The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

When Come We? What Are We? Whither Do We Go?

Does the word 'spirit' still possesses the same mystical connotations?

When Come We? What Are We? Whither Do We Go? Such was the title given by the great French painter, Paul Gauguin, to one of his later works painted in Tahiti in 1897 — a title that has always caused me to wonder just when our early ancestors might have been preoccupied with similar Gauguin-like questions… in pondering the source of their origin… or puzzled by the complex relationship between their physical body and the mental world of their thoughts... or, again, wondering what possible purpose their existence could serve.

Obviously, such sophisticated levels of awareness and speculation could not be attained until mankind had moved far beyond a simple herd-like instinctive and mechanical response to life’s events… with every man and woman becoming, at some point in the evolutionary process, aware of themselves as individual entities — as a ‘Self’ among ‘Selves.' This advance to a specifically human consciousness was furthered by the advent of three significant mental powers: intuition, imagination, and will (this latter faculty being often attributed to the power of a force called ‘spirit.') And it is reasonable to assume that only at this fully developed stage of consciousness is it likely that philosophical questions — such as the paradoxical ‘life and death’ questions worrying Gauguin — came to occupy the thoughts of prehistoric man and give rise to his practices and rituals.

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Some anthropologists and neuroscientists consider that the capacity for such philosophical thinking would have been present some 200,000 years ago. Others believe it was earlier; others say later. But whenever the date, we pay a price for this coming to know ourselves as individuals… inasmuch as it brings us to recognize and face our mortality: an awareness of death in response to which we have intuitively envisioned some otherworldly form of ‘spirit-survival’. And so we became metaphysical philosophers of one sort or another — asking the sort of universal questions that harried poor old Gauguin.

Shanidar cave.
Yet just when might early man have come to experience such metaphysical reaches of the imagination? In 1968, Professor Ralph Solecki of Columbia University carried out cave excavations at Shanidar in Northern Iraq where he unearthed what appeared to be a burial site — graves which yielded evidence that flowers had been used in the burials. Pollen grains from flowers indigenous to the region were found to be present, in heavy concentrations, in some of the fossilized chest cavities of the cadavers. Dating techniques — (not entirely reliable in dealing with events occurring over 50,000 years ago) — put the burial site’s date at around 62,000 B.C.

The question then arises as to whether the pollen grains indicate a ritual burial — one in which flowers were used to symbolize and express the hope of a springtime-like ‘rebirth’ after the death-sleep of winter… a ritual’, after all, we still employ. In his book (subtitled The First Flower People), Solecki offers — and I would say supports — the view that the Shanidar burials indicate that some concept of survival beyond the grave was present in this very early Neanderthal culture. Is it therefore reasonable to suggest that the ‘The First Flower People’ had arrived at some philosophical/metaphysical conclusion that answers Gauguin’s Third Question?

Which brings me to the reason for writing this particular blog: it is because I find myself wondering just how relevant nowadays is this age-old philosophy of life and its anticipated spiritual outcome. So would you, my reader, consider that Gauguin’s three questions are still significant in these first years of the 21st Century? And do you think that the word 'spirit' possesses the same mystical and ‘spiritual’ connotations it has had in the past? Or are we now so preoccupied with the ‘reality’ presented by images readily available on television or computer screen… that philosophical ‘wonderings’ concerning our transitory existence are rendered completely old-fashioned by the electronic and digital revolution? We hypnotically ‘surf the web’, collecting a plethora of facts pertaining to our world and contemporary life in general, while chit-chatting with newfound ‘surfer friends.' One need never be alone nowadays. And for terrific advances in science — and in creating a worldwide intelligence system capable of universally improving the quality of life — the computer and internet have proved revolutionary.

So far, so good. But if this recourse to a computer world becomes obsessive — simply a way of passing Time… an ‘escapist’ socializing network enabling one to avoid confronting oneself when it comes to dealing with those problems and questions which demand responsible action and inculcate a sense of purpose to one’s existence — then one risks losing one’s identity. “No time to stand and stare/ Wonder who we are and where…’

And then along comes virtual reality. This is not the ‘reality’ of things and events in the outside world as presented by the five senses — physically existing in ‘real’ time — but images made by software to appear to do so on a computer screen: video games, fantasies, a dream world… For many young people, virtual reality is more ‘real’ than are events in the outside world. And it would seem that the number of addicts who become psychotic — possibly as a result — is growing. Even more alarmingly, brain scans of many of those so afflicted show that areas of the left-brain are re-wiring themselves in order to adjust to ‘virtual’ reality… possibly at the expense of its ability to perceptively convey to consciousness the actual nature of the ‘real’ outside world.

So what are the price ‘humanness’ and the relevance of Gauguin’s questions in the long run? Well: you may find some answers in my book What the Hell Are the Neurons Up To?

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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