Ancient Beginnings

–Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen.

“We must fight…against old age. We must compensate for its drawbacks by constant care and attend to its defects as if it were a disease. We can do this by following a plan of healthy living, exercising in moderation, and eating and drinking just enough to restore our bodies without overburdening them. And as much as we should care for our bodies, we should pay even more attention to our minds and spirits. For they, like lamps of oil, will grow dim with time if not replenished. And even though physical exercise may tire the body, mental activity makes the mind sharper.”

“How wonderful it is for the soul when—after so many struggles with lust, ambition, strife, quarreling, and other passions—these battles are at last ended and it can return, as they say, to live within itself. There is no greater satisfaction to be had in life than a leisurely old age devoted to knowledge and learning.”

—excerpts from Cicero’s essay, “On Old Age,” —44 B.C.

An orator, philosopher, poet, and activist politician in his day, Cicero became consul of Rome in 63 BC—Rome’s highest political office. He wrote much that is worth reviewing and the quote above seemed to resonate for me currently, as I am paying “even more attention to (my) mind and spirit, so that they won’t “…grow dim with time.” My life is not what I would describe as “leisurely” exactly, and although I do have more time to devote to “knowledge and learning,” it’s still a struggle to balance what is possible to do and what is required of me.

This month I wanted to set the stage for a review of some of the main foundational subjects about which I have been writing, particularly for those who may be only recently encountering the nearly three hundred postings here. Over the past several weeks, I have spent a fair amount of time in support of my newest granddaughter, who just arrived home from the hospital this past weekend, and I’m happy to report that she is not only well and healthy, but simply perfect in every way.

Holding my beautiful granddaughter and sharing intimate family moments is not only a privilege of great value to me, but perhaps even more importantly, it is an unambiguous affirmation of the existence of the human spirit, which may not be possible to achieve in another way. The awareness of the presence of spirit in this situation is primarily intuitive and subjective, but unmistakable.

Her arrival on Earth has been a momentous one for the family and watching my son and his wife caring for their first child, feeling all of the emotions and concerns that come along with it, I can’t help but reflect on these very same moments in my own life, when I brought my son home for the first time.

 

 

The experiences I have known as a grandfather or any number of individual phenomena clearly cannot, by themselves, fully explain or illuminate comprehensively the broader subject of the nature of our subjective experience of human consciousness, nor do they necessarily compare in intensity or magnitude to other reported mystical or spiritual awakenings over the centuries, but considered together in the broadest sense of human experience, they do provide a window into the character and quality of our humanity, and since I bring decades of serious contemplation of the subject with me to such experiences, for me, they lead to at least a solid opening for a discussion.

In order to begin to understand our subjective inner experience, we have to imagine what life must have been like for our earliest ancestors, who possessed all the requisite physical structures for a comprehensive cognitive system in their brain architecture, but were only slowly becoming self-aware in a meaningful way, and who were beginning to devise ways of demonstrating it to themselves and to their fellow Homo sapiens. These capacities did not develop suddenly, nor were our early ancestors equipped initially to make use of them once they did appear. Our ancient beginnings were humble indeed.

Although several locations in Europe boast of ancient cave paintings with remarkably detailed renderings of a variety of animals known to exist in prehistory, there have been very few discoveries of images or objects depicting human figures recovered in excavations of prehistoric archeological sites in Europe, and the earliest occurrence of such images in any significant number now appear to have been located in South Africa, in the Drakensberg Mountains.

According to the popular PBS documentary series, “Civilizations,” the San Bushmen hunter/gatherer culture produced a number of displays of prehistoric artwork, placed there tens of thousands of years ago, which feature multiple instances of human figures included in the paintings on the cave walls of those ancient sites, indicating some of the earliest links to what the narrator describes as “…clues to the birth of the creative impulse, and modern human self-consciousness.” I highly recommend you locate this series on your local PBS station or other outlet, and several of these images are from the series.

Discoveries in several locations throughout the African continent provide remnants from the ancient world, which suggest evidence of the earliest attempts to build large communities, based on practical considerations of sustenance and survival, like the early development of agriculture about ten thousand years ago.

About seven thousand years ago, in what we refer to as the “fertile crescent,” and “the cradle of civilization,” in the area between the Tigress and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq, the first evidence of the establishment of “true cities,” can be found in areas where the remains of ancient cities like Eridu and Uruk were once located.

Perhaps as early as five thousand years ago, artwork became more deliberate and more potent as these early civilizations became more complex as unified cultures, and centers of power. Some of the earliest recorded writings in ancient scripts, according to the narration in the series, recorded ordinary events like “…the payment of taxes,” but sometimes “…told the stories of gods and heroes.”

Around four thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians began to establish trade with the Minoans, on the island of Crete, part of modern day Greece. The gradual rise and eventual disappearance of many of the ancient civilizations led to a blending of traditions, and the dissemination of a variety of languages and cultural influences, which are still evident today in our modern societies.

