The only means of strengthening one’s intelligence is to make up one’s mind about nothing– to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. – John Keats (1795 – 1821)
No matter what aspect of conscious experience we wish to consider, whether it involves a clearly temporal action or event like wrestling an alligator, or something more subtle like daydreaming with eyes closed in a silent and temperate room or even meditating, consciousness provides us with a capacity for awareness of the “what-it’s-like” subjective experience of those circumstances. The contrasting quality of those experiences, one dynamically physical in emphasis and the other more mentally or “internally” oriented, points both to a broad range of conscious experience and to what might be described as a “spectrum” of consciousness.
Much like the spectrum of light, which includes a relatively narrow band of the visible sort, as well as an expansive range not visible to the human eye, including frequencies at the low end and the high end, the full range of consciousness may indeed exceed all of our perceptual and conceptual limitations as humans. Just as the results of our encounters with the unknown in our human explorations of the physical universe prompted us to develop sensors for x-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet and infrared frequencies of light, these same urgings applied properly and persistently to our inner landscape may reveal a greater range than our current awareness permits within the spectrum of consciousness.
Considering that a fundamental or minimally functional and reportable sort of “human” consciousness only recently appeared on our planet in our hominid ancestors, it hardly seems unreasonable at all that we are still trying to determine its true nature. In spite of the fact that, by most estimates, our truly meaningful or evidential tenure as “modern humans,” encompasses at least tens of thousands and at most hundreds of thousands of years, we have been unable to locate any significant evidence of “modern civilization” prior to the Upper Paleolithic period some 40,000 years ago. However you prefer to define “modern” or “civilization,” a clear demonstration of “modern” cognitive function, which includes “self-awareness” beyond stone tools and survival skills, is a fairly recent development cosmically speaking.
A tomb painting of Seti I as reconstructed by Giovanni Battista Belzoni (d. 1823),public domain
Advanced conceptual skills which resulted in grammatical languages came along even later, and the beginnings of symbolic writing appeared maybe only 6,000 years ago. While our ancient civilizations and cultures were rapidly and simultaneously evolving into an astonishingly diverse and demonstrably intelligent bunch, one could argue that even the Sumerians, Babylonians, East Asians, and Egyptians, who were making astronomical observations, developing medicines, and recording mathematical principles, were only laying the foundations of modern science. The ancient Persian, Greek, and Roman civilizations were already in full development before human cultures even began to truly unravel the tangled web of mystery and superstition which would persist well into the Renaissance. It wasn’t until the early 1700’s that serious attention was given to scientific methodology and reasoning during what is described as “The Age of Enlightenment.”
While all sorts of thoughts about mental states and numerous philosophical ideas had been considered for centuries before, it has only been since the early part of the seventeenth century that consciousness became the object of consideration as an important concept. As more and more attention was given to the mind, by the mid-nineteenth century, the real work of discerning what might possibly explain “consciousness” finally began to develop in scientific studies, and persisted in spite of skepticism and neglect by a number of prominent thinkers that arose in the early twentieth century.
Given that we have only recently begun to devote direct attention to developing a comprehensive theory of consciousness, I find it both amusing and perplexing that anyone supposes they could have more than a cursory understanding of what the process of consciousness and the resulting subjective experience of the self could reasonably include. My own efforts here are not intended to represent anything more or less than a report of my own investigations and musings from my years of independent study and contemplation of the subject. Where I seem to diverge from the mainstream thinking is mostly in the degree of willingness I possess to consider the inclusion of non-physical elements in the equation, and my absolutely unabashed confidence that it is completely possible for the human mind to achieve a comprehensive theory about its own consciousness.
It may also be said that as a non-scientist/scholar in the formal sense of those terms, I do not suffer from any sort of anxiety or reluctance to entertain any thoughtful or reasonable ideas expressed with the intention of expanding our understanding. Our western culture generally, and our academic culture in particular, do not, in my view, encourage nor support anything even remotely metaphysical in its approach to consciousness, simply because these ideas do not conform well in every instance to the rigors and parameters of our current scientific mindset, and this dissuades many of our modern scientists and philosophers from giving them even a glance usually.
I’m not suggesting that we should recklessly abandon reason and science in this effort, and there are a few hopeful glimmers of open-mindedness to new ideas in some of the recent publications and seminars on the subject of consciousness. My own views are more a result of experiences and thought processes which, as a relative outsider, have provided me with opportunities and produced results that simply aren’t encouraged in academic circles. Perhaps, if we could just “lighten up” a little, by at least considering and maybe even actively encouraging “out-of-the-box” thinkers, we may find that they provide insights and open doors that could very well lead to progress.
There are very few serious modern thinkers who believe that any problem can be solved by only one way of looking at it, but it’s clear that we still have a long way to go before we can truly be said to be “open-minded” about consciousness. The irony here, of course, is that in order to be “open-minded” about our brains and how the mind and consciousness work, we are required to utilize the very thing we are examining in the first place! There is nothing quite as astonishing as the source of our own amazement!