Our View of the Universe

Map of Christian Constellations from Harmonia Macrocosmica by Andreas Cellarius (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In our modern 21st century world, we often seem to take for granted that we have a fairly complete understanding of the physical laws governing the Universe and that we have, with a few exceptions, explained the way things work in the Cosmos. We sometimes look back at the Ptolemaic view of our world with amusement, which placed the Earth at the center of it all. Many of the conceptual ideas about the nature and structure of the physical universe in the medieval world seem almost quaint now, and illustrations like the one above often included signs of the Zodiac and other mythological references which gave the Universe a much more mysterious and esoteric character.

A current exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles takes a look at the medieval view of the universe in “The Wondrous Cosmos in Medieval Manuscripts.” A recent review in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Saenger (April 19) highlights a few of the items on display, one of which caught my eye as an interesting starting point for appreciating our own view of the Universe.

“The Sphere, Newly Translated into the Vernacular,”c. 1537 – Johannes de Sacrobosco (1195-1256), England, “Sphaera volgare novamente tradotta,” Image from manuscript courtesy of the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota

“An Astronomer,” is an illustration from a medieval astronomy textbook written by Johannes de Sacrobosco, from an edition published in 1537 entitled, “Tractatus de Sphaera.” Photo: Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

According to a description on “https://apps.carleton.edu/museum/”

“This volume is an important medieval astronomy textbook originally published ca. 1230, which demonstrates the Ptolemaic, or geocentric, theory of the universe in which heavenly bodies orbit around the earth. Sacrobosco’s text was in use for centuries; between 1472 and 1650, over 60 editions appeared in several languages. The frontispiece illustration presents the astronomer himself in monk’s robes. He is surrounded by the instruments of his discipline, including the quadrant and astrolabe, drafting tools, and – in the top border, an hourglass and pocket sundial for measuring time.”

Image credit: NASA / Hubble team, via http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/farthest-galaxy.html.

We may view these medieval ideas with some amusement today, particularly since we know well from the advanced tools in Astronomy that we now have available to us, like the Hubble Space Telescope, which has allowed us to make a “quantum leap” in our understanding, but even some 800 years ago, when Sacrobosco articulated the Ptolemaic view, it was generally accepted that their view was accurate and explained what they observed quite well. As the currently dominant species on the planet, we may believe that we are now in possession of a comprehensive and accurate view. No other known species has appeared to even approach such capabilities as Homo sapiens thus far, and our capacity for a richly textured subjective experiential awareness today appears to have advanced far beyond our predecessors.

What is so clearly different about most every other known species on Earth is that no matter how gifted they are in their perceptual or cognitive talents, it does not appear that any of them possess our comprehensive, penetrating, and complex awareness of our limitations and gifts. There are a few with exceptional perceptual talents that far exceed our own, and several species with many similar capacities that seem to indicate at least some level of awareness, but as yet, nothing truly indicative of a human-like consciousness.

This is not to say that we are somehow better or more important than any other species, only that our experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our ability to express it, and contemplate it, and influence it, and to deliberately and purposefully alter the world as a result of it, is not evident in a clearly discernible way in any other part of nature. There are a great many species on our planet with amazing perceptual differences from us, and which can perform at levels no human could hope to do, and you are right to appreciate these differences, and not to suppose that just because we have an apparently significant cognitive advantage, that we always get it right or do things better. One look at the totality of the human presence in the world and it is clear we often make mistakes, in spite of that advantage.

What is even more revealing, in my view, is not only our inclination to associate meaning and purpose to many of our experiences, but that we tend to dismiss many of the experiences we have as being chance and circumstance, when there truly is meaning and purpose to be gleaned from them. Deepak Chopra once wrote in detail about human life at the cellular level, and spoke eloquently about how our cells and systems within our bodies are often telling us things that we ignore or dismiss as indigestion or something, when in fact, our human cells, evolved over millions of years, have not as yet evolved enough to doubt their own thinking. Our human cognitive system sometimes seems to embrace doubt where there should be none, and, at other times, moves confidently into circumstances where doubt would be of genuine value. The benefit bestowed upon us by higher cognitive capacity, can also prevent us from perceiving the value of the natural world, and from embracing the perceptions of our fellow creatures, whose instincts are not mitigated by doubt.

