The Brain is not the Mind

After decades of research and contemplation by a host of experts in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive studies, as well as the intense efforts of many philosophers and scientists from various schools of thought, coming to terms with and attempting to fully comprehend the complex nature of human consciousness still engages some of the best minds of our day. Recent attempts to predict the outcome of merely producing artificially, a sufficient collection of simulated neuronal connections, and attributing the whole character of our human version of subjective experience to that achievement, are now stirring speculation about technological advancements in reproducing a “conscious” virtual brain architecture.

In the Review section of September 14, 2019, in a Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Will Your Uploaded Mind Still Be You?,” Dr. Michael Graziano, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University, wrote in an excerpt from his recent book, “Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience,” that we will one day be able to scan a human brain and “migrate the essentials of your mind to a computer.” He describes it as “mind uploading—preserving a person’s consciousness in a digital afterlife.”

He goes on to speculate that the technologies needed to perform the task of “simulating a brain with 86 billion neurons is a little beyond current technology,” but that it won’t be for long. But the next part, the technology for actually “uploading,” a mind to a machine, he admits, “doesn’t yet exist,” and that he wouldn’t be surprised “if it took centuries.”

These efforts to reproduce a “virtual mind,” are based on the premise that the only reason human beings possess access to and subjectively experience their own consciousness is because the brain has sufficient complexity in architecture, and a sufficient accumulation of neuronal connections.

Speculation about being able to “upload” an existing human “mind” to some sort of artificial construct, not only flies in the face of common sense, but seriously underestimates the full nature of why we experience our existence subjectively, and what might possibly account for “what-it’s-like” to be human.

Sometimes described as the difficulty in explaining the “mind/body connection,” or “the hard problem” of explaining consciousness,” the richly-textured, multifaceted, and highly complex processes that constitute the creation of a human mind, and the relationship between our physical systems and our experience of consciousness, have eluded our understanding precisely because every attempt to explain consciousness through our physical systems alone falls short, by eliminating any contribution which includes immaterial components.

We are still unable to agree upon or discern with any degree of certainty how it is that we enjoy this richly-textured, first person experience of awareness. What we have discovered along the way is fascinating, and many publications are available today that deal with the subject of our very human version of consciousness, but supposing that we will one day create conscious machines into which we can “insert” an existing consciousness, in my view, seriously denigrates what it means to be human.

My contention is that while we are clearly dependent on a nominally functional nervous system to interact in a meaningful way with other sentient beings, the delicate balance of brain chemistry and neuronal functionality only provides a platform from which we can launch our lives as cognitive creatures. After decades of contemplating and studying the subject of human consciousness, what seems more likely to me, is that there are also other more subtle and less well understood forces at work in our lives, some of which we may eventually comprehend and predict reliably, and others that are essential to life, which are also essential for understanding why simply accumulating a sufficient number of neurons, or developing some advanced technology for processing computer data points, will not result in a conscious machine.

I was reassured today to read several letters to the editor of the Wall Street Journal that pointed out this glaringly obvious inconsistency in Michael Graziano’s article, and although those of a more materialist persuasion are less inclined to suppose that there are immaterial components, which are a vital part of our human nature, their prediction of some future world in which machines are conscious, and into which we will upload our own personal consciousness, will likely only be soundly refuted hundreds of years from now.

In the meantime, further research and contemplation of what might constitute the full character and explanation for subjective experience demands that we expand what might be possible, in order to give our efforts in the future a fighting chance to actually transcend the strictly materialist view of the true nature of our humanity.

Forging Ahead

Reflecting back over the years of my life now has taken on a wholly different character and sense of urgency. Each time I sit down to write these days, I am reminded by all of the objects surrounding me that the accumulation of years has also resulted in an enormous accumulation of memories and souvenirs of the many experiences of my life. There was a time when I barely had even the shortest amount of time for such reminiscing, and I told myself over and over that the objects and documents and articles that I set aside would one day be a rich resource for writing about the times of my life. It seemed urgent to take this approach at that time since there were so precious few opportunities to review the past, and the important aspects of my experience of life, that I feared losing the thread to lead me through the labyrinth of time when I finally was able to withdraw from the relentless burden of obligation to generate income.

