Intelligence, Cognition, and Consciousness

Vitruvian Man

 

Conventional wisdom these days isn’t much help when we look ahead to the future of life on earth, since life is fairly unconventional these days by most reckonings, and even what might previously have been described as common sense hardly seems common at all anymore. If there is any consolation to the currently prevailing uncertainty of it all, it is that with so much uncertainty there’s still a chance it might all turn out okay. That doesn’t sound like much of a chance until you consider the alternatives which include a clearly downward spiral toward the abyss.

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.

 

One can see in the parallel of our modern development from human babies to functional adults, that the ability to utilize the brains’ miraculous capacities requires an accumulation of knowledge and experience over many years before becoming notably useful beyond basic skills. Modern children normally have the advantage of being surrounded by already functional and accomplished human beings with a fully developed language and plenty of knowledge and experience from which to learn. For our ancient ancestors, who were starting from scratch, there was no such advantage. Of course, increased intelligence isn’t necessarily a harbinger of good news for humanity.

A recent article in Time magazine expresses this idea well. Ray Kurzweil’s predictions of what has been described as the “singularity” (Time magazine, February 21,2011, pg. 42), “n: The moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history,” points to a sort of tipping point in the progress of artificial intelligence. According to this theory, by 2023 computers will surpass human brainpower, and by 2045 they will possess “super intelligence,” or brainpower “…equivalent to that of all human brains combined.

While the author of this article, Lev Grossman, admits that such a “Singularity appears to be, on the face of it, preposterous, he also believes that “…it’s an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.” The problem for me, aside from equating artificial intelligence with the human variety, is his assertion that when “All that horsepower could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is that our brains are doing when they create consciousness…then all bets are off.

It always intrigues me when so-called “experts” attempt to simplify “human consciousness” as being some sort of evolutionary adaptation easily explained by brain physiology or cognitive functioning. It’s a “no-brainer” that our development of a complex and integrative cerebral cortex gave us access to a level of cognitive function (as yet unmatched by any other species to our knowledge) that permits an exceptionally keen awareness of BEING conscious, but consciousness itself is a much larger and expansive subject than brain physiology or cognitive science and any attempt to explain consciousness in a comprehensive sense clearly requires a much broader understanding.

I recently encountered the writings of Julian Jaynes, a Princeton professor who wrote extensively about the origins of consciousness in humans, and his theory posits that humans did not immediately develop into conscious creatures fully until around 2 B.C. when a fully developed “metaphorical language” provided the necessary requisites for the achievement of a fully functional human consciousness.

There can be no doubt that our awareness required the development of metaphorical language for our apprehension of consciousness to be expressed, and for meaningful thought to formulate ideas and concepts necessary for recognition of the existence of consciousness, but it seems much more likely that consciousness exists as a “fundamental feature” (Chalmers) of existence and that, as consciously aware creatures, we are “aware” of consciousness in the same way that we are aware of electromagnetism.

Whatever sort of result comes from technological progress in artificial intelligence, what we will no doubt find, as we look toward the uncertain future, is that no matter how intelligent we or our machines become, no amount of fiddling or advanced technology will change the fundamental features of existence.

Pen and ink drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, showing how a man’s body fits into a circle and a square by adjusting the position of his arms and legs, called Vitruvian Man.

“Vitruvius was an ancient Roman architect who wrote a series of ten books on architecture – one of the few collections of books of its type that survived into the Renaissance. In the third volume, which is on the proportions of temples, he states that these buildings should be based on the proportions of man, because the human body is the model of perfection. He justifies this by stating that the human body with arms and legs extended fits into the perfect geometric forms, the circle, and the square. “– excerpt from article © Robert M. Place 2000

http://thealchemicalegg.com/leotaroN.html

The Blossoming of Consciousness

Contemplating recent comments about what it means to be a conscious human, I began to consider what really distinguishes us from all the other inhabitants of our planet. There are some distinctively human traits to be sure, but it seems more like a combination of several important capacities and foundational characteristics that sets us apart.

Most living creatures with an adequately developed brain and functional central nervous system, given sufficient stimulation in the appropriate circumstance, will generally demonstrate a fairly predictable response in their behavior, including, many times, human beings. The familiar “fight-or-flight” response when in close proximity to a dangerous carnivore would be a good example. Under most circumstances, depending on the degree of danger and the creature’s inherited abilities and previous conditioning with regard to facing such danger, if adequate motivation was present for either running away or standing up to the danger, most organisms would instinctively tend to select the behavior which provided the best option for survival. While this behavior could still ultimately result in the demise of the organism, in spite of whatever resources may be available to them, when the behavior is instinctively chosen, no judgment or further implication can be inferred.

