Looking Back and Looking Forward

When I began this blog in earnest back in January of 2011, my general goals were to share my decades-long journey of personal development, to express what I had learned while researching the nature of the events which occurred in my youth, and to invite my readers to join me in considering some of the avenues of investigation, which I pursued while searching for a path that might lead to a greater understanding of the subjective human experience of consciousness. I am convinced now that the ultimate explanation must go much deeper and be more meaningful and profound than most modern investigators suppose. It is one of the central questions being investigated at the forefront of philosophy generally, and in neuroscience specifically, and there are a number of scholars and other seekers actively searching with equal enthusiasm.

Just as it seems very clear to me now that the physical universe in which we exist, the “material world,” appears to be a manifestation of something that is not material, so too now does consciousness appear to be, at its source, non-material. In saying this I am not suggesting that it is without interaction with the physical world, but rather that its origin, where it stems from, what precisely emerges from Life, goes much deeper—it transcends all that we know intellectually and what we experience sensually.

What has compelled me to pursue it all along has been my own profound sense of something other than the physical world at work in my own experience of existence, and to the extent that I have studied the material sciences, the laws of physics, and listened to the conclusions and musings of the great thinkers across the history of humanity, I know that my own personal experiences of awareness—my own consciousness, is the most vitally important source of information that I could possibly hope to encounter. Balanced against a reasonable and rational science of brain physiology, and in consideration of the great strides we have made in psychology and in working through the philosophical discourse by thinkers and scholars from all over the world, what has transpired within me rings true with both the material and non-material aspects of my experience of existence.

After decades of life spent searching, I have gradually increased my confidence in the validity of those aspects of my experience of the world, which are not visible, not temporal in their nature in the strictest sense, but rather part of an eruption of sorts into the physical. Everything I see, and all the research, reading, and contemplation that has accompanied my efforts to come to terms with many of the events of my life, confirm for me the general notion that I have carried with me my whole life—and that is—every aspect of our physical lives, every nuance of experience, is made possible by a source which cannot be defined well in material terms.

Even when I have been disappointed or saddened or felt a sense of loss for any reason, I still felt close to this non-material source, just as I do in moments of great joy and elation, and during moments of what one might wish to describe as revelation—not in the biblical or religious sense—but rather, as life revealing itself to me in my experience of it.

Recently, interactions with my fellow human beings have become more pronounced in the differences between those who are open to the spirit of life—those within whom the “human spirit” radiates—with those who are less in touch with the core elements of their humanity; the ineffable, the non-physical, or the “spiritual,” if you will. Encountering individuals who embody the radiance of spirit, even if they don’t recognize it themselves, make this pursuit worthwhile, and those who are lacking in their understanding or who haven’t experienced their inner world well, make the expression of my ideas even more compelling.

In particular, when I encounter people with whom I feel an especially powerful connection, which is occasionally so clear and so deeply affective, sometimes even after only a few minutes, it increases my sensitivity to that connection in a “spiritual,” ineffable, and unambiguous way. The struggle that I have often had and continue to have from long ago is figuring out a way to alert these individuals to these connections, and to share my urgent sense of connection to them, without intruding or pressing the issue beyond a reasonable degree.

At least at present, it seems impossible for me to separate myself from my awareness of these connections, which are, to me, so obvious; I sometimes sense them so strongly, that any attempt to ignore them or to dismiss them as belonging to some biological or instinctive process simply makes no sense. During certain encounters over the years, even when there wasn’t any particularly overt cause to explain the connection, even then, the particulars often seemed to lead to the non-material. It often prompted me to consider that energies outside of our physical beings or even within us might be responsible.

In fact, when it comes to these dual aspects of our humanity, there truly is no “inside of us” or “outside of us,” in any meaningful sense. It is simply a necessary linguistic compromise to distinguish in some way, the material from the non-material, and describing them in that way helps us to realize that both are essential to life, and integral to comprehending the ineffable nature of our subjective experience. When we fall in love or feel strongly compelled toward certain ideas or individuals, or when we seek to participate in certain compelling circumstances, even when we occasionally become obsessed by these ideas, all of these are indications of a combination or coordination between these dual aspects.

Since it seems to me that we are both physical beings with powerful instinctive, biological, and psychological drives, as well as spiritual beings with a number of equally potent intuitive inclinations, it often may seem easier to focus primarily on explaining our experiences as being the result of brain activity, and to insist that those physiological processes are the source of all our inclinations, as opposed to including the possibility that any other non-material source might be at work.

I am firmly convinced that the mechanisms of cognition, intelligence, and brain functions, so vital to our ability to make sense of the world, simply cannot constitute the whole explanation. We see great strides being made with artificial intelligence, and with the efforts to replicate the functioning of neural processes artificially, and while these endeavors are truly fascinating and worthwhile, they cannot compare in significance to the richly-textured and deeply personal inner subjective experience of human consciousness, which has thus far only been possible to confirm subjectively, as to its capacity to exercise influence on our temporal circumstances.

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As I progressed in my research and study of subjective experience, I began to see parallels to many of the descriptions in the literature and scholarship on the subject, over centuries of human endeavor, with my own experiences. When certain events occurred in my early life, I was painfully unaware of what might explain them or help me to understand them better, but now, having become aware of the broad range of thought and theory contained in the history of humanity, and having decades of personal experience to reflect upon, I have been able to associate some of their core findings with my own experiences. Whether or not I have been expressing the conclusions reached by that study in a coherent manner, making them accessible to a wider range of people may be an open question, but doing so has been my goal.

While many of those who ponder these important issues are unwilling to suppose or unable to discern how any influence or energy which has no clearly empirical explanation might be active within and essential to life, for myself, I have to believe that what has been burning within me for so long, and occupied nearly every mental effort I could muster along the way, has been a sufficient cause to express its urgency in my writings.

Considering the wide range of my experiences, both sensual and spiritual, my sincere conviction now is that what I feel, what I sense, and what I experience, not only internally and personally, but also as an observer of the world “outside of me,” especially in consideration of the responses of other individuals under extraordinary circumstances, is that I cannot dismiss out of hand, any experience or conclusion that occurs within me.

In calling my blog, “John’s Consciousness,” I don’t remember thinking too long about it, but when I first saw it on the masthead here, I immediately accepted it as the right choice, in spite of the fact that I wasn’t completely clear in my own mind if it would accurately describe the content I was about to explore in these pages. There is no question in my mind at this point that the ineffable nature of consciousness and the complex machinations of brain physiology, supported by multi-faceted sensory input which support subjective experience, are intimately intertwined, not because there is some direct link discernible to science or immediately obvious to others, but because in my personal experience it has been so. Since it has been so in that way, I feel confident in saying that I have learned to distinguish between those ideas and experiences which are mostly peripheral and those which are profound, and part of the core components of my life.

I have dedicated much of my time and pressed myself to persist in my efforts with great determination to create and present thoughtful, rational, and sincere entries here, and to share my ideas with clarity and balanced argumentation. It is clear from the many insightful responses I have received over the years that certain entries have resonated with my readers more than others, and while I have been formulating these ideas ever since I was a much younger person, even now, as a mature man with sixty-plus years on this planet, I must acknowledge that I am still hampered to some degree by my cultural and familial conditioning, even as I attempt to express what is most urgent within me.

There is so much more to discover. I am compelled to persist in my efforts to dig deeper, and to continue to write about what has been revealed by my decades of searching.

Origins of Consciousness

The actual quote from Dostoevsky’s “Notes From The Underground,” goes as follows:

“And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. Though I did lay it down at the beginning that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction.”

Whether or not it is reasonable to conclude that the human version of consciousness is “the greatest misfortune,” or “…a disease,” as Dostoevsky calls it in his novel, it seems clear even to his “underground” character in the story that its existence is valued highly by those possessing it generally, and that our experience of being human, composed as it is by a whole variety of different forms of suffering, along with other more enjoyable circumstances, could be said to have contributed in an important way to its rapid progress once achieved.

I’ve written more than thirty blog posts over the years, which, in one way or another, addressed some aspect of the evolution of consciousness in humans, and recently I encountered an interesting perspective on the subject.

The literary scholar, Brian Boyd, lives in New Zealand, where he is a professor at the University of Auckland, and has devoted much of his career to applying the findings of evolutionary biology to the arts.

In an online article which appeared in the Winter/Spring 2013 issue of The New Atlantis, called, “Portrait of the Artist as a Caveman,” Dr. Micah Mattix, an associate professor of English who currently serves as the English & Communications Studies chair, reports a compelling theoretical explanation offered by Boyd for human cognitive development:

“Boyd begins On the Origin of Stories (2010), his book on the evolution of fiction, by describing the universality of play with patterned language across human cultures. The origin of art, Boyd suggests, may have been as a form of cognitive play — a set of activities “designed to engage human attention through their appeal to our preference for inferentially rich and therefore patterned information.” Play for our proto-human ancestors, as for other animal species, was a way of practicing and training for important activities, like hunting or fighting. But our ancestors played to train not only the body but also the mind, enabling us to interact skillfully with other human beings. Boyd suggests that over time this play modified “key human perceptual, cognitive, and expressive systems,” giving birth to self-awareness and language.”

While these elements may very well have contributed in an important way to our cognitive and linguistic capabilities, it still seems that at some point even these would not suffice to fully explain how it all came together. In a recent blog post here called “Stillness After The Storm,” I referenced the writing of Aeschylus that “announces the law of Zeus that we must learn by suffering, but out of all this suffering comes an important advance in human understanding and civilization.”

Some years ago, I wrote about a particular experience of suffering which spoke to these ideas directly:

I stepped out into the night and took a walk in the falling snow.

I had been struggling with an inner pain that seemed to be eating away at me a little at a time, and I couldn’t seem to shake it. I always stepped into the light of each new day with the hope that somehow I would find a way to put it behind me, but no matter how hard I tried, it seemed to linger deep within the forest of consciousness, and sometimes, the stillness of the night quieted my mind to the point where the echoes of my traumatic past came vividly alive.

The quiet beauty and elegant whisper of the snowflakes as they descended on that particular evening, far from being a welcomed respite from the emotional pain, actually felt like little stones striking my flesh. I stood trembling under the canopy of night, breathing deeply in an attempt to gather my strength for my next leg of the journey, in what I felt was a vain attempt to resume the trek past the pain.

It was a transformative experience in a couple of ways to face the pain and to struggle to overcome the power that the suffering seemed to hold on me.

It was enormously difficult to find a way through it, but something important happened that made me realize if I couldn’t find a way, I might not be able to fully engage in my life or be of much use to the people I love, particularly as a parent to my children. Whatever loss I personally suffered could not compare to a failure to nurture and care for them.”

It would seem that suffering does play an important role in our cognitive development.

Life itself arose in our little corner of a minor galaxy in an astonishing confluence of matter and energy and environment in our solar system, but took billions of years to produce significant results of the sort that permitted intelligent life to unfold. Once established, intelligent life progressed rapidly by comparison, and we see human progress increasing exponentially as the years pass.

When you consider the unlikely way in which life itself sprang into existence on Earth, our own uncertainty in the 21st century starts to look far less daunting. In the earliest epoch of humanity, the first truly useful and meaningful awareness of human consciousness in our ancient ancestors could only have appeared once the hominid brain finally possessed the necessary prerequisites for cognition and awareness. No matter when the architecture of the brain and the physiological structures within the body finally became mature enough to allow heightened sense perception and cognition, possession of these talents alone could not have produced significant results right away, and consciousness must have taken an enormous amount of time to develop into a recognizable phenomenon.