Even now, as I type these words, I am still not entirely certain that my intentional review of nearly a lifetime’s accumulation of memories and important objects which surround me will be concluded in time to avoid the inevitable reluctance to execute the process of letting go of them. I must now confront the uncertainty of just how much time remains before the threshold will approach for the great purging of the physical reminders of the events of my life and the historical record of all that I have committed to memory already. There are so many thoughts all jumbled up in my mind already—the flood of a lifetime of thoughts and memories often seems to overwhelm me even as I consider the ways to edit the most important ones down to a manageable amount in order to organize and collect them into some semblance of coherent expression.

My online blog, “John’s Consciousness,” began as an earnest effort to begin to formulate a practical collection of deliberate and considered entries which would form the foundation of a much larger work. While my current life is finally less crammed with the immediacy of unavoidable daily tasks for the most part, the daunting volume and immensity of the accumulated objects and documents weighs heavily on my ability to methodically and thoughtfully review them in a manner that is both advantageous and productive.

What is at least clear in one important way is the desire to make some kind of sense of all the important events and to spend whatever time is required to arrive at a reasoned and considered result, which may offer some useful insight for those who will survive me in the years to come. At first it seemed to me that all the efforts at preservation were primarily for my own benefit, and while I wasn’t always clearly thinking about the specific motivation being employed at every moment, in the back of my mind, I usually supposed that the why and the wherefore would become evident upon review at some later time.

Looking back over the decades leading up to my current circumstance always seem to initially lead to a degree of melancholy, as is typical of any effort being reviewed in retrospect. There are so many instances in a lifetime when we are either forced to choose a path at a crossroad, or perhaps even when we make a conscious, deliberate choice as we approach a crossroad or other pivotal moment, which we might view as a mistake in retrospect. We cannot know with certainty, at any given moment, the full range of consequences which might ensue upon making such choices, and must often rely on some intuitive or instinctive inclination. Over decades, we can look back on instances when we achieved practical or beneficial results, and balance those achievements against whatever hard lessons may have resulted, in order to evaluate our current circumstances. Still, those hard lessons can weigh heavily on us, and any benefits which may have subsequently appeared may not mitigate regrets.

Recent events and current circumstances have pressed me to reflect with much greater intensity on the cost/benefits sides of the equations which I have inflicted upon myself over time, and while it seems to me that there has been a reasonably fair balance between the number of benefits worth the cost and the number of costs which bestowed very little if any benefit, several important choices at pivotal moments still feel unresolved in ways that may or may not be still possible to mitigate.

We cannot reverse time nor can we untangle whatever confusion or uncertainty governed the circumstances surrounding any choice made in the swirling maelstrom of the past, but this acknowledgement hasn’t yet dissuaded me from meandering from time to time through the perennial realm of what might have been, or its close companion—what still might be possible.

Unresolved anxiety over what might have been doesn’t seem especially helpful in the grip of melancholy, but the road leading to the realm of what still might be possible is no cakewalk either. Powerfully negative emotional and psychological circumstances in my past have been a continuing source of bouts of second-guessing, and wrestling with them as I sometimes do, has occasionally resulted in episodes of emotional and psychological distress, characterized by a crippling degree of self-doubt and even deep sadness.

Whenever we project ourselves forward into the realm of what might still be possible, we are often limited by what we have already experienced as a starting point, which can make it more difficult to envision a future where our hopes can be realized, and so we must be able to somehow suspend our expectations based on previous experience in order to move forward.

What we sometimes describe as “thinking outside the box,” a phrase meant to suggest an approach to thought that is completely new or original, or at the very least some variation of the standard approach, may provide a degree of difference within our thought process, with which we can then aspire to begin anew in seeking a resolution to whatever dilemma we face, but which also requires an additional degree of willingness to venture outside of our comfort zone in important ways. Such measures also require a degree of courage in treading a path previously untried.

