The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

Seeing Is Believing

The difference between believing and perceiving

Is it?

I wonder how many people nowadays would take this well-known platitude seriously, fully aware that to “believe” in anything demands more than simply being conscious of “presence” and “appearance” – important though such perceptions are in dealing constantly with the world. But what, psychologically, is involved…. when one “believes” in something, rather than simply “perceiving” it?

The standard dictionary defines “belief” as, “resulting from a conviction of truth…,” going on to say that it occurs when one intuitively detects an absolute genuineness – a seeming rightness – to the form and presence of particular things as perceived in the outside world: a function of consciousness which, in itself, is quite remarkable. Yet consciousness can also ponder the same issue of truth and genuineness without reference to sensory perceptions of worldly things and happenings; can give rise to abstract thoughts, ideas, and feelings concerning the “truths” of existence in general, and oneself in particular at any time.

Such was the general theme of my last book, What the Hell Are the Neurons Up To? A reviewer, writing for Kirkus Reviews, made the comment that “….the author seems almost the last of a vanishing breed: the liberal believer….’” This could be interpreted as either a positive or somewhat skeptical response, for the book delves into the complex nature of human consciousness, and particularly the significant issues of “belief” and “truth.”

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Nevertheless, is the reviewer right? Is the “breed” – so to speak – really “vanishing?” Certainly, the aims and values of life nowadays – as experienced by those, say, under the age of 40 – do not follow the same paths as those pursued by members of my generation. Yet I don’t think I am being overly simplistic – (leaving genetics out of it) – in attributing the difference to (i) the contemporary technological revolution; (ii) the concept of “home” and the parental influence when it comes to guiding one; and (iii) the philosophy of education and the form it takes.

Most of my friends at school were in World War II – from which not all returned – and I can say that irrespective of class or educational achievement, we were aware of ourselves as individuals having distinct opinions and “beliefs,” and naturally curious as to what kind of “truth” might justify one’s personal existence. And I would say that such individualistic characteristics developed in large part due to the effectiveness of (ii) and (iii) above: for father’s and mothers generally played their caring and supervisory role within the family; while the local elementary and secondary school taught one to read and write…. to be personally curious and to think critically…. whether verbally answering questions in class, or writing short essays as part of homework. It was an educational training that promoted both feeling and thought vis-à-vis one’s position and role in society, and how one came to regard oneself as an individual in the vast “arena” of human life. Such "training" helped one to develop some degree of self-realization and purpose, irrespective of whether one became a butcher’s apprentice or a would-be lawyer.

Nowadays, insofar as (i) above is concerned, we have a generation of younger men and women, brought up in the computer age, with all its ramifications, and more involved in the outside, existential life of ‘happenings’, than in the inner, mental world shaping “beliefs”… and reflecting on “truths” pertaining to the “why’s” and “wherefores” of existence in general, and themselves in particular.

I can’t really comment on the nature of home-life nowadays, (for my children are long gone and living their own lives), save to say that it seems to be much more impersonal and fragmented than in my own day. But when it comes to (iii), education, I can (as a Professor Emeritus) speak from experience and suggest that, once again, the extensive use of the computer threatens to "dehumanize" the process…. with the loss of personal interactions (little if any dialogue) between student and teacher; in the substitution of multiple-choice tests for written “essay-like” answers when it comes to examinations; and in the emphasis placed on simply knowing the “facts,” without necessarily having to personally think about their validity or significance in terms of the values we live by in our contemporary culture.

Certainly the Kirkus reviewer was right in using the word “liberal” to describe my attitude and opinions in putting together this book…. but the term "believer" possesses overtones of a conventional religious nature which I certainly did not intend. Rather, it is a book in which each Chapter represents a different approach to the general mystery of “Being” in general, and human-Being in particular.

It may well be that the contemporary technological “way of life,” and an educational system which does not initiate an overall enlightenment regarding the progress of homo sapiens…is aborting the need we have long experienced as a species: that of nurturing a “belief” in some “truth” pertaining to human purpose in general and oneself in particular…. and whether death is indeed the end of it all.

And I wonder if today’s generations, when they age, may also become “liberal believers!”

"We are born to inquire after truth; it belongs to a greater power to possess it…"

Montaigne: Essays. Book iii

 

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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