The Soul of Man Under Scientism: Part 1

This is the first of a three-part essay on the situation of the human person in an era in which science has supplanted religion and spirituality.

I don't have many photographs of myself in my teens, and this is the only one I have of myself aged approximately 16. Here, I am carrying the coffin of my friend and neighbour Gerry Hawthorne, a superbly talented sculptor and artist, who died in a dreadful motorcycle accident. He was a year older than me. This photograph of me carrying his coffin dates from a few weeks before my 16th birthday. 

This is the first of a three-part essay on the situation of the human person in an era in which science has become the new ‘superstition’, supplanting religion and spirituality, and amounting, in effect, to their antithesis. These articles are versions of chapters of a book I started writing eight years ago but, for all kind of reasons, have yet to publish. 

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Across the Puddle of Comedy and Time

A few years ago, when I was already well into my 50s, a book publisher asked me to contribute to a collection of letters written by ‘prominent’ Irish people to their 16-year-old selves. It struck me as a strange but somehow beautiful idea, so I agreed.

This is what I wrote to ‘myself’:

Dear John,

When I think of you it is almost as I would of a son. I know there are things about which I know more than you do, but, — alas — one of the things I know most certainly is that I cannot hope to alert you to the consequences of your relative unknowing. Nor do I necessarily wish to do so. If I were your father, I might say, ‘I cannot live your life for you’. The trouble is that I have already done so — well, perhaps, optimistically, half to two-thirds of your life. This changes everything.

I remember a gauche, gangly youth with long hair who had certain clear ideas about things. I have to tell you that almost everything you knew was wrong. I could waste my precious 500 words by telling you things with a view to saving you time and heartbreak, but that too would be a fruitless direction. I am the consequence of mistakes you have yet to make.

Instead, all I would like to say is that I feel intimately connected with you in every moment. I look back towards you, through the few instants of space time that separate us, and draw from you a sense of my bearings. I measure the journey that I have made — the one you must yet make — and from that draw a sense of what is left for us both to undertake. The news is not so good. I am still gauche and not ungangly. I still have long hair. I know minutely more than you do, but that ‘knowledge’, too, informed mainly by the mistakes, is probably still all wrong. If we are working off the three-score-and-ten, then I have much to discover, on behalf of us both, in 15 years (soberingly, rather less than half the time that separates you from me.)

All I can tell you of what I’ve learned is that it’s all a mystery. Or perhaps a Mystery. It makes sense, but not as you imagine. It’s not a movie or a book, and neither of these will afford you more than the odd glimpse of guidance. The destination is no clearer by virtue of being nearer, but the sense of a destination grows all the time. As I remember, you have a highly developed sense of the absurd, but I seem to remember that you will lose that for a time, which may be the first real mistake. The root of your greatest errors will be a brief but unfortunate lapsing into the general tendency to take everything at face value. Look around. Look at yourself. How can it be as they say?

The picture is growing, but so painfully slowly that it seems hopeless to imagine it will complete itself in time. To be truthful, my best expectation is for a gauche, gangly, long-haired 70 year-old John who will look back at both of us and laugh himself to death.

Good wishes across the puddle of comedy and time.

John

For me reading that ‘letter’ now — several years later, as perhaps an entirely new or different person who might well write an equally patronising missive to, perhaps, his 50 year-old self — the most interesting thing about it is not so much the content but the very idea of undertaking the challenge. Is this just an interesting but abstract literary exercise or is it more? When I address myself with those two opening words — ‘Dear John’  — am I playing a game or actually doing something that is existentially valid, acknowledging something fundamentally real about myself?

And let’s stop right here and look at the end of that last sentence: ‘Something fundamentally real about myself’? What does this mean? How casually I throw out that word ‘myself’! How casually I use the word/letter ‘I’!

For this is precisely what’s at stake: Is there something constant through my life that I can call ‘myself’? Is there something ‘I’ can call ‘I’? By my every intuition, this seems like a comical question. In terms of what we call science — or, to be more specific, neuroscience —  it is a very real question indeed. From what I have read and understood of this discipline, the vast majority of its practitioners hold that there is no continuous self through time, and most tend towards the view that there is no discoverable ‘I’ that persists through or at the centre of what we outwardly — or even inwardly — regard as a human life.