In all of my deliberations thus far, I have steadfastly applied a deliberate effort to forge a new approach to resolving what has been an intractable problem, and have done so over a period of decades. It has been an enormous strain on my creative senses and has, up to now, not produced very much in the way of useful results, aside from helping me to recognize just how difficult such results are to obtain, and to assist me in becoming accustomed to repeated failure.

While it has been suggested by a number of sources in the creative world that failure is one of the best teachers, as well as an absolutely necessary component of any true success, it has not accomplished much in my case other than to perpetuate a degree of frustration at how perplexing it all can seem. Most rational people would have abandoned the effort years ago, and while I would like to suppose that my approach has been generally rational in the main, my inability to abandon these efforts suggests that I might actually have crossed over the threshold of irrationality some time ago, and have simply been unable to see it and to acknowledge the limitations which consistently appear upon each effort to forge ahead.

In the weeks to come I will be reviewing a number of the components and accumulated memories, stories, documents and objects that I retained as souvenirs which surround me in my writing space, and explore the rationale for retaining these objects, and attempt to sort through the potential consequences of either letting them go, or holding on for dear life.

Hopefully, in the process, my readers and visitors might find some benefit for themselves from following along with my struggle to sort it all out. As I happen upon important topics suggested by this review, I may veer off the beaten path for a bit to elaborate and/or mitigate the process, just to keep it interesting. Looking forward to sharing this part of what continues to be a challenging journey with you all…..John H.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

When I began this blog in earnest back in January of 2011, my general goals were to share my decades-long journey of personal development, to express what I had learned while researching the nature of the events which occurred in my youth, and to invite my readers to join me in considering some of the avenues of investigation, which I pursued while searching for a path that might lead to a greater understanding of the subjective human experience of consciousness. I am convinced now that the ultimate explanation must go much deeper and be more meaningful and profound than most modern investigators suppose. It is one of the central questions being investigated at the forefront of philosophy generally, and in neuroscience specifically, and there are a number of scholars and other seekers actively searching with equal enthusiasm.

Just as it seems very clear to me now that the physical universe in which we exist, the “material world,” appears to be a manifestation of something that is not material, so too now does consciousness appear to be, at its source, non-material. In saying this I am not suggesting that it is without interaction with the physical world, but rather that its origin, where it stems from, what precisely emerges from Life, goes much deeper—it transcends all that we know intellectually and what we experience sensually.

What has compelled me to pursue it all along has been my own profound sense of something other than the physical world at work in my own experience of existence, and to the extent that I have studied the material sciences, the laws of physics, and listened to the conclusions and musings of the great thinkers across the history of humanity, I know that my own personal experiences of awareness—my own consciousness, is the most vitally important source of information that I could possibly hope to encounter. Balanced against a reasonable and rational science of brain physiology, and in consideration of the great strides we have made in psychology and in working through the philosophical discourse by thinkers and scholars from all over the world, what has transpired within me rings true with both the material and non-material aspects of my experience of existence.

After decades of life spent searching, I have gradually increased my confidence in the validity of those aspects of my experience of the world, which are not visible, not temporal in their nature in the strictest sense, but rather part of an eruption of sorts into the physical. Everything I see, and all the research, reading, and contemplation that has accompanied my efforts to come to terms with many of the events of my life, confirm for me the general notion that I have carried with me my whole life—and that is—every aspect of our physical lives, every nuance of experience, is made possible by a source which cannot be defined well in material terms.

Even when I have been disappointed or saddened or felt a sense of loss for any reason, I still felt close to this non-material source, just as I do in moments of great joy and elation, and during moments of what one might wish to describe as revelation—not in the biblical or religious sense—but rather, as life revealing itself to me in my experience of it.

Recently, interactions with my fellow human beings have become more pronounced in the differences between those who are open to the spirit of life—those within whom the “human spirit” radiates—with those who are less in touch with the core elements of their humanity; the ineffable, the non-physical, or the “spiritual,” if you will. Encountering individuals who embody the radiance of spirit, even if they don’t recognize it themselves, make this pursuit worthwhile, and those who are lacking in their understanding or who haven’t experienced their inner world well, make the expression of my ideas even more compelling.

