It’s been the subject of both internal and external examination since consciousness began; the eternal question:
Why are we here? Why can I feel emotions? Why do I think thoughts? Why am I capable of assessment, and theory, and questions? Questions such as… Why?
According to popular scientific theory, we are currently residing on a huge, not-quite-perfectly round ball of molten metal, rock, earth, grass, water and shopping centre covered stuff, rotating in its own axis at 1,040 miles per hour, spinning around a huge celestial ball of burning gas at 67,000 miles per hour.
Apparently if we were to find ourselves in any other position within our solar system (even by a teeny-weeny fraction) you, me, even the queen, wouldn’t exist because it would either be too hot and we’d be nuked like a TV dinner, or we’d freeze and shrivel. We came to find ourselves in this rather fortunate position because for no apparent reason, nothing decided to become lots and lots of things in a rather dramatic and loud fashion (in a Big Bang).
In not too much time at all (if you’re a rock hurtling through infinite space), things divided, mulch became bacteria became nematodes became shrimps became fish became lizards became birds etc, until you, I, Queen Elizabeth, indeed even Nigel Farage, started walking around as separate entities, thinking thoughts and manifesting stuff on the physical plain.
But why? What is it that makes us human? Who is it within our cellular, atomic and sub atomics odds and sods watching, thinking, lusting, worrying, and questioning?
Am I nomadic (or at least extremely restless and prone to bouts of wanderlust) because 50% of my genetic make-up is Berber, or is it because I was raised by someone who valued travel? Are we fated to become who we are by something as definite as our DNA, or could it be purely environmental? Studies conducted on twins who’ve spent their lives separate and entirely unaware of each other’s existence suggest the former. But that still doesn’t mean that said twins have identical thoughts.
And the conundrum of consciousness is not the sole property of humans either.
For a millennia, non pet owners have assumed that humans were the only animals to have evolved a consciousness, but anyone who’s ever kept a dog will instinctively know that they have a soul. Not just dogs, of course. I dare you to look into the doleful eyes of a donkey and tell me he’s not ruminating on the state of the planet, or considering Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’.
After exhaustive studies, however, scientists have revealed (to those with no animals in their lives – to the rest of us, they have simply confirmed) that animals are sentient beings, capable of conscious thought, just like people. I wonder if non-human animals question the meaning of their own existence too. I like to think dogs have an existential crisis every time they find themselves eating a lump of poo.
The great thing about this debate is that everyone wants to be involved. The question of what gives us consciousness and why is the holy grail for both the spiritual and the scientifically minded (and for us mongrels who find we swing both ways).
On a personal note, I have always found the ancient Eastern philosophies to be the most persuasive. As it turns out, naming these theories ‘philosophies’ could soon turn out to be heresy.
Ancient followers of a philosophy named the Tao believed in energy. And whilst you may think things such as Tai Chi, Chakras, Reflexology, and Meditation are the indulgences of pajama wearing hippies who ought to stop flouncing about and do some real work (in fact I once knew someone with an almost pathological urge to approach old men doing Tai Chi in the park and push them over), those ancient Chinese dudes may have been onto something.
Sub atomic physicists now know that everything (from your left elbow to a grand piano, even Russell Brand’s facial hair) is made up of sub atomic bits of stuff, surrounded by energy.
These tiny bits of thing and the energy that binds them don’t play by our current physical rules. Those quarks are such mavericks, but by god they get results.
Not only that, but the sub atomic flibbertigibbets’ behavior changes according to whether or not there is an observer.
An observer, to the uninitiated, is exactly as it sounds. Someone watching. That someone is us. And as it transpires, our consciousness has a direct effect on physical reality.
But who is the observer? What is it behind our eyes, guiding these fleshy ships we call bodies?
It is very hard for me to believe that the thing that makes us all unique, thinking about our unique thoughts, from our unique perspectives, is nothing more than an assimilation of sometimes slimy, sometimes bony matter.
In some respects, I hope we never find out. There’s nothing worse than a convenient explanation and the death of mystery. Anyone who followed ‘Lost’ to its dire conclusion will attest to that.
Nope, for now I’ll have to stick to my mantra ‘I’ll keep an open mind for now, and I won’t know for sure ’till the day I die’. Maybe in the end we’ll discover that there’s only ever been one of us here all along, but like the Big Bang we went from nothing to lots and lots of things. Just for shits and giggles. After all, it’s lonely being a singularity.