I recently presented a brief video episode about our experience of life,
and wanted to elaborate on the topic of our experiential awareness a bit, since there seems to be a fair amount of variation in the understanding of how our experience of life comes about. This is a fairly broad topic and I wanted to extend the conversation a bit to extend my position on the subject.
There are a number of research studies being conducted currently by the scientific community, in particular within neuroscientific circles, whose basic premise begins with the notion that the brain alone is responsible for our experiential subjective awareness, positing that consciousness “emerges” from brain physiology. The confluence of neurons and brain processes, communications between brain regions, and the electrochemical nature of impulses called “action potentials,” coursing through millions of neural networks, across trillions of synaptic gaps, somehow produces consciousness, sufficiently explaining our subjective experience.
While many of these important studies are increasing our knowledge of cognitive functioning and revealing more and more about the physiological processes which take place within a nominally functional brain, scientists still continue to have enormous difficulty explaining how it is that cognitive functioning alone is responsible for such a potent and inexplicable subjective experience. It seems unlikely to me that it’s all just input being processed by the senses and brain functionality—but in order to progress, any explanation of consciousness must also show why our human experience of existing in the physical world brings with it such a vivid subjective experience of our awareness of “being.”
Clearly, we are reliant upon our brains and the nearly miraculous combination of form and function within the brain, for perception, memory, and the many autonomous functions of the human body. Anyone with even a basic understanding of how the brain works and how it provides us with the cognitive capacities we enjoy as sentient beings can conclude that we need our nominally functional brain and central nervous system to meaningfully act and interact in our daily experience of life on Earth. What is not so clear, aside from the extraordinary complexity of the functions taking place within the human brain, is why we sometimes seem to possess awareness of other levels of perception and interaction, which “transcend” those of ordinary daily experience.
Human history contains an enormous range of reports of subjective experiences that have been recorded over the millennia, many of which cannot be comprehensively described in empirical terms, and even in our 21st century materialistic worldview, questions persist about the many ways in which our experiential awareness seems to include perceptions and subjective experiences which are not easily explained by our physiology.
In spite of significant leaps in computing power, and a number of astonishing feats by devices infused with potent artificial intelligence, like IBM’s “Deep Blue,” and an array of “smart devices,” and “digital assistants,” like “Siri” and “Alexa,” we continue to arrive at thresholds where there is no progress beyond a certain point.
There will, no doubt, be advances in the future which increase the abilities of “intelligent” devices, and progress made in comprehending how to construct new devices which emulate the form and function of the human brain, in ways that will likely narrow the gaps between human and artificial intelligence which currently exist. We are already advancing rapidly toward reliance upon artificially intelligent sources for nearly every basic function in business, health care, and education. Many of the advances we are seeing have great advantages for our species, and as long as we are not faced in the near future with some cataclysm which renders these technologies ineffective or incapable of functioning, we can expect that these technologies will become ubiquitous and be a part of our daily routines as social media and cell phones are today.
The real challenge we face in each of these areas is sustaining the key components of our humanity as the technology expands beyond what humans are capable of producing without them. There aren’t any humans currently who could realistically compete with the computing power of a supercomputer, at least in conducting calculations or processing huge quantities of raw data, in any meaningful way at least, and although there are a number of very intelligent humans who might be able to reach a similar conclusion to a difficult problem given sufficient time and resources, it seems to me that the point of constructing huge supercomputers and creating technologies which supplant the necessity of human intervention isn’t to replace humans, but rather to increase the number of opportunities for humans to dedicate time to pursuits which do not require processing of that sort.
My own experience of life over the last seven decades is a good example of why we should pursue artificial intelligence and find ways of doing the work of humans which could make the future much better generally for others like me. Over the fifty odd years of my efforts to earn a living, it required me to spend untold hours creating income to support my family, and left precious little time for family activities and my individual pursuits. With sufficient progress being made in virtual experience technologies, as well as in artificial intelligence, it may be possible for future generations to have more time for those important aspects of human life, and if that is the only benefit to result from the advances in the future, it will be totally worthwhile.
Where we cannot allow the emerging technological advancement to take over is where we exist in our most human place—within us. Life is not simply a matter of chemistry and physical laws. There are vitally important aspects of life which are founded upon our complex chemistry and which cannot exist without those physical laws, but they do not define our humanity completely, nor can they constitute the fullness of our nature as human beings.
We must not allow our inner lives to evaporate or to be crushed under the weight of technological advancement. We must persist in our efforts to protect and enhance the core of our humanity, by seeking out the fullness of what we can become if we look within ourselves. The future of our species may very well depend on our efforts to enhance our awareness of what exists within us, and to bring it into the forefront of our experience of life.
8 thoughts on “Our Experience of Life”
Nice musings, thanks John. I’ve had a lot of time to meditate recently and thought a little about consciousness beyond those descriptions.
I internalized the question. When I compare what consciousness is inside me to what consciousness of existing is, I arrive at more than just a sense of mind. Consciousness itself doesn’t explain how dreams work out, so that’s a deeper complexity, if consciousness is a complexity worth stopping at.