In particular, when I encounter people with whom I feel an especially powerful connection, which is occasionally so clear and so deeply affective, sometimes even after only a few minutes, it increases my sensitivity to that connection in a “spiritual,” ineffable, and unambiguous way. The struggle that I have often had and continue to have from long ago is figuring out a way to alert these individuals to these connections, and to share my urgent sense of connection to them, without intruding or pressing the issue beyond a reasonable degree.

At least at present, it seems impossible for me to separate myself from my awareness of these connections, which are, to me, so obvious; I sometimes sense them so strongly, that any attempt to ignore them or to dismiss them as belonging to some biological or instinctive process simply makes no sense. During certain encounters over the years, even when there wasn’t any particularly overt cause to explain the connection, even then, the particulars often seemed to lead to the non-material. It often prompted me to consider that energies outside of our physical beings or even within us might be responsible.

In fact, when it comes to these dual aspects of our humanity, there truly is no “inside of us” or “outside of us,” in any meaningful sense. It is simply a necessary linguistic compromise to distinguish in some way, the material from the non-material, and describing them in that way helps us to realize that both are essential to life, and integral to comprehending the ineffable nature of our subjective experience. When we fall in love or feel strongly compelled toward certain ideas or individuals, or when we seek to participate in certain compelling circumstances, even when we occasionally become obsessed by these ideas, all of these are indications of a combination or coordination between these dual aspects.

Since it seems to me that we are both physical beings with powerful instinctive, biological, and psychological drives, as well as spiritual beings with a number of equally potent intuitive inclinations, it often may seem easier to focus primarily on explaining our experiences as being the result of brain activity, and to insist that those physiological processes are the source of all our inclinations, as opposed to including the possibility that any other non-material source might be at work.

I am firmly convinced that the mechanisms of cognition, intelligence, and brain functions, so vital to our ability to make sense of the world, simply cannot constitute the whole explanation. We see great strides being made with artificial intelligence, and with the efforts to replicate the functioning of neural processes artificially, and while these endeavors are truly fascinating and worthwhile, they cannot compare in significance to the richly-textured and deeply personal inner subjective experience of human consciousness, which has thus far only been possible to confirm subjectively, as to its capacity to exercise influence on our temporal circumstances.

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As I progressed in my research and study of subjective experience, I began to see parallels to many of the descriptions in the literature and scholarship on the subject, over centuries of human endeavor, with my own experiences. When certain events occurred in my early life, I was painfully unaware of what might explain them or help me to understand them better, but now, having become aware of the broad range of thought and theory contained in the history of humanity, and having decades of personal experience to reflect upon, I have been able to associate some of their core findings with my own experiences. Whether or not I have been expressing the conclusions reached by that study in a coherent manner, making them accessible to a wider range of people may be an open question, but doing so has been my goal.

While many of those who ponder these important issues are unwilling to suppose or unable to discern how any influence or energy which has no clearly empirical explanation might be active within and essential to life, for myself, I have to believe that what has been burning within me for so long, and occupied nearly every mental effort I could muster along the way, has been a sufficient cause to express its urgency in my writings.

Considering the wide range of my experiences, both sensual and spiritual, my sincere conviction now is that what I feel, what I sense, and what I experience, not only internally and personally, but also as an observer of the world “outside of me,” especially in consideration of the responses of other individuals under extraordinary circumstances, is that I cannot dismiss out of hand, any experience or conclusion that occurs within me.

In calling my blog, “John’s Consciousness,” I don’t remember thinking too long about it, but when I first saw it on the masthead here, I immediately accepted it as the right choice, in spite of the fact that I wasn’t completely clear in my own mind if it would accurately describe the content I was about to explore in these pages. There is no question in my mind at this point that the ineffable nature of consciousness and the complex machinations of brain physiology, supported by multi-faceted sensory input which support subjective experience, are intimately intertwined, not because there is some direct link discernible to science or immediately obvious to others, but because in my personal experience it has been so. Since it has been so in that way, I feel confident in saying that I have learned to distinguish between those ideas and experiences which are mostly peripheral and those which are profound, and part of the core components of my life.