Conversely, as cognitive creatures, with both instinctual and volitional capacities, humans can not only deliberately override instinctive tendencies, but can also consciously review the available behavioral selections, calculate the likelihood of success of any choice, contemplate previously untried alternatives, innovate extemporaneously with available resources, and even in the face of very low probabilities of success, choose behaviors which instinct alone would generally not permit. In the human brain, with all of its genetically inherited and deeply-rooted predispositions, as well as a variety of involuntary and unconscious functions, we observe mitigation of this sort by virtue of the capacities provided by our distinctly human version of the cerebral cortex, particularly from activity within the frontal lobe. The capacity to deliberately alter or mitigate our instinctive responses, and purposefully alter our environment and behaviors is a characteristic of our species, and one of the distinguishing hallmarks that separates humans from all other living creatures.

One might wish to argue that humans respond instinctively all the time, or that we tend to confer deliberate choice to our actions far more often than is actually the case, but we cannot easily disregard millions of years of evolution simply because we now have a sufficiently sophisticated cognitive capacity. We are, by most cosmic standards, a fledgling species, whose progress from being primarily impulsive creatures with a survival instinct to the more modern self-aware variety has spanned less than a hundred thousand years. Whatever degree of cognitive skill might have been adequate to qualify the earliest version of modern humans as “conscious” or “significantly self-aware,” the earliest evidence of such characteristics being demonstrated seems to fall during the Upper Paleolithic period, which saw the coexistence of the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon.

In the waning years of survival for the Neanderthals, some evidence of expanding skills with tools has been found, and examinations of Neanderthal fossils show that the skull architecture would have supported the ability to produce language if they were able, but the available fossil evidence is not adequate to support a definitive conclusion in this regard, and there is a fair amount of speculation and disagreement as to what exactly constitutes a fully developed and meaningful vocal communication. However, the capacity and ability with language is another one of the predominant characteristics of modern Homo sapiens, and represents a significant evolutionary survival advantage.

Along with the ability to communicate through language, modern humans were finally able to associate temporal objects with symbolic representations of those objects, as evidenced in the ancient cave paintings in Ardeche, France in the Caves of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, now believed to have been placed there some 34,000 years ago by the Aurignacian culture. However the actual progressive skills of Homo sapiens unfolded, it is clear that when it finally became possible for our ancient ancestors to make significant and meaningful use of their cognitive skills, human beings were profoundly altered, and were no longer simply another primate species struggling for survival in the ancient world.

If we begin with the idea that truly modern humans had finally achieved a significant degree of useful and discernable “consciousness” around this time, it would take another 30,000 years for the first appearance of “writing” to occur, when the Sumerians created their “cuneiform” writing system, and by definition, the beginning of “recorded history.” Everything that happened in between these two landmark developments represents a period of “blossoming” of our human consciousness, within which both language and culture flourished and expanded into what would become a global phenomenon.

Methods for communication have also been documented among other species on our planet, and we have observed a whole range of behaviors which could be described as an indication of various degrees of “consciousness,” in those life forms, including astonishing achievements in the construction of habitats, particularly tenacious species surviving unimaginable adversity, and mind-boggling evolutionary adaptations within species, over the millions of years of evolution. As amazing as they are, these accomplishments pale in comparison to what one lonely branch of primates has managed in the last 50,000 years.


Overcoming instinctive behaviors, deliberately and “consciously” choosing our path through the millennia, as disastrous as some of those choices have been and continue to be, distinguishes humans from every other known species. Whether we are able to survive and thrive in the future, could very well depend not just on our progress toward understanding human consciousness, but also on our willingness to transcend both our history and our narrow view of what might possibly explain “consciousness.”

Reason and Intuition

 

“It has certainly been true in the past that what we call intelligence and scientific discovery has conveyed a survival advantage…provided the universe has evolved in a regular way, we might expect the reasoning abilities that natural selection has given us would be valid also in our search…and so would not lead us to the wrong conclusions.

– Stephen Hawking quoted in “A Brief History of Time.”

 

“Intuition is the indubitable conception of a clear and attentive mind which proceeds solely from the light of reason…By ‘intuition’ I do not mean the fluctuating testimony of the senses or the deceptive judgement of the imagination as it botches things together, but the conception of a clear and attentive mind, which is so easy and so distinct that there can be no room for doubt about what we are understanding…another mode of knowing in addition to intuition (is) deduction, by which we mean the inference of something as following necessarily from some other propositions which are known with certainty…because immediate self-evidence is not required for deduction, as it is for intuition…but the first principles themselves are known only through intuition, and the remote conclusions only through deduction.

