A Sense of Self

Are we more than our biology?

Posted Dec 21, 2011

Remember the name of that long-running musical on Broadway: "A funny thing happened to me on the way to the Forum?" Well... an odd thing happened to me in the street the other day when walking the dog. At least I considered it both humorous and mildly depressing that my encounter with a distant neighbor revealed a display of ignorance and ingenuousness on his part that, initially, had me thinking he must be joking.

Our conversational exchanges up to this point had simply been a conventional ‘Good morning', but on this occasion he stopped and bent down to pat the dog. "Ah..." he said in the process, ‘I heard that you were a Professor. What exactly did you profess?" Now this is always a difficult moment: the history of human thought and feeling-attitudes and how they have been shaped over some sixty thousand years, does not lend itself to the witty response of a brief one-liner—even to a retired attorney. But I looked at him thoughtfully and said, "I suppose the best way to describe it is to say that I talk about consciousness and reality."

"Reality? That's easy enough, isn't it?" - proceeding to do a Tarzan-like thumping on his chest, yet leaving my own substantiality to go untested.

"Absolutely, your rib cage is very real", I responded.

"Well, there you are that's me: I'm real...am I not? So what's the problem?"

I had to grin at him. "No problem at all.... Unless of course you're telling me you're just a walking rib cage." He gave me a quizzical look. "What are you getting at?" I pulled Gabriel, my dog, off my neighbor's trouser leg: he seemed to considering it a likely target. "Well," I went on, "what's going on in your mind? What's your mental life like? What do you think about life in general; your own life in particular? What meaning or purpose do you find... are you happy, fulfilled, discontented; what are the values that drive your attitudes to existence... your loves, your hates? Have you any idea as to who you are as an individual... becoming your own man? Wouldn't you say that the whole range and complexity of your psychological inner life is just as much reality as your physiological rib cage...?

He took a step backwards. Looked at me with a slightly puzzled expression. And then... "Heavy stuff man..." and walked off.

Is this a general problem nowadays, do you think? Are people geared to following such a totally existential and materialistic day-to-day existence that the incredibly complex range of their personal ‘inner life' becomes less and less active? Are the ways and means of modern technology leaving neither time nor inclination for reflection on personal values—for contemplation, thoughts, ideas... pertaining to life in general? Not to mention the need to assess the significance of the ‘feelings' that accompany every experience? For herein lies the life of the imagination... governing one's individuality—the subjective response accompanying objective knowledge of the facts of life. I wonder if the title of one of Paul Gauguin's last Tahiti paintings, "Whence Come We? What Are We? Whither Go We?" can still bring us to face the philosophical and psychological drives that have, over the centuries, caused us to ponder who we individually are, and if any meaning is to be found in our personal existence?

In the book What the Hell Are the Neurons Up To? I discuss this dual nature of "reality"—of a consciousness journeying outwards into the world, and inwards into the Self. I don't think my ex-lawyer acquaintance would be very interested in reading it. Meanwhile, when we do pause briefly to pass the time of day, Gabriel remains very interested in his trouser leg.