Even more intriguing, was the discovery of the ancient city of Petra in modern day Jordan, established by the Nabataean Empire around 400 B.C., where the thriving culture carved out some of the most spectacular stone edifices of ancient times. Although the living, breathing trade center and creative culture in what was then the capital city of the time, only lasted approximately three hundred years, they left behind an extraordinary legacy of engineering acumen, evidenced in the “…cisterns and reservoirs,” to trap the winter rains, and a flourishing artistic heritage in the stone sculptures, elaborate mosaics, and legendary gardens, enjoyed by a population at its peak of about 30,000 people.

Looking back over the millennia through recorded human history, it appears that while our cognitive and creative capacities during these early epochs, began to gradually produce ever-more elaborate demonstrations of “modern human self-consciousness,” it would take tens of thousands of years to develop a more nuanced and sophisticated capacity for our modern day form of human consciousness.

…more to come…

Awareness and Consciousness

“Solitude seems to me to wear the best favor in such as have already employed their most active and flourishing age in the world’s service…We have lived enough for others; let us at least live out the small remnant of life for ourselves; let us now call in our thoughts and intentions to ourselves, and to our own ease and repose…”

—excerpt from Michel de Montaigne’s “On Solitude.”

Greetings to all my subscribers, casual readers, and visitors here. Hopefully, 2019 is shaping up to be a better year for us all, and I encourage everyone stopping by or returning here for a visit to remain open to new ideas, and to look inward to seek an expansion of our understanding of ourselves and the world-at-large in the New Year.

Over the past eight years on John’s Consciousness, the primary subject I have chosen to pursue, concerning the complex machinations of our subjective experience and the nature of consciousness itself, can be quite challenging to write about in a way that is accessible to the general reader, and I am constantly searching for ways to relate my own and other people’s personal experiences as a means of illuminating the many facets and mysteries surrounding the human subjective experience. The subject also requires of the readers here having some familiarity with the subject from a modern perspective, and now that I am enjoying a greater degree of “ease and repose,” I feel compelled to “at least live out the small remnant of life,” that remains, by attempting to summarize my general understanding of the subject as well. This is the first installment of that summary, which hopefully will be followed by a more elaborate treatment of specific areas of concern in the blog posts to come.

Possessing a comprehensive cognitive awareness of being aware, knowing that we exist, and knowing that we know, so far as we know, can only be attributed to humans currently, which uniquely empowers us to know we exist as a self-aware, individual person, to devise complex plans, to imagine unseen worlds, and to choose even reprehensible or unnatural behaviors, as well as to directly change and influence our environment. It is my contention that all of this is made possible by virtue of an elaborate synthesis of both temporal and ineffable elements. While this idea represents a challenge to our 21st century scientific community, it is not completely intractable. As with most phenomena with multiple layers of both coherent and ambiguous components, the connections between disparate elements are often only possible to discern with determined effort, and an open-minded approach as to how these aspects might come together.

Ever since the hominid brain evolved sufficiently to provide modern humans with an adequate degree of species-specific cognitive talent, which remains undetected in any other known species, the blossoming of conscious awareness slowly provided Homo sapiens with the ability to not only be aware that they exist, but to utilize this new ability deliberately and to do so quite often with a predetermined purpose, not necessarily instinctive in nature, nor in our best interests always. It seems likely that some form of this ability may have been present in several other early hominid species, but only began to coalesce into a functional and more useful process during the Aurignacian epoch, where a fuller development of our higher cognitive functioning was facilitated by a gradual but significant increase in the complexity of the cerebral cortex.

While very little solid evidence of any truly functional self-awareness has been found prior to that time, I think even the most empirically-minded paleoanthropologist would concede the likelihood, that the process of human evolution provided the capacity for our enhanced cognitive skills long before we were able to take full advantage of them or to demonstrate them.

The ability for complex thinking and to remember what we think, when combined with an expanding comprehension of the world generally in which the thinking occurred, led to an increasingly sophisticated thought process, which may initially have flourished because it enhanced our ability to survive as a species, but ultimately imparted a great deal more than a survival advantage. Once the potential for meaningful self-awareness was in place, it slowly began to manifest in demonstrative ways as we have seen in the early cave paintings by our primitive ancestors. The journey from those ancient beginnings to the modern day variety of human consciousness shows a remarkable range and variety of progress and aptitudes, which were a direct result of a gradual development of a more richly textured and nuanced human variety of self-awareness.

Ask any parent or caretaker of a human baby—especially when they occupy that role the majority of the time and are observant of the child’s progress—and they will likely report a gradual degree of increasing awareness in that child as time passes. As a child learns to accomplish a greater number of complex tasks through play and begins to make associations with objects and sounds, they will begin to demonstrate increasing sophistication with the use of specific sounds to get what they need or want.

As a direct result of trial and error in many behavioral choices, as well as accumulating experience and memory in all basic human functions, once they are able to combine their experience and knowledge of specific sounds with the memory of the results achieved by doing so, they begin to acquire an expanded functional ability with language, and undergo a transformation to a wider awareness that naturally unfolds.