– Rene Descartes from “Rules for the Direction of the Mind,” written circa 1628, first Latin edition published in 1701.

“Language is entwined with human life…it reflects the way we grasp reality…It is…a window into human nature…Human intelligence, with its capacity to think an unlimited number of abstract thoughts, evolved out of primate circuitry for coping with the physical and social world, augmented by a capacity to extend these circuits to new domains by metaphorical abstraction…some metaphors can express truths about the world…So even if language and thought use metaphors, that doesn’t imply that knowledge and truth are obsolete. It may imply that metaphors can objectively and truthfully capture aspects of reality.”

– Steven Pinker, from his book, “The Stuff of Thought.”

 

There is something in the air, out in the world, something inside of me, that is pervasive. It’s always there, relentlessly seeking me. It feels like an embrace, and yet it does not always bring me peace. Sometimes, I cannot easily face it. In my life, I have known there is the possibility of pain–the other side of joy–and also of fear, as there has always been. Early in my life, I did not understand–did not see why I had to feel certain things. It didn’t make any sense to me. Why can’t everything just be okay? When you’re young, there’s no way to process or fully understand thoughts like that. There is a keener sense of the unknown; a resistance to potent emotions, inexplicable or mysterious energies, anything that suggests aspects of our reality which may be beyond our normal understanding.

 

Logically, of course, science and reason can provide us with a methodical and considered approach when it comes to investigating the unknown, and can often point to reasonable scientific principles which are clearly at work in certain situations; we can observe them, we experience them and assume because we know WHY these things happen, that we understand them. In my experience, truly apprehending the nature of things requires something more. Naturally, we see what we see, we hear what we hear; we consider information we bring in from the objective world; we interpret what comes through our senses and process the information utilizing the various talents of specific brain regions. We come to conclusions which often can be affirmed by comparing them to our experiences and memories, and by testing them through our subsequent actions, and we may even make choices regarding potential future actions.

 

As we observe what happens out there, we say, “So that’s why the planets are all traveling in loops around the sun,” or “no wonder it seems that light suddenly appears since it travels so reliably and predictably at the same speed.” All of these aspects of our reality that we can observe and affirm, tell us why things work the way they do, because the laws of physics require them to conform in this way. When all of our observations confirm the laws, we feel confident in establishing those principles as true. I haven’t always been convinced by what I see or hear or observe, not because I supposed that my senses weren’t working properly, but rather because those aspects did not conform precisely with my personal recollections of previous experiences. It’s possible for us to be mistaken about what our senses tell us, as in the case of optical illusions, and we can occasionally be easily misled by the clever application of deliberate or manipulative deception, but it can be much more difficult to persuade us of any suggested explanation of events which does not match up with the way we intuitively feel as we process that input.

 

Experience has taught me to trust the way I feel, especially when it comes to connections to other individuals, places, and ideas which resonate so strongly within me in particular circumstances, but our modern chaotic world doesn’t always encourage us to trust our intuition or to have the confidence always to listen to our genuine “gut” feelings. Throughout my life, there have been innumerable examples of instances where my inner urgings and startling responses to unexpected provocations have been right on the mark. There have been times when it seemed to me that I was virtually “standing on a precipice,” dangerously close to and looking over an edge, either about to fall, or maybe even getting ready to “take a leap of faith.” Conventional wisdom might suggest that if you’re near some sort of a virtual edge and you fall, it’s not necessarily your fault, and yet, at the same time, somehow you got yourself out on that ledge. That same wisdom might suggest that if you find yourself on that proverbial ledge and you decide to jump, for whatever reason, that is a choice for which you alone are responsible.

 

 

We can’t always control what happens TO us, and sometimes we may even feel compelled to make choices that we don’t necessarily agree with completely, and why we feel that way is not always crystal clear. All sorts of influences and pressures from even trusted sources can weigh on us as we contemplate our next steps, distorting or mitigating our normal process of reasoning or, if we are fortunate, clarifying it. Our reasoning can be faulty and we can occasionally even refuse to consider outside influences which are meant to be helpful, but ultimately we must choose, one way or another.

The struggle between reason and intuition has become something of an epic battle these days, and considered and informed opinions may seem less prevalent in our modern social interactions, and so giving attention to sorting it all out is even more important now.

