reality) of our social world.

I guess I wasn’t that surprised that people who had seen the human genome project as a kind of Holy Grail, capable of revealing everything about our nature, were disappointed. Partly because the DNA/RNA-robot vision of humanity is logically flawed. It proposes (in essence) that we are fleshy robots who fool ourselves into thinking we are conscious. The problem with this argument is it presupposes that there is something to fool. That is, you have to be conscious to fool yourself into thinking that you are conscious. Which is a logical cul-de-sac. It doesn’t hold as an argument.

Another way of putting it is that no robot would ask itself if it were conscious because it doesn’t have a consciousness to think of the question in the first place. It might do it mechanically, programmed by a conscious human, but it won’t do it by itself. It needs an external, conscious being to mastermind its mechanical workings.

Which is one of several reasons why I think (sorry sci-fi fans) that AI (artificial intelligence) is ultimately limited in its scope to mimic or ‘become’ human, though it’s great for vacuuming the carpet and helping guided missiles become more guided, if you’re into that sort of thing.

But if logically we cannot be reduced to robotic, DNA-driven blobs of flesh, then who are we? What is consciousness? Where do we come from? Where do we go when our bodies die? (or as philosopher and ex-priest John O’Donohue puts death more beautifully, “the miracle of our death when we slip back into the unkown”)

Where is my consciousness coming from right now as I’m typing this page? What about when you dream? Where does dream material come from? Your head? It seems unlikely: it’s too weird, too varied, too crazy, too creative for one’s little mind to invent for every sleeping moment of one’s 85 years (it has recently been found that we dream 100% of the time we’re asleep, not just in REM sleep).

What is the relationship of our consciousness to the cacophony of internal voices that fret about the price of petrol; whether the child-minder will be available; what to wear to the meeting; whether recycling makes any difference?

In other words, who are we really? The categories of mind, body, spirit are just words. They’re not the reality of existence. How do we actually hang together as a conscious, walking, talking being? Are the words “mind”, “body,” “spirit” useful any more? Or is the process of being alive and conscious – as well as passing through the gateway of death – much more complex and mysterious than these words suggest? Do they hide more than they reveal?

I’m not going to bumble on with this until I’ve read a lot more. But from having delved into mind-body practices I would argue that all is definitely not as it seems from our current Western materialist perspective which sees us as DNA self-perpetuating organisms which have no higher existence.

Saying this, I slightly fear a head-on collision with Richard Dawkins (my mail-box sharer at Oxford– our names both began with D. He always got more interesting-looking envelopes than I did). Hopefully not. The war he’s fighting is different from mine. I’m definitely on his side in his battle against magical thinking. But not in the (post modern) idea that the (material) selfish gene explains everything about who we are.

That said, my (cancer) genes are being jolly selfish, in my humble view, not to mention stupid, in persisting in their kamikaze venture. If I die, so do they. So they should stop being such party animals, venturing all over the place in chaotic fashion, and go back to being nice normal breast cells. In the breast. Not the liver, bones, brain, lungs. Or anywhere else. Maybe they need a psychoanalyst to sort them out. Are they anxious about being breast cells? Of being chased naked by Woody Allen through a large field? Of potential parental duties?

Definitely time to stop writing. Have a lovely week and I thank readers from the bottom of my heart for your thoughtful and helpful comments, which are an ongoing support and source of happiness.

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  • Lynsey Ferrari

    Hello Anna,

    No evidence here of literary ineptitude. Quite the opposite. And the subject of this latest blog is of special interest to me. I have found Ken Wilber’s books on the subject of consciousness and spirit marvellously challenging. Maybe you know this work already.

    Warmest good wishes,

    Lynsey

  • Dr.Viveck Atheya

    Dear Anna,
    Talking about dreams,I remember a little dialogue between a diciple and his guru,on seeing a beautiful butterfly:-

    Diciple-”oh Guru ji look !what a beautiful butterfly!

    Guru-”My dear pupil,it is just a dream – it is Maya(illusion)”

    Diciple-”Is it not possible Guru ji, that we are a dream,being dreamt by that Butterfly”

    This is a very powerful thought-It questions our very approach to this world.

  • Sam Ryan

    Hi Anna,

    A fascinating post and one of particular pertinence to my self – having just been diagnosed with a GBM4. After many years wedded to the logic of Darwin and in the pull of your old colleagues prose, i too find myself again engaging my more spiritual side in the search for meaning and perspective. Ian G has certainly been an inspiration, one i hope more Cancer patients come across, and hence i plow through Sogyal Rimpoche’s readings and casually allow my meditation to venture into the connectedness i feel with so much that is around me … be it through love, chi, force… i know not; but who ever we are i am glad i am here and want to stay longer.

