From Ancient History to Modern Consciousness

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…

6 thoughts on “From Ancient History to Modern Consciousness

  1. Great post John! Two questions: Are you trying to say that self-consciousness is an “emergent property” that is self-consciousness is a higher level of complexity that emerges from a lower order of properties i.e. perception, desire etc?

    Also, I take it that are you proposing that self-consciousness emerged through historical time. That is, we moderns have a more developed consciousness than prehistoric peoples, the ancients more than them but less than us etc?

    1. Rick,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and for your interest in my writing. It’s great to have the opportunity to expand a little on such an important premise for the subject of my blog.

      It seems reasonably clear that our modern level of cognitive skill did not appear all at once, or even quickly, when we examine the evolutionary path which brought Homo sapiens to possess such a penetrating awareness of self. So in one sense, our higher level of complexity in brain structures permitted self awareness to “emerge,” or become manifest as a capacity in our species, but it is my contention that consciousness has existed all along, and the “higher level of complexity,” once achieved, finally was sufficient to permit access to it directly. There is no question that awareness REQUIRES a nominally functional mental and sensory apparatus in order to be experienced subjectively, but it is my contention that it does not exist simply as a consequence of complex physical systems. We may one day build a complex and precise physical reproduction of the human brain, only to discover that as astonishing as such a feat will seem, what it produces will not be alive–and THAT is ALSO a requirement for self awareness in my opinion.

      There is also a fascinating correlation between language acquisition in our species–the ability to EXPRESS our mental machinations–and the acceleration of cognitive skill. It’s one thing to HAVE a thought, but to EXPRESS a thought makes it possible to be AWARE that we are having thoughts, and for others to be able to know that they must also be having thoughts! The cave paintings and pictographic symbols in ancient cultures were the first attempts to EXPRESS a deeper understanding of self awareness. Articulation of awareness through writing and language skills increased our access to a deeper awareness exponentially.

      Great questions!…….John H.

  2. I think that the whole Cartesian duality makes the situation with consciousness even more complicated. For some reason we have a very mixed approach to the function of the brain. On the one hand we dismiss non-physical experiences as being optional or even non-existent (‘don’t be sad, mad, happy, afraid, worried’ etc etc), while on the other we persist in diagnosing and treating conditions like autism purely on assessment of behaviour. We don’t even seem to have easily recognisable ‘camps’ in this approach – no science and religion split, no nature and nurture split – it seems to happen across the board.

    Both of my parents have dementia – between them they have a wide range of symptoms from memory loss to hallucinations and paranoia – both of them have an entirely different presentation of this horrible disease and it is, no doubt, caused by exactly which parts of the organ that is the brain are deteriorating. Their consciousness and view of themselves is very severely disrupted by the deterioration of their brains and – as their daughter who has known them all her life – I can testify that their personalities have been annihilated by the destruction of their organic brains.

    When he was 39, my father broke his neck in a car accident which left him technically quadriplegic and functionally paraplegic – he was, obviously, traumatised and it clearly left him with huge problems (for example I was the eldest of his four children and I was 12 at the time). He coped unbelievably well – dragging himself through his life physically but managing to build a life nonetheless raising his kids, living his life, working – he only retired from work five years ago at 75 – but through all of this he was – fundamentally – the same person. For the last two years or so his brain has begun to deteriorate and now he is quite confused and – literally sometimes – demented. But the most remarkable part of it is how different he is as a person. He is unrecognisable as himself. Not just because he is weak or confused or forgetful. It is so strange. He is so different and it is all to do with his brain as an organ and little or nothing to do with more ephemeral experiences.

    This is a very interesting talk on our approach to the brain as an organ of the body – you may have seen it already but if not – have a look –

    1. Trish,

      There are few subjects which generate such far reaching implications for humanity as the nature of cognition, and all of the associated fields of study surrounding the human brain.

      In my view, it is the BLENDING of the all the different views of what constitutes this aspect of our humanity–the capacity to think and be aware–that will lead to progress. No single approach or “camp” has all the answers, and each is an important part of the puzzle. It seems likely to me that “Cartesian Duality,” as helpful as it was in helping to define the problem, is no longer a functional approach to understanding human nature. There are many aspects to life which we frame as opposites–hot and cold, good and bad, fast and slow, darkness and light, etc.,–which are actually just terms which point out the extremes, which have a whole RANGE of phenomena in between also.

      We all empathize with your struggles, and those of your parents, particularly when the brain is the central component in the afflictions. It takes great courage to continue to move forward in life when such overwhelming obstacles and profound suffering exists as unavoidable factors in our daily lives. My own brother is currently suffering the consequences of brain cancer, and as you say, what we have recognized all along as the person we love, when they are so afflicted, becomes unrecognizable in a way that is terribly difficult to witness, and forces us to consider the fundamental nature of human experience in a way that no other kind of illness seems to do.

      Thank you so much for the link to the TED talk, and for sharing so unflinchingly the painful experiences of your family. I pray that you will find some solace in the days to come, and hope for the eventual elimination of such suffering through a greater understanding of both the brain and the human spirit which animates us.

      With affection and concern…….John H.

    1. While there truly is a deepening sadness to both of our predicaments in the most expected way, I must report a surge of love and affection and joy in our family, as we rally to support my brother, that is heartening in the same way that your love for your family evokes.

      No one WANTS to endure suffering of any sort, and that seems like a reasonable desire on the surface of it, but I can’t help but reflect on how suffering can sometimes lead to a greater appreciation of life that the total absence of suffering would never bring.

      I hope and pray that our suffering may be less eventually, and limited by only how much is unavoidable as a consequence of being alive, and balanced by love and joy in abundance.

      Warm regards……John H.

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