 

 

Celebrating Life and Love

By coincidence, all day today, I was working at my part-time job, which places me in a position of interacting with a large number of random people, and as I am naturally inclined to be social, as the opportunity presents itself, I try to engage each one in a brief conversation, mostly as a polite way to greet them and maybe get a smile out of them. Apparently, marking this particular day as one in which we celebrate love in all its many forms; love clearly was on the mind of just about everyone. Most often, the exchange would be brief, and took the form of well-wishing and polite banter, but several of the exchanges, while also positive in nature, revealed a different layer of attention to the subject of love, including a few which required diplomacy on my part to acknowledge the gestures, without slighting the intention of the well-wishing, but also maintaining the appropriate demeanor. As I contemplated my responses in the brief minute or so in which they were required, it occurred to me that the subject was fairly challenging to address under these circumstances, and upon completing my shift, I began to consider the subject at length.

There’s almost no telling how love will unfold in our personal lives or as we move through the world-at-large. As we progress through our lives, we all seem to arrive at our own understanding of what it means to love someone. We learn first about love from our parents or primary caretakers whoever they end up being, and often it’s amazing to us as adults what sticks with us through all the changes and stages of growth we go through. In some circumstances, where our lives are most often in balance as we grow, we learn to appreciate the love we are given, and have a fair idea of how to demonstrate our love based on these experiences. For most of us, though, the balance is often tipped in one direction or the other, and it can take a long time to appreciate how other people might differ in their understanding of what it means to love another person.

It seems to me that, as a rule, we are far too rigid in our views of what reasonably might constitute a loving relationship between parents and children, amongst siblings, between extended family groups, and between the many different levels of friendship that we encounter as we age. Our best friend in grammar school can still be our best friend in our adult life, or they can vanish from our lives for any number of reasons, and every variety of circumstance can either contribute to the longevity of friendship or make it impossible to continue, just as every other sort of relationship can experience long periods of enriching and enduring affection, or be lost or mitigated by extenuating circumstances.

I have often encountered circumstances in my life, where people have inspired me to feel a loving connection in one way or another, but who have a difficult time understanding how it could be that such a connection is even possible. I have often thought that there should be some guidance in our educational system, particularly when children are approaching adolescence, to begin to appreciate the many different varieties of emotional connection that people feel, and to broaden the definitions of love across the whole spectrum of human interactions.

history of the world

The amount of time in which a life takes place, which includes everything from a few moments to, at times, nearly a century of life, is one of the least important measures of a life. Each of us is given a certain amount of time to live our lives, and none of us knows in advance how long it will be before we must relinquish our lives. This is the very nature of life–uncertainty. In some ways, uncertainty DEFINES life. If we knew about everything that would happen in our lives in advance, and the exact moment when life would end, there would be no mystery, no wonder, no sense of anticipation, no expectation, no reason to try anything. Because life is unpredictable, it is worth getting up in the morning to see what will happen! Life is about potentiality. When we DON’T know what will happen, or how long we will have to do anything, it’s up to us to discover how our lives will unfold. It is always sad, as an observer of life, when we see a life that is, from our perspective, cut short, before it has had sufficient time to unfold in the normal way. But really, each life, no matter how long it is, is precious, and worth every effort to live each moment fully, for however long we have to live it.

I do not claim to be an expert. I am not a scholar, or a magician, or a superstar quarterback. Even though I attended two universities for more than four years, I haven’t turned my education into a platform for expertise or exploited those opportunities into a particularly abundant life. What I can say about my life, given the measures we normally apply to accomplishments in education, in my case at least, the results were not especially impressive, but my life EXPERIENCES have been extraordinary.

Every memory I have is precious to me. I have been the father to six amazing children. I have served my country in the military, traveled to Europe for two years, and met many extraordinary people. I have experienced great joy, as well as terrible sadness. I have experienced hunger, deprivation, loneliness, bitterness, rejection, loss, and just about every sort of unhappiness imaginable, but I have also been a witness to and a participant in spectacular experiences of loving; I have attended feasts, and eaten at fine restaurants; I have vacationed in beautiful natural settings; I have attended family reunions with some of the most fabulous people on the planet; I have been satisfied in many different ways, and cried tears of joy as I held precious newborn children in my arms.

I could go on, but you can see from just these few examples that no matter what we accomplish in our lives, when it comes right down to it, what we EXPERIENCE is what means the most to us; it’s what hurts us the most; it’s what drives us and what slays us; what we experience is more important than what we accomplish almost always, and all the skills and knowledge we acquire, as vital as these aspects are in helping us to function in and to understand our world, we must BE IN the world and experiencing our lives in order to make any good use of any of it.

