The Voice of Thought

Ever since the hominid brain evolved sufficiently to provide modern humans with a degree of cognitive talent that still surpasses any other known species, the blossoming of conscious awareness slowly provided Homo sapiens with the ability to not only be aware that they exist, but to utilize this new ability deliberately and with purpose. It seems likely that some form of this ability may have been present in several other early hominid species, but only began to coalesce into a functional process during the Aurignacian epoch, where the full development of the higher functions were made possible by a significant increase in the complexity of the cerebral cortex. While very little solid evidence of any truly functional self awareness has been found prior to that time, I think even the most empirically-minded paleontologist would concede the likelihood, that the process of human evolution provided the capacity for our enhanced cognitive skills long before we were able to take full advantage of them or to demonstrate them.

Cognitive self awareness is, so far as we know, an exclusively human attribute that allows us to know we exist as a unique, individual person. It is my contention that it is made possible by virtue of an elaborate synthesis of both temporal and ineffable elements. While this idea represents a challenge to our 21st century scientific community, it is not completely intractable. As with most phenomena with multiple layers of both coherent and ambiguous components, the connections between disparate elements are often only possible to discern with determined effort and an open-minded approach as to how these aspects might come together.

The ability for complex thinking and to remember what we think, when combined with an expanding comprehension of the world generally in which the thinking occurred, led to an increasingly sophisticated thought process which may initially have flourished because it enhanced our ability to survive as a species, but ultimately imparted a great deal more than a survival advantage. Once the potential for self awareness was in place, it slowly began to manifest in demonstrative ways as we have seen in the early cave paintings by our primitive ancestors. The journey from those ancient beginnings to the modern day variety of human consciousness shows a remarkable range and variety of progress and aptitude, which was directly influenced by the development of self awareness.

Imagine the early Homo sapiens as they gradually began to make use of their newly acquired “functional consciousness,” awakening to the world of objects like never before. Modern humans were finally able to associate temporal objects with symbolic representations of those objects, as evidenced in the ancient cave paintings discovered in Ardeche, France in the caves of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, now believed to have been placed there some 35,000 years ago by the Aurignacian culture. These were not mental giants compared to 21st century Homo sapiens. They were not very sophisticated at all by today’s standards, but they were quantitatively more sophisticated cognitively than the Neanderthals, and were better able to compete for limited resources, enabling them to outlast their predecessors by thousands of years.

No matter what concepts or images or ideas may have occurred to the early humans, there was no way to overtly confirm the existence of a thought until there was a way to express a thought. It was no accident that the first demonstrations of consciousness were images—primitive symbols painted on cave walls—as visualization within the brain originally had no other way to be expressed than the memory of what the objects looked like in the world. Whatever level and degree of brain activity led to the development of language, visualizing the objects and events of the ancient consciousness became the symbol of those same entities, just as the sounds uttered by the early humans expanded their abilities to express them and to pass these symbols on to future generations.

It is also not surprising that the early attempts at producing formal symbols to represent the world resulted in pictographic languages such as cuneiform by the Sumerians and hieroglyphics by the Egyptians, all of which were precursors of ancient alphabets. Spoken language, once it took hold, became the voice of thought.

…more to come

A Fundamental Theory of Consciousness

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As human beings, we are, in large part, unremarkably different from many other species on our planet in our physical core components and basic constituent parts and systems. In our most fundamental nature, we exist physically as they do, we are made up of the same essential molecular structures, we rely on very similar biological systems, and we require the same physical environment to sustain us. Our genetic structures and specific biological architecture are unique in some important ways, and our complex cognitive functioning distinguishes us from most other species to a degree that has permitted us to achieve dominance as a species overall, but these differences could easily be made irrelevant by catastrophic changes in our physical environment, similar to those which resulted in the demise of the dinosaurs.

Life has many layers and levels. Evolution has changed and continues to change the character of our existence in microscopically small increments, and we are only now, in this epoch of human history, beginning to see just how important our contributions have been as subjectively aware, cognitively capable, and intelligent beings and just how important they will be to the future of our world. For all the bluster and bravado of our human sciences, and the deeply entrenched and volatile pronouncements of our human religions, we still seem unable to reach beyond it all to come to terms with the true nature of our existence. None of it seems completely satisfying to most of us. It has always been my feeling that the reason for this has much less to do with the comprehensibility of our sciences or the verity of our spiritual inclinations, as it does with our understanding of the phenomenon of consciousness itself.