I’m not a neuroscientist. I have studied this subject as a layman and tried to make sense of it. Again, you’ll have noted, I’m still using that word ‘I’, even though the news from the experts is along the lines that, one day sooner or later, we (whoever ‘we’ are) will wake up to be told that there is no such thing as an ‘I’ — that it is an illusion, a trick of words and thoughts, a kind of hologram created by numerous brain functions criss-crossing in the void we imagine ourselves to render vivified with human presence.

There is a range of variation to be encountered between various practitioners of these darkening arts of neuroscience, neuro-psychology and neuro-philosophy.  I will come to the slightly more encouraging possibilities in a while, but firstly it must be acknowledged that the overwhelming majority of these guys really believe themselves to be engaged in a project which will eventually rumble the idea of a subjective human presence, and demonstrate that we (there I go again) have all been labouring under an extraordinary misapprehension in believing ourselves — as in ‘our selves’ — actually to exist. Many neuroscientists working in this field would tell me that, rather than the continuous being that I have imagined myself to manifest through time, there has been an indeterminate number of entities in series, who happen to remember enough about previous incarnations to lay claim to a continuous identity.

The version of myself I remember as a child, for example, the scientists tell me, is a trick of memory loops. Going backwards, what I think I ‘remember’ is not so much actual events in my life as the accumulation of a series of generations of earlier versions of memories, which I have revised and ‘re-remembered’. It was David Hume, apparently, who first said that in seeking a self in his own experience he could only find the experiences, and that the illusion of a self arises really from something like a 'bundle of sensations' — in effect a trick of memory.

It might be a little like the way my Apple iBook retains multiple versions of this chapter as I’m working on it, even though I’m editing it down, down, down into something else.

We’re told that these memories are like chains of images linking together through the various versions of John Waters that have manifested along the path of the past 66 years.

In a certain sense, it is easy to think of a younger version of myself — or selves — as a different person or persons. It ought not be automatic for me to address any previous incarnation of myself as ‘you’, and yet it has here an immediate and quite comprehensible aptness — both in the context of what science appears increasingly intent on telling us and in terms of what we consider intuitive. I have fallen into the habit of regarding and treating that distant teenage figure as myself, but in truth I feel much closer to my wife or my daughter than to ‘him’. He would be a stranger to both of them, and is on that account a little more of a stranger to me. It’s all quite funny, which should alert us to the possibility that we’re on fairly fundamental ground. Laughter often functions as a defence mechanism by which we deflect phenomena we find existentially threatening.

It would appear that the very idea of an illusory self implies that there is someone — some continuous consciousness — upon whom or which the illusion can be put over. If there is no self, what or whom is duped by the illusion? Or is this merely a semantic confusion, a trick of words? Who reflects on all this? Is it in any sense the same ‘me’ that existed in 1971? (Again, please gloss over the ‘I’s, the ‘me’s and ‘myself’s — although the somewhat encouraging news is that even neuroscientists use the word ‘I’, even when declaring that the ‘I’ doesn’t exist.)

The key question, then, is this: Does the sense we have of having an 'inner life', of being the authors and drivers of ourselves, amount to a real experience of a subjectivity, or is it simply a trick of the aggregate of a series of functions? 

The overwhelming majority of practitioners in this field appear to hold that it is only a matter of time until science is able to confirm that the self is an illusion. Not only that, but most of them appear to be entirely sanguine about this possibility, indeed looking forward to the day when they can announce it definitively. In the meantime, they more or less speak and act as if the case were already proven.

We kind of take for granted that the ‘engine room’ of our subjectivity is to be found in the head. But no. The site of human consciousness has not been discovered. It's not a region of the brain; it's not a chemical phenomenon; it's not in genes; it's not in the neuronal networks — although these are good for tracking consciousness, for providing a sensitive index of it. Many scientists say that the brain does not generate consciousness — that it generates certain functions, like intelligence, feeling, memory, vision etc, but that consciousness is ‘something else’, something that is not — or is more than — the sum of these quantities. Others hold that what we think of (if ‘we’ think!) as self-awareness is precisely the sum of these functions. 

