Anna Donald: Who are we?

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.