31 October, 2006

Looking For The Centre

Have you ever wondered where your centres are? Your, physical, mental and moral centres, that is? People are always talking about 'the core of their being', 'the centre of their moral world', and so on. So I thought I'd take a look for mine - and the results were quite surprising.

First, my physical centre. That sounds easy enough. If I stand up straight, arms at my side, I imagine my physical centre, my 'centre of gravity' in fact, or, more properly, my centre of mass: the point about which I would rotate if I were set spinning in deep space, would be somewhere around my upper abdomen. My stomach, perhaps. That seems like a very satisfying place to think of as my physical centre. But what if I didn't stand up straight? What if I sat down? What if I sat down and stuck my legs ad arms out as far forward as I could? My centre of gravity would move forward in that case. In fact, it would probably move so far forward it would be outside my body - somewhere between my chest and my thighs! However obvious the conclusion is, it seemed very odd to me when I realised that my centre of mass could be outside my body. It made me have to think about it differently. My centre of mass doesn't actually belong to me. It isn't a part of me at all. It belongs to the volume of space that my body occupies. I don't actually have a physical centre. I'm just part of a spatial volume that has one.

Alright, what about my mind? I definitely feel centred there. I feel like a little person, sitting behind my eyes, looking out - an homunculus in fact. But that's just my experience of consciousness and, if there is one thing modern psychology is telling us, it is that consciousness if definitely not central to the operation of our minds. For a start, almost all other minds seem to get along just fine without it. For another thing, neurophysiologists have evidence from brain scanning experiments that, as the brain works, the consciousness only gets to hear about what is going on some 25 to 50 milliseconds after the event. It seems that consciousness is, absolutely literally, an afterthought. What the role of consciousness is, I'm still not sure. Some say it is there to construct the illusion of an integrated self. Some say it is an apologist for the mind - like the President's Press Secretary - trotting out plausible confabulations to explain the mind's mysterious behaviours. Whatever it is, it isn't the centre of my mental processes, however much my introspections tell me it is. The mind, it seems, has no real centre, just a peripheral spin doctor.

I hardly dare ask about my moral centre. I suppose I’d be looking here for a set of ‘core values’, perhaps some kind of statement of beliefs – like ‘do as you would be done by’, or ‘live and let live’. But, if I have a moral code, it is not in the form of anything so inflexible as a set of precepts. Instead, when I peer into the shifting, depths of my ‘moral being’ I find nothing solid or permanent. Instead I see a set of traits and dispositions – empathy, intelligence, curiosity, scepticism, and so on – all of which colour my moral response to life and make me who I am but none of which is even remotely a ‘moral centre’. As with the other centres, when I look for it, it disappears. Is it possible to be a good person with no moral centre? Is it better to have a kind disposition than a life founded on a set of slogans?

On the whole, it has been a bit of a revelation that the whole idea of ‘centre’ seems to make little or no sense when used to describe oneself. But then, most of our received wisdom about human nature is pretty dubious when you look at it closely.

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