I have dedicated much of my time and pressed myself to persist in my efforts with great determination to create and present thoughtful, rational, and sincere entries here, and to share my ideas with clarity and balanced argumentation. It is clear from the many insightful responses I have received over the years that certain entries have resonated with my readers more than others, and while I have been formulating these ideas ever since I was a much younger person, even now, as a mature man with sixty-plus years on this planet, I must acknowledge that I am still hampered to some degree by my cultural and familial conditioning, even as I attempt to express what is most urgent within me.

There is so much more to discover. I am compelled to persist in my efforts to dig deeper, and to continue to write about what has been revealed by my decades of searching.

Origins of Consciousness

The actual quote from Dostoevsky’s “Notes From The Underground,” goes as follows:

“And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. Though I did lay it down at the beginning that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction.”

Whether or not it is reasonable to conclude that the human version of consciousness is “the greatest misfortune,” or “…a disease,” as Dostoevsky calls it in his novel, it seems clear even to his “underground” character in the story that its existence is valued highly by those possessing it generally, and that our experience of being human, composed as it is by a whole variety of different forms of suffering, along with other more enjoyable circumstances, could be said to have contributed in an important way to its rapid progress once achieved.

I’ve written more than thirty blog posts over the years, which, in one way or another, addressed some aspect of the evolution of consciousness in humans, and recently I encountered an interesting perspective on the subject.

The literary scholar, Brian Boyd, lives in New Zealand, where he is a professor at the University of Auckland, and has devoted much of his career to applying the findings of evolutionary biology to the arts.

In an online article which appeared in the Winter/Spring 2013 issue of The New Atlantis, called, “Portrait of the Artist as a Caveman,” Dr. Micah Mattix, an associate professor of English who currently serves as the English & Communications Studies chair, reports a compelling theoretical explanation offered by Boyd for human cognitive development:

“Boyd begins On the Origin of Stories (2010), his book on the evolution of fiction, by describing the universality of play with patterned language across human cultures. The origin of art, Boyd suggests, may have been as a form of cognitive play — a set of activities “designed to engage human attention through their appeal to our preference for inferentially rich and therefore patterned information.” Play for our proto-human ancestors, as for other animal species, was a way of practicing and training for important activities, like hunting or fighting. But our ancestors played to train not only the body but also the mind, enabling us to interact skillfully with other human beings. Boyd suggests that over time this play modified “key human perceptual, cognitive, and expressive systems,” giving birth to self-awareness and language.”

While these elements may very well have contributed in an important way to our cognitive and linguistic capabilities, it still seems that at some point even these would not suffice to fully explain how it all came together. In a recent blog post here called “Stillness After The Storm,” I referenced the writing of Aeschylus that “announces the law of Zeus that we must learn by suffering, but out of all this suffering comes an important advance in human understanding and civilization.”

Some years ago, I wrote about a particular experience of suffering which spoke to these ideas directly:

I stepped out into the night and took a walk in the falling snow.

I had been struggling with an inner pain that seemed to be eating away at me a little at a time, and I couldn’t seem to shake it. I always stepped into the light of each new day with the hope that somehow I would find a way to put it behind me, but no matter how hard I tried, it seemed to linger deep within the forest of consciousness, and sometimes, the stillness of the night quieted my mind to the point where the echoes of my traumatic past came vividly alive.

The quiet beauty and elegant whisper of the snowflakes as they descended on that particular evening, far from being a welcomed respite from the emotional pain, actually felt like little stones striking my flesh. I stood trembling under the canopy of night, breathing deeply in an attempt to gather my strength for my next leg of the journey, in what I felt was a vain attempt to resume the trek past the pain.

It was a transformative experience in a couple of ways to face the pain and to struggle to overcome the power that the suffering seemed to hold on me.

It was enormously difficult to find a way through it, but something important happened that made me realize if I couldn’t find a way, I might not be able to fully engage in my life or be of much use to the people I love, particularly as a parent to my children. Whatever loss I personally suffered could not compare to a failure to nurture and care for them.”

It would seem that suffering does play an important role in our cognitive development.

Life itself arose in our little corner of a minor galaxy in an astonishing confluence of matter and energy and environment in our solar system, but took billions of years to produce significant results of the sort that permitted intelligent life to unfold. Once established, intelligent life progressed rapidly by comparison, and we see human progress increasing exponentially as the years pass.