At one extreme of the present scientific viewpoint is the idea that a thermostat is possessed of a rudimentary form of what we call consciousness. Man, by this hypothesis, is an advanced thermostat — a sophisticated computational mechanism with no core but a kind of virtual intelligence arising from the cross-firing of various synaptic and chemical processes.

Some scientists say that human consciousness will eventually be boiled down to the concentration of calcium in a particular kind of cell. They also say that such a theory of mind, when it emerges, will seem counter-intuitive — that there will be no necessary correlation between the insight and the way human beings will continue to see their experience of reality. In other words, they say the final explanation of subjectivity may describe a process that doesn't seem like subjectivity at all — that what I or you might say about our being self-aware beings is not relevant and will do nothing to refute the objectified descriptions of our functioning that may unfold in the future. Right now, it seems impossible to see how the human being could ever come to understand himself in any sense that denies his existence, but the scientists say this will change.

The more reality-centred scientists agree that, even if the hypothesis of the ‘selfless human’ is correct, the consequences of confirming this may be shocking. They agree that the growing acquisition of such profound self-knowledge will lead human beings, inevitably, towards despondency and despair. Some scientists, like Thomas Metzinger, say that the new image of man that emerges from genetics and neuroscience contradicts all prior images, including the Christian image. They say this may kill off certain hopes that men have held to — such as the possibility of consciousness surviving death. (Most scientists in this field do not themselves believe that consciousness endures after death. Some claim to believe that one day it will be possible to upload a human personality to a computer and in this way achieve eternal life for the ‘person’ in question. I hope they’re joking — though, then again, who am ‘I’ to hope anything at all?)

Some, like Metzinger, speak soberly of the possible consequences for societal cohesion of the loss of the metaphysical dimension. It is important, says Metzinger , that 'a crude, vulgar kind of materialism is not what actually follows on the heels of this neuroscientific revolution'. Such a mentality, he says, 'transported through the media, makes people believe in simplistic ideas such as that human beings are just machines, and that the concept of dignity is empty, and that there never has been such a thing as reason, or responsibility.'

Biologists tell us that every cell in the human body renews itself every seven to ten years, which means that, since 1971, when I was 16, there have been, in a certain sense, five or perhaps up to seven discrete ‘John Waterses’ operating as ‘me’. Hence, there would be a certain ‘naturalness’, or at least understandability, in the idea of regarding my 16 year-old self as my own son — although clearly in another sense I might more plausibly regard him as my own ancestor.

It is strange, perhaps, to say that an explosion in individualism such as we have recently experienced in the ‘civilised’ world might be accompanied by a loss of subjectivity, even if that loss is simply the loss of an intuitionally unified sense of how the world works and how we exist within it. It seems odd to suggest, in such an era of self-obsession, that there could be some problem with the human ‘I’ ­— and that increasing individualism might have something to do with making this more visible.

Is the ‘I’ necessarily the centre of the individual? It’s important to be clear, because in English at least, whereas the two concepts might seem to be coterminous, this may no longer be uncontroversial. I would say that it is vital to make a distinction: Whereas individualism appears to relate to the sense of identity constructed in the person from elements found externally, the self — if it can be presumed to exist — must necessarily comprise some fundamental, irreducible awareness that remains uncontaminated by outside influences or quantities.

Growing up, I had this odd sense of being here in this world only temporarily, but also a feeling that my presence here was something strange.  From talking to other people, I don’t believe many of them felt this in quite the same way.  Most seemed to accept this present dimension as what might be termed ‘normality’, a place and time in which you live fairly long, which carries no implied contrast or comparison with any other reality, and which defines you for the duration of your stay.  I never felt that. To me, the world always seemed peculiar and foreign, although I never had any clear sense of what manner of comparison this feeling might be arising from. Religion helped, when I was younger, by giving me stories, images and symbols to build in myself an awareness of the possibility of another place that I might belong to and in some sense ‘remember’.