    I too have wondered at the relative spiritual dessert that survives in the west; that that remains seemingly cornered by institutions of creed, their honest and inspirational message lost in the grasp to stay relevant. I counsel my Indian friends, those i studied with in India, against a head-long rush in search of all that is affluent in the West (not to say it is all bad) – so long as they don’t loose what makes their world so rich and more able to answer the questions you/i/we are asking – more so as our mortality becomes the message of our day(s).

    Much warmth, love, respect and spirit to you on your journey. May you succeed and use your example to further our collective understanding.

    Sam

  • http://www.tangibleresults.com.au Margaret Munoz

    Dear Anna,
    I have tracked you down through your blog. I wanted you to know I found the article about you in the GW magazine very inspiring and also as an ardent EFT practitioner to express my gratitude at the way you are putting EFT in front of people. I am currently writing my third book on EFT – about how to use it to support spiritual growth. It’s based on the work of Eckhart Tolle, whose teachings have been profoundly helpful to me. As it is going to be an eBook this time I would be delighted to send you a copy as soon as it’s finished if you would let me have your email address.

    I wish you well on your challenging journey – Margaret

  • Helen Lawson

    Dear Anna,

    Like so many others, I came across your blog on the internet and I’m so pleased to “hear from you.” It’s wonderful to have news of how you are and what you are up to. I think of you and Michael often and love keeping up with you here. You always make me stop and think and since I have a mindless corporate job, I love the opportunity really to think occasionally!
    Much love to you and Michael,
    Helen Lawson

  • Anthony Papagiannis

    Hello, Anna, and thank you for your thoughtful writing.

    I am a chest physician with a special interest in palliative care, so I see a fair number of patients with malignancies. Through my discussions with patients I have come to appreciate that a diagnosis of incurable disease is essentially the drawing of the curtain behind which we choose to live our ordinary lives, happily ignorant (i.e. not caring) of such fundamental issues as who we are and whither we are going.

    Having grown up in the Orthodox Christian tradition I was interested by your opening comment on the ‘demise of Western theology’. I do not wish to start any kind of polemic against other confessions, but you may find that Eastern Christian theology is alive and well, and may hold answers to some of your very natural and very profound questions. If I were to suggest some good introductory reading on the subject, I would choose ‘The Orthodox Way’ by Bishop Kallistos Ware, who I believe is well known in the Oxford circles.

    Please keep up the good fight!

    Anthony Papagiannis, Greece

  • Kerri Parnell

    Dear Anna
    I’ve read your very thoughtful blog a few times – you write fabulously.
    I am a GP, editor of a medical newspaper, and also have metastatic breast cancer.
    I am an atheist, (not by choice, but one cannot make oneself believe something), and have been reading a lot to try to reconcile myself with death from a non-religious experience.
    Would love to talk more.
    Kerri Parnell

  • John Corish

    Anthony,

    With all due respects, I’ve met a lot of people with incurable diseases who very much care where they’re going after they draw their final breath. My own mother was a conventional Roman Catholic and as such expected a short spell in Purgatory followed by admission to one of the many mansions that Jesus claimed his father owned for an eternity of happiness.

    I myself am Agnostic: I have no faith. For me, the plain “I just don’t know” is the only honest position to take on the very fundamental question as to whether some form of consciousness continues after death. And, again contrary to what you say, in my experience this question is one that exercises greatly many individuals who are close to death.

    Best wishes,

    John

  • Dr.Viveck Atheya

    Dar Anna,
    What you are gaining thru the process of going thru you your suffering may well be the truth of our existence,our being.Otherwise we may not have known this-It is deep and convincing.I am fascinated by the repetitive ness of all of this(many have described it thus before you) and know that this will provide enough “evidence” in your heart as to the nature of the FINAL truth.Please go on-FEEL.

  • Anthony Papagiannis

    Dear John,

    I hope Anna does not mind us arguing in her back yard, so to speak. Nowhere did I deny that existential questions do tax our patients’ minds–on the contrary, I did say that such questions are frequently ignored whilst we are healthy and carefree. I agree that ‘thinking honestly’ one cannot propose (or contradict) any view about afterlife. The latter is a matter of faith, and so, by definition, beyond the domain of scientific or intellectual proof. We acccept it, by deciding that there are limits to the reach of our physical or mental abilities, and in accepting it we also adopt a stance in our life consistent with what we believe that will follow after our departure from this earth.
    I hope I have made myself clear this time, and thank you very much for taking the trouble to write.