When you consider the unlikely way in which life itself sprang into existence on Earth, our own uncertainty in the 21st century starts to look far less daunting. In the earliest epoch of humanity, the first truly useful and meaningful awareness of human consciousness in our ancient ancestors could only have appeared once the hominid brain finally possessed the necessary prerequisites for cognition and awareness. No matter when the architecture of the brain and the physiological structures within the body finally became mature enough to allow heightened sense perception and cognition, possession of these talents alone could not have produced significant results right away, and consciousness must have taken an enormous amount of time to develop into a recognizable phenomenon.

 

Genes and What Really Matters

“Every human being, and every human mind, has roots that extend indefinitely far back through time…the consciousness of the individual is inextricably tied to the consciousness of the whole…Everything in nature is actually connected or implicated with everything else….(and) Whether we like it or not, consciousness has a persistent habit of intruding into all our discussions about the nature of mathematics, physics, and reality as a whole. We cannot just step outside of ourselves to discover what things would be like–assuming they still existed at all–if we were not here.”

“We have been compelled by modern physics to regard things in a very different light. As we shall see, we have been forced to concede that not only may consciousness have a purpose, but that it may actually be indispensable to the universe in which we live.”

–excerpts from his book, “Equations of Eternity,” by David Darling

As human beings, it is our nature to explore and to question and to seek the answers to the nature of the universe. It is an inclination as natural as any we can name. Carl Sagan, in his celebrated series “Cosmos,” said that he believed, “our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float, like a mote of dust floating in the morning sky.” Part of understanding the cosmos is investigating and trying to understand how our genes affect our biological nature, and if we can find ways to decipher and replicate the beneficial aspects of genes, without compounding or magnifying the negative aspects, we will, perhaps, contribute to that understanding.

Whether or not we ultimately find a way to connect the dots genetically to the mechanisms of disease, or replicate the chemical composition of DNA to construct synthetic microbes, or arrive at a comprehensive theory to describe the subjective experience of sentient life, the urgency for all of these endeavors to include as central to our understanding of them, something more profound than science has never been greater.

We recently celebrated the arrival of the newest member of our extended family tree, and it occurred to me that our search for scientific knowledge, particularly as it concerns the very nature of life itself, while of obvious value in gaining “insights” into our biological nature, could use a little of the kind of wisdom we can only obtain as we contemplate the results of the genetic mingling of chromosomes, DNA, and genetic markers.

Holding my granddaughter in my arms, recognizing that this tiny, squirming, and beautiful human being carries within her cells the genetic components of her parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and ancestors for generations, inspires me to feel a connection to her biologically to be sure, but far more immediate is the connection I feel spiritually, as someone who loves her and each of her extended family members. Without that connection, the science of genetics remains unaffected, but the significance of the consequences of that spiritual deficit could be profound. If we did NOT know about the genomic relationships at all, our spiritual connection would also remain unaffected, and there’s no way to know if simply acquiring this knowledge of genetic links would affect the relationship significantly at all.

All around us are challenges that point directly to the need to expand our collective mindset toward the planet Earth, in order to preserve it for future generations. Global Climate Change, a documented and increasingly worrisome source of severe weather as a result of increased carbon emissions in the atmosphere, will affect everyone on the planet, and we must begin to see that we are all in this together. Scientific investigations of the wider cosmos, from the possibility of discovering other sentient life beyond our solar system, all the way down to the elementary particles that govern our very existence, have profound implications for the future of our world, and as living, thinking, feeling, and creative creatures, we need to see ourselves as being an integral part of the equations that govern the physical world, as well as being capable of altering the outcome of our interactions on every level.

Looking into the eyes of your newborn grandchild is an experience I can recommend without hesitation, to anyone who seeks a greater understanding of the cosmos, even when a specific biological connection is not an element in the equation. I have been privileged to gaze into the eyes of each and every one of my grandchildren very soon after their arrival on earth. Each of them is precious in my eyes, and the spiritual connection of which I speak exists in exactly the same way and to the same degree as the one most recently established.