What is most intriguing about observing the blossoming of modern consciousness in a 21st century child, aside from the insights we can gain about the process of cognition generally, is the intimation that there might be a correlation between the development of consciousness in children today and the evolutionary path which resulted in the achievement of cognitive self-awareness in the first place.

We infer from the available evidence in the fossil record that while our ancient hominid predecessors may have possessed remarkably similar brain architecture for hundreds of thousands of years, they were very likely not fully or cognitively self-aware in a way that would permit a more developed sense of how to utilize that awareness for much of that time.

The survival advantage conferred by a sufficiently complex cerebral cortex which could facilitate such awareness only became demonstrably clear with what is now viewed as the likely species-ending interbreeding of the Neanderthals with their more cognitively talented and successful Cro-Magnon competitors. Whatever degree of consciousness was adequate to impart that advantage to modern humans, once it took hold, sophisticated and functional self-awareness appeared to be one of the defining hallmarks of a successful hominid species.

While it is clear from an evolutionary perspective that any ability or pattern of behavior which enhanced the survivability of our species would favor those who employed them, at some point, higher levels of cognitive functioning began to impart what scientists like to describe as “secondary” or “coincidental” subsequent advantages and capacities. Creative use of our development of cognitive skills for survival, also presented us, by coincidence, with a creative capacity for art and music and mythology. Awareness of our inner mental imagery and development of a complex grammatical language to express that imagery, as an enhanced survival strategy, also just happened to provide us with a way to construct elaborate creative solutions to our questions about the mysterious workings of the world around us.

According to the empirically minded amongst us, now that we have finally progressed to the point where we can resolve many of the questions about how the universe came about and to comprehend the underlying principles of the physical laws which govern the universe we observe, whatever value creativity may have in other realms is interesting to be sure, but unlikely to yield much in the way of explanation of our fundamental character as cognitive creatures.

Those whose emphasis is concentrated more toward the ineffable or spiritual realms often tend to downplay the benefits of the empirical scientific view, except when it pertains to physical facts about our complex human biology, and feel strongly that it cannot adequately explain our subjective experience of consciousness; the “what it’s like” experience of being human. It leaves unanswered all of our most pressing questions related to the transcendent. It seems more likely to me that a comprehensive theory of consciousness will contain elements from both ends of the spectrum of ideas in this matter.

The concept of transcendence, going beyond the ordinary limits of our physical existence, and theories dealing with the incorporeal and elusive aspects of human existence, do not lend themselves well to empirical scrutiny, but the astonishingly complex workings of our evolving cognitive capacities require us to acknowledge that there may be a profoundly important fundamental connection between these concepts with the equally astonishing cognitive functioning which facilitates our subjective “what it’s like” experience of consciousness.

The idea that transcendence is expressed through our richly textured subjective experience of existence as temporal beings, and that we rely on the many complex interactions of cognitive functioning for access to our temporal awareness of the transcendent, offers a path to a possible middle ground, which may just assist us in achieving greater progress in this study.

There are several schools of thought which currently dominate the arena of consciousness study, and each one actually offers a degree of insight into what David Chalmers has called, “the hard problem,” presented by the apparent lack of adequate evidence to explain what we perceive as the naturalistic dualism of cognition and consciousness.

As Chalmers points out, even with all the progress in our current understanding of the workings of the brain, as fascinating and comprehensive as it has become recently with the great strides made in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive studies, none of it seems to account very well for the highly subjective component of experiential, sentient, self-awareness. Progress in understanding and explaining our brain physiology, which facilitates our perceptions and neurological functioning, is slowly unraveling the tangled web surrounding our observations of activity within the brain and between brain regions.

What we seem to be missing along the way, is why these astonishing discoveries of how the brain works, and the role of genetic and chemical components in the equations which describe brain physiology, as well as the advances in fMRI technology, fall short of explaining our experiential awareness. In my view, it is precisely because they do not adequately address the fullness of human consciousness, and do not take into account the many possibilities represented in a variety of alternate modern ideas, which express a burgeoning and keen awareness of an essential interaction of non-physical aspects supporting and integrating with our experience of temporal subjective awareness.

This year on John’s Consciousness, I will be working to explain and integrate some of these attempts to bring together the disparate competing theories, and to offer insights gathered over the last eight years on this site.

2019 started for me with the arrival of my newest grandchild! This newborn beauty will, no doubt, provide much in the way of educational and familial insights, as well as illuminate in a clear way, the process of gaining an increasing degree of awareness as she grows. Solitude will have to wait whenever she requires my attention and love.

Looking forward to our ongoing dialog and sharing with all my readers.

Interconnected and Interdependent

“Both intuitive and interactive, the gnostic approach to faith is a sacred quest for greater knowledge, understanding, and wisdom—a deeper penetration of the Mystery. This path leads to a higher degree of the enlightenment experience or gnosis. The Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas reveals how the reader can use each verse in this scripture as a source of daily contemplation and spiritual growth, while exploring…other mystical and magical teachings.”

