One of the remaining great mysteries

I am interrupting my weekly reading of The New Yorker to bring you a bulletin. There’s a great profile in this week’s (2/12) issue of two scientist/philosophers, a married couple–Pat and Paul Churchland, professors at UCSD. It’s a really interesting piece that calls out many of the issues associated with one of the great remaining mysteries: what constitutes consciousness?

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I disagree with many of their firmly held beliefs. They are monists; I am firmly in the dualist camp. I don’t deny that many of the elements of what we call “mind” are firmly grounded in the chemistry and biology of the brain. But I’m holding out for something else, something that’s not “physical” as we know it (more about that in a minute), something that for want of a better term I’ll call the “soul.”

My belief is firmly rooted in experience as well. I’ve had at least one out-of-body experience, and on several occasions found myself sharply aware that something in “me” was really not attached to my body. (And, no, I’ve never been diagnosed with any kind of “mental illness” and have somehow managed to function for a remarkable number of decades.)

The Churchlands also don’t believe that non-human animals have language. I have seen much evidence out here in the middle of nowhere that they do. I think it’s easier to see here because I can be more closely attentive. There are fewer distractions. If you’re looking at animals, you’re looking at animals, and that’s it. There have also been quite a number of scientific studies devoted to this topic, and I believe most of them have demonstrated some degree of language in even what we would consider “the lower animals.” (And how humanly arrogant is that?)

George Lakoff did his best to reduce all human thought to biology, but he never managed to convince me. I enjoyed his books, found his work on metaphor (More Than Cool Reason) immensely useful as a poet, but think he really was all wet in  Philosophy in the Flesh.

One of the things that caught my eye in this profile was Paul Churchland’s reference to a book I have loved since I was very young, Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky. Most of my generation is at least minimally familiar with Heinlein because of Stranger in a Strange Land. This was a sort of rallying-cry book in the 1960s.

But Orphans is a totally different animal, a reflection of how little we know and how impossible it is to know it all. I rank it right up there with John Wynham’s novella “Rebirth” for an understanding of the great mysteries and the ability of humans to resist ideas that challenge their current knowledge.

There are other great mysteries, of course, besides consciousness. I keep returning to the questions of dark energy and dark matter. With all of our “vast” knowledge, how can we not identify and understand the composition of more than 75% of the mass and a huge portion of the energy in our universe?

Perhaps lame thought for the morning: What if dark matter is really consciousness afloat in the universe, some sort of mass/energy that infuses biologically living beings and returns to the universe after the biological death? What do you think?

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