Thanks for your visit and for your thoughtful comment. It should be self-evident, in my view, that consciousness entails a great deal more than simply being awake and alert and “conscious.” Engaging in a regular routine of meditation is one of the most beneficial ways to expand our awareness, and to become more fully present in our everyday life, and generally provides avenues for achieving a greater awareness of our true nature.
Our inner lives, if we pay attention and focus on them, particularly through meditation, we begin to see that what consciousness is inside us, is only one aspect of a greater understanding, and when we consider the full scope of consciousness, as you so aptly stated it, we “arrive at more than just a sense of mind.” It is precisely this idea that points to consciousness being a great deal more than something that can be explained by brain physiology alone.
Dreams entail a whole other layer of consideration in the mental realm, and while it is clear that our dreams become manifest through our mental apparatus, with clear pathways and traceable links within the activity of the brain while we sleep, as with most of our mental life, the physiology of the brain seems only possible to explain the MECHANISMS of brain processes, and provides virtually no clue at all about the SOURCE of the imagery and the relevance of the essential workings of our inner world when considering the explanation of the “deeper complexity.”
I have spent the better part of the last decade exploring the many complexities of consciousness here, and it is clear to me that it is very much worth stopping at and contemplating that complexity.
The future of our species may very well depend on our efforts to enhance our awareness of what exists within us, and to bring it into the forefront of our experience of life…
I’d go far past this. I would say that a revolution of inner awareness is the core critical cultural factor over the next century or two in determining whether we sink further into mediocre desolation or not.
It certainly will be a critical factor in the way life will unfold in the future. Much more attention being given to “inner awareness” by a greater number of individuals and groups would significantly reduce mediocrity and indifference to aspects of our essential human nature, and significantly reverse the trend toward a purely materialistic viewpoint. We can’t move forward narrowly. We need to expand our searching and learning and remain open to a greater understanding.
There are indications around the world which point to possible avenues for optimism as well as toward continuing to move in a more deterministic direction, and it will be up to our upcoming generations to forge a better path than one of a purely secular character. It will require broader encouragement and educational efforts by our younger generations, and civil conversations across the spectrum of approaches to life in the future.
Yes, the education of children needs to change deeply. Right now, it seems much of education is relegated to the internet, which for the most part prejudices an increasingly materialist outlook.
There is much on the internet that suggests an emphasis on a more materialistic approach to information and education, but there are also outlets for those with a more balanced and open-minded approach. It may seem like the most popular sites and trends are devoid of substance and depth simply because many of the internet users are very young people with youthful interests and attitudes, but for those who seek it out, the internet provides many alternative sites with substantive and informative content, as well as more esoteric outlooks.
How right you are in the conclusions to which you come. In my view at least. I too have spent many years “working” which would have been far better spent doing something else. Let us hope that science brings us into an era of post scarcity and that we manage to re-organize our society and economy so that these gains do not end up in the hands of the few to the detriment of the vast majority.
As to the meaning of consciousness, I recently contemplated how detrimental is the modern tendency to believe in absolute materialism and determinism. I do not believe in it and will not. Even it it were true it would leave any thinking individual in a very dark place.
While I am no theist, like you I have to believe in “other”, or “greater” or at least in things hidden from us in reality which we must discover and which would enormously enhance our lives.
Oneness for example. Which I have experienced (all too briefly!). Oneness is true in the physical sense anyway – we are all made of physical elements. But oneness in the spiritual and psychological sense is also somehow “true” or so it seems to me. In the glorious ego-less states I have sometimes enjoyed a whole different type of consciousness emerges. One that is not reliant on mundane daily life but soars to undreamt of spiritual realms.
That is what consciousness could become – something akin to nirvana or the Judeo Christian heaven.
Who knows, perhaps science could even help to achieve such levels of permanently elevated consciousness.
In any event John, a thoughtful and encouraging post. Just what I needed!
It certainly is apparent that absolute materialism lacks the explanatory power needed to account for the fullness of our human nature, and you quite rightly express the importance of understanding and seeking out these important aspects of “other” or “greater,” without necessarily endorsing theism or invoking dogma or doctrines of any kind. There are those who arrive at the concept of “oneness” through religious practice and while it isn’t the only way, if one can embrace that “oneness” without judgment of what others choose, regardless of their beliefs, that cooperation would be helpful in bringing all of us forward.
I would say that science has already begun to elevate the conversations surrounding the nature of reality, and has opened avenues of exploration that could very well enhance our lives enormously. I believe that a key component to achieving elevated consciousness is the cooperation of science and spirituality, and the blending of approaches where each excels. Limiting what we consider possible and closing off potential avenues of progress in either direction seems counterproductive, and I am encouraged by the signs of progress around the world in scientific circles which expand what may be possible, and hope that I can contribute to that progress by providing additional thoughtful and encouraging posts!
With appreciation….John H.