Do existential questions trouble you? Do you lie awake in the small hours worrying about the nature of existence and the consequences of death? I used to when I was a kid, but not now. Or perhaps I should say not yet. It's hard to know whether this is a sign of enlightenment, contentment, or simply that I have become an Alfred E. Neuman tribute act ("What-- me worry?").
This may partly be because I have looked Death in the eye on several occasions. Not boldly, but sheepishly, as each time it was due to my own stupidity. Most memorably, aged sixteen, I was walking along a rocky peninsula called Punta de n'Amer in Majorca, head down, dazed and dazzled by the heat and lost in my own thoughts, when I nearly stepped straight over a cliff. I still recall the shock of gazing between my feet at the waves lapping jagged rocks seventy feet below. I particularly recall the dramatic change in the ambient acoustic: one second it was all shrill insects, up close and intimate like tinnitus, the next it was the vast echoing antechamber of a painful death, narrowly avoided. A true "Musée des Beaux Arts" moment: out to sea a fishing boat was chugging by, and one can imagine the fishermen remarking (to paraphrase Auden) "something idiotic, a boy walking over a cliff", then sailing on...
But then, who knows how many other times a chunk of suspiciously yellow ice has fallen from an airliner and crashed harmlessly into a nearby bush, or how often Death (in Terry Pratchett mode) has murmured, "HMM, NICE TRY... BUT LATER!" and passed on? Even setting aside world-historical conspiracies and ironies -- say, being ordered to walk repeatedly across muddy fields into machine-gun fire, surviving against all odds, and then dying of the flu in 1918 -- the line between existence and non-existence is always very fine indeed, and easily crossed when your mind is on other things.
Of course, as an intelligent, questioning person, you'll be aware that "the problem of consciousness" is one of the big issues that troubles the sleep of philosophers of a materialist bent. That is, if everything is just a stack of atoms then what the hell am I doing here in the middle of it all? It's the ultimate tease. After grappling with the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" comes the stinger: "Yes, all right, but why me?" Wrestling with the literal self-evidence of that one can be an experience of such overwhelming paradox as to approach a religious ecstasy. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it's very difficult to imagine the world carrying on without you at the centre of it. What would be the point, after all?
I had an interesting experience some years ago. At 8:45 am on Friday the 28th of November 1997, on the Victoria Line of the London Underground at Brixton station, to be precise. I had spent the night at my friend Andy's house, and was on my way to attend a course on Unix and shell scripting. I got on the tube at Brixton, which was packed with people travelling into central London to work -- standing room only, which can be an intimate and challenging experience for us shorter folk.
For some reason, the train did not start up, and then the motor was killed by the driver. A silence descended upon the carriage. The few conversations died, and everyone sat or stood, packed close, in an expectant hush. It being late November, everyone was wearing cold-weather gear, and a sort of swishing sound was generated as people's coats rubbed together as they shifted their stance, or simply breathed in and out. The muffled cymbals escaping from a few personal stereo headphones added a complex rhythmic top note. Multiplied and blended together in a confined space, the sound became like the soughing of wind through a forest, or the urgent whispering of many small voices in a language I couldn't quite understand.
After this had gone on for a few minutes, I was suffused by a great sense of peace and warmth. This enforced, silent mass hug of strangers had somehow resonated with my slightly hung-over consciousness, and I became acutely aware of the proximity of many other centres of consciousness, just like mine, each one occupying a separate, enclosed, hot space about the volume of a small loaf of bread. To hear that multi-layered whispering was to eavesdrop on the inwardness of these other beings, and it induced a feeling of deep happiness. It reminded me of that blissful point in falling asleep, when I was a child, when I would finally yield to the distant voices calling me to play.
Then, of course, the train started up again with a jolt, and it was over. But the feeling stayed with me, and a record of it still sits in a corner of the notes on Unix shell-scripting I made later on and still use to this day. I smile any time I thumb past that page. I felt I had been given a privileged glimpse, a massive hint about the true nature of our lives. That, or I had taken one more giant step towards a career as a gibbering derelict.
But what? The problem with such glimpses and hints is that unless you are a collector or connoisseur of such fragments -- let's say, a poet -- you need either to construct something useful out of them or to ignore them. Most people's lives are littered with abandoned insights. As Winston Churchill said of his struggles with mathematics:
I had a feeling once about Mathematics, that I saw it all—depth beyond depth was revealed to me -- the Byss and the Abyss. I saw -- as one might see the transit of Venus or even the Lord Mayor's Show -- a quantity passing through infinity and changing its sign from plus to minus. I saw exactly how it happened and why the tergiversation was inevitable: and how the one step involved all the others. It was like politics. But it was after dinner and I let it go.And we homespun philosophers and secular mystics lack training and context. We're like those jaw-droppingly bad contestants on the X Factor whose self-delusion is teflon-coated kevlar: non-stick and bullet-proof. To have one's own Theory of Everything is to flirt with derangement (or burning at the stake -- do you know the book "The Cheese and the Worms", by Carlo Ginzburg?).
But I'm beyond help. So...
The simplest, most obvious insight was a reinforcement of something we have all always known, but all always seem to forget: that the mutual recognition of the reality and authenticity of each other's consciousness is the bedrock of human society. But this is tricky territory, and quickly leads to an unhelpful sentimentality: "We must love one another or die", yadda yadda*. As if there were a choice; as the man said, no-one here gets out alive. Speculation about how to live is fun and worthwhile -- plenty of evidence, plenty of chances to experiment. Speculation about what life is, and what it means to die is pretty futile, but somehow seems one of our most important tasks (apart from getting on with one's life and postponing the dying bit as long as possible).
However -- and here we enter the territory of derangement -- I also had the suspicion of a theory that -- somehow, maybe, perhaps -- we have evolved as biological receiver sets for a signal which is "out there" but which cannot manifest itself other than through a suitable receiver. Rather like a broadcast radio programme: so long as the set is on ("alive") the signal gets received and interpreted by our circuitry as self-awareness. But, turn it off ("die") and it doesn't. On or off, on or off: it's on a toggle switch; but crucially the broadcast signal is always there and always the same, though our individual receivers may handle it differently.
For whatever reasons, making use of this signal has proved useful to us, and has given us a real evolutionary edge. The signal probably, in itself, means nothing. But then electricity doesn't mean anything, either, but here I am, using it to communicate with you.
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to The Radio... Thought for the Day: We must love one another, then die, perhaps.
[Cue up "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Öyster Cult, fade to "Calling All Angels" by Jane Siberry]
And now, the weather...
* The words come from Auden's poem "September 1, 1939". Auden himself quickly recognised the problem when, reading the poem shortly after its publication, he pondered that line:
"I said to myself: 'That's a damned lie! We must die anyway.' So, in the next edition, I altered it to 'We must love one another and die.' This didn't seem to do either, so I cut the stanza. Still no good. The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty—and must be scrapped."