“Solitude seems to me to wear the best favor in such as have already employed their most active and flourishing age in the world’s service…We have lived enough for others; let us at least live out the small remnant of life for ourselves; let us now call in our thoughts and intentions to ourselves, and to our own ease and repose…”
—excerpt from Michel de Montaigne’s “On Solitude.”
Greetings to all my subscribers, casual readers, and visitors here. Hopefully, 2019 is shaping up to be a better year for us all, and I encourage everyone stopping by or returning here for a visit to remain open to new ideas, and to look inward to seek an expansion of our understanding of ourselves and the world-at-large in the New Year.
Over the past eight years on John’s Consciousness, the primary subject I have chosen to pursue, concerning the complex machinations of our subjective experience and the nature of consciousness itself, can be quite challenging to write about in a way that is accessible to the general reader, and I am constantly searching for ways to relate my own and other people’s personal experiences as a means of illuminating the many facets and mysteries surrounding the human subjective experience. The subject also requires of the readers here having some familiarity with the subject from a modern perspective, and now that I am enjoying a greater degree of “ease and repose,” I feel compelled to “at least live out the small remnant of life,” that remains, by attempting to summarize my general understanding of the subject as well. This is the first installment of that summary, which hopefully will be followed by a more elaborate treatment of specific areas of concern in the blog posts to come.
Possessing a comprehensive cognitive awareness of being aware, knowing that we exist, and knowing that we know, so far as we know, can only be attributed to humans currently, which uniquely empowers us to know we exist as a self-aware, individual person, to devise complex plans, to imagine unseen worlds, and to choose even reprehensible or unnatural behaviors, as well as to directly change and influence our environment. It is my contention that all of this 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.
Ever since the hominid brain evolved sufficiently to provide modern humans with an adequate degree of species-specific cognitive talent, which remains undetected in 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 to do so quite often with a predetermined purpose, not necessarily instinctive in nature, nor in our best interests always. 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 and more useful process during the Aurignacian epoch, where a fuller development of our higher cognitive functioning was facilitated by a gradual but 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 paleoanthropologist 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.
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 meaningful 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 aptitudes, which were a direct result of a gradual development of a more richly textured and nuanced human variety of self-awareness.
Ask any parent or caretaker of a human baby—especially when they occupy that role the majority of the time and are observant of the child’s progress—and they will likely report a gradual degree of increasing awareness in that child as time passes. As a child learns to accomplish a greater number of complex tasks through play and begins to make associations with objects and sounds, they will begin to demonstrate increasing sophistication with the use of specific sounds to get what they need or want.
As a direct result of trial and error in many behavioral choices, as well as accumulating experience and memory in all basic human functions, once they are able to combine their experience and knowledge of specific sounds with the memory of the results achieved by doing so, they begin to acquire an expanded functional ability with language, and undergo a transformation to a wider awareness that naturally unfolds.
What is most intriguing about observing the blossoming of modern consciousness in a 21st century child, aside from the insights we can gain about the process of cognition generally, is the intimation that there might be a correlation between the development of consciousness in children today and the evolutionary path which resulted in the achievement of cognitive self-awareness in the first place.
We infer from the available evidence in the fossil record that while our ancient hominid predecessors may have possessed remarkably similar brain architecture for hundreds of thousands of years, they were very likely not fully or cognitively self-aware in a way that would permit a more developed sense of how to utilize that awareness for much of that time.
The survival advantage conferred by a sufficiently complex cerebral cortex which could facilitate such awareness only became demonstrably clear with what is now viewed as the likely species-ending interbreeding of the Neanderthals with their more cognitively talented and successful Cro-Magnon competitors. Whatever degree of consciousness was adequate to impart that advantage to modern humans, once it took hold, sophisticated and functional self-awareness appeared to be one of the defining hallmarks of a successful hominid species.
While it is clear from an evolutionary perspective that any ability or pattern of behavior which enhanced the survivability of our species would favor those who employed them, at some point, higher levels of cognitive functioning began to impart what scientists like to describe as “secondary” or “coincidental” subsequent advantages and capacities. Creative use of our development of cognitive skills for survival, also presented us, by coincidence, with a creative capacity for art and music and mythology. Awareness of our inner mental imagery and development of a complex grammatical language to express that imagery, as an enhanced survival strategy, also just happened to provide us with a way to construct elaborate creative solutions to our questions about the mysterious workings of the world around us.
According to the empirically minded amongst us, now that we have finally progressed to the point where we can resolve many of the questions about how the universe came about and to comprehend the underlying principles of the physical laws which govern the universe we observe, whatever value creativity may have in other realms is interesting to be sure, but unlikely to yield much in the way of explanation of our fundamental character as cognitive creatures.
Those whose emphasis is concentrated more toward the ineffable or spiritual realms often tend to downplay the benefits of the empirical scientific view, except when it pertains to physical facts about our complex human biology, and feel strongly that it cannot adequately explain our subjective experience of consciousness; the “what it’s like” experience of being human. It leaves unanswered all of our most pressing questions related to the transcendent. It seems more likely to me that a comprehensive theory of consciousness will contain elements from both ends of the spectrum of ideas in this matter.
The concept of transcendence, going beyond the ordinary limits of our physical existence, and theories dealing with the incorporeal and elusive aspects of human existence, do not lend themselves well to empirical scrutiny, but the astonishingly complex workings of our evolving cognitive capacities require us to acknowledge that there may be a profoundly important fundamental connection between these concepts with the equally astonishing cognitive functioning which facilitates our subjective “what it’s like” experience of consciousness.
The idea that transcendence is expressed through our richly textured subjective experience of existence as temporal beings, and that we rely on the many complex interactions of cognitive functioning for access to our temporal awareness of the transcendent, offers a path to a possible middle ground, which may just assist us in achieving greater progress in this study.
There are several schools of thought which currently dominate the arena of consciousness study, and each one actually offers a degree of insight into what David Chalmers has called, “the hard problem,” presented by the apparent lack of adequate evidence to explain what we perceive as the naturalistic dualism of cognition and consciousness.
As Chalmers points out, even with all the progress in our current understanding of the workings of the brain, as fascinating and comprehensive as it has become recently with the great strides made in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive studies, none of it seems to account very well for the highly subjective component of experiential, sentient, self-awareness. Progress in understanding and explaining our brain physiology, which facilitates our perceptions and neurological functioning, is slowly unraveling the tangled web surrounding our observations of activity within the brain and between brain regions.
What we seem to be missing along the way, is why these astonishing discoveries of how the brain works, and the role of genetic and chemical components in the equations which describe brain physiology, as well as the advances in fMRI technology, fall short of explaining our experiential awareness. In my view, it is precisely because they do not adequately address the fullness of human consciousness, and do not take into account the many possibilities represented in a variety of alternate modern ideas, which express a burgeoning and keen awareness of an essential interaction of non-physical aspects supporting and integrating with our experience of temporal subjective awareness.
This year on John’s Consciousness, I will be working to explain and integrate some of these attempts to bring together the disparate competing theories, and to offer insights gathered over the last eight years on this site.
2019 started for me with the arrival of my newest grandchild! This newborn beauty will, no doubt, provide much in the way of educational and familial insights, as well as illuminate in a clear way, the process of gaining an increasing degree of awareness as she grows. Solitude will have to wait whenever she requires my attention and love.
Looking forward to our ongoing dialog and sharing with all my readers.