The Human Spirit

Twenty-five years ago, on January 28, 1986, the world lost seven of its best and brightest citizens when the space shuttle Challenger was destroyed as it launched into space. Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Christa McAuliffe, and Gregory Jarvis were lost when their spacecraft exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on that brisk January morning.

At that time, I had only recently begun to make contact with other personal computer users on a server which sponsored what was called a “bulletin board,” (BBS) which was a place where you could exchange ideas and post messages to others in “user groups.”

My computer at that time was a Commodore 64, and the user group was called, “The Computer Connection,” described on the introductory page as “a not-for-profit organization addressing educational interests of personal computer users.” You connected to the server by dialing the phone number, with the phone jack connected to a device called a “modem.” You could upload text files either directly or from a word processing program, and there were a number of “directories” containing files on all sorts of educational and recreational topics which you could download to your own computer.

Before long, I became engaged in several of the “conferences” which contained discussions on everything from personal computing to rock music. The one that caught my attention in the summer of 1985 was called the “Philo Conference,” which dealt with ideas in Philosophy, Science, and Religion, and how all three were related. As you might imagine, I immediately found myself posting messages and responding to queries posted by other users.

The person who ran the BBS, the “Sysop,” was the host of the Philo conference, and was a professor at Jefferson Medical College who divided his time between teaching and research in neuroscience and pharmacology. As it turned out, I was the first person to post a message in the Philo conference, since he had only just brought it online a short time before I came across it. We immediately began a vigorous discussion and enjoyed a rewarding friendship which lasted several years.

On January 20, 1986, I posted a message about a television show called, “Teacher in Space,” a documentary on NBC about Christa McAuliffe’s training and preparation for the shuttle launch. I speculated that we might be able to “take a trip into outer space as civilians by the year 2000.”

When the accident occurred, I wrote a message that night which expressed my inability to put into words, “the feelings evoked by the tragic loss of the seven astronauts,” and closed by saying how I thought we could “best honor (their) memories by achieving the goals of space travel in spite of the loss.” The sysop wrote in the only response that the astronauts were “space pioneers,” who valued the knowledge gained by space travel “enough to take the risks – they exemplify the best of the human spirit.”

He added in closing, “that spirit has characterized humanity from antiquity and it remains.”

In an article by Clara Moskowitz for MSN.com, she quotes Barbara Morgan, who “later became the first educator astronaut to reach orbit:

“We can never predict the future, but we can help shape the future. And if we want that future to be bright and open-ended and be one of lifelong learning, we’ve got to keep reaching for the stars.”

Here is a link to the full article:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41275796/ns/technology_and_science-space/

May we continue to remain open to the future, regardless of the risks.

Absence of Evidence is Not Evidence of Absence

One of the central issues in science today is the search for a comprehensive explanation for the subjective experience of consciousness, and what role “non-physical components” might play in coming to terms with the precise nature of consciousness.

A good place to begin is with our own very human emotions. In spite of having a clear and powerful biological foundation in brain physiology, our emotional responses are highly subjective in nature and what immediately stirs the feelings of one human being can produce nothing but indifference in another.

Difficult to define, feelings can direct us in ways that are, in one instance, intuitive and insightful, and in another, self-destructive and violent. Our response to stimulus of every sort can be examined, analyzed, and traced to specific locations within the brain, but our physiological responses are only part of the story. Our emotions and feelings can also be influenced by forces far removed from simple biology.

The interrelatedness of all life in the phenomenal world reflects the even more complex and comprehensive relationships that support our profoundly dynamic inner life, represented in the relationships between cognition and physiology, between neurons and experience, between electrochemical phenomenology and synaptic function. Indeed, one could easily draw parallels that reach all the way from the most basic subatomic phenomena to the vastness of the known universe. The complexity of the brain is a perfect metaphor for the complexity of the universe!

The relationships between these various components of life in the physical universe, like all such associations, have some aspects in common which are visible and comprehensible, others that are a great deal more subtle, and yet others which are utterly incomprehensible. In many cases, we can infer relationships between objects and phenomena based on observation or analysis of data relevant to the circumstances in which they occur, or by examining the bits and pieces left behind after centuries have passed. As cognitive creatures, with millions of years of evolution to support us, we can advance theories based on the observations and data accumulated over centuries of reflection and contemplation.

There are a few hopeful signs of progress toward an expanded view of what may be possible with regard to understanding consciousness. A recent book by Joseph LeDoux gives us plenty of “wiggle-room” to come to our own conclusions, without abandoning either science or the ineffable. In his book, “The Synaptic Self,” LeDoux makes a forceful case for his ideas regarding the importance of “synaptic transmission” in the achievement of consciousness.

Given the importance of synaptic transmission in brain function, it should practically be a truism to say that the self is synaptic. Not everyone, however, will be happy with this conclusion, (and will) counter that the self is psychological, social, moral, aesthetic or spiritual, rather than neural in nature. My synaptic theory of the self is not proposed as an alternative to these views. It is, rather, an attempt to portray the way the psychological, social, moral, aesthetic, or spiritual self is realized.”

His well-developed arguments in support of his theory make for compelling reading, but his willingness to entertain other points of view in the overall picture of consciousness, give them even greater power:

A spiritual view of the self isn’t completely incompatible with a biological one…It’s not that consciousness is only non-physical or completely physical. It’s that consciousness is made manifest through physical systems which (are integral to) the construction and awareness of self… (Consciousness) also has non-physical aspects which (contribute to the) complex processes which result in our vivid first person experience.”

His willingness to include “non-physical” components without abandoning neuroscience demonstrates the advantage to this approach. Regardless of your own emphasis regarding the nature of consciousness, LeDoux leaves the door open to all points of view, without sacrificing the importance of his own theories in the process.