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Reviewing material related to artificial intelligence lately has given me some cause to reflect on precisely what it is that we may be missing in all of the fascinating and thought-provoking conversations taking place around the issue. There are a number of efforts being made to recreate the physical structure of the human brain in some of the most prestigious institutions of our day, and several of the key figures of these efforts are genuinely striving to understand the processes which drive the cognitive apparatus inside our heads, in an effort to enhance the process of producing an artificial construct that can mimic the human brain. As compelling as these efforts are and as important as they may be for our understanding generally, (not to mention the progress we may achieve in correcting and alleviating brain pathologies,) what we will ultimately achieve by these efforts is still a matter of much speculation.

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In a fascinating book by V.S. Ramachandran entitled, “The Tell-tale Brain,” we see not only a scientist enthralled by the subject of brain physiology, pathology, and functionality, but one captured by the implications of our struggle to understand how it all fits together with our experience of the world provided by the nearly miraculous capacities that our brains provide as a result of both function and comprehension:

“We are vertebrates. We are pulpy, throbbing colonies of tens of trillions of cells. We are all of these things, but we are not ‘merely’ these things. And we are, in addition to all of these things, something unique, something unprecedented, something transcendent. We are something truly new under the sun, with uncharted and perhaps unlimited potential. We are the first and only species whose fate has rested in its own hands, and NOT just in the hands of chemistry and instinct.”

I was especially intrigued by chapter nine, in which he deals with the phenomenon of introspection:

“Sometime in the twenty-first century, science will confront one of its last great mysteries:the nature of the self. That lump of flesh in your cranial vault not only generates an ‘objective’ account of the outside world, but also directly experiences an internal world–a rich mental life of sensations, meanings, and feelings. Most mysteriously, your brain also turns its view back on itself to generate your sense of self-awareness…Qualia (the immediate experiential qualities of sensation such as the redness of red) are vexing to philosophers and scientists alike because even though they are palpably real and seem to lie at the very core of mental experience, physical and computational theories about brain function are utterly silent on the question of how they might arise or why they might exist.”

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In his most recent book, “How to Create a Mind,” inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil suggests that our efforts in artificial intelligence will eventually result in machines that will “become indistinguishable from biological humans, and they will share in the spiritual value we ascribe to consciousness.” In an attempt to explain the use of the term, “spiritual,” in a way that justifies his ideas to a broader audience, Kurzweil only succeeds in making the problem worse:

“Many people don’t like to use such terminology in relation to consciousness because it implies a set of beliefs that they may not subscribe to. But if we strip away the mystical complexities of religious traditions and simply respect ‘spiritual’ as implying something of profound meaning to humans, then the concept of consciousness fits the bill. It reflects the ultimate spiritual value.”

In my view, regardless of one’s position on the definition of “spiritual,” reducing our ability to access transcendent consciousness to merely putting enough neurons and synapses into one place in the way our brains arranges them, denigrates the profound nature of our humanity, and does little to promote the achievement of a fundamental theory of consciousness. As complex biological creatures, what we possess that the most sophisticated replica of a brain cannot fully manifest is our very human spirit which animates our “pulpy, throbbing colony of cells.” It is my belief that our rich inner life, our “experience” of existence, while facilitated by our complex cognitive functioning, making it intelligible to the degree that we currently enjoy, resists empirical scrutiny precisely because it does not “arise” from our physical systems, even though it may rely on them as a means of making awareness possible in the first place.

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photo by Keiran O’Conner

What we perceive as “experience” may, in fact, owe a great deal to the physical nervous system, and the foundational and cognitive functions of the brain, but consciousness itself, this ineffable vehicle of experience, may not spring from physical systems at all. It seems much more likely to me, as one who has these experiences, that they are far too rich, deeply personal, and profoundly beyond the natural world for them to be solely dependent on it for their existence. I suppose that removing the question of consciousness from the natural world makes scientists and philosophers a little nervous. Who could blame them? We are only recently ridding the world of many of its superstitions through science and modern philosophy, and all of our spiritual traditions, as diverse and marvelously well-suited to addressing the transcendent as they can be, quite often fall short of any better explanation.

