Saturday, March 18, 2017

Eldritch Revelations: The Mystery of Consciousness and the Fear of Death

[In his published monograph, Eldritch Revelations (One, Two, Three), the psychiatrist of the infamous Jurgen Schulz wrote that only short fragments of Schulz’s philosophical journal survived his escape from Borsa Castle. But after the psychiatrist’s mysterious death shortly after publication, longer fragments were discovered in the psychiatrist’s office, locked in a drawer. The publisher of ER herewith appends these longer fragments as they’re made available by the translator, beginning with this passage on the problem of consciousness.] 

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Perhaps the oldest fiction is that there are two worlds instead of one, the timeless, invisible, spiritual heaven that directs the material realm in which things come and go. And our unique dignity as enlightened beings is supposed to lie in our having a foothold in both worlds. Our consciousness belongs to the unseen utopia, to the hidden source of truth and beauty, while our body is plainly a physical object that emerges, evolves, and decays along with everything else in nature. But as physiologists learned how the body operates, the mystery deepened as to how ethereal consciousness, which used to be known as the spirit, could arise from matter. Our inner domain which seems like a sliver of supernature is full of mental contents, including tastes, smells, emotions, and thoughts, which are utterly unlike the stuff in which our body, including our brain consists. When you taste an exquisite dessert, you wouldn’t thereby be tempted to eat the neurons that are associated with that sensation, since the two tastes would be altogether different. There’s a philosophical mystery of consciousness, then, because there’s a mental blockage in our attempt to conceive of how a physical thing could have an interior point of view, a private world of meaningful mental states.

Less well known is that this problem of the apparent duality of matter and mind has two equivalent formulations, one of which proves more enlightening than the other. The common formulation is the evolutionary one, according to which we have difficulty explaining how mind emerges from matter. Notice, though, that the explanatory relationship can be reversed, in which case we might wonder how mind can be dissolved into matter. This latter formulation is just an abstract statement of the problem of death, as opposed to the question of how consciousness is created in the first place. How material compounds can cohere in such a way that they take on a conscious viewpoint which allows the material aggregate to act knowingly and creatively in what is mostly a lifeless void is one mystery. An equivalent mystery begins with the datum of consciousness and proceeds to the question of how consciousness fades away with the body’s eventual demise.

The second way of putting the problem shows why both mysteries appear to have no solution. The heart of the conundrum isn’t intellectual, but emotional. It’s not that we lack the brainpower to conceive of how mind can be merged with a material body; rather, we can’t bear to pursue the issue forthrightly, because we’re innately horrified by the inevitability of our personal death. Indeed, we’d prefer to live forever, but are confronted by the impermanence of all natural things. Thus, we’re blocked from understanding how a material thing can be conscious, because we’re disgusted by our future in which we’ll be no more, as our body deteriorates and expires. Were we presented with a theory that specifies the mechanics of how consciousness interacts with or inheres in matter, we would refuse to accept the implications as long as we still feared death.

That fear is in turn a consequence of our love of life. Every cell of our being drives us to live more and better, which is why the contemplation of death is morbid and taboo. To ponder what your death will be like is to betray the genetic compulsion and hormones and cultural conditioning that establish the norm of living with blinders to certain dark realities. Biologically, we perceive only that fraction of the universe which is useful to our survival, although science has entered us into the infamous Faustian bargain in which we dare to see further than is recommended to maintain our sanity. Death is despicable because we’re naturally driven to prolong our life at all costs, and this instinct is at least a precondition of the mind-body problem. Of course, the theoretical problem is agonized over by living creatures, by clever animals that figured out not just how to be self-aware, but that the self will apparently be extinguished at the end of a process of material dying. The certainty of death is apparent only to highly intelligent creatures that have learned to wrestle with complexities and abstractions that are unknown to lesser organisms. Nevertheless, the will to survive is universal in the animal kingdom and thus the terror of death persists even in the philosopher.

True, we can be depressive and suicidal, but even should we relinquish the zest for life and embark upon a plot to kill ourselves, we can experience only the act of dying, never the end of death. As long as we live, we live in bodies that evolved to protect themselves, to preserve and to transmit their genetic code. Once we die, the emotional component of the problem of how mind relates to the body is of course undone, since we then no longer exist and thus can no longer fear death or be compelled to endure. Suppose, though, that someone were somehow to have no fear of death and thus no love of life. Such a being would contemplate the prospect of dying with perfect neutrality. Were she biologically programmed to defend her life, she would be alienated from her body, since by hypothesis she would have no emotional attachment to her life. At most she would observe herself going through the motions of breathing, eating, and generally of preserving her life, say, by checking that the way is clear before she crosses the street, but she wouldn’t care about the outcome. However, these life-preserving instincts would be less effective without their emotive component. So such a being would more likely act neither for nor against her benefit. She would be as indifferent towards her life as would be the rest of the universe. To that extent, she would be an object rather than a living thing. What this indicates is that the mind-body problem arises only for a creature that’s at least minimally self-interested, who prefers to live and who thus loathes the thought of her passing into nothingness.

Fear of death isn’t just a precondition of the mystery of how a material body can be conscious; rather, that fear is what renders that identity a problem. Again, the problem isn’t that we can’t understand how material things can come together to form a subject, since at the subatomic level matter itself is as ethereal as any ghost. No, the problem is that we don’t want to be bodies that face the certainty of losing everything we once had. We refuse to dwell on this agonizing certainty, because we’re intrinsically disgusted by it, and so we’re mentally blocked from picking up the problem from the other end, from imagining how a material thing can become conscious, since the two statements of the problem are philosophically equivalent. 

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