–from the description of the text on Amazon.com

In a previous posting, I spoke of a “World Outside of Our World,” and wrote about the difficulties we face, as temporal beings, when we attempt to describe, in any comprehensive manner, those aspects of our existence which do not lend themselves easily to such descriptions. Since by the very nature of our subjective experience of the world, we have a unique view that is only possible for us as individuals to know intimately, we must acknowledge a built-in impediment to empirical verification of what it might be like to experience the world for anyone other than us.

At the same time, based on our own reactions to the experience of temporal life, it seems reasonable to allow ourselves, at least to a small degree, some leeway in considering, from the real-world responses of other sentient beings, that there are commonalities and some shared levels of experience that might be described as universal among human participants with regard to “what it’s like” to be human. It is also possible that we share much more in common with our fellow travelers in this life than we realize or can confirm with any certainty, but as a purely philosophical question, I thought it might be more useful to frame the conversation in terms of what MIGHT be possible, since scientific certainty continues to elude us currently in the 21st century.

“To love, to gain knowledge, to uplift humanity…is the purpose and meaning of this life. This name and form have meaning to the extent that (universal) consciousness is embodied. That is why the soul enters into this life, so that the being of the becoming that is within you might incarnate and the world to come might manifest. If you accomplish something of this great work, then all that you do in this life will be filled with meaning.”

–excerpt from Gnostic Gospels, Verse 2

Great progress is being made in the areas of neuroscience, cognitive studies, and in modern psychiatric research, regarding the roles of specific brain regions in higher cognitive functioning, associative chemical and genetic components in pathology and functionality, and a host of other related research projects that are producing new insights and expanding our understanding generally.

What concerns me greatly, as someone whose major life events have often been characterized by a variety of extraordinary moments and inscrutable experiences, is that not enough attention is being given to experiences that fall outside of our ability to explain empirically, and in the service of giving more attention to those experiences, I’ve consulted a variety of sacred texts and spiritual resources over the years, including, as quoted here, the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas.

While it’s completely reasonable to point out the importance of comprehending the science of the brain, reviewing the full spectrum of thought throughout the thousands of years of human history, as I have done for nearly thirty years now, suggests to me that the more speculative and intangible aspects of human experience may hold even greater significance in coming to terms with human consciousness than any number of studies of the physical brain.

Credit: [ The Art Archive / Kharbine-Tapabor ] ¥ Ref: AA529033

“If you think you are something, if you think you are a substantial and independent self-existence, a solid or fixed entity, it is greatly troubling to discover that your secret center is no-thing, that you are empty of any substantial or independent self-existence. Discovering this, however, you then realize that this is the very nature of everything in existence. You discover that everything is impermanent, that everything changes. Reality is empty of any substantial and independent self-existence.”

–excerpt from Verse 3, Gnostic Gospels

Attempting to describe a “world outside of our world,”—to even call it “a world,”—requires us to acknowledge our current inability to address it in terms that are appropriate as a contrast to the physical world itself. Since we cannot participate fully in or interact directly with any non-physical realm, at least while we participate in our daily waking experience of temporal life, it can appear to the more materialistic among us that such realms fall under the category of either imagination or hallucination.

Many accounts of encounters with mysterious or otherwise temporally inexplicable phenomena often take place under an extreme circumstance like a near-death-experience, during times of great stress, or as the result of trauma. They can also occur while we suspend, in some manner, our usual routines and seek, through the practice of meditation or by an act of deliberate intention, to elicit some temporary deferment of our familiar temporal sensory experience.

“You must seek in order to discover the Spirit and Truth and must continue seeking until you realize the Spirit indwelling you and know the Truth in your own experience. It is not enough that another person has discovered the Truth. Each individual must seek and strive to discover it…”

—excerpt from Gnostic Gospels, Verse 2

If we are reasonably “self-aware,” we can recognize moments where our everyday experience of the senses becomes mitigated enough to approach the threshold of our inner experience of our deeper self. With regular deliberate attention, we open ourselves to acquiring glimpses of this non-corporeal aspect—experiencing moments where the two cross over—and there is an entry point between the two where we encroach upon that threshold, where the spirit which inhabits the body can shine through. As the veneer of physicality recedes, we disassociate ourselves from our physical bodies briefly. It is very difficult to sustain at first, and even with practice, we only seem to be able to persist in such a state for brief periods.

Occasionally, encounters with such mysteries and unexplained phenomena occur spontaneously, or are precipitated by unexpected circumstances over which we have no volitional input. Conversely, just because we actively seek a greater understanding as a matter of course, placing ourselves deliberately on the path toward transcendence and the spirit, we are not necessarily guaranteed an instant or satisfying result in every instance.

“Such is the nature of reality, this magical display of consciousness. The inside and the outside are not separate but are intimately connected. The reality of your experience is the magical display of your own consciousness. A change in consciousness brings about a corresponding change in the reality you encounter. A change in the reality you encounter is an expression of a change in consciousness.”

“The individual, the collective, and the universal consciousness are completely interconnected and interdependent. You alone are not the creator of the reality you experience. Every living being is a unique individual expression of (consciousness)…and a co-creator (with Life) of the reality you experience.”