One of the most compelling refutations to those who eschew the existence of anything transcendent or spiritual can be found in the genuine connections we sense between our own and other human spirits. Though these connections can be powerfully real “subjectively,” they cannot be demonstrated empirically. Any potentially tangible evidence that one might perceive for the existence of such connections, should it ever be forthcoming, is unlikely to convincingly persuade those whose experiences in this regard are limited or non-existent. For me though, when we find ourselves standing by the ocean, gazing out beyond the horizon, both the temporal and the transcendent can be viscerally experienced if we are open to them. Being given the privilege of looking deeply into the eyes of our beloved, or holding our newborn children in our arms, has never failed to convince me unerringly of the existence of the spirit. Convincing the world-at-large is a wholly different matter. In the weeks to come, I hope to illuminate some of the ways that we might become convinced to at least consider what a fundamental theory of consciousness might look like if we expand our view to include the ineffable.

How We Experience The World

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An interesting corollary subject within the discussion surrounding our subjective experience of consciousness is the way in which all of our previous lifelong subjective experiences provide the foundation for our comprehension and apprehension of our current experience in this very moment. Naturally, without having any previous relevant life or learning experiences to draw upon for comparison, any subsequent experience would, by definition, be viewed as a “new experience.” While new experiences are inherent in any circumstance in which we have not been previously familiar in a specific way, as when we travel to a foreign country for the first time, or when we take our first trip on an airplane, even as the specifics of those circumstances provide a degree of subjective experience that could not have been part of our previous existence, there are other foundational experiences that we use to compare against those which are specifically new. Depending on the extent and variety of prior experiences, the assimilation of those which are “new,” may require a great deal more effort to come to terms with them.

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The real issue, though, is in the accumulation of subjective knowledge of our existence in the first place. As all human adults are aware, each of us arrives in the world as newborn babies, with only a very limited unconscious experience of life in the womb. Sensory data acquired during that time, while fairly universal in nature, depending on the health and lifestyle of the mother, have a clear but limited effect on our eventually conscious subjective experience. Our early life as an infant, also subject to the subtleties and specific conditions of the environment in which it takes place, are in large part unconscious for a number of years after birth. There are rare exceptions to the general flow of conscious memory accumulation, which generally begins in the third or fourth year of childhood, but for most of us, our early childhood memories most often transmit only a vague sense of those experiences, and are often characterized by episodic “bits and pieces” or “snippets” of conscious recollection.

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Once a child achieves a rudimentary functional level of conscious subjective awareness, somewhere around five to seven years along, more lasting and significant memories begin to accumulate, and a broader range of foundational subjective experiences allow the young child to begin to interpret the world with a degree of perspective commensurate with whatever experiences were available during their early development. An experience of deprivation or limited nurturing during the early years can profoundly and adversely affect the development of the child, and providing a richer and more stimulating environment can produce a commensurate increase in the quality and character of their development, along with a substantially increased range of productive subjective experiences with which to interpret and understand the world around them.

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In combination with our inherited genetic makeup and a host of other mitigating factors in our specific familial and human lineage, as well as whatever degree of cultural orientation or psychological conditioning that may take place, we often navigate through later childhood and adolescence as much unconsciously as consciously, eventually acquiring a more independently achieved view of the world, based many times on which opportunities are either present and utilized, withheld, or unavailable. While there are no guarantees of a specifically positive or negative outcome in spite of any and all of these mitigating factors, the contributions which they potentially represent can affect our ability to assimilate new experiences significantly.

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It is not unusual for individuals with a robust and stimulating early environment to excel in adolescence and through the teen years, and upon entering the second decade of life, many times these individuals are already working toward specific goals and pursuing specific interests as they enter the college level challenges of their early twenties. Deliberately focusing their energies and attentions on specific tasks related to a well-defined goal requires a foundation of relevant previous experience to draw upon and to compare results in a progressively more complex effort to achieve an ability to deal with each new experience. Since every single moment of conscious awareness constitutes some variety and degree of experience, regardless of how often we may have one of a particular variety, examining the nature and characteristics of our subjective awareness become central to our understanding generally.

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David Chalmers, the philosopher of consciousness from New York University expressed his view this way….”There is this beautiful scientific picture…the great chain of explanation…physics explains chemistry, and chemistry explains biology, and biology at least explains aspects of psychology, aspects of sociology, and so on, but although there is a whole lot there that we haven’t worked out, we at least have a sense of the picture and how the pieces fit together, and what’s interesting about consciousness, is that it just doesn’t seem to fit easily into that picture at all…because this is a picture of the world in terms of objective mechanisms described from the objective point of view…and consciousness is the quintessentially subjective phenomenon. It’s how things feel from the inside, it’s how we experience the world from a subjective point of view, and nothing in this objective picture of the world seems, on the face of it, to tell you why there’s going to be subjectivity.”

…more to come…