When I was 21 I believed the world was a clock. I thought nature was a very complex machine and humans were just walking, thinking robots. Everything ticked, clicked and slotted into place. But there was one problem – consciousness – y’know, all those feelings and experiences we have, whether it’s the colour red, a surge of love or the taste of chocolate. How could a glorified wind-up toy experience these things? It took a thoroughly irritating philosophy tutor of mine (like, so irritating) and a genius biologist to upend this mechanistic view of the world. The philosophy tutor tried to convince me that the mind was immaterial (i.e. not mechanical) and mental experiences (like sights, thoughts, sounds etc) couldn’t be reduced to material things (like neurons, particles and clockwork). Meanwhile, the biologist, who I liked a lot more, told me that even though he did not hold the same view as my philosophy tutor, it still couldn’t be disproved. Maybe the mind really was immaterial and the world was so much more than a clock. Cue epiphany.
The soundtrack for my ensuing epiphany was Yael Naim’s song, Brand New Soul, and as I walked the sunny streets of Oxford I suddenly had this feeling that I was opening new eyes to the world. I no longer saw everything as predictable and mechanic but immaterial and spiritual. I visited a Church, did some Buddhist meditation and generally felt like my heart was exploding. It really was an epic experience and the closest I’ve ever come to a religious epiphany. There may also have been some correlation with the fact that in a few months time I would be experiencing my first bout of severe depression and feeling that my world was crumbling around me (more on that anon) but during the fun bit of my epiphany I had this sense that there was one force governing the universe – not clockwork, or the laws of physics, but love. I believed that love was at the centre of everything we did (hence the hanging out with Christians and Buddhists). I came to believe that even the most heinous acts had their origins, somewhere, in love and if only we could be allowed to connect with this powerful, universal force. Love was the origin of everything.
That was some nine years ago and, now, I no longer believe love is at the centre of the universe. I think gravity, atoms and other such things are very important and I think hate, anger and despair are also woven into the fabric of the human condition. But something I have been doing since reading lots of philosophy books at university and having minor epiphanies is getting out more. I have planted my feet into a foot of freshly turned soil, I have swum in very cold Welsh rivers and walked up a mountain. And it’s there – in nature – that I find soul (maybe just another word for mind), not way beyond my earthly condition in some immaterial plain. Love is still a part of this, not the only part, but a vital part. It is a both a source of energy – something that powers me in the good I do and in the better I try to be when I do bad – and it is a choice – I can choose to act in a loving way or not, and bear the consequences of my decision. As for the origin of love – I believe it’s us, in all of us, mirrored in the acts of the creatures we have evolved from and metaphorically represented in each nourishing ray of sun. Love does not have to be a literal constituent of atoms, as I once thought it might be, but it can be the guiding force for all that we do. Not a law of physics or a diktat from the heavens but a choice borne of mind, heart and soul. Not an easy choice either but one worth making if we can.