I Think, Therefore I Am Not

“In the beginning…”

~ Genesis 1:1

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'”

~ Psalm 14:1

For as long as men have had eyes to see and ears to hear, the world has seemed a strange place. There is an interval between the seeing and hearing human and the seen and heard world—and only between the human and the world—in which many inexplicable things happen, things like: self-awareness, meaning-making, evaluating, self-evaluating, making judgments, intending actions, willing actions, keeping secrets, plotting lies, plotting stories, hoping, despairing, delighting, beholding, adoring, worshiping. There are occasions of jealousy, forgiveness, unforgiveness, hatred, love in all its reckless forms, the crushing loss of love, gasoline passions, moments of unprovoked bliss, and the downright insane experience of Déjà vu.

The human looks at the unassuming world and finds nothing quite like himself. A man sits down for dinner in his apartment. An unsolicited image of the front porch of his boyhood home comes to mind. Unsolicited tears swell his eyes–he doesn’t know why this is happening. He looks down at his dog, wagging its tail. The phone rings.

Human beings are haunted by their own lives. Memory and anticipation are peculiar enough, but added to these are forms of longing—of what was or what might have been, what might be or may never be. We carry with us nostalgia and regret, hope and despair. We are somehow located at the center of a unified subjective experience in a physical body that has no objective unifying principle. What is man that we are mindful of him? A human being, say a neuroscientist, at one level of analysis reduces to physical elements and accidental biochemical processes but that same being, as a neuroscientist, has to suspend any such reduction in order to conceive of himself as such. At what juncture do those neurons rise up in a collective voice and begin speaking in the first person? Where is the hidden cellar in the physicalist’s brain where the metaphysical screen of the mind’s eye is ever before the mind’s ‘I’? Why am I a strange collection of matter that cannot help but think I am more than matter? I know my brain and mind are inextricably bound, but I also know that there is no causal narrative that could possibly bind the former to the latter, because the latter is always a metaphysical conclusion, and it seems axiomatic to recognize metaphysics is either the mere illusion of physics or its cause, never its effect or conclusion. It’s conceivable that a mind could shape an existing brain, but not that a brain could create a mind ex nihilo.

I am a finite subject and my subjectivity necessarily depends on my body and more than my body. And that is a terrible prospect, since I have no reason to assume that I am in good standing with whatever Other or Thou holds me together, and since human consciousness is held together only by death I have in fact good reason to assume that I am not in good standing with whatever it is upon which I am contingent. This is a description of human angst, that which gives birth to the will to power that, unlike all other creatures, must take a personal shape. We do not kill to survive. We kill to conquer. Only humans go to war.

This uniquely human impulse and its subsidiary appetites are more savage than any of those among the other beasts of the field. There are no beasts morally opposed to killing for survival, but there is only one beast inclined to kill for jealousy. Unlike the other beasts, humans alone use others of their species for “meat” only when they are alive. And when we do kill, we it is always a waste of meat. But this is truly unnatural. We are the most unnatural born killers, especially as regards the unborn. There is at least something to be said about that common moral impulse in the beastly kingdom that judges with sheer immediacy that no life is more precious than the potential life of the unborn–every mother in this kingdom is prepared to die to protect posterity (except my childhood pet hamster who ate her babies–I suppose some evolution leaked: Adam in God’s image, Seth in Adam’s…and hamsters in whom-/whatever’s). If we are going to transcend moral standards of mere humans, we must look either to the chimps or to the gods.

But humans are the most reckless and wasteful of beasts in this regard. We orient our lives in a rebellion against death, but we then give it a proper ceremony when it arrives. This truly is a pathetic, if precious, thing–insisting on decorating our deaths with meaning, marking the ground with immortal memories that attest merely to the futility of mortality.

–And that we cry. For no good reason, we cry.

And thus consciousness is burdened with a conscience. But what is it that in my brain that transcends the flow of chemical impulses giving rise to the “I am” of yesterday and today and its hope for tomorrow? What is that cohesive identity of a past and a future chained in the interim of the eternal present with all its magical qualities and single relativizing plague–the infinite freedom of thought and its certain awareness of death?

Whatever it is, it is in all of this that we continually shape and discover, are shaped and are discovered, first with reference to other humans and then with everything else “out there.” We are objective bodies in time aware of the timelessness of subjective awareness.

This unavoidable interval, where the human subject exists, is the only thing that constitutes human existence uniquely as such. Beyond that, there is no substantial difference between the brain of a man and a monkey and a dodo. We are animals that are aware of ourselves and of a world as though from the outside, subjects who perceive ourselves as objects. We are somewhere but not merely there, and we are not everywhere but we are not merely here. Self-perception and self-transcendence are one identical moment. The human experience is always at once awareness and oblivion, revelation and mystery, the inescapable inside placed within the inescapable outside: “I am” is always also “I am not.”

Behind the veil there exists either an infinite quantity or an infinite quality, pure immanence or genuine transcendence, nothing or something, bricks forever or the face of God.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”

~ Ecclesiastes 3:11

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