–edited excerpts from the Gnostic Gospels, Verse 3

This interconnection and interdependence is, in my view, an essential component of our existence as both temporal and spiritual creatures. We are a multifarious conglomeration of systems and circumstances, and in view of this complexity, it seems reasonable to suggest that the whole of our complex human nature cannot be described simply in terms of our physical systems. It may be that we are still too young as a cognitive species, and haven’t had sufficient time to evolve into beings who can broadly perceive this connection—this door opening—this threshold to the world outside of our world.

It might also be true that the spirit which inhabits our bodies, which animates us, which is the vehicle for our awareness of these experiences in this life, also provides access to the world outside of ours, and since it is so difficult to articulate a comprehensive understanding of it, we view it as mysterious and can easily dismiss any potential stimulus from a non-physical source. Experiences which point to the possible existence of a spiritual or non-physical aspect to our nature are also often disregarded because we can provide no rational or empirical cause in temporal terms.

What frequently flies in the face of all such rational objections are the subjective affirmations which occur inside those of us who, without any wish to do so, endure encounters with extraordinary events. Many times, we often seem only to be able to infer possible explanations. How could such an encounter with a purely subjective embrace of a non-material world be explained other than by inference, by an informed awareness, or by some intuitive rationale? Our entire human history is replete with examples of individuals and groups making earnest attempts to do so, and eventually the subject became the purview of scholarly attentions, many of which persist to this day as potential sources of exploration for all varieties of seekers.

The quotes from the Gnostic Gospels are only one example of many which have appeared throughout human history, and there are many others which have appeared here on my blog over the last eight years or so, and even though I would not endorse any one particular viewpoint, so far, as a definitive source providing a holistic explanation for our subjective experience of human consciousness, when viewed in total, and considering the many overlapping points within each source, it seems to me that we must acknowledge, at least in the broadest sense, that all of them point to the value of exploring and being open to what may be possible.

“Everything is interconnected and interdependent; it is the nature of things ever-becoming. You must learn to accept and embrace the whole of life and the whole of yourself if you would discover the Spirit and Truth. The Light and the Darkness must be joined and you must realize the Sacred Unity.”

“When people speak about the gnostic gospels, they are almost always referring to a collection of ancient writings (in Coptic) that were discovered near the upper Nile village of Nag Hammadi, in Egypt, in 1945. These manuscripts, which scholars have dated to the fourth century, were most likely hidden in an effort to preserve them from destruction following a decree of St. Athanasius banning the use of heretical writings. An English translation of these documents has been published and can be easily referenced online.”

—quote from http://www.nwcatholic.org/spirituality

Auguries of Autumn

As is often the case with the approach of the autumn season, I can strongly sense that change is coming, and it’s not just in the dazzling panoply of autumn leaves. My spirit—my soul—the very essence of my existence—is rising. I feel its approach; I sense its immanent arrival; and I welcome it. I understand well now, from considering and investigating a variety of experiences over a number of decades, that there will likely be aspects of what is to come, which may not be easily explained in simple terms. Not all of it will be comforting, or logical, or immediately seem sensible, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that those who read my thoughts and feelings and descriptions of sensations and experiences—any who do—begin to look within themselves, to consider whether or not the events of their own lives might contain even the smallest intimations of a similar character, and to explore those connections, in spite of how inconsequential they may seem on the surface.

As I approach the proverbial edges of my life—along the increasingly precarious ledge of my existence—I look out across the landscape of years, and I can see an expansive collection of naturally occurring, but personally significant vistas stretching out toward the horizon, while also acknowledging an unflinching awareness of the miniscule components of this very moment now. I cannot say what will come of all this. I cannot predict how life will unfold, but I do know that my senses, my cognitive capacities, my perceptions of reality—the reality that I know every day—is infused with the spirit.

While I cannot necessarily dispel all the doubts of those who prefer materialistic or empirical proofs, subjectively, within my inner world, there is a certainty that does not cease. There is a progression of consciousness—a fulfillment of the promise represented in the experiences that have occurred throughout my life. The potentialities I have uncovered in the course of my investigations are starting to ring true, as they coalesce into possibilities, and as the implications for a greater understanding of the nature of our humanity become clearer.

In my heart and mind, and in my very soul, I sense the coming of change. As we look around at the world in which we currently exist, many of us might wish to characterize the events transpiring all around us as “the beginning of the end.” I see it differently. To me, it seems much more like the beginning of a transition—a gradual abandonment of the old ways, trending toward the embrace of new ways to come.

In doing so, we should not abandon our senses. We should not abandon our advances in science and technology; we should simply recognize that certain thresholds continue to present themselves, which are currently perplexing because we cannot seem to traverse them or to reach beyond them. Eventually, we may, at some point in the future, be able to unravel some of these mysteries through the application of empirical processes, and the continued pursuit of science is an essential and noble undertaking. But even with tens of thousands of years of existence as functionally cognitive and sentient human beings, one thing remains true. There are still significant barriers to our understanding, and in all of my explorations, I haven’t seen anything to dissuade me from subjectively affirming a positive and enriching growth in understanding that can only be attributable to forces and energies that could very well be, beyond empirical confirmation.