I was constantly astonished — not just at ‘being here’, but at ‘being in here’. I’d go around in my little skinny body, peering out through big brown eyes, wondering why on earth it had been decided to make me a subjective being rather than another objective one among the six billion odd populating the planet. Who or what had decided  to put me ‘in here’ in this body rather than ‘out there’ in another. And why now? — after all the aeons of time that had passed since the universe had exploded into being? Why 1955? And now, today — June 20th, 2021, as it happens, the eve of the longest day — here I am still, looking out, witnessing everything that passes before me. It astonishes me, still, that this moment should have arisen just as we all happen to be here, at this moment when the present moment is, while the fact of my existence is somehow exalted by its concurrence with the actual. Why now? Why did this moment not occur 5,000 years ago, or sometime in the distant future? Why was this subjectivity given to me in this exhilarating stretch of presentness I call my life? And by what, and by what logic? Was it essential that it happen at all? Indeed, could anything at all be real without it? I am unable to imagine the world going about its business in my absence, and am not entirely convinced that it can. Yet, the history of this world, chronicled in books and pictures and the memories of other beings who seem to resemble me in certain ways, appears to debunk this sense I have of my own indispensability. 

Even as a child I had an awareness of the consternation expressed by the American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, when he said: ‘What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, and excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression — and with all this yet to die.’ But I also had a countervailing sense that there must be more to my situation than that, and this feeling was by no means entirely the product of a religious education. The very fact of my own self-awareness led me to believe that my existence had a dynamic, a purpose, a given journey and a destination. It was like sitting down in my seat in the cinema, knowing that what I was about to see would make some kind of sense, would take me someplace worth going to.

There was, then, this paradox: I took the fact of my existence very seriously, but did not totally embrace it as a definitive and final state. I walked lightly through it, ever watchful for signs. It only very recently struck me that one reason I’ve never taken this existence as seriously as most people seem to is that I was born into a family which was no more than moderately ‘settled’. When we were children, our accommodation was on the primitive side of basic — two functional rooms, no electricity, no running water. Our lighting was furnished by paraffin lamps and candles; our water came from the ‘pump’ (actually a public tap) up the street. My father never worried much about any of this, although I think it troubled my mother somewhat. For my sisters and me, it was neither no more nor no less than normal.

Everything about our home and existence smacked of the transient. It was like we were refugees from someplace, waiting for some war or famine to be over so we could go home. Scattered throughout the Bible are mentions of the correct habitation for man in this world being a ‘tent’ — the better to avoid becoming excessively attached to this existence. It seemed that my father’s ambition was to adhere as faithfully as possible to this injunction, but that, in deference to his family’s well-being, he had acquiesced in a marginally more substantial dwelling-place.

As a child, I would sometimes say things to adults in an attempt to discover if they had the same sense of exceptionality from being inside their own bodies, and if they were asking the same questions. But whenever I asked them, ‘Do you feel like this also?’, they would shrug or say, ‘Have you finished your homework?’ or ‘Don’t ask silly questions!’ So for a long time I was convinced that I was the only one who thought like this, who had these questions — that everybody else was to himself or herself exactly as he or she was to me — a ‘third person’, that I was the only ‘first person’, the only subjective being among billions of ‘human objects’ with no sense of being ‘first persons’.

Perhaps this too was a trick of language, perception or perspective. I never actually believed people were really like that, at least not seriously, though it remained an interesting and useful hypothesis. I think I always entertained such reflections with a demeanour of ironic exasperation, impatient that others didn’t see the strangeness of the world as I did, but presuming that they had accommodated to ‘reality’ in a way I had never managed to do. 

But now something not unlike this may definitively have descended upon us, becoming broadly true in our cultures and afflicting us all. In a certain sense, we have all come to think of ourselves as ‘third persons’. We have become more individualised, yes, but the subjective core of each ‘individual person’ has been hollowed out in some way, so, at a deep level, we no longer think of ourselves as primarily subjects, but simply other ‘objects’, ‘third person singulars’, which translates as ‘citizen’, ‘worker’, ‘husband’, ‘taxpayer’, ‘voter’, ‘pensioner’, ‘student’ et cetera. Even in our own eyes, we have changed in some way. Each of us has an individualised passport. Each of us has a social security number. Each of us has a social identity which, even while distinguishing us from others, makes us the same as them.