We may not ever achieve anything particularly notable in the eyes of the world no matter how long we live, but I can assure you, that seeing ourselves as “part or parcel” of all of creation, an inevitable consequence of a self-creating universe, and spiritually connected to all life, would go a long way toward enhancing our greater understanding of any part of the cosmos in which we float.

Stillness After The Storm

Recently, it seems that we are hearing more frequent reports of a chaotic climate and an increase in unpredictable storms that disrupt the everyday lives of people everywhere, and while the debate continues over what steps we should take now in response to our changing climate, very little has been written about the disruptions which occur within us as we endure the turmoil all around us.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1833, recorded these words in his personal journals:

“The wise man in the storm prays God, not for safety from danger, but deliverance from fear. It is the storm within which endangers him, not the storm without.”

These past few weeks have seen an increase in the number of violent thunderstorm systems in the northeastern United States and several of them have passed through the local area here. Strong winds and numerous lightning strikes have occurred during each of these weather fronts, producing downed trees and isolated damage to the areas affected. During these chaotic events, it is easy to see why people are sometimes overwhelmed by the intensity of the wind and rain. Severe weather alerts and flood warnings have become more frequent during these episodes.

This past weekend, during the most recent appearance of one of the local storms, I became concerned as the skies darkened and the winds became more intense while at the supermarket. With no small amount of anxiety, I quickly scrambled to load the car after about an hour shopping for groceries, and was thoroughly soaked in the downpour that resulted from the release of those black clouds that appeared so suddenly overhead. Within a few short minutes, it went from merely overcast, to a veritable deluge. The drive home was a mixture of soaking rain and intense winds, coupled with brief periods of no rain at all as I crossed between long stretches of intermittent storm activity along the interstate highway. It took several minutes to unload the groceries once I returned home, and as soon as the refrigerated items had been safely stowed away, I took the opportunity to change out of the wet clothes and took a few deep breaths.

The early afternoon chaos eventually settled down enough to make it possible to sit out on the deck out in back of the house, as the daylight once again slowly returned to display a gentler and brighter sky. Since the view in the summer months out back is normally filled with the greenery of all the plants and trees that surround the yard, once the sky cleared, the verdure once again appeared in full bloom. I sat in stillness for some time, simply being present in the moment, gazing out into the yard and pondering the transition from an anxious traveler in the storm to casual observer of nature’s play. Participating in the scene in this way became so appealing, it prompted me to record the view, with the intention of capturing the highlights of raindrops which lingered on the leaves and branches all around me. The stillness in this instance did indeed direct my words and actions.

I love how the raindrops lingered upon the tiny leaves and glistened in the radiant sunlight.

They almost seem to be glowing from within.

The sunlight found its way momentarily even to the tiny shrub on the ground next to the backyard fence.

Right above it, the leaves seemed to form a green stairway to the brightening sky…

My eyes were easily led to look up, although I had to avert them to capture the moment.

Every year, tiny new branches appear, sprouting off the main trunk, highlighted by the resurgent sun.

A closer look shows the raindrops have already begun to evaporate, much in the same way as my anxiety.

The newly emergent sunlight illuminates even the densest cluster of leaves on the backyard tree.

The contrast of the aging surface of the tree bark and the newly born sprout was prescient.

As I pondered both the violence of the storm and the display of beauty from the aftermath, I was reminded of an encounter I had years ago with a passage about suffering from “The Oresteia,” a trilogy written by the Greek playwright, Aeschylus:

The translation of this passage is by Robert Fagles, from part one, “Agamemnon,” by Aeschylus:

“Zeus has led us on to know, the Helmsman lays it down as law that we must suffer, suffer into truth. We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart, the pain of pain remembered comes again, and we resist, but ripeness comes as well. From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench* there comes a violent love.” *-the bench of the ship where the helmsman sat

After a few minutes my curiosity got the better of me, so I looked up the passage from Aeschylus and came across an excerpt from the introduction to “The Oresteia,” from the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces:

“The Aeschylean Trilogy is nothing less than an attempt to “justify the ways of God to men.” In the opening ode it announces the law of Zeus that we must learn by suffering, but out of all this suffering comes an important advance in human understanding and civilization. The suffering is shown to us as the fulfillment of a purpose we can understand, a purpose beneficent to humanity.”