The dynamics of each unique personal relationship has always been a subject of interest for me, especially since I began to explore the nature of human interactions as they relate to our very human spirit. As we make our way through our lives, we probably encounter hundreds of other individuals through our educational and social circles, but normally only a very select few become particularly significant to us in one way or another. We generally become aware of these connections when proximity permits sufficient opportunity to do so, but proximity alone cannot account for the development of close, personal (and dare I say…spiritual) connections, particularly those which endure across great distance and long years. While there are many different foundations for our unique relationships, and much that is not necessarily self-evident regarding the psychology which supports them, the existence of a powerful personal and emotional affinity for another clearly infers a greater degree of connection not explicable by simple biology, psychology, chemistry or mere chance.

As is the case with the many forms and degrees of love which we celebrate today, there are also other more subtle and more mysterious forces at work in our lives, some of which we may eventually comprehend and predict reliably, and others that are part of the life of the human spirit within us. The power to alter our lives at any time is within our grasp. We have the means to evaluate and discern which choice is best for us. We can choose to act in our own self-interest, or in consideration of what is in the best interests of others. Depending on our choices, a whole variety of alternate realities are possible.

If our minds are simply and only the result of neuronal functioning and the basic electro-chemical balance in our brains, then none of us can be held truly accountable for our actions, since we are at the mercy of brain chemistry and the endowment of adequate neuronal functioning. 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.

Our current social structure in the Western World has evolved significantly in the last hundred years or so, and we are beginning to understand and appreciate the value of our unique personal relationships as part of a broader and completely natural social adaptation, which has been part and parcel of our continued evolution as a species since upright humans first walked the earth.

Consciousness and Dreaming

A few years ago, I wrote a book review of David Gelernter’s book, “The Tides of Mind,” which opened new avenues of thought, and in particular, I appreciated his use of the imagery of a “spectrum of consciousness,” with descending and ascending layers from being wide awake and alert to dreams and unconsciousness. Although interesting as a means of describing the aspects of our mental machinery, his approach illustrates well the challenges presented by the subject.

Our window into the world of dreams, while slowly revealing layers of involvement with both a physiological and psychological nature, also reveals that there is still much that is not understood about the processes involved in dreaming. The appearance of specific dream events not drawn from conscious memory, and elaborate scenarios conjured in an imaginative frenzy, suggest to me that there may be far more complex interactions that cannot be fully explained by the neurophysiology and metabolic activity in the brain, just as the true nature of consciousness itself and its link to our cognitive systems continues to elude scientists and philosophers alike.

Reflecting recently on a particularly vivid dream experience, it was clear that the content was a combination of both objective and subjective components, somehow all meshed together into a collaborative panorama. It seemed at times that I was directing the action in the dream, and at other times I seemed to be casually observing the action. My sense of delight was real enough, but the dream seemed more of how I would imagine such an experience to be, rather than how it might actually be. In the context of my research into the nature of consciousness, I am more convinced than ever that the sleeping and dreaming components of neurological functioning, while clearly acted upon and influenced by the physiological changes that take place, are a window into a much wider world that we are only glimpsing presently.

We now have access to research utilizing positron emission tomography that tracks the blood flow through the brain in the different stages of REM sleep and slow wave sleep, which can verify the findings in sleep studies in a reasonable fashion, but the ability to focus in on the metabolic isolation of the regions of the brain that consolidate and retrieve memories is perhaps the most interesting element of the current state of dream research.

The integration by the brain of visual patterns conducted in the subcortical regions is essential to what we “see” in our dreams. The lessening of activity in the prefrontal cortex and the increased activity in the complex sensory processing areas, where emotions and memories are managed, does contribute in an important way to our understanding of the process which takes place while dreaming, but it doesn’t explain how we are somehow able to conjure images that have never previously occurred in our living experience. Complex construction of elaborate scenarios that have never taken place may be partially the result of contributions from our imaginings or daydreams, but dreams like one I experienced recently seem to defy explanation.



Dream Journal Entry

“I came in to the back of the room. You were at the piano, playing a lively classical piece, unaware of my presence. You were focused on the music. I could feel you; your focus—your radiant inner world—the music always brought it out in you. It was also the one place where we never had any conflict.

 

As I approached slowly from the back of the room, I imagined us dancing along with the music—a spotlight shining on the middle of the dance floor following us. The diversion to thoughts about the dance only lasted a moment, until I once again resumed my approach slowly.