When we listen to the radio or watch TV, and hear the current affairs programs speak of our lives — what they speak of is this objectified entity, this part of each of us that is numbered, listed, adumbrated in data. One moment I’m a taxpayer, the next a consumer, the next a voter, the next, ultimately, a citizen — a category which appears to be the fullest extent of my humanity as understood by society, with duties or rights (sometimes, with growing lines of qualifiers) but with a face only for the purpose of identifying me in a security context, and even this is liable to semi-suspension because I may be, most of all, a health-hazard to other citizens. In this condition, each of us is in a constant struggle to achieve a place alongside others, who strike us as resembling ourselves only in terms of our civic and social depictions. And, listening to the everyday descriptions of our presumed reality, we hear nothing to alert us to other possibilities. Rarely do we hear anything to confirm or witness that there is another dimension to our existence — a far more immediate and even more obvious one: that we are singular, subjective intelligences looking out on reality, probably for the first time in history, right at this moment, understanding things, witnessing things, asking questions, wondering. We are allotted various roles within civic society, but there is no discussion of the fact that each of us is a miracle of subjectivity, consciousness and witness — no sharing of an awareness that, for each of us, the most extraordinary phenomenon that exists in the world is the capacity to ask and understand and wonder. If such a concept ever arises in public discussion, it is treated as a peripheral, insignificant, eccentric, amusing and probably problematic aspect of the individual’s being. Like the adults who brushed away my questions when I was a child, the whole culture seems to conspire to dissuade me from paying attention to my subjectivity. It encourages me to self- absorption. It tolerates my selfishness. It promotes my individualism. But my subjectivity — my ‘I’ — is treated as if it were some kind of peculiarity, some residual element of a prior and erroneous understanding which is now best left unmentioned.

What seems a long time ago now, I was on a TV programme, being interviewed about the general political situation and also the state of Catholicism in Ireland. I was trying to explain this odd aspect of the modern condition — the loss of subjectivity in an increasingly individualised age. So I found myself speaking about the extraordinary ‘mathematics’ of my existence: that I am one of seven billion human beings alive on this planet now, that this planet is just one tiny speck of matter, spinning around a tiny star, in a galaxy of billions of such stars, in a universe of perhaps trillions of such galaxies. These metricss are sometimes used by atheists to support a claim of the insignificance of mankind, or at least of each of its individual members, but my purpose was different: to suggest that their use had led us to see ourselves in completely erroneous ways. The host asked me, ‘So you think you’re someone special?’ — winking at the camera. I replied, I think, ‘We’re all special.’

Here I am now, right at this moment, looking out. Not in 374 years time, not 635 years ago, but right now, at the only moment there appears to exist. My existence, statistically speaking, is as close to impossible as to be, by any earthly standard, outlandish. If we had to depend on such statistics for anything else in this reality, we would be wise to anticipate that the event in question had no chance of happening. If we seek to translate these statistics into a bookmaker’s odds, we quickly realize that there is absolutely no chance of us ever coming into existence. No one would ever bet on it. If we were to purchase a lottery ticket with odds like those, we must know that we have a much better chance of dying before we leave the shop than we have of winning the prize. In this case, the prize is life, existence, and we do not need to win it. It is already a given. The impossible is already happening. My existence is impossible, and yet here I am.

Every day I look out for evidence that other people understand the nature of this miracle, and I rarely if ever encounter it. This is something truly extraordinary: that we have constructed a culture which manages to conceal from us the miracle of our subjectivity — the culture defined by Pope Benedict XVI in the Bundestag  a decade ago as the bunker in which we have closed out all mystery, building a new world in which we are able to be our own masters, but at the cost of our individual selves, our souls, our specialness.

And this at a time when we are told that we live through the most individualistic age in the history of the world. How has this occurred?

Really, it happens to each of us as though we watch ourselves on a screen. More and more, what our culture does to us is eliminate us from the picture and then invite us to reimagine ourselves as though through a sheet of glass — mirrored in a shop window, or pixilated as on a TV set. We become actors in our own existences, observed by ourselves from a distance. But really we do not see ourselves, being too busy making comparisons with the other beings we see. We exist only by constructing ourselves from reflections of the lives and identities of others. It is as if the insides of ourselves have been emptied, making us, literally, ‘non-entities’. But we can find ourselves again, in a certain way, by looking to other non-entities for some kind of imprimatur. Thus, we are able to build ourselves in society from the fragments of approval and interest we generate among those we encounter. The blocks of this building process are the things we own, the things we wear, the way we look, where we live, the cars we drive. Gradually a new person is constructed to replace the subject who has been suppressed — replacing the ‘I’ that has been destroyed.

