“If we seek genuine psychological understanding of the human being of our own time, we must know his spiritual history absolutely. We cannot reduce him to mere biological data, since he is not by nature merely biological, but is a product also of spiritual presuppositions.” – -Carl Jung from a presentation at the C. G. Jung Institute Zurich, Küsnacht, 15 Nov 1953
“If we can reconcile ourselves to the mysterious truth that the spirit is the life of the body seen from within, and the body the outward manifestation of the life of the spirit–the two being really one–then we can understand why the striving to transcend the present level of consciousness through the acceptance of the unconscious must give the body its due, and why recognition of the body cannot tolerate a philosophy that denies it in the name of the spirit.” – C.G.Jung from “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man, CW, vol.10
The persistent assertion by modern scientists regarding the development of consciousness and the human mind as “an accident of nature,” is an idea which not only opposes our natural inclinations as cognitive human creatures, but also one that is difficult to sustain in a definitive way given the equally persistent assertions to the contrary by researchers in a variety of disciplines. The tendency of modern science to view the development of our human mind as an accident seems to me to be more a result of the limitations of science to explain it, rather than being a conclusion that is justified by the evidence.
Considering that it took hundreds of millions of years and countless variations of living creatures for life on Earth to produce Homo-sapiens, one could be forgiving of the empiricists for being a bit skeptical, considering that it is only one variation–an anomaly so to speak–in the pantheon of life. Considering the nearly miraculous confluence of events which permitted life to evolve on Earth in the first place, any suggestion that it was not only BOUND to happen, but inescapably bound up in the fabric of life, does require a bit of a leap intellectually. Although there have been some exciting and compelling exceptions over the millennia, scientists are frequently reluctant to include their intuition, and tend to resist directing their imaginative inclinations outside the realm of science.
No one disputes the essential nature of neurological functioning in achieving an awareness of experience. All one has to do is observe the devastating effect of trauma to the brain to establish how vital brain function is to awareness. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the subjective experience of consciousness is created SOLELY by the brain. Neurological functioning involves a multitude of interactions within the brain itself. It includes a process of fragmentation and re-integration of multiple components: neurons firing in specific sequences, synaptic transferal of electro-chemical impulses, sensory input, cross-referencing of iconic imagery and memories of previous experiences. It is a very complex process which still eludes our understanding, and any attempt to reduce it to biology alone must surely fall short of the mark. We may be DEPENDENT on our brains to enjoy our capacity as human beings to experience our existence, but it seems unlikely to me that our brains GENERATE that experience.
In an enormously compelling and technically superb rendering of how the brain supports and grants us access to the world of conscious experience, Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, and his colleague, Giulio Tononi, explore at length the foundational elements and functional components of our complex thalamocortical system in “A Universe of Consciousness,” and their treatment of the subject is “highly plausible” according to the book review excerpt on the cover. The level of attention to detail in discussing the various aspects of conscious states is reasonably accessible for anyone with an intense interest in the subject, and they present the reader with an enormous body of information relevant to brain functioning. In a refreshing change from many treatments of the subject, the authors acknowledge the limitations of what we are so far able to discern about this complex organ:
“The ability of the nervous system to carry out perceptual categorization of different signals for sight, sound, and so forth, dividing them into coherent classes without a pre-arranged code is certainly special, and is still unmatched by computers. We do not presently understand fully how this categorization is done…but we believe it arises through the selection of certain distributed patterns of neural activity as the brain interacts with the body and the environment.”
When addressing this “distributed neural activity,” they cite the example of how we are able to read after “…a time in which we had consciously to learn about letters and words in a laborious way, but afterward these processes become effortless and automatic.” They then acknowledge “…How our brain performs these demanding tasks remains largely unknown to us.”
“A Soul Brought to Heaven,” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
As someone who feels certain that a comprehensive theory of consciousness will eventually require us to include some sort of essential non-physical interaction, the anecdotal reports of visions, apparitions, and other psychic phenomena which humans periodically report, while mostly amusing to scientists and philosophers in our day, all suggest at least the possibility of an interaction with the ineffable or the mysterious. All of my research and study into the nature of our cognitive functioning continues to intrigue me beyond measure, but nothing I have encountered thus far has eliminated this possibility for me. On the contrary, much of it seems to ENHANCE the possibility! Much of the literature and astonishing progress in neuroscience points toward activity that is INFUSED with the spirit. Far from being dissuasive regarding a potentially “spiritual component” to human consciousness, examining the astonishing complexity of neuroscientific progress seems to me a fair indication of its PRESENCE!