 

I was close enough now to see your fingers gliding across the keys. You were lost in the music, and I was lost in a reverie of a scene in which I imagined slipping up close to you, placing my hands gently on your shoulders, without disturbing your performance. For a moment, I was standing behind you, swaying in unison to the undulating rhythm of the music, but quickly snapped back, realizing that I was still behind you approaching slowly, coming around on your blind side.

 

Barely breathing, deeply engaged in my dream state, you still don’t seem to know, nor do you show any signs of knowing, that I am present. I am hitching a ride—with the harmony, with the sounds, with the beautiful melody. I’m on the very edge of where you might see me if you turn your head slightly, so I stop. I close my eyes, bringing me all the way to the heights…”


In an interesting sidebar, David pointed out that even as cognitive creatures known for our capacity to reason, we also “…long for our minds to be flooded with powerful emotion, so that we can only feel and can’t think, so that we can’t reason.” In the middle of all that, he points to one of the most human longings we possess–one that is central to my own dilemma–“…we long for pure experience.” I’m not as sure as David seems to be that this implies we “only” want to feel, and in a way that prevents us from thinking and reasoning. Cognition, in its most essential human form, is an acknowledgement of what we are feeling, and memory seems to me to be more a recollection of how we once “felt,” in a particular moment.

Our all-too-human longings, if we are able to acknowledge them, and to contemplate the connection we have to them–the “why” of our obsession with them–informs us about our nature as human beings in the broadest sense, but more specifically as an individual spirit in the world. Residing in our innermost personal world, our longings take on a much greater meaning–one that can only be understood well when considered as an image composed of the events of our lives–the moment-to-moment record of our innermost life as it unfolds in our daily lives and in our dreams.

Wishing all of the readers here, all the best in the coming year, and look forward to sharing more with you all in 2020.

John H.

A Greater Understanding

© Courtesy of Attila Krasznahorkay Physicist Attila Krasznahorkay, right, works with a fellow researcher at the Institute for Nuclear Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Recently, scientists at the Institute for Nuclear Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, believe they may have discovered evidence of a previously unknown “fifth force,” that may be in addition to the four known ones, gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Apparently, this research has been conducted for over three years and the experimental results have been reliably repeated, and other scientists have been unable to determine any notable flaws in the methodology used.

The gist of the paper published by the scientists concludes that the previously undetected particle, called X17, “because they calculated its mass at 17 megaelectronvolts,” did not follow any of the paths of currently known particles, and theorized that the variance in the angle of its trajectory suggests evidence of being acted upon by a “fifth force.”

For most of us non-scientists, while we may be able to appreciate this news in the broadest sense of experimental results being confirmed and proper scientific methodology being confirmed by others, recognizing the implications more specifically requires a greater understanding of physics, and appreciating the full scientific explanation, demands an even greater depth of knowledge that most of us generally don’t possess. It is, nonetheless, a remarkable development, and the news has been particularly exciting for those engaged in this research.

 

In a related development, I came across a book review appearing last month in the Wall Street Journal by John Horgan, himself a notable scientific mind. He reviewed a new book by Sean Carroll, a physicist at Caltech, called, “Something Deeply Hidden,” in which he is quoted as saying, “As far as we currently know, quantum mechanics isn’t just an approximation to the truth, it is the truth.” He insists that despite the skepticism surrounding the implication in quantum mechanics of the existence of a “multiverse,” a collection of many universes, of which ours is only one, the science which suggests it is on fairly solid footing currently. Whether it is true or not, and regardless of whether or not we are one day able to establish evidence for such an assertion empirically, the community of individuals who support this idea are not supportive of other explanations, which may require that “consciousness is a necessary component of reality,” or necessitate some “ad hoc tweaks of the wave function.”

 

An exhibition currently taking place at the Cleveland Museum of Art, “Michelangelo: Mind of the Master,” according to a review by Eric Gibson in the November 18, Life and Arts section of the WSJ, “features 51 drawings by Michelangelo…Tracing the arc of his career…from anatomical illustrations, to figure studies…to architectural renderings.” Gibson makes particular note of how the “outlines reflect greater effort. They are darker, having been repeatedly gone over…as if Michelangelo regarded these contours as a kind of keynote, the essential element to be got right if everything else was to follow as it should,” remarking notably that the “intense energy and vigorous handling gives them an almost overwhelming power.”

 

While I also have experienced similar responses while attending art exhibitions by other great artists, each of these examples of extraordinary ideas and accomplishments in a variety of fields, suggest that there are clearly forces and energies at work in the world, which demand at least to be considered as belonging to possible explanations of immaterial components, as well as being suggestive of potentially revealing a dimension of our temporal existence that science and physics cannot satisfactorily address in a comprehensive way.

