Thursday, 1 September 2016

Mysterious consciousness

In the New York Times of 29th of August, a heartbreaking story was published in the Opinion Pages which described existential anxiety, and the inability of a parent to console his little son suffering from the same emotion: 
The author is obviously a convinced atheist, and it is truly tragic that he instills in his offspring the same mental poison from which he suffered himself when young. I could not refrain from sending a letter to the editor:


Dear Sir,

I was quite saddened by Gabriel Rockhill's article 'Why We Never Die' (Opinion Pages 29th August), his atheist and materialist reflections about existential angst, and found the description of his inability to console his little son truly heartbreaking. Rockhill's opinion about the end of human life excludes all possibility of an afterlife and the survival of consciousness, which seems rather a reflection of our empty, confused times than in any sense capturing reality. Consciousness is still an entirely mysterious phenomenon, and cannot even be described by science, in spite of the great recent advances of neurobiology. We don't know how consciousness is connected to the physical tissue of the brain and via the brain to the body. The 'I' as we experience it, is both consciousness (including emotion) and body, as a synthesis, but how that works, has not become any closer to understanding since Plato.  

The reality is, that we don't know what we still cannot know. It would be very hard to explain to a person in the 17th century what radio waves are, or what the internet is, or how a telephone works, because his world view would not have an appropriate receptive framework to take-in any such information and he would consider such stories entirely metaphysical. There exist a wide range of human experiences which are generally considered 'paranormal' and scientifically impossible, in spite of recent theories about space-time which unscrew the idea that these properties are fixed, immovable entities. It is possible to look, in the early morning, on the alarm clock, seeing it's five minutes past 8, sleep-in again, and experience a clear dream sequence with a narrative that - in terms of subjective experience - stretches over a time span of half an hour, and would take at least 20 minutes to verbalize all its occurrances, and then wake-up again and notice that it is only 10 minutes past 8. As long as human consciousness is so unexplained, the possibility of its existence independent from the body is simply a viable option, with the consequence that some articles of religious faith may be true, including the existence of other worlds which we may suspect or wish but cannot know. It seems therefore much better to take the risk that we survive death, than the opposite, since in the latter case if we are still there to find-out our mistake, we will profoundly and bitterly regret the missed opportunities to improve our lives and to console and reassure our children when they agonize in the dark.

Yours sincerely, 

John Borstlap M. Phil. (Cantab.)

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