Friday, 15 May 2009

On transcendence

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

(John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn, 1819).

Great art, as Roger Scruton says in his book Beauty, separates the human mind from everyday matters, putting it in touch with with the metaphysical, the eternal, the absolute. That is Keats’ truth/beauty-beauty/truth equation in practice – to be found in those moments, lost in wonder, when as a result of direct contact with Great Art, one’s consciousness is lifted to a higher plane. This gives rise to new insights; intimations of a new understanding of existence itself.

Now, is that sublime moment a touching of eternity – or nothing more than a flow of chemicals and electrical discharges through the brain? Scientists would argue that all that’s happening is that dopamine, serotonin or oxytocyn (the 'cuddle' hormone) flows have been triggered, causing a sensation of pleasure and heightened awareness. Religious people would describe such moments as divine inspiration; God in direct contact with Man.

I’d argue that it is both at the same time. I’d argue that this division, which has existed since the time of the Enlightenment, between Science and Spirituality, is a false one. Today, quantum physics and neuroscience are both nudging in the direction of supernature.

Chicken and/or egg? Neither and/or both.

Am I healthy because I’m happy? Or am I happy because I am healthy?

Let’s take the question a stage further: Is my positive approach to life a result of the fact that I’m happy and healthy – or does the fact that I’m happy and healthy stem from my positive approach to life?

Those who like to think of themselves as scientists, rationalists, reductionists, would stick to the first answer. Yet the bulk of mankind would instinctively say “well, there’s something to be said for the second”.

Indeed, but is there a deeper, scientifically determinable mechanism at work? Am I really able to think myself into a state of healthiness and happiness? Research into the placebo effect (and its evil twin, the nocebo effect) suggests that this may indeed be the case.

Again, let’s take the question a stage further. Belief in the power of belief. If you don’t believe that a positive outlook can improve your health or slow down disease – then the likelihood is it won’t. If you do believe in belief, then it will.

Moments of sublime transcendence, when the mind ceases to be bound by the constraints of body, of time or of place, intimate the possibility of that one’s awareness can exist independent of muscle, bone and brain.

Which leads me to the most important question of all regarding human consciousness: The most important question – a question so profound that people back off from dwelling on it in case they go mad – is that of the mortality of our consciousness.

Does our mind die with our body? When our heart ceases to beat and when blood ceases to oxygenate the brain – is that the end of our awareness?

The answer is thought to be binary; either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Or is could it be both yes and no? Could it be, as with Schroedinger’s Cat, that both states are true at the same time, until observed by a conscious observer? So if you believe it to be the case, your consciousness lives on, but if you are convinced that you are but brain, muscle and bone and nothing else – then that, for you, indeed is it?

This existential uncertainty has ever been the prime mover of religions. Certainty of afterlife; insurance – assurance. Be good, and when you die, your soul (whatever that is, but to me it is clearly your consciousness) lives on ‘in heaven’.

So another set of binary choices:

Your consciousness can live on after physical death.


Your consciousness expires along with your body at physical death

I shall explore this thread in following posts.

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