You can observe this process fairly clearly in social networking sites on the internet. Young people using these sites seek ‘friends’ and ‘likes, but paradoxically appear to come to know themselves only in the reflections afforded by other users. Who I am depends on how many ‘friends’ I have, on how many people ‘like’ what I say, who ‘dislikes’ what I dislike. Who says I am beautiful? Without such affirmation, it seems, I am, increasingly, nothing, a no-thing. I do not exist until I am summoned up by the approval of others. There is nothing inside me to affirm who I am. My sense of my self depends on the affirmation reflected back at me.

This is a symptom of what I call ‘de-absolutisation’ — the snipping of the wires that as of nature connect each of us to his or her infinite self. Thus reduced by the culture in which they live and breathe, our children reconstruct themselves in the woundedness that arises from their removed ‘I’s, their emptied out subjectivities. They reconstruct themselves anew from the reflected impressions of others, accepting nothing in themselves but what is affirmed by the other objectified ‘non-entities’ with whom they seek communion without knowing what they seek. Perhaps it becomes obvious that this kind of transformation presents perfect conditions for the operation of markets in a society which has attached itself exclusively to the materialist idea — and which has indentified as the chief instrument of this process the misappropriation of the human desire for something that is not readily to be found. In the first stage, you destroy the subjectivity of the person.  In the second, you persuade the human person that he can reconstruct his identity in a material way.

Unconnected to the question of whether I believe in a ‘God’ or a ‘hereafter’, it is obvious to me that I am more than a body. I could say the same about you or other ‘third persons’, but I have a less reliable context for saying that. I can only presume by dint of occasional flashes of circumstantial evidence that you resemble me. Yet our culture tends to ignore the impossibility of such certainty and assume that it is obvious that we are all, in certain fundamental respects, more or less indistinguishable in our apprehension or perception of reality — that we speak of the same experience when we use words like ‘joy’ or ‘fear’ or ‘red’ or ‘despair’. This conundrum harks back to what philosophers call a ‘quale’, by which is meant a private experience which one can never be certain of having adequately communicated to another person.  Nobody can say for sure whether any of our apprehensions of the colour blue amount to the same experience as someone else’s, or whether what I call blue is not in fact what another person sees when I see red, except that they call it blue. Nobody can say whether the smell of coffee is the same for me as for the man behind me in the queue in Missy Moop’s café in Dun Laoghaire. All we can say is that, separately, we have the capacity to be impacted by a smell that each of us recognise as ‘coffee’. For all we know, the other man’s coffee smell might be the smell I associate with fresh bread, and vice versa. We each recognise ‘our’ respective smells in the right places, but can never be certain we are both recognising the same experience.

In a certain sense, one could say that I have only indicative evidence that anyone other than myself is more than a material entity, what we know as a ‘body’. Perhaps everyone else is a zombie, a robot or a projection of my own consciousness?

I don't feel that I’m merely material. Or at least I don't feel that this material entity that answers to the name of John Waters is actually the entirety of the entity I think of as me. And let's stop there and ask: what happens when something I call 'I' thinks of something called 'me'? Is it 'me' doing the thinking about 'I' or am 'I', looking upon 'me', impelled to thought about ‘myself’? There is in this a sense of a subject and an object in the same entity — a ‘me’ in here contemplating the objective world out there, which includes some at least of the constituent elements of what ‘I’ think of as ‘myself’. 

Confusing? Yes, though some of this 'confusion effect', of course, is the consequence of linguistic sleight-of-hand. Some of it also arises from a real dualism that exists in this entity I call 'I' or sometimes 'me'.  My consciousness operates with a running commentary, which seems to be a conversation between me and someone else, someone who is also me, or perhaps not.  My thoughts are couched in language, in English words, and take the form of a conversation, a dialogue rather than a monologue: ‘I’ do not talk to ‘myself’. 