I am currently working on a major writing project that involves, as one of the main components, the notion of a spiritual (non-physical) nature to humanity—a unique spiritual character that penetrates and permeates our lives. It is a culmination of many years of research and contemplation, and of struggling to find ways in which this nature is manifest in our lives.

I firmly believe that life in general, and humanity in particular, is not the result of a cosmic happenstance. I believe there is a greater force at work in the universe that supports and animates all life. The exact nature and character of that force may not be possible to describe in comprehensible terms presently, but I think a greater understanding than what we have currently is attainable if we take your suggestion and expand our fundamentalist view to achieve a broader perspective.

I am presently occupied by the relationship between the non-physical aspects of human consciousness and our subjective experience of consciousness, which lies at the very heart of one of the biggest questions of all—Is consciousness simply and only the result of brain physiology, or is it the quintessential manifestation of the spirit in our lives as humans?

There is much that is not well understood about the human subjective experience of consciousness, and even cognitive scientists, with all they know specifically about the cognitive process and brain function, cannot penetrate its mysteries as yet. There is also much speculation in the current literature of the cognitive sciences about how long it will be before we are able to emulate brain function artificially in such a way as to simulate consciousness as well.

What is missing from all these speculations is that even if we are able to somehow manage it, what we will discover will not be human consciousness. It may be similar in many ways and function as a device, but it will not be alive!! It may be powered by a battery or plugged in to a wall socket, but it won’t have LIFE!!

It would be a very narrow definition of what it means to be human to reduce us merely to the biological and cognitive processes that support consciousness. Our lives and our subjective experience of the world is dependent on a functional body coordinated by a functional brain, but what animates the organic material in our bodies and brains—what is essential to being human—cannot be comprehensively demonstrated by science alone.

No matter how advanced our technologies become, no matter how accurately we construct a device that emulates brain architecture and simulates consciousness, we will never devise a formula to manufacture a living, breathing, cognitive human person.

We are not simply a conglomeration of organic systems. We are part of a dynamic synergy of life in the phenomenal universe. Our conscious experience of life allows us to interact with life in its many manifestations. Our connection to the ineffable source of that dynamic synergy is only attainable through our awareness, but not generated BY our awareness.

As Carl Sagan once said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” For many of us, there is an inner recognition of, and a compelling degree of emotional connection to, the ineffable that exists regardless of the physics used to otherwise describe the conditions of our existence. However inexplicable that connection might be, its existence is, for most of us, undeniable.

Our subjective experience of consciousness confirms it for us personally, but it is, so far, inadequate to serve as sufficient with regard to enlisting the confirmation of others.

With patience and persistence, I continue to pursue my ideas. I would be very glad to know what you readers think!

© January 2011 by JJHIII

A Wistful Winter Morning

Morning Snow2

As I press my hand to the brass knob
Level with my blurred line of sight,
Releasing the bolt which holds the door firmly closed,
Streaks of brilliant light flood the foyer
Through the beveled prisms
Of my uncertainty.

A mechanical clack announces the release
Of the lock as I step tentatively backward,
To allow for the swinging, sweeping sound
As my heart opens to newly born morning light,
Mingled with the winter’s frosty breath,
Provoking both wonder and curious resistance.

Shimmering icy sparkles rise up in all directions;
Stillness soothes the stinging bite of winter breezes;
Solar pulses of colored hues caress the tips of snowy knolls
While rhythmic heartbeats warm my inner frame,
Sustaining the memories of moments within me–
Cherished thoughts and awkward apprehensions.

Stumbling back to the kitchen counter,
Searching for the implements of the morning grind,
A glance again toward the world without
Diverts my heart and mind just long enough
To contemplate what once was warm and green,
Now obscured by a wistful winter morning.

© January 2011 by JJHIII

Welcome!

According to most specialists in cognitive studies, there is a stream of consciousness within each of us that never ceases, regardless of whether we are awake or asleep. Exactly what is responsible for our experience of consciousness and a comprehensive explanation of its functioning are still subjects of considerable speculation and study. Assuming that we continue to expand our knowledge and insight into cognitive functioning, it seems reasonable to conclude that we will eventually gain a greater comprehension of its workings, perhaps resulting in a greater degree of access to this stream. We must therefore seek it out, and nourish our individual paths which connect us to it, and also be open to what we uncover as we search.

The nature and study of human consciousness has been a compelling subject for me for more than twenty years. I have spent a great deal of my time and energies trying to come to terms with my own very particular “inner experience” of life, and to somehow understand how the events and flow of my temporal life have directly been influenced by the workings within. Sharing what I have come to understand about my own “Inner Evolution,” has tasked my intellect and communications skills in a big way. I am only just beginning to feel confident enough in the results of my study and contemplation to bring the many various aspects of what I have uncovered within myself. I am hopeful that my own subjective and personal experience of my own “human spirit” will resonate with others, and encourage them to explore their own.

Way back in 1973, as a young man embarking on the journey of a lifetime, I experienced what Carl Jung described as “the eruption of unconscious contents,” which compelled me to seek the path I continue to pursue to this day. The path of discovery has led me through an astonishingly diverse range of explorations in philosophy, science, and religion, as well as the many compelling ideas in the literature and scriptures of the cultures of the world. There is, in my view, a compelling thread made up of components of each, that runs through the fabric of life

What do the sages, and the world’s religious leaders, and the great scientists and philosophers of human history say about the nature of existence and consciousness? What are the modern philosophical and cutting edge scientific minds struggling to understand still? Will the advances in physics and neuroscience and cognitive studies eventually result in a comprehensive theory of consciousness? There is hope for the future, but we must be willing to allow ourselves to explore our own inner landscape to see where it will lead us.

JJHIII – January 2011