By Loomis Mayer, author of Consciousness and Transcendence: Art, Religion, and Human Existence
Have you ever wondered why you are you and not someone else? Or perhaps you’ve wondered, as many thinkers have, how it is that the billions of nerve cells in our brains, and their trillions of connections, cause our thoughts, feelings, and actions? Do these questions have anything to do with our appreciation of beauty and the arts, or with religious experience?
Although I lack formal qualifications in neuroscience, religious studies, or even philosophy (I’m retired from a career in publishing), my decades of reading, pondering, and experiencing has led me to write a short book (about a hundred pages) entitled Consciousness and Transcendence: Art, Religion, and Human Existence, published by iff Books and available as a paperback or e-book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local bookstore. This article draws from the themes of that book.
Recent years have seen renewed interest, and a proliferation of literature, on the apparent mysteries of consciousness. In addition to the mind/body problem described above, there is this further question: Is subjective conscious awareness even necessary to enable us to do the things we do, or might the nerves in our brains be able to accomplish even our most sophisticated decisions and actions without such awareness? And if that is the case, then why did we (apparently) evolve into beings that have conscious awareness?
And one more age-old question: Do we really have free will?
Neuroscientists, philosophers, and writers from other disciplines (computer science, experimental psychology, linguistics) have been debating these issues. Some of these names are more or less familiar to interested general readers: Thomas Nagel, John Searle, Daniel Dennett, Douglas Hofstadter, Steven Pinker, and David Chalmers. There are many others as well. Many (though by no means all) of these writers argue that consciousness presents no insoluble mysteries; the brain causes consciousness, and that’s all we need to know.
A smaller number of writers take a different tack, reviving such notions as panpsychism and philosophical idealism. Panpsychism posits that all things, whether animate or inanimate, have some level and type of consciousness. Idealism (both in its early-nineteenth-century German version and in its current revival) insists that consciousness, which is all that we directly experience, takes precedence over the objects in consciousness—the world “out there.” The two notions, panpsychism and idealism, have this in common: Consciousness is a fundamental aspect of nature, preceding the evolution of brains.
I disagree with all of these notions. I believe, based on evidence and reason and intuition, that consciousness does, in fact, arise from the neural processes of our brains, but I believe also that there is an “explanatory gap,” a profound and likely insoluble mystery as to how the brain creates conscious experience. For some writers, my view qualifies me as a “mysterian.” So be it!
How do the mysteries of consciousness relate to our experience of beauty and the arts, and to religious experience? Some writers—Denis Dutton (The Art Instinct) and Daniel Levitan (This Is Your Brain on Music)—maintain that music and the arts generally arose directly from Darwinian evolution. This would mean that those of our ancestors who had these arts were better able to survive and/or reproduce than those who did not. Although I fully embrace evolution theory, I find the arguments of Dutton and Levitan unconvincing. There is a vital element that lies between evolution and our experience of beauty and the arts, namely, the nature of human consciousness.
Other species have consciousness, but their consciousness appears to be somewhat (though certainly not entirely) limited to what they directly experience perceptually. To a substantially greater degree, we humans experience not only the contents of perception (sight, hearing, smell, etc.) but also that which transcends such perceptions. We have imagination and intuition. We can imagine that which is unseen and unheard, that which lies beyond our perceptual field. We can imagine that which might exist—or even that which could never exist except in our imagination. Ultimately, our imagination and intuition leads us to notions of infinity and eternity, and to religious experience—the experience of some sort of transcendent reality.
As to my own beliefs, when I speak of transcendence, I do not mean to suggest anything supernatural. I am, however, speaking of something that is not reducible to raw nature as known by science. I am speaking of what various writers have called the numinous. Theologian Rudolf Otto, by way of attempting to elucidate this concept, uses such terms as “ineffable,” “wholly other,” “mysterium fascinans,” and “mysterium tremendum”—in other words, profound and emotionally compelling mystery.
Otto, as well as later writers (Mircea Eliade, Karen Armstrong) see the numinous as a vital characteristic of the holy, or sacred. Similarly, with regard to the arts, the great art critic Sir Herbert Read saw the numinous as the key to our experience of art.
Each of us is in the world and a part of the world, and you and I share that world, but I am not you, and I am not the world. But does this mean that we must resign ourselves to separateness? As philosopher Martin Buber taught us, “All real living is meeting.” A meeting between I and Thou. And there can be no such meeting if I and Thou are one. In true meeting, in true relation, we encounter the numinous. We experience being, as opposed to raw existence.
As the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre suggested, we exist, but we long to be. Existence is mere contingence, mere facticity, devoid of inherent meaning. But to be is to transcend contingence and be irreplaceable and essential (to have essence), to live in the world not as one more needless excess (“de trop”) but in the shared world of true relation with our fellow humans, with nature, and with the arts.
Loomis Mayer is retired from a career in nonfiction book publishing. He has had several exhibits of his portrait drawings and paintings. He and his wife, Cary Andrews, live near New York City. He is the author of Consciousness and Transcendence: Art, Religion, and Human Existence.