Praetorian guard with sword and lance, wearing a cucullus (hooded cape) – Berlin, Pergamon Museum. Credits: Ann Raia, 2005
Since the first suggestion of the existence of ancient cultures in grammar school history classes, I have cultivated a fascination with what it might have been like to live as a member of ancient societies. As my education progressed and my passion for comprehending the foundations of humanity expanded, my persistence led me from the ancient history of civilization and of writing, to the foundational element of all comprehension–the acquisition of consciousness itself.
For me today, no other subject seems quite so compelling, as a means to begin to comprehend all other things, as the study of human consciousness. No other single undertaking would have such far-reaching consequences for the future of humanity as the attainment of even a basic understanding of how it is that we experience our existence through self-awareness. To fully appreciate our modern dilemma as Homo sapiens, it seems vital to me that we investigate how we became capable of understanding in the first place. Not only are we a product of evolutionary biology and genetics, but also of our evolving capacity for an expanded access to consciousness.
Comprehending ourselves as modern Homo sapiens, the most recent version of a long line of upright, bipedal, social creatures is only possible when we consider the perspective of millions of years of human evolution, and tens of thousands of years of reasonably productive mental efforts as cognitive beings. Neurological functioning clearly advanced in complexity and capacity from the earliest hominids to the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon, gradually permitting access to “higher order consciousness.” Figuring out how our species came to acquire our extraordinary cognitive capacities and to achieve our subsequent developmental progress are central to our continued success as modern cognitive creatures.
While our specific cognitive skills may not have evolved dramatically since the first recorded images were painted on cave walls of ancient history, the acquisition of functional consciousness, i.e., the ability to not only be aware that we exist, but also to contemplate that existence in a meaningful way that can be communicated, was a pivotal achievement in an epoch that altered the course of human history more than any other evolutionary change. In my view, what the cave paintings intimate, beyond the burgeoning of “higher order consciousness,” is the development of a connection to the foundations of consciousness–a connection which exists and is evidenced to some degree in all the manifestations of life in the physical universe.
As human beings, we are, in large part, unremarkably different from many other species on our planet when you consider us in our most fundamental nature. We exist physically as they do, we are made up of the same basic biological elements, and rely on the physical environment for our continued existence. Our genetic structure and specific biological architecture are unique in some important ways, but it is our much more complex cognitive functioning and access to higher order consciousness that permits us to dominate presently on earth. These differences could easily be made irrelevant by catastrophic changes in our physical environment, should they manifest in the way they did when similar events resulted in the demise of the dinosaurs.
The extraordinary complexity of the human brain, which developed over millions of years of evolution, has finally produced creatures who can acknowledge their existence in a way that complex artificial physical systems may never do. The correlation between the processing of information in the brain, and that which takes place in our most sophisticated computers, in my view, will be insufficient to produce the same conscious “experience” that humans enjoy. As complex biological creatures, what WE have that computers cannot independently produce is LIFE–the animating force of everything that lives. Our rich inner life–our experience of existence–while facilitated by complex cognitive functioning, resists empirical scrutiny in my view, precisely because it does not “arise” simply from those physical systems, but rather, through them–utilizing them as a “conduit for consciousness.” They make awareness possible, but they cannot explain what it is like to BE aware. As someone having these experiences, as deeply personal and profound as they are, my experience of awareness intimates the existence of a non-physical realm or dimension which is entangled with the physical world. Just because I rely on an intact physical system to be aware, doesn’t convince me that consciousness “arises” from those physical processes.
Recognition of the existence of higher levels of consciousness moves us toward a potential expansion of the process of our intellectual awakening, which has been in progress for millennia. Such non-physical abstractions as thoughts, desires, intentions, imaginings, and even the experience of dreams, while clearly interacting with the perceptual mechanisms and central nervous system of the human body, exist also as components of contemplation, integral to cognition, and essential to maintaining a balanced mental life. What are sometimes referred to as “spiritual inclinations,” may indeed enter our awareness as the result of these abstractions, and lead us to developing an awareness of a whole other level of existence.
….more to come…