It may well be that LIFE itself has, as a natural component of its nature, the infusion of nor-corporeal aspects for which there may only be a subjective awareness. That we are unable as yet to establish with certainty, a universal experience of a transcendent consciousness for all humanity is not sufficient cause to suppose that it does not exist. The quality and nature of our lives generally compare in many ways to that of all other living entities, and it is not difficult to detect subjectively, a profound connection to the natural world all around us, and to recognize that we are an essential member of the terrestrial community of life on Earth. Our higher cognitive capacities distinguish us in important ways, adding a significant element to our human nature which allows us to perceive and appreciate our interconnection with ALL life.
We owe the scientific community a great debt for the many benefits we enjoy today as a result of the advancement of empirical knowledge and the elimination of superstition and fanaticism which were the cornerstones of our ancient worldview. Science has brought us a long way from the “Earth as center of the universe,” mindset of ancient times, and in modern times it has created “miraculous” technologies that have enhanced life on this planet a hundredfold, and we need to continue to pursue its advancement vigorously.
But even as solid and predictable as the the laws of physics seem to us today, not one of them eliminates the existence of the human spirit, just as the many avenues of pursuing the human spirit cannot alter or eliminate the laws of physics. It doesn’t take an Einstein to conclude that both can co-exist and that each may be dependent on the other in important ways. Our subjective sense of “being” relies on being able to use our senses, but our senses do not BRING US into being, nor do they determine the significance of our existence. They are our window to the world of experience, and it is that world of experience that connects us to our sense of being and to the spirit.
2 thoughts on “Body, Mind, Spirit”
I enjoyed reading several of your posts after receiving this in email. Makes me feel like I’m missing something important in life: the ability, inclination and opportunity, to daydream. I love how I get the sense of it just by reading your thoughts. It’s another way to be that I rarely allow myself the luxury of indulging because of time pressures, and the never ending hierarchy of things that need doing. Even in my avoidance of those things, it seems I still don’t achieve the rest or the detachment necessary to get lost in such reverie. You seem to do it so naturally, effortlessly. You could say I’m a little jealous! 😃
Date: Wed, 27 Jul 2016 05:08:25 +0000
Your response is precisely what I am hoping to encourage for all my readers, by sharing the sometimes deeply personal inner experiences which are so essential to understanding the fundamental nature of human consciousness. Our individual subjective experience of the world as a human being is unlike that of any other, even in a world of over seven billion souls, but the fundamental nature of our shared humanity, which gives us each the ability to have access to our human version of consciousness, gives every one of us the ability and the inclination to utilize our cognitive capacities in a way that allows such reverie. This capacity for reverie is viewed in some circles as a means to engage in frivolous mental activity, or as some kind of indication of human frailty, or as a selfish indulgence of an idle mind, and unworthy of rising up in the hierarchy of things that need doing. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not a luxury for those with nothing else more urgent to do–it is an essential component of a balanced approach to understanding ourselves, and for exploring our complex nature as both temporal and spiritual beings. Like any other human activity, if we engage in it too much or compulsively, it can be detrimental and overtake other important priorities. If we ignore it completely, it can be equally detrimental to our mental and spiritual well-being.
I have spent many years contemplating, researching, studying, and exploring the subject of human consciousness, and many times I have learned some of the hard lessons of life through some failure to understand, or through some unwillingness to give attention to thoughts which would percolate up within me. Over the years, after experiencing the occasional consequences of both avoidance and over-indulgence, I have managed to come to a better understanding of the importance of finding a middle-ground, and strive to give this moment now, whatever the activity it contains, the fullness of my attention, and although it may seem effortless in some ways, I can assure you that many of the words you find here on my blog are the result of a sustained, determined, and hard-won struggle to enhance my understanding, and to share it with the world.
Your friendship, fellowship, and kindness mean so much to me, and our many conversations over the years have given me much food for thought. The important work you are engaged in as a counselor to others shows that you have these capacities in abundance, and if you would allow yourself even a small amount of time occasionally for reverie, it could produce the same benefit for you.
Kind regards….John H.