 

In a recent blog post, Brain and Mind, I express my own contention, “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’m not suggesting that my own ideas enjoy any sort of parity with those of great scientists and artists from either recent history or the ancient past, only that we must continue to expand the realm of what we consider as possible, before a greater understanding can begin.

The Universe Is Alive

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.—Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Many times, when I am fully engaged in stillness and practicing my own personal version of mindfulness—giving up my normal attention to the present living moment—it’s almost like drifting back through time; with eyes closed, in near-perfect silence, I seem to be drifting not only away from the temporal awareness of the everyday world, but also through the eons of time. When we are properly and fully immersed in our “inner world,” our sense of temporal time disappears altogether, or at least, we could say, that time becomes irrelevant in any meaningful sense—more “apart” from life on Earth, than “a part of it.”

And yet, even in our measured and deliberate withdrawal from temporal awareness, “drifting away,” from what we know and experience as our daily lives, we are still part of the “universe of existence,” the foundation of which is only marginally and mysteriously accessible to us as temporal beings, but we still have a sense of our own personal reality, as we do when we are immersed in a tub full of pleasingly warm water, as the sound of our favorite music reaches our ears, as our lungs expand, pressing against our inner body with our rhythmic breathing, reminiscing about some delightful memory from long ago. Even as we might close our eyes, and contemplate our circumstance without the benefit of input from our visual cortex, we can still see—still conjure images—and ways of knowing without our full array of senses.

We all know of stories of individuals who have been deprived of one or more of the normal channels of sensory perception, either from birth or through some malady or accident, who have gone on to achieve in spite of the deficit, and who have been able to discern, without these benefits, the existence of the human spirit, and to “see” the world, just from a completely unique and extraordinarily challenging viewpoint.

Regardless of sensory deprivation or cultural limitations or disadvantages of every sort, throughout human history, there have been individuals who succeeded in spite of such obstacles to discover or affirm one very significant idea:

 

                                                                  ***        THE UNIVERSE IS ALIVE!    ***

 

I do not say this lightly, and I do not express it as a euphemism for something else. It is a fact. It is not only a physical fact; it is also a metaphysical fact, only knowable as temporal beings in this very human way. Knowing that what transpires when we are not physically existent is of a totally separate nature, we must acknowledge that our awareness of the true nature of non-material components of our existence cannot be adequately expressed in temporal terms.

To each of us in the current range of existent generations, it is a mystery—a conundrum which cannot be resolved quickly or without effort—without some deliberate approach to the spirit of life. We must reach for this aspect of our existence in stillness and in silence; and it is not guaranteed that in one lifetime, we can expect to unravel it all. It should be obvious by now, to anyone who has any sense of the mysterious at all, that consciousness is not wholly the result of or manifested solely by physical systems; it is manifested with the cooperation of and through our possession of the complex natural faculties that physical systems provide us.

However, the source, the origin, or the place where it comes from, is not in the physical universe. It is my belief, that the physical universe itself is a manifestation of a non-physical source, and everything within the physical universe has aspects and characteristics, which are direct results of the supporting non-physical world.

We use the phrase, “non-physical world,” knowing full well, that attempting to describe any aspect of our understanding, which addresses aspects of these ideas which are not physical, cannot be put in a context that would translate accurately as a “world” per se, or even as a dimension; the best we might hope for might be to refer to the ineffable as access to something beyond the physical. We can’t express it in more specific phenomenal terms in the physical universe because it has no corresponding link to any physical process or known physical laws.

Mother Nature, in her wisdom—the universe as a living entity—has indications, signs, intuitions, and inferences we can make in order to recognize that while we interpret the temporal nature of the physical universe generally as being composed of matter and energy, we also suppose that the non-material aspects and awareness of the spirit of life, suggest a simultaneous link to a kind of “divinity.”

Our complex human physiology and our extraordinarily complex neurophysiology may provide a window into our inner worlds, but is more correct to phrase our understanding of our physical nature as “a means to an end.”

A Spiritual Hunger

“At the turn of the last century, people’s hope was in science, technology, and modern progress. As we approached this millennium, we realized the extent of that progress, and that it hasn’t taken us far enough. There is a part of us that still has a spiritual hunger. We have spent the past century looking at outer space and exploring that, and we’ve realized the importance of reflecting on inner space, the soul within.”

