Are we stuff that got smart? Or smarts that grew stuff?
One of the most confounding philosophical questions is the one about who we are, and how we got here. Are we intelligent matter – stuff that got smart – or are we incarnate spirit – smarts that grew stuff? This question is inherent in the experience of being human. We experience bodies and we experience consciousness – mind and matter, body and soul. Which one is more us, which came first, and which is ultimately in charge?
Many great religious traditions have tended towards the outlook that we are spiritual beings who became flesh. First there was God, pure spirit and from God came us. Our more recent scientific understanding of reality has lead many to believe that we are matter that evolved into life and intelligence.
If we are essentially spirit that has taken form, it would mean that in some significant way human beings are separate from the physical universe. We have a source of intelligence that is free of nature and acts in nature while maintaining a foothold in some transcendent outside reference point. In this view, the core of our being stands apart from and above the laws of nature and we are therefore uniquely autonomous and responsible as the source of our own action in the universe.
If, on the other hand, we are a phenomenal product of complex interactions of matter we are an outgrowth of nature and her natural laws. Our actions and thoughts are not sourced from some outside reference point they are a necessary consequence of an intricate chain of cause and effect. Our thoughts and actions are the result of natural interactions in the same way that the movement of a tree blowing in the wind is the result of the laws of force, energy and friction. And our concept of ourselves as autonomous, willful and responsible beings would need to be re-examined.
In 1825 Samuel Taylor Coleridge published “Aids to Reflection” and put forth a combined view. Most of us know Coleridge as the English Romantic poet and author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. We may not be aware that he was also an important English theologian – a Unitarian minister who had significantly influence the New England Transcendentalist movement in America.Coleridge in what has been described as a misreading of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, identified two distinctly different kinds of consciousness or knowing.
Coleridge refers to one of these as ‘understanding.’ According to him understanding is “an abstraction which the human mind forms by reflecting on its own thoughts and forms of thinking.” This knowing is a natural product of the process of mind and it is bound up in, and limited by, language. He also asserted that it is a process that requires no “self” to enact. It is a natural process of lawful interaction mental elements, a simple unfolding of the elements of the mind in nature.
The other form of knowing Coleridge calls ‘reason.’ Reason is a direct product of the reasoning faculty. It is an “accident” of reason. His use of the word accident is not typical these days. What he means by describing reason as accidental is that it appears without precursor. He means what we would mean by using the word spontaneous. So reason is spontaneous knowing. It is not an understanding that is constructed through any thought process. It is the direct and self-authenticating recognition of truth.
The other element implied in the word accident is that reason is unavoidable. The direct knowing of truth happens spontaneously and also compulsively. The reasoning faculty is knowing itself. It is not a process that leads to knowing. This implies that there is some part of us that simply knows the truth. Ralph Waldo Emerson a decade or so later would pick up this idea and speak about it as intuition. Emerson in his transcendentalist view identified the source of intuition as “the Over-Soul.”