For Mankind, a Conscious Affair

By Novar Caine

The biologist and incendiary atheist Richard Dawkins has said the top question he would like answered or solved is the problem of human consciousness. He cannot reconcile molecules with thought, synapses with reason. With eons of evolution having passed, here we are – people – the current end-product of genetic mutation and environmental adaptation with the ability to think about our existence and place in the universe, if indeed there is such a self-important arena at all. We also have the capacity to worry about it, which makes us, insofar as we know, the only creatures in an observatory of space with this expressive faculty. It does not happy races make.

Kenya-born Briton Dawkins, 69, former professor of public understanding of science at Oxford University – a chair paid for by Microsoft Office alumnus Charles Simonyi, a billionaire who has twice been into space (he’d be better placed giving those multimillions to the starving on Earth rather than overfeeding his ego-frenzy) – was answering questions from the messy Reddit social news website last month about his controversial stances on religion, belief and humankind.

The evolutionist and anti-God figure said of his quest for answers to the greatest questions there are, “What could be more fascinating than that?” He could not be more right. Every person living today should be emboldened to probe the fundamentals of their being; but instead they unknowingly capitulate to people in frocks who supposedly know better and devise the morality rules that govern.

How can we, so important, be so unimportant? Are we living the ultimate delusion? There is a metastasising mass of evidence to suggest so.

If sentient beings have emerged from early Earth, primordial chemicals in the last 2.5 million years, will we still be having this hopeless – and unanswered – conversation in the next 2.5 million? Or will we by then have evolved into such an advanced state that the perplexities of existence will have been resolved?

Whatever. The irreconcilable conundrum remains that of human consciousness. And is religious conviction and faith in an afterlife nothing more than a panic-suppressing device devised by our brains, as some suggest? In a paper, British psychologist Nick Braisby examines the quandary. He says: “Consciousness presents us with something of a mystery. It is a pervasive feature of our mental lives: we all experience being conscious and we all know what it is to not be conscious, if only from periods of sleep. We do not need specialist training or knowledge to reflect on the differences between being conscious and non-conscious. Consciousness also appears to be a central aspect of ‘what it means to be a person’ and ‘what it means to be me’ – our conceptions of ourselves seem intimately tied to our conscious experiences and recollections.”

Braisby invites readers to engage in an experiment to try to unravel what it means to be a conscious being, to notice yourself. “Take a few minutes (no more than 10) to write down how you would describe your conscious experience at this very moment.”

Of his own attempt, he says: “In spite of being so acquainted with our own consciousness, it is not easy to describe it in words. Nonetheless, you will probably have focused on the objects in your immediate environment. I did too. Right now, I am conscious of the green bushes outside my window, of the noise of my laptop computer, of the hard seat of my practical but not very comfortable chair, and the smell of fresh coffee and toast. I am also conscious of wanting to write more of this chapter, and of the telephone sitting on my desk, ominously quiet. Perhaps you have written of similar kinds of experience.”

There are other ways to tease out your consciousness, including using language and associations with the sense of time. The point of it all, however, is that this awareness may or may not be a sum of the electrical charges in our brain; it may be something else entirely – a soul, if you like, an encapsulation of a personality that has a divine origin and is everlasting.

This is the fulcrum of the exasperation that bedevils people who attempt to seek rationale in an existence where there is not much at all.

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