Friday, February 20, 2009

A Conversation about Consciousness

Last week I had the opportunity to speak with a professor from Cal Tech who specializes in the subject of human consciousness. We talked about the question of the nature of consciousness, and whether it is entirely restricted to the central nervous system, that is, whether is is possible that consciousness can survive death and exist in some form outside the body. A Catholic, this professor struggled with the idea, saying finally that his many years of research have left him with the conclusion that consciousness is entirely a corporeal phenomenon, and that, much as he would like to believe in the existence of a soul, there is no evidence for it.

This talk has haunted my mind ever since. And today I found myself nearly shivering with the thought that we walk continuously along the edge of a precipice of meaninglessness, since, if there is no such thing as a soul, no spiritual dimension to human life, and no form of afterlife, then life is, finally, without meaning, and all categories of morality, all notions of kindness and transcendence, all distinctions between good and evil are empty, and life itself is pointless.

If this is true, then one is tempted to say 'I do not wish to know it.' Yet if it is true, then it must be acknowledged as truth, and integrated somehow into one's consciousness. And what an irony that would be: that an examination of consciousness compels one to accept the fact that consciousness itself is without purpose - that that which is known is as empty as the knower.

But, I now reflect, is this emptiness not that which I myself have urged must be embraced if one is to be free of the crippling contradictions of religion? When I said that it requires courage to accept emptiness as the essence of existence, perhaps I did not fully realize what was meant by that. Is the very fact that life is meaningless, in some odd way, the beginning of its meaning? This, it seems to me, is tantamount to asking whether one may find comfort in despair. Or, conversely, whether emptiness, in its endless vacuity, may be a creative force. Is this how the universe was born, and how life came into being - through a deep and pervasive contradiction? Is paradox the driving force in creation? Is that the tension that sustains in being all that exists, while that which contains no such paradox remains just emptiness?

I don't know, but I suspect that the very fact that we are capable through consciousness of grasping the meaningless of life may be the beginning of our salvation. And that a consciousness which can grasp it and integrate it into life and survive the knowledge of it is likewise capable of surviving the extinction of life. At least this seems to me a possibility, and the first glimmer of a hope.