–D. Michael Lindsay, Ph.D. in Sociology from Princeton University, excerpt from “Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs

From the earliest inklings of creativity in our ancient ancestors, who painted images from their world in the caves of Chauvet some 35,000 years ago, through the development of symbolic writing on cuneiform tablets, which recorded the hymns and prayers of the kingdoms of Mesopotamia in the ancient Near East, to the pictographic hieroglyphs of early Egyptian love poetry, and the ancient verse of India and China, human beings have searched for ways to express the spirit of love and of life, which permeates our existence still today. We have become more sophisticated and technologically advanced, gaining in knowledge and experience exponentially as the centuries have accumulated, but with all the advances and profound alterations of the millennia since the first written accounts appeared, we have never outgrown our need to express the spirit within us.

We are part of a fantastic heritage of poetic expression throughout the history of humanity, and it is as definitive a proof of the existence of the human spirit as we are likely to ever know in any age.

Anonymous (c. 1567-1085 B.C.)

Without your love, my heart would beat no more;
Without your love, sweet cake seems only salt;
Without your love, sweet “shedeh” turns to bile. (*shedeh* = ancient Egyptian drink made from red grapes)
O listen, darling, my heart’s life needs your love;
For when you breathe, mine is the heart that beats.

–excerpt from a Bronze Age Egyptian courtship poem, translated by Ezra Pound and Noel Stock, 1998 volume of World Poetry

Centuries later, as an emerging adult in the 20th century, I penned a courtship poem of my own, which shows, perhaps, how little has changed in human nature, in spite of advancement in numerous other ways:

Spirit of Love

“A long time ago, in centuries past,
We existed on a plane that can no longer be reached.
It is clearly in the past, but it also here and now
In my wandering mind. We breathed the same air.
Our hearts beat in rhythmic unison.
I gazed deeply into your eyes; inhaled the scent
Which rose from your body as I embraced the spirit inside you.

At such moments, though bodies only touch, spirits merge;
We were lovers, with lips pressed together–
We were one–my heart rose with each embrace;
My spirit expanded until it encompassed yours;
It has happened a hundred times a hundred times over centuries
And now, I know your spirit.
I can see myself in you;
Our paths are illuminated by each other.

As a young man, unaware that he was on the threshold of a profound awakening, the tumultuous events which would follow my arrival at the doorstep of my truly independent life were only heightened by a growing acknowledgement of being without a Polestar, for the first time in my young life, and by my inability to turn off the extraordinary natural inclination to open myself to whatever might come. While it may have been the traumatic and unprepared transition to independence that left me vulnerable to the events which followed, the power of my connection to something beyond the immediate moment in which I was living made the impact even greater.

Growing up in a large extended family, an emphasis was often stated not only about my responsibility to care about those within the family circle, but also to those outside of that world and into the world-at-large. As a result, I developed a more conscientious approach to social interactions as I grew into adulthood, and frequently found myself engaged in a greater degree of involvement emotionally and psychologically in a variety of relationships. Consequently, an even greater sense of empathy began to take hold than was already established as an almost inherited trait. Whatever part of the brain that handles our inherent tendency for empathy must surely have been more expanded in my case, to the point of bordering on possessing a pathological condition, given that my experiences many times seemed to exceed those of most others I encountered.

In retrospect, it seems that my own keen sense of extending myself toward others, may have amplified the same natural sense within them, in some cases, sparking a kind of alarm or surprise, which they occasionally found unsettling and unexpected. When this sense within ME was fully engaged, it always felt like a consequence of my inner self RECEIVING stimulus from a source outside of myself, and the resulting heightened perceptions, far from being something I would naturally choose or impose on a given situation, felt completely natural and shared–a resonance of sorts–with empathic waves being directed AT ME.

Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist described the process of our unfolding development as Individuation, “an expression of that biological process–simple or complicated as the case may be–by which every living thing becomes what it is destined to become from the beginning. This process naturally expresses itself in man as much psychically as somatically.”

There are two competing schools of thought that still persist in pursuing a greater understanding of our true nature, and while I continue to contemplate how they must both be approaching that understanding, these quotes show the ongoing dilemma of the contrast:

“What it means to be me cannot be reduced to or uploaded to a software program running on a robot, no matter how sophisticated. We are flesh and blood biological animals, whose conscious experiences are shaped at all levels by the biological mechanisms that keep us alive.”

–Anil Seth, British professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex

“At the heart of consciousness is the transcendence of thought; a newfound ability of rising above thought, and realizing a dimension within ourselves that is infinitely more vast than thought…Each of us is a vehicle through which consciousness operates.”

–Eckhart Tolle, author of “The Power of Now,” and “A New Earth.”

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.