We take it for granted that the mind is seated between our ears, but still we cannot pin it down. It seems not to exist in physical space, as a chemical or mechanical process. It cannot be weighed, or even heard or seen, and so pursuit of it leads us all the time into dead-ends of measurement and objectification. It cannot be observed, except from the inside or in terms of the effects of its workings projected onto outer screens and spaces. Nowhere, between thought and deed, impulse and consequences, can the communication signals allegedly originating in the human mind be found. 

Cardinal John Henry Newman, in speaking about the centrality to the human ‘I’ of the ‘heart’ had in mind the core subjectivity of man, the self, also known as the soul. Still, the cardiologist has had no better luck in locating any such dimension in his explorations of the human heart than the neurosurgeon in studying the human brain.

When we ‘think’ of the organ named ‘the heart’, we think of an oily pump, to which we also, ironically, attribute a kind of quasi-emotional function: the ability to feel, to love, to suffer emotional pain or be inflated with fine feelings. On St Valentine’s Day, the heart undergoes a certain elevating reduction, when it becomes an effete graphic, a ‘love heart’, which summons up the passion, pain and chaos of romantic longing and entanglement.

The heart is patronised, dismissed as metaphor. We hear it rhymed all the time with ‘art’ and ‘part’, in songs and poems that purport to lay bare the inner life of human emotion, but in a sense we don’t, in modern culture, really believe it’s this compass of feeling. Instead, we unthinkingly place it on the lower extremity of an axis of reason, in which the head rules supreme. The heart, which beats on every moment — which pulsates inside year-in, year-out —  has become the primary victim of the confusion between subjective and objective modes of thought. On the one hand, it is understood objectively as this mechanical instrument, essential but somewhat workmanlike, and on the other rather airily and mischievously blamed for those rather eccentric subjective behaviours which often cause our minds to despair of understanding what it is the human being wants or needs. The heart is a kind of scapegoat of the mind’s incapacity to fully understand itself. Because the mind is coming to see everything positivistically — i.e. to permit itself to accept as truth only that which can be objectively demonstrated — it defines both itself and the heart as deterministic systems, but disposes of the puzzling elements by a partly-ironic finger-pointing. The mind blames the heart for leading it astray.

Human culture is deemed to a functionality rooted solely in a reduction of the human mind, and so has already adopted the human brain as the seat of its guiding intelligence, even while remaining unsure what the mind is, even while using that same mind to try to grasp what it might be. The brain has effected a coup in which the heart is retained for operational and symbolic purposes only, but stripped of all authority in respect of decision-making.  The idea that the heart could ‘know’ something that the mind cannot comprehend is nowadays regarded as an anachronistic hangover from a less enlightened past.  We still ‘blame’ the heart, but half in jest, half in ironic guardedness, tentatively considering the possibility that what was once the ‘storm’ of the heart may be merely a lazy way of describing far more complex, perhaps malfunctional properties of the mind. Somewhere just behind our lazy condescension towards our own mentational-emotional processes is the assumption, or even growing certainty, that we will one day be able to quantify and analyse all those exasperating malfunctions in which the mind’s rational deliberations often appear to be overruled.  

Everything, even ‘irrationalism’, the theory goes, will one day be amenable to positivistic reason.

It’s all a bit of a mess, in which it is unclear what or who is ‘in charge’.  Who is the ‘who’ who ‘decides’ or even asks the questions?  Where is the seat of the understanding? Is there a central human intelligence or something else? And can this central intelligence, if it exists, be at the same time responsible for things we do that make ‘sense’ and things that do not, for intelligent and unintelligent responses, for rational and irrational behaviours? But if Newman was right — if the heart is the mind, or at least an alias for it — then we know that there is far more to the processes of human apprehension than any objective process can possibly parse or define.

We have taken a different track. One day, we expect — if we go on as we are going — we will have an electrical formula in which those things that disturb us — love, fear, desire, passion — will become comprehensible in terms of pulses darting hither and thither in the circuitry of the human machine, reducible to algorithms that leave nothing out. Meanwhile, we proceed with our investigations as if these understandings had already become available, contingently completing as we go the picture we have already more or less decided upon. We await to become what we have already acquiesced in by default.

In Part 2 of this three-part series of articles, Metaphysical Anorexia, I explore the religious notion of the self and the journey we have undertaken in an attempt to ‘transcend’ it, a journey that seems to be leading us to think ourselves into nothingness. 

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