Where is your mind? Where does your thinking occur? Where are your beliefs? René Descartes thought that the mind was an immaterial soul, housed in the pineal gland near the centre of the brain. Nowadays, by contrast, we tend to identify the mind with the brain. We know that mental processes depend on brain processes, and that different brain regions are responsible for different functions. However, we still agree with Descartes on one thing: we still think of the mind as (in a phrase coined by the philosopher of mind Andy Clark) brainbound, locked away in the head, communicating with the body and wider world but separate from them. And this might be quite wrong. I’m not suggesting that the mind is non-physical or doubting that the brain is central to it; but it could be that (as Clark and others argue) the mind extends beyond the brain.
I remember my grandfather commenting—wry amusement tinged with grim resignation—that what made him finally feel old was seeing his children reach middle age. I was a child then. Now I see my own children, not quite middle aged, starting to have children of their own.
Becoming a grandparent is quite lovely, an affirmation of continuity and a front-row-seat to watch (and even, on occasion, participate) as life itself is conveyed into the future. But aging is also our most undeniable memento mori, a reminder not so much of life as one’s own eventual death. My grandfather’s death frightened me as few things have since, except for the recurring recognition (usually at night, alone, in the dark) that his life, everyone’s life, even—astoundingly—my own, is short indeed.
All things, especially living ones, are marinating in the river of time. We see and understand that our bodies will wear out and we will die. At least that’s how it looks through the lens of Western science, where all things come to an end, winding down in a final surrender to entropy. But there’s another perspective, surprisingly in harmony with science, that helps us revisit that huge and ancient terror—fear of time itself—in a new and perhaps even reassuring way. And that is the perspective offered by Buddhism.
For Buddhists, the “center cannot hold,” as the poet W.B. Yeats pointed out, because it doesn’t exist as something rigidly separate from everything else. Nothing is permanent and unchanging, ourselves included. Attempting to cling to a solid, immutable core of a self is a fool’s errand because time not only creates anarchy, it provides the unavoidable matrix within which everything—animate and inanimate, sentient and insensate—ebbs and flows.
A single neuron in isolation cannot be said to possess memory, feelings, or consciousness. However, group many neurons together and the type of advanced information processing that takes place in the human brain suddenly appears. This suggests that perhaps each level in the micro-macro hierarchy can only be understood with a different logic. Might such a hierarchy also exist in ordinary materials that appear on first glance to be more straightforward and less complicated than neurons?
A poet, somewhere in Siberia, or the Balkans, or West Africa, some time in the past 60,000 years, recites thousands of memorised lines in the course of an evening. The lines are packed with fixed epithets and clichés. The bard is not concerned with originality, but with intonation and delivery: he or she is perfectly attuned to the circumstances of the day, and to the mood and expectations of his or her listeners.
If this were happening 6,000-plus years ago, the poet’s words would in no way have been anchored in visible signs, in text. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have been on Earth, words have had no worldly reality other than the sound made when they are spoken.
As the theorist Walter J Ong pointed out in Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word (1982), it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, now to imagine how differently language would have been experienced in a culture of ‘primary orality’. There would be nowhere to ‘look up a word’, no authoritative source telling us the shape the word ‘actually’ takes. There would be no way to affirm the word’s existence at all except by speaking it – and this necessary condition of survival is important for understanding the relatively repetitive nature of epic poetry. Say it over and over again, or it will slip away. In the absence of fixed, textual anchors for words, there would be a sharp sense that language is charged with power, almost magic: the idea that words, when spoken, can bring about new states of affairs in the world. They do not so much describe, as invoke.
As a consequence of the development of writing, first in the ancient Near East and soon after in Greece, old habits of thought began to die out, and certain other, previously latent, mental faculties began to express themselves. Words were now anchored and, though spellings could change from one generation to another, or one region to another, there were now physical traces that endured, which could be transmitted, consulted and pointed to in settling questions about the use or authority of spoken language.
Here we tell you what happens after you’re dead. Seriously. Okay, it’s not so serious, because you won’t actually die. To lay the groundwork, let's recap the scientific view of death: essentially, you drop dead and that’s the end of everything
We used to think that our fate was in the stars. Now we know in large measure, our fate is in our genes.
When the Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the DNA double helix James Watson made his famous statement in 1989, he was implying that access to a person’s genetic code allows you to predict the outcome of their life.
The troubling implications were not lost on people, of course. A few years later they were explored in the American film Gattaca, which depicted a civilisation from the near future that had embraced this kind of genetic determinism. It was a world in which most people are conceived in test tubes, and taken to term only if they passed genetic tests designed to prevent them from inheriting imperfections ranging from baldness to serious genetic diseases.
With these so-called “valids” – the dominant majority – the film was a warning about the dangers in our technological advancement. As it turns out, we were probably being optimistic about the potential of genetics. Yet too few people seem to have got that message, and this kind of mistaken thinking about the links between genes and traits is having unsettling consequences of its own.
The 20th-century Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman believed that we adapt to roles – lover, customer, worker – based on circumstance, and are constantly concerned with how we’re appearing to others. This short animation explains why Goffman’s view of humanity left no room for a ‘true self’ – an actor behind all the roles we play.
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