  • Andrew Truswell

    Dear Anna,

    This is a fresh post-deconstruction approach to a truth we must all grapple with – “who are we?”.

    What you are experiencing with your higher intellect, analytical powers, clear prose and medical knowledge has resonance for us all.

    I would like to hear more about your experiences of the power of love.

    Andrew

  • Dr John Corish

    Anthony,

    I apologise, I misread your initial post. However, many healthy (if not altogether carefree) individuals also ponder these very fundamental questions posed by Anna.

    Are not our universities filled with philosophers and theologians who mostly enjoy the rudest of good health? I’ll be fifty next birthday and smoke like the proverbial chimney. While not faced with imminent death, I think that you, as a Respiratory Physician, will acknowledge that my chances of seeing 70 are slim. And I also frequently ponder these questions.

    I accept that belief (or faith) is not amenable to proof (or disproof), but it is open to scientific and intellectual scrutiny. For instance, in what part of the human cerebral cortex does “belief” originate? I suspect somewhere in one or other of the temporal lobes. But perhaps you as a believer would argue that it is imposed from on high by some ultimate being?

    As for religious belief, I’m open to the possibility that Christians (of all denominations), Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., etc., may be right. However, I find it damned hard to see how they can all be right. And, in many ways, I pray to God (you’ll understand the irony) that it’s actually the Atheists who have it right: the notion of a long, deep sleep undisturbed by dreams (pleasant or otherwise) strikes me as having much to commend itself.

    Best wishes,

    John

  • Anna Donald

    A note to the John-Anthony conversation: I suppose I called myself an agnostic until I actually experienced things that I couldn’t explain within any of my medical or secular frameworks. They made me realise how little I really know about who I am, or where I came from. Or where I’m going to, for that matter. Without these discruptive experiences I don’t think I’d be thinking about it much. And John – stop smoking! (I don’t really mean it, though I sort of do). I can tell you from first hand experience that having your lungs filled with cancer is no fun. Whenever I have one of my interminable coughing fits in public, everyone says, ‘oh, isn’t that cold awful; I’ve got that cough’ and I have to gasp, between coughs and Fisherman’s Friends, ‘no you don’t.’ That said, my husband’s grandmother lived til 99.7 on so many cigarettes that her flat and everything in it, including her, was stained a deep yellow. The usual story. :) Anna

  • Tom

    Say with a Dalek voice while stiffly waving arms about: “I am a robot. A fleshy DNA robot.”

    There, isn’t that comforting? (Made me feel better, though folks in the office are now staring.)

    Methinks ‘Fleshy DNA Robot’ is an awesome name for a punk band.

    More posts and rambling thoughts please. Very interesting sis’.

  • Helen Gould

    Dear Anna I was thrilled w article in GW. Like you I have been helped by Goenka’s Vipassana meditation, by dreamwork and by EFT. But briefly I wanted to tell you of a possible alternative cancer treatment mentioned in New Scientist several years back – a doctor treating people w cancer in the ’30s, working in the same hospital at the same time as first experiments on using radiation for cancer,noticed that a client given 2 weeks life expectancy who then independently of the cancer contracted a high fever, spontaneously recovered from the cancer. So the doctor experimented w inducing high fevers in his cancer clients and had a good success rate in remitting their cancers. Unfortunately because radiation therapy was the in thing, his work was sidelined.
    I do hope you may be able to follow this one up; I do think it is promising. I also dislike radiation therapy because of toxic products that then need safe disposal. May you be well and happy, Helen Gould

  • http://www.megganbrummer.com Meggan Brummer

    Dear Anna,

    I was inspired to read the article on you in the GW. Your strength of spirit and your openness to grow through what life has handed you is beautiful.

    I also wanted to share with you about the Suddarshan Kriya breathing technique. It is taught on the Art of Living Part 1 Course, in over 150 countries around the world. Incredible healings and transformations have been experienced through it. There is also a lot of research now done on it, which illustrate the benefits.

    See http://www.artofliving.org.au for the courses being run in Australia or http://www.artofliving.org for courses in other countries. I’m not sure where you’re based, but if you’re ever in Sydney then you’re welcome to join us for a course here. I teach it myself; however, wherever you are – the journey will be a valuable and transformational one.

    If you’d like to have a chat, feel free to give me a call. My details are on my website.

    Wishing you life’s gems.
    Meggan

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