If indeed it is suffering that brings us a better understanding of our nature, and if it serves the purpose of helping us to learn and gain in wisdom, then perhaps all of our suffering, whether it seems to help us specifically in our own lives or not, may not be completely without at least some merit. In this instance, enduring the storm and waiting patiently for the skies to clear did at least grant me a pleasing perspective, right in my own back yard.

Einstein and the Human Spirit

Overview description of the original production from the website:

https://worldsciencefestival.qtix.com.au/event/wsfb_light_falls_16.aspx

“Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s discovery of the general theory of relativity, this original work weaves together dramatic portrayals, state-of-the-art animation and innovative projection techniques to trace Einstein’s electrifying journey toward one of the most beautiful ideas ever conceived. Brian Greene and an ensemble cast tells the dramatic story of the breakthrough moments, near misses, agonizing frustrations, and emergence into the light, as one intrepid mind took on the universe … and won.”

Currently available for viewing at http://www.pbs.org until June 26th, this original and entertaining account of the development of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, presents us with a very down-to-earth and understandable human rendering of the struggles and triumphs that brought our scientific understanding of the physical universe forward in what can only be described as a “quantum leap.”

Brian Greene, Rhodes Scholar and Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University, and author of “The Elegant Universe,” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” presents the viewer with a very human view of the journey of discovery through the medium of theater, and in the process, opens the world of the science of cosmology to a much broader audience than ever before.

For most of us, Einstein’s theories and the subject of cosmology generally seem like something that only dedicated scientists and physicists can appreciate well, but Brian Greene and his theatrical associates bring us along the path that Einstein followed in a way that even amateur scientists like me can follow. For all its benefits and explanations of complex ideas, for me personally, this production led me to consider the implications of my own research, and affirmed for me, the importance of the inclusion of the ineffable in developing a greater understanding of our very human version of consciousness.

Although many modern scientists generally avoid inserting any sort of philosophical thinking into their deliberations, Brian Greene seems less inclined to avoid such iterations in his work, and at the conclusion of “Light Falls,” we hear from both men, as they ponder the experience of life as it relates to the mysteries of our existence in the physical universe:

EINSTEIN:

“To we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent. All the anxious years of wandering in the dark, with their intense longing, the intense alternations between confidence and exhaustion, and the final emergence into the light, only those who have experienced it can understand it.”

BRIAN GREENE:

“No one else had or has experienced it. Our species has surely produced great scientists, who have taken on great challenges to achieve great things, but Einstein’s radical assault on the most basic elements of experience–space, time, matter, energy, gravity–all waged by one lone mind, wrestling with reality…well…that was a singular achievement. And yet, it is in that singular achievement that we recognize the depth of the human drive for…coherence; for unity.

It is within the singular that we see the capacity of the human mind to lift itself above the ordinary, and catch a glimpse of the transcendent. And it is within the singular that we witness the power of the human spirit to rise above the all-too-real concerns of life on planet earth, and even if for just a moment, to stretch for the stars.”

In his epic publication, “The Elegant Universe,” Brian Greene offers a perfect rationale for giving serious attention to achieving a greater understanding of the mysteries surrounding the nature of reality:

“Humans throughout history have had a passionate drive to understand the origin of the universe. There is, perhaps, no single question that so transcends cultural and temporal divides, inspiring the imagination of our ancient forebears as well as the research of the modern cosmologist. At a deep level, there is a collective longing for an explanation of why there is a universe, how it has come to take the form we witness, and for the rationale–the principle–that drives its evolution.”

Professor Greene’s willingness to infer that in seeking to understand why there is a universe, we might “catch a glimpse of the transcendent,” should encourage all of us to consider that there is, in fact, a transcendent aspect to our existence, and that there is a greater understanding which awaits us, which may be achieved while pursuing any one of the many diverse paths to that understanding.

I highly recommend the PBS production, “Light Falls,” to anyone who has a serious interest in knowing more.