Throughout my life, I have had numerous interactions with the natural world, during which I would be, in certain clear ways, isolated and insulated from my “civilized” and predictable experience of modern life, which would then be supplanted by an experience of unbridled natural involvement that brought about an altered state of consciousness. Within the seemingly limitless boundaries of what Emerson described as “the plantations of God,” ambling through primeval forests, resting upon the precarious edges of mountain cliffs, experiencing the often astonishingly captivating symphonies of nature, at times, I am gripped by the influence of…

…an ocean of trees,

…raging rivers,

…and tranquil lakes.

During such episodes, one cannot help but sense the energetic vibrations coursing through the varieties of living organisms that surround the visitor upon reflection, suggesting both a visceral and an insubstantial connection to every living entity. Carl Jung once expressed the experience of nature and being a physical creature in a physical universe that somehow includes an experience of unity of all life and all existence:

In his later life, Jung wrote reflectively about how he arrived at many of his insights while exploring the human psyche, and concluded that:

“…no experimental methodology ever has or ever will succeed in capturing the essence of the human soul, or even so much as tracing out an approximately faithful picture of its complex manifestations.”

The role of subjective experience in defining human consciousness cannot be minimized, but while the mysterious link between the two may be vital to our awareness of its existence, it seems to me that such experience can more accurately be described as the foundation of or as a catalyst for connecting to the universe of consciousness.

I am starting to see more sympathetic responses to my reports of these investigations, striking chords of familiarity with those who encounter them—individuals from all across the world—many of whom have stopped to visit and share their own ideas. It is difficult to predict what the outcome of all these efforts might be, but the importance of following this path remains clear. I must continue to pursue my research, to write about and share my heartfelt and considered feelings regarding my own subjective experiences, and to attempt to interpret and reveal whatever layers of meaning might be inferred as a result.

A Leap of Faith

What is the value of positing a theory of consciousness which is beyond our current capacity to demonstrate empirically?

Even supposing that the full explanation behind the extraordinarily vivid and deeply personal subjective experience we enjoy as living creatures, includes aspects or energies that cannot be verified objectively by any known scientific process, does not preclude the existence of such components, simply because we cannot currently determine their precise nature and origin.

There have been other speculative theories and unconventional ideas proposed in the past which were met with derision and thought to be completely wrong, which eventually gained traction and became widely accepted, such as the arrangement of planets in our solar system, the shape of the earth, and the origins of disease.

For a time, these ideas had no means available to be demonstrated empirically, and were thought to be ridiculous by the conventional wisdom of the times in which they appeared. If we have learned anything over the centuries of recorded human history, we have, at the very least, discovered that the limits of our understanding today are very likely to be replaced by an expanded view at some point in the future.

In my view, the only way to accomplish this is to entertain and explore ideas which may, at some point, require us to make a “leap of faith,” in order to begin the process of uncovering what is now hidden or simply misunderstood using the current paradigm.

Some of the current theories being explored in particle physics suggest that the nature of the physical world as we understand it in this epoch may be radically different than what has been proposed in the past, and while much of what is being suggested often pushes the limits of our understanding, there is a growing movement within the scientific community to pursue these ideas, in spite of resistance from other well-established schools of thought. If we are willing to speculate about the existence of a multiverse, of tiny vibrating strings at the heart of the subatomic world, and multiple dimensions beyond our human perceptive abilities, surely the idea that consciousness is a manifestation of a fundamental force pervading the universe could be explored and given a sustained effort to unravel that possibility.

Recently, as I have reviewed many of my own life experiences, many of which I have described here in this blog, I realized that my long and winding path has given me a degree of confidence to assert, now almost thirty years later, that human consciousness, the essential subjective experience of being alive–self-awareness–whatever term you wish to apply–has at its core, a deeply spiritual component. By expressing it in these terms, I do NOT infer a religious component, but rather, a “non-physical” component. While most of the world’s religions have referred to this “non-physical component” as “the soul” or “the divine”, giving it a “religious connotation,” I believe that it is spiritual in nature, meaning “non-physical,” but also with a deep and meaningful implication, alluding to an intelligence beyond human intelligence, (not alien or extraterrestrial) but simply existing outside of the physical universe.

We are only now, in this epoch of humanity, beginning to probe scientifically the nature of human consciousness, including an expansive study of our cognitive functions and brain physiology, developing a comprehensive neuroscience, and figuring out how it all works. There are huge gaps in our ability to explain how all of the neurological functions and synaptic activity, combined with a delicate electro-chemical balance within the brain and nervous system create the results we observe and experience in the richly diverse subjective experience of being alive. In spite of enormous strides in the science of the brain in the past few decades, none of the science so far has been able to explain our profoundly personal and finely textured understanding of what it means to exist as a sentient and keenly self-aware being.