It is my view that our richly-textured, experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our development as a cognitive species, as significant as our advances have been, may appear equally “amusing” to our descendants 800 years from now. Our evolutionary endowment, achieved as cognitive temporal beings in a physical universe, in no way guarantees our continued dominance, and unless we expand the realm of what we consider possible, we may not achieve the level of understanding necessary to sustain our existence here on Earth.

As much as I have studied and contemplated the richness, diversity, and astonishing complexity of the human brain, and as clearly as one can conceivably comprehend it in context of life on Earth, our human consciousness has not only pointed out our perceptual limits physically, but provided humanity with access to an awareness that transcends the physical universe, opening up our hearts and minds and spirits to a richness beyond perception.

Our Human Powers


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“Finally we must make use of all the aids which intellect, imagination, sense-perception, and memory afford in order, firstly, to intuit simple propositions distinctly; secondly, to combine correctly (compare) the matters under investigation with what we already know, so that they too may be known; and thirdly, to find out what things should be compared with each other so that we may make the most thorough use of all our human powers.”

–Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, circa 1628

Throughout each of my personal investigations of the subjects related to my experiences in the early seventies, especially those which catapulted me into the most astonishing, chaotic, and emotional period of my life, I have been compelled to attempt to penetrate their mysteries and implications, based on both the intellectual and metaphysical foundations of human endeavors. At first, as an uninitiated and rudderless spirit in the world, I could only take stabs in the dark–disoriented in the extreme as I was–and while it took some time to decipher and organize these efforts, I gradually progressed beyond the chaotic stage and began to comprehend the experiences more broadly.

In the autumn of 1973, I experienced what C.G. Jung described as “an eruption of unconscious contents,” which led me to create a document entitled, “The Beginning, The Foundation, The Entrance.” Although I did not recognize it as such at the time, I have gradually come to view the experience as a pivotal event in my life, and I have spent much of the time since it occurred attempting to decipher the meaning contained in the document. The bulk of the document’s contents remained poorly understood by me for many years afterwards, and only in recent years have I finally begun to comprehend it more fully, and to begin to place it in a broader perspective.

Way back in 2014, I began to tell the story of the events “which catapulted me” into my investigations, and for those who may not have encountered the beginning of the story, here is a link to that posting:

Story Beginning

After applying years of persistent and determined mental effort, it seems to me, that we may only be said to truly comprehend our lives experientially, while still requiring and receiving much benefit from research and expansion of our knowledge generally. Our perceptions of the world, through an array of sensory faculties and cognitive skills, assist us as we construct and try to make sense of our daily reality, and although there are characteristics of our sensory systems which are subject to potentially erroneous interpretation of their input, as is the case with optical illusions, there are adequate safeguards available to nominally functionally brains and sense organs to feel confident in making judgements regarding the true nature of what we perceive, and to determine with reasonable certainty that we exist in the physical universe, as a substantial living entity. There have been a variety of accomplished thinkers throughout human history who have written at length regarding the range of what we might express with confidence in this regard, and I am not so enamored of the conclusions drawn from my own experiences to suppose that they represent some sort of comprehensive explanation. I present my ideas and thoughts here more as an explanation of what has brought me to suggest them as a beginning to unravel it all.

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With basic functionality of all our perceptual and intellectual systems intact, we are able to propose judgements regarding our perceptions. Quite independent from the actual quality or accuracy of those judgements, we have good cause to feel at least reasonably confident that as conscious cognitive creatures, that we are HAVING experiences based on our ability to perceive. Acute perceptual disabilities caused by disease or injury to the brain, and heightened perceptual capacities such as the many varieties of synesthesia, represent the low and high range of quality possible in our experiences, and to some degree, we generally rely on the agreement of our fellow sentient beings to assist us in gauging the reliability of our interpretations, along with whatever previous experiences we might have available to us in memory. It is clear that we each enjoy a unique perspective as an independent observer of our own experiences, and that we interpret them from a relatively narrow subjective viewpoint most of the time. Not surprisingly, we may occasionally find ourselves as the lone possessor of a solitary interpretation of a particular subjective experience, as with personal trauma, as well as sharing what might ultimately turn out to be a mistaken view of the ideas and experiences of thousands of other confident perceivers, as with those who believed that the earth was flat, or that the earth was the center of the universe.

Numerous considerations including social, cultural, biological, and specific neurological components can contribute to the general run of experience for most of us, but our individual interpretations of our unique experience of existence, while clearly difficult to verify subjectively for those who are NOT us, even when they are standing right next to us, rely on what can constitute a remarkably different perspective, and in spite of possessing a similar range of shared experiences and education, may seem quite out-of-the-ordinary to other sentient beings.

Desc: Scientist leaving the world. Engraving c.1520. Allegorical representation of changes in medieval conception or interpretation of the heavens when it was thought that the world was flat ¥ Credit: [ The Art Archive / Kharbine-Tapabor ] ¥ Ref: AA529033

“Just as the imagination employs figures in order to conceive of bodies, so, in order to frame ideas of spiritual things, the intellect makes use of certain bodies which are perceived through the senses, such as wind and light…The wind signifies spirit; movement with the passage of time signifies life; light signifies knowledge; heat signifies love; and instantaneous activity signifies creation…It may seem surprising to find weighty judgements in the writings of the poets rather than the philosophers. The reason is that the poets were driven to write by enthusiasm and the force of imagination. We have within us the sparks of knowledge, as in a flint: philosophers extract them through reason, but poets force them out through the sharp blows of the imagination, so that they shine more brightly.”

— Olympian Matters, Rene Descartes, 1619

Think of the varying degrees of culture shock when an individual is transplanted from a previously narrow or isolated environment of a rural character to a big city or urban center. The individual, having developed keen instincts in the previous realm of experience may find themselves virtually without adequate resources to make sense of the altered environment. Likewise, a sophisticated city dweller who handles the intricacies of city life and who may have a fine command of the urban environment, might find a remote rural landscape equally challenging. In each case, the perceptual and cognitive apparatus are fully functional, but require an additional number of experiences before comprehension can catch up. Imagine now how my own limited experience of the world thwarted my early attempts at comprehending the “eruption of unconscious contents,” (Jung) in 1973. Is it any wonder that I turned to philosophy, poetry, and investigation of the whole range of human thought and experience through the ages in order to come to terms with what happened?

If it is true, as my research and contemplation of the subject of the subjective experience of the human version of consciousness suggests, that consciousness is a manifestation and an expression of a non-physical reality which is the source of all life in the universe, and if we are able to affirm consciousness as a means through which we are able to gain access to the transcendent source of our awareness, aside from the many intellectual and spiritual benefits such knowledge might provide, it may provide, among other things, a source of genuine solace for all sentient beings who might be facing their own mortality or that of another. Reviewing my ideas on the spiritual aspects of existence generally and of consciousness particularly, it seems more urgent than ever to attend to the conclusions they infer for me, based on these ideas.

In the coming months, I will be posting some of the foundational ideas and conclusions drawn from the years of developing myself as a philosopher, poet, and serious student of the science of consciousness, and hope to expand the conversation by including some of my recent reading and research, as well as reporting some relevant experiences that support these ideas.

Echoes of the Moment

Echoes of the Moment

Before I was able to relinquish my tenuous grasp on consciousness,
After writing through the relentless sighing of night,
The irresistible call of the brightness of the spring morning sun,
Pulled my heart and mind to delay fitful sleep,
And instead to persist a while longer,
In order to enjoy a few moments of blissful, temperate,
And delightful contemplation of the season’s gifts.

Waves of sunlight, gentle breaths of wind, and the tranquil
Murmur of memories—echoes of the moment—
Invite the sun’s radiant beauty to streak across the void;
As it lands upon my skin, I relish its gentle but persistent touch,
Reaching my face like the hand of a dear friend,
With a warm and comfortable gesture which soothes my
Most troublesome aches with loving thoughts.

This day, the whispering breeze persuaded my hair
To swing away from my face and tickle my neck.
Birds click and coo pleasingly in the distance as I close my eyes;
Inside me, staring contentedly at the blazing red surface
Of closed eyelids, I enjoy the passing refrain of a distant train,
Competing with a buzzing lawn mower down the street,
As the echoes of the moment reverberate in my consciousness.

The cat wants to have my attention, but I’m not ready,
So she reluctantly falls asleep at my feet like she’s always been there.

© May 2019 by JJHIII24