I remember a friend from long ago constantly repeating the above mantra for us when we first went to college. Like all students new to college life we felt young, invincible and we quite loved the sound of our own voices and our own ideas. Now, Noel had already done two years of philosophy in Maynooth College and these two years, in our young eyes, had conferred on him a deeper knowledge and insight into life and things intellectual than we ordinary plebs were granted – after all we were mere neophytes and our man had his stripes as it were.
I quite like reading philosophy, especially now as I grow older. However, since I first began to study it way back in the late seventies of the last century, I have never ceased to read it. These days I love dipping in and out of philosophy books for the general reader rather than the headier kind that is more suitable to professional philosophers. I have many of A.C. Grayling’s books on popular philosophy on my shelves and I delve into them from time to time. These books are mostly short reflective pieces he has written for newspapers over the years. However, they do set my mind thinking. After all, isn't that what it’s all about – reflecting, contemplating and thinking. I have always subscribed to the Socratic premise that the unexamined life is not worth living. I would even go so far as saying that I also subscribe to its reversal in the words that the unlived life is not worth examining.
The following are just thoughts more in the form of questions, but they reflect how I sit with life and how life sits with me, if I may be permitted to use a sustained metaphor from meditation here.
What is the Mind?:
This is a huge question which embraces many sciences: philosophy, biology, neuroscience or neurobiology, psychology, psychiatry and the field of neurology. There are probably many other areas of study of the mind that I have left out. The concept “mind” is indeed a hypothesis, and a very good one as it has not yet been falsified (a la Popper et al). Most scientists say that it exists or subsists most probably in the brain. Then, there are other learned scientists who say yes, for the most part it exists in the brain, but the mind can also exist by extension in other areas of the body. The nuances of all this are quite beyond me indeed. However, I know what these scientists are getting at. The concept of “mind” is just that complex that its location could be seen as being as nebulous as the location of the “soul.” Now I’m not going to get into theology or religion here, and I certainly do not want to insist on any sort of dualism whether of the Cartesian or Christian varieties here. All I am saying is that a philosophy of mind is a very heavy and intricate subject indeed!
In 1998 I had a severe nervous breakdown which necessitated my spending seven weeks in a psychiatric hospital. I was bombarded with the heavy psychiatric drugs like the typical antipsychotic known as largactil in the UK and Ireland and by its chemical name Chlorpromazine in the medical and pharmacological literature. This certainly had the effect of knocking me out and rendering me almost unconscious for two weeks during which I slept continually. When finally it was withdrawn and its effects had worn off and a common antidepressant administered I got better. Now, why am I relating this story then? Well, during this time in hospital I experienced myself or more correctly my “self” as a fluid, shapeless entity, like some sort of play dough or modelling clay that could be constantly reshaped. In other words my personality was no longer “solid” and “secure.” In fact, what was my personality anyway if it could be changed by psychopharmacological interventions? Was I no more than a combination, a mixture or concoction of various chemical substances? During this time we attended talks by psychiatrists on neurons and axons and the various chemical neurotransmitters that kept our moods in or out of balance according to their concentration in the chemicals of our brain material? Where does the mind lie in all of this? Then, there is the concept of personality – another hypothesis obviously which we accept because its useful and works. It, too, may not really exist. Okay we can define “mind” and “personality” and “identity” is as learned terms as we are capable of, but their complexity is astounding if we really think about it. Other concepts equally as nebulous and complex are consciousness and knowledge and where it is contained in the brain and the hypothesis of the unconscious as codified by Dr Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung et al.
It’s all about Needs, really
My mother has lived in a hospital/nursing home for the last seven years. She has vascular dementia and has practically forgotten our names, and at times even her own. Who is she? Where is her mind? As areas of the brain have died off due to vascular jamming with blood clots, she has become almost a different person. As I said above, and most psychologists would agree, personality is always in the making and is not some "set in stone" reality that can be pinned down. It is just a working hypothesis and a most useful one at that. She has no need for anything now except food and shelter and her dollies and teddies.
Some years back she needed her Church and her God. On the surface of things, one would rightly say that she was a very religious person. However, when one looked a little more carefully at her life and that of many of her friends – mostly all old women – one could see that the Church or religion gave them purpose in life, and here I’m not referring to some supra-human or supernatural purpose. No, I’m referring to purpose in daily living. In short going to Church gave them something to do, an outing each morning where they could meet up with their friends. In other words God or Church or Religion all play a social function in the lives of many. I would argue that these three concepts which overlap all play a psychosocial or psychological role in many lives. And, fair enough, I say. I don’t say that these people are deluded. No, I say that they have needs and they need their God, their Church or their Religion to give their lives meaning.
When I came out of hospital now over ten years ago I ceased to practise my religion, because quite literally I no longer needed it anymore. It was as simple as that. I had a real need for it up until then. Over the past ten years Psychology, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Personal Development have all taken the place of Religion for me in my life. I read voraciously and widely in these areas, attend a therapist and am training as a psychotherapist. And so, what has changed? It’s not that God is Dead, or that Religion is false or useless or that the Church is redundant. No, it’s just that they are dead, false and redundant for me, now at this moment in my life. If you like my God, my Church, my Religion, have got different names: Personal Integration (Jung, Storr), Self-Realization and Self-Actualization (C.Rogers) etc.
It’s not a Question of Argument:
This is where atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Francis Crick and Daniel Dennett and theists like the distinguished religious affairs commentator Clifford Longley, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre have all got it wrong: it’s not a question of “right” or “wrong”, “true” or “false.” Such debates are like tennis matches. Whoever is stronger (intellectually) on the day will win. In fact, maybe this battle is unwinnable. Even if it is winnable by one side or the other, it does not matter one whit. Why? Quite simply people have different needs at different times of their lives. If religious makes people happy or at least happier in their human situation, then good for them. Also, I feel that all the many different ways of looking at the world have their place in the scheme of things. Other questions worth asking are: What is mythology? Is Science another mythology like Religion? After all it gives us another paradigm by which to look at the world. A deeper reflection on the nature of humankind and at its real needs is what’s important – not argumentation and the scoring of points. Those atheists and theists who are debating with one another are doing no more than playing a sophisticated intellectual game while most of humanity just go on living, and often that living for them will involve one religion or another.
It’s much easier to find lists of atheists on the WWW than lists of theists. I wonder what does that say about the God debate?
Above I have posted a picture of the stump of a tree which was recently robbed of its splendour in The Phoenix Park, Dublin.