It is my theory, based on almost thirty years of study in all the related fields, that what we sometimes refer to as the “human spirit,” or whatever term you prefer to use, is the manifestation of what may potentially be a non-physical source responsible for the creation of the physical universe, and by inference then, the existence of all life as we know it. It also seems entirely plausible to me that there may exist within us, capacities or aspects as yet unknown or undetermined by our science, which either tap into this “non-physical” source through human consciousness, or which may one day assist us in revealing and explaining the “what it’s like” experience of existing in the physical world.

With the possible exception of philosophers and poets, the inclusion of these concepts in a comprehensive understanding of consciousness continues to be problematical. The suggestion that non-physical energies or forces or components could have a vital role in explaining our subjective experience of the world, especially in consideration of the profoundly important developments in neuroscience, genetics, and cognitive studies, often seems less appealing since empirically establishing such connections is currently beyond our established cognitive capacities. Whether or not we may eventually discover empirical proofs, or perhaps expand those capacities in a way that could allow empirical confirmation of some sort, is still an open question. It is my contention, however, that the only way for such discoveries or capacities to be realized, is to vigorously engage the possibility.

Since beginning the process of documenting my journey of discovery and enrichment of my inner world, my personal and research journals have gradually become more concerned with the inclusion of many empirical sources, and serious consideration of my personal perspective from the standpoint of those who do not necessarily share my enthusiasm for inclusion of elements that are currently outside of empirical scrutiny. Several of these sources have had a profound effect on my evaluations and conclusions, and have served to temper my enthusiasm somewhat, but in a way that has enhanced my progress.

Everything I have studied and read and felt since my own profoundly disturbing and consciousness-altering mystical experience in 1973 at the age of twenty, which I have come to view as an encounter with what Jung describes as “unconscious contents,” has pointed in the direction of a blending of the empirical with the mystical. At the heart of the dilemma in bringing these two disparate ends together is not so much the inexplicable resistance to unconventional ideas that Jung referred to in his autobiography, as it is the essential quality of maintaining a degree of certainty from both sides that is only truly possible to experience subjectively.

The physiological processes in the brain which make it possible for us to confirm at least subjectively that we possess a keen and potent “awareness” and which allow us to interact in a meaningful way with other sentient beings are indeed fascinating, and modern humans have clearly evolved both culturally and cognitively in a way that the hominids of 160,000 years ago could not have even imagined. The overload of connections which currently plague many of us are undoubtedly in need of attention, and I find myself in complete agreement with those who suggest a regimen of contemplation, periodic disconnection from all the maddening chaos of modern life, in order to create an environment within which we can make a beginning toward recognizing that we truly have an obligation to direct the results of our conscious awareness in a considerate and thoughtful manner.

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 or parcel of our continued evolution as a species since upright humans first walked the earth.

There have been a significant number of individuals in my life with whom I have felt a clearly powerful and profoundly affective connection, and even though our individual temporal lives often eventually went in a completely different direction, continuing to pursue each opportunity to develop new unique relationships has remained a priority for me, not just on a personal level, but also as an affirmation of a much more expansive, natural, and spiritual aspect to human nature.

Perception and Introspection

Ever find yourself staring out into a natural landscape, almost intoxicated by the immediate sensory experience, and suddenly find yourself ruminating thoroughly within your inner world? This happens to me a lot, and when I came upon views like this one along the cascade trail in the Jefferson National Forest in Pembroke, Virginia, I couldn’t seem to avoid drifting off introspectively all along the winding path leading to the Cascade Falls. Whenever these experiences occur, I often find myself trying to figure out just what it is about our human nature that provides me with such a richness and depth of compelling experience WITHIN…simply by being able to perceive the natural world.

Reading an article on the state of artificial intelligence this morning in the Wall Street Journal, I started thinking about the differences between the nature of that intelligence and the human variety, and decided to probe for myself the extent to which the artificial variety has become a part of my daily experience. Since there are a number of devices and services involved in most of our daily lives these days, which contain components and sources that rely on basic artificial intelligence principles in order to serve our needs and to function in real time, I wondered to what degree that presence was truly evident and useful.

The article in the CIO Journal blog by Tom Loftus talked about the difference between AI smart and human smart:

“To me, I think the fundamental issue is what I call deep understanding versus shallow understanding,” said Charles Elkan, managing director and global head of machine learning at Goldman Sachs. Shallow understanding is the ability to answer a limited range of questions that are similar to each other, he said. Deep understanding, he said, implies broad context and broad knowledge. “The entire spectrum of current algorithms that we know for AI are not going to scale to human intelligence, let alone super-intelligence.”

Since I am typing these words on my laptop computer, it is immediately apparent that my thoughts are being immediately recorded, constantly edited, and eventually refined to my satisfaction (usually) through a reasonably and artificially intelligent machine, which is connected wirelessly to a network device that is connected to a router permitting access to a world-wide web of other computers and routing devices, all seamlessly communicating and providing feedback and information from an array of global resources, all while sitting on my sofa having my morning coffee, which was prepared automatically by my electronic coffee maker, in a room which has a voice activated Alexa, Bluetooth speakers, and a “smart” television, all capable of being connected to my “smartphone,” through which I can control, in significant ways, all of the other devices.

