The Fading of the Light

Watching out my window this evening as the sky slowly abandoned the light of day, fading slowly into twilight, my heart was following along as the sky darkened. In some ways, my heart knows me better than my mind. Within the realm of thoughts and emotions, thoughts have always seemed to eventually defer to my emotions, not because my thoughts were faulty in some way necessarily, but more because the way I feel sometimes tends to be more accurate than my thinking.

In a recent preparation to deliver remarks at a memorial service, I quoted Descartes well-known axiom, “I think, therefore I am,” and suggested that for me personally, it seemed more correct to say, “I feel, therefore I am.” Feeling any potent emotion has always felt more compelling to me as an indication that I truly existed, as opposed to even the most considered and volatile thoughts. Of course, in order to “know” what I felt required the ability to acknowledge intellectually the arrival of the emotion within me, or to even recognize that emotions were active in my experiential awareness. Cognition and awareness of existing subjectively are vitally important partners in experiential reality.

Looking out my window at the still reasonably bright sky, when I initially arrived in the chair which provided the view out the window, found me both thoughtful and emotional. Intellectually, I knew that the time of day and the view out the window were already conspiring to reveal the day’s relentless progression toward the night, but my emotional state was not only reluctant to allow this acknowledgement to take hold, but also fully engaged in the recognition of how keenly the gradual diminishment of light in the sky mirrored the same in my heart.

Intellectually, I was fully cognitive of the causes for the light to fade, and the expectations one must have as the day concludes and the night arrives, but emotionally, even though my mind told me that it was inevitable and unstoppable, my heart wanted the light to linger, and felt keenly how much I longed for the light to remain. This longing held sway mostly due to how I felt about it, rather than what my mind knew was the cause of it. In my mind, I knew it was inevitable, but for my heart, it was a painful and lamentable development, for which no amount of thinking would provide even the slightest solace.

Aside from these meandering thoughts and feelings about the loss of the light, which were mostly secondary in the moment, there was an emotional reverie taking place in both my heart and mind, which formed the foundation for the contrast in the first place. Having nearly a lifetime of sunrises and sunsets to look back on gives each new arrival and departure of daylight and nightfall greater import, based on the recognition that there are clearly fewer opportunities remaining to experience them, compared to the approximately 21,000 which I have already experienced.

Reviewing the hundreds of photographs from my family history that I inherited some years ago, I was struck by the absolute lack of images other than those of family members and family occasions. Even when the images in the family archive began to appear in color in the late fifties and early sixties, there were perhaps less than a handful which consisted of landscapes or mountain vistas, and most of them had someone else in the foreground.

The same review of my own personal collection of photographs showed a relatively greater number of images of the natural world that surrounded me, regardless of whether or not the final images included friends or family members. Almost immediately, as I became more familiar with the process of photography, it occurred to me that the world itself provided many scenes which were worthwhile to capture, and which, in some cases, meant more to me than the simple fact of their existence at the time they were photographed. The motivation for me to remember the beauty and the atmosphere of some of these places was often on the same footing, and was informed by the same degree of interest, that I had in remembering the people who occupied those spaces.

Reflecting now, after all this time, on the experiences surrounding the events and the locations in which they took place, it seems to me that the environment and the scope of the surroundings themselves became such a vital aspect of these experiences for me, that in order to fully represent the totality of particular events, and to help me to subsequently reconstruct the fullness of my experiences, it became necessary to expand the collection of photographs to include whatever else made those experiences feel the way they did to me. It may have been the natural inclinations of the budding artist within me, or it may have been the impending spiritual awakening which was, unbeknownst to me, shortly to appear on the horizon, but as time passed, my photographs began to reflect a much more thoughtful approach, and often were created from the wellspring of emotion bubbling under the surface of my life. Looking back on it now, I am almost embarrassed to report that I had not even the slightest inkling of what was transpiring within me at the time, but by the time I had reached the period of my life which took place overseas, the universe had conspired to point it out to me in ways that I could never have anticipated.

After the abrupt and traumatic events in 1973, the escalation emotionally and psychologically of my world view was the perfect vehicle to launch my intense interest in photography, and it clearly fed the fervor of my investigations into the world within me to such a degree, that almost every important moment of those times required me to record that urgency in every way at my disposal.

The depth of my understanding of the world, and my awareness of the extent to which spirituality would eventually direct the course of my life, prior to my awakening in the autumn of 1973 in Massachusetts, was so limited and incomplete, it hardly seems possible that such an expansion of my artistic and spiritual senses could even have taken place without some drastic change or pivotal event.

Whatever indications there were in my personal photographic evidence, and in the products of my various artistic endeavors up to that point, none of them apparently penetrated sufficiently into my daily waking states of consciousness to provide the necessary spark of creativity that would press me toward my destiny.

***more to come***

The Brain is not the Mind

After decades of research and contemplation by a host of experts in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive studies, as well as the intense efforts of many philosophers and scientists from various schools of thought, coming to terms with and attempting to fully comprehend the complex nature of human consciousness still engages some of the best minds of our day. Recent attempts to predict the outcome of merely producing artificially, a sufficient collection of simulated neuronal connections, and attributing the whole character of our human version of subjective experience to that achievement, are now stirring speculation about technological advancements in reproducing a “conscious” virtual brain architecture.

In the Review section of September 14, 2019, in a Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Will Your Uploaded Mind Still Be You?,” Dr. Michael Graziano, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University, wrote in an excerpt from his recent book, “Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience,” that we will one day be able to scan a human brain and “migrate the essentials of your mind to a computer.” He describes it as “mind uploading—preserving a person’s consciousness in a digital afterlife.”

He goes on to speculate that the technologies needed to perform the task of “simulating a brain with 86 billion neurons is a little beyond current technology,” but that it won’t be for long. But the next part, the technology for actually “uploading,” a mind to a machine, he admits, “doesn’t yet exist,” and that he wouldn’t be surprised “if it took centuries.”

These efforts to reproduce a “virtual mind,” are based on the premise that the only reason human beings possess access to and subjectively experience their own consciousness is because the brain has sufficient complexity in architecture, and a sufficient accumulation of neuronal connections.

Speculation about being able to “upload” an existing human “mind” to some sort of artificial construct, not only flies in the face of common sense, but seriously underestimates the full nature of why we experience our existence subjectively, and what might possibly account for “what-it’s-like” to be human.

Sometimes described as the difficulty in explaining the “mind/body connection,” or “the hard problem” of explaining consciousness,” the richly-textured, multifaceted, and highly complex processes that constitute the creation of a human mind, and the relationship between our physical systems and our experience of consciousness, have eluded our understanding precisely because every attempt to explain consciousness through our physical systems alone falls short, by eliminating any contribution which includes immaterial components.

We are still unable to agree upon or discern with any degree of certainty how it is that we enjoy this richly-textured, first person experience of awareness. What we have discovered along the way is fascinating, and many publications are available today that deal with the subject of our very human version of consciousness, but supposing that we will one day create conscious machines into which we can “insert” an existing consciousness, in my view, seriously denigrates what it means to be human.

My contention is that while we are clearly dependent on a nominally functional nervous system to interact in a meaningful way with other sentient beings, the delicate balance of brain chemistry and neuronal functionality only provides a platform from which we can launch our lives as cognitive creatures. After decades of contemplating and studying the subject of human consciousness, what seems more likely to me, is that there are also other more subtle and less well understood forces at work in our lives, some of which we may eventually comprehend and predict reliably, and others that are essential to life, which are also essential for understanding why simply accumulating a sufficient number of neurons, or developing some advanced technology for processing computer data points, will not result in a conscious machine.

I was reassured today to read several letters to the editor of the Wall Street Journal that pointed out this glaringly obvious inconsistency in Michael Graziano’s article, and although those of a more materialist persuasion are less inclined to suppose that there are immaterial components, which are a vital part of our human nature, their prediction of some future world in which machines are conscious, and into which we will upload our own personal consciousness, will likely only be soundly refuted hundreds of years from now.

In the meantime, further research and contemplation of what might constitute the full character and explanation for subjective experience demands that we expand what might be possible, in order to give our efforts in the future a fighting chance to actually transcend the strictly materialist view of the true nature of our humanity.

Forging Ahead

Reflecting back over the years of my life now has taken on a wholly different character and sense of urgency. Each time I sit down to write these days, I am reminded by all of the objects surrounding me that the accumulation of years has also resulted in an enormous accumulation of memories and souvenirs of the many experiences of my life. There was a time when I barely had even the shortest amount of time for such reminiscing, and I told myself over and over that the objects and documents and articles that I set aside would one day be a rich resource for writing about the times of my life. It seemed urgent to take this approach at that time since there were so precious few opportunities to review the past, and the important aspects of my experience of life, that I feared losing the thread to lead me through the labyrinth of time when I finally was able to withdraw from the relentless burden of obligation to generate income.

Even now, as I type these words, I am still not entirely certain that my intentional review of nearly a lifetime’s accumulation of memories and important objects which surround me will be concluded in time to avoid the inevitable reluctance to execute the process of letting go of them. I must now confront the uncertainty of just how much time remains before the threshold will approach for the great purging of the physical reminders of the events of my life and the historical record of all that I have committed to memory already. There are so many thoughts all jumbled up in my mind already—the flood of a lifetime of thoughts and memories often seems to overwhelm me even as I consider the ways to edit the most important ones down to a manageable amount in order to organize and collect them into some semblance of coherent expression.

My online blog, “John’s Consciousness,” began as an earnest effort to begin to formulate a practical collection of deliberate and considered entries which would form the foundation of a much larger work. While my current life is finally less crammed with the immediacy of unavoidable daily tasks for the most part, the daunting volume and immensity of the accumulated objects and documents weighs heavily on my ability to methodically and thoughtfully review them in a manner that is both advantageous and productive.

What is at least clear in one important way is the desire to make some kind of sense of all the important events and to spend whatever time is required to arrive at a reasoned and considered result, which may offer some useful insight for those who will survive me in the years to come. At first it seemed to me that all the efforts at preservation were primarily for my own benefit, and while I wasn’t always clearly thinking about the specific motivation being employed at every moment, in the back of my mind, I usually supposed that the why and the wherefore would become evident upon review at some later time.

Looking back over the decades leading up to my current circumstance always seem to initially lead to a degree of melancholy, as is typical of any effort being reviewed in retrospect. There are so many instances in a lifetime when we are either forced to choose a path at a crossroad, or perhaps even when we make a conscious, deliberate choice as we approach a crossroad or other pivotal moment, which we might view as a mistake in retrospect. We cannot know with certainty, at any given moment, the full range of consequences which might ensue upon making such choices, and must often rely on some intuitive or instinctive inclination. Over decades, we can look back on instances when we achieved practical or beneficial results, and balance those achievements against whatever hard lessons may have resulted, in order to evaluate our current circumstances. Still, those hard lessons can weigh heavily on us, and any benefits which may have subsequently appeared may not mitigate regrets.

Recent events and current circumstances have pressed me to reflect with much greater intensity on the cost/benefits sides of the equations which I have inflicted upon myself over time, and while it seems to me that there has been a reasonably fair balance between the number of benefits worth the cost and the number of costs which bestowed very little if any benefit, several important choices at pivotal moments still feel unresolved in ways that may or may not be still possible to mitigate.

We cannot reverse time nor can we untangle whatever confusion or uncertainty governed the circumstances surrounding any choice made in the swirling maelstrom of the past, but this acknowledgement hasn’t yet dissuaded me from meandering from time to time through the perennial realm of what might have been, or its close companion—what still might be possible.

Unresolved anxiety over what might have been doesn’t seem especially helpful in the grip of melancholy, but the road leading to the realm of what still might be possible is no cakewalk either. Powerfully negative emotional and psychological circumstances in my past have been a continuing source of bouts of second-guessing, and wrestling with them as I sometimes do, has occasionally resulted in episodes of emotional and psychological distress, characterized by a crippling degree of self-doubt and even deep sadness.

Whenever we project ourselves forward into the realm of what might still be possible, we are often limited by what we have already experienced as a starting point, which can make it more difficult to envision a future where our hopes can be realized, and so we must be able to somehow suspend our expectations based on previous experience in order to move forward.

What we sometimes describe as “thinking outside the box,” a phrase meant to suggest an approach to thought that is completely new or original, or at the very least some variation of the standard approach, may provide a degree of difference within our thought process, with which we can then aspire to begin anew in seeking a resolution to whatever dilemma we face, but which also requires an additional degree of willingness to venture outside of our comfort zone in important ways. Such measures also require a degree of courage in treading a path previously untried.

In all of my deliberations thus far, I have steadfastly applied a deliberate effort to forge a new approach to resolving what has been an intractable problem, and have done so over a period of decades. It has been an enormous strain on my creative senses and has, up to now, not produced very much in the way of useful results, aside from helping me to recognize just how difficult such results are to obtain, and to assist me in becoming accustomed to repeated failure.

While it has been suggested by a number of sources in the creative world that failure is one of the best teachers, as well as an absolutely necessary component of any true success, it has not accomplished much in my case other than to perpetuate a degree of frustration at how perplexing it all can seem. Most rational people would have abandoned the effort years ago, and while I would like to suppose that my approach has been generally rational in the main, my inability to abandon these efforts suggests that I might actually have crossed over the threshold of irrationality some time ago, and have simply been unable to see it and to acknowledge the limitations which consistently appear upon each effort to forge ahead.

In the weeks to come I will be reviewing a number of the components and accumulated memories, stories, documents and objects that I retained as souvenirs which surround me in my writing space, and explore the rationale for retaining these objects, and attempt to sort through the potential consequences of either letting them go, or holding on for dear life.

Hopefully, in the process, my readers and visitors might find some benefit for themselves from following along with my struggle to sort it all out. As I happen upon important topics suggested by this review, I may veer off the beaten path for a bit to elaborate and/or mitigate the process, just to keep it interesting. Looking forward to sharing this part of what continues to be a challenging journey with you all…..John H.