It hardly requires more than a passing familiarity with our 21st century technology to be able to conclude that, in a big way, some aspect of artificial intelligence has made virtually all of this activity possible. With a few keystrokes on my laptop, or the tapping of a few icons on my smartphone, I can connect and engage each of these devices to perform an astonishing array of functions, including a particularly interesting version of conversation with a lovely female sounding, voice-activated device with an apparent capability to understand, to an impressive degree, words and inquiries initiated by me.

In the spirit of intellectual curiosity, I decided to attempt to press the Alexa to push the boundaries of the device’s “intelligence,” to see if I might be able to get it to “make a connection,” between ideas that I bring up in a logical sequence. My first question asked about the definition of artificial intelligence:

Alexa, what is artificial intelligence?

“Artificial intelligence is usually defined as the branch of computer science that deal with writing computer programs that can solve problems creatively.”

(I noticed right away that Alexa made a grammatical error in saying “deal” instead of “deals.”)

Alexa, what is deep learning?

“Deep learning is part of a broader family of machine learning methods based on learning data representations as opposed to task-specific algorithms.”

Alexa, what is an algorithm?

“Algorithm is usually defined as a precise rule or set of rules, specifying how to solve some problem.”

Alexa, give me an example of an algorithm.

“Constraint is a random algorithm.”

Alexa, what is a constraint algorithm?

“In computational chemistry, a constraint algorithm is a method for satisfying the Newtonian motion of a rigid body which consists of mass points.”

While this exchange was interesting in view of interacting with a device using only my voice, and considering that Alexa’s responses to my questions generally were appropriate, the moment I went beyond the simple formulation of asking, “what is,” Alexa quickly resorted to the default response of “I’m not sure,” and “I don’t know the answer to that.” The impressive range of information at Alexa’s disposal, and the ability to respond to specific questions are both useful if you are doing a search, or want to know how to spell a word, but if you want to converse or ask further questions about the material provided, you will be disappointed. I told Alexa that I wanted to have a conversation, and was surprised to hear the device suggest that I engage “a social bot.”

Once I engaged this option, I was momentarily encouraged by the more conversational tone of the words that issued from the speaker. For a moment, the words seemed almost spontaneous, until, instead of saying, “yes,” to a suggestion, I responded with “sure.” Alexa’s chatty response was, “Oh, this is embarrassing, I’m not sure how to respond to what you said…would you like to talk about something else?” It quickly became apparent that there were a limited number of responses that I could give, and that my responses had to conform to a particular pattern or the device would revert to the default suggestion that we talk about something else. The responses became a little longer and there would occasionally be a humorous interjection when the exchange reached its limit, but I tired fairly quickly of having to conform to a formula in order to continue the exchange.

As interesting as even these limited options are in the context of “talking” to a machine, it is painfully obvious that there is really “no one home;” no “ghost in the machine.” There is a clear distinction between my interest in a conversation, and the machines ability to participate in any meaningful way. It is still a practical and interesting way to interact with an information source, and the advantages these devices provide are often surprising.

In the kitchen, there is another device called the “Echo Show,” which utilizes the same algorithms and methods as Alexa, but has the added advantage of being able to provide video results when the opportunity presents itself. When installing the device initially, the default “wake up” word was also Alexa, which immediately caused both devices to respond simultaneously, so I had to change the “wake up” word to “Echo,” in order not to engage the Alexa device at the same time. The advantages of having the option to display a variety of video responses is a clear enhancement of the original concept, but the option to conduct face-to-face video messaging and calls with others who have an Echo device requires giving access to contacts and phone numbers, and currently that seems a bit beyond my comfort zone regarding digital privacy and sharing.

The stark differences between the artificial intelligence supporting the machine and the natural intelligence I was using to interact with it, points to one of the key elements in discussing the potentials inherent in the future of AI development. No matter how sophisticated the sensors and algorithms or models of deep learning become, perception and processing alone are insufficient to produce the ability for introspection or the “inner sense” we experience as living biological and sentient beings. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy expresses it this way:

“Perception is achieved through dedicated organs such as eyes and ears, whereas there is no (literal) organ of introspection. “The ‘organ’ of introspection is attention, the orientation of which puts a subject in an appropriate relation to a targeted state” (Goldman 2006: 244). Perception ordinarily involves sensory experiences, whereas “No one thinks that one is aware of beliefs and thoughts by having sensations or quasi-sense-experiences of them” (Shoemaker 1994: 255). – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

All conscious humans with a nominally functional cognitive apparatus (brain, central nervous system, with basic life supporting and sensory systems intact) combined with sufficient life experience, and at least a minimal ability with language, eventually will acquire a degree of “inner sense experience,” which permits and accounts for our ability for introspection, which differs from simple perception in significant ways.

Artificial Intelligence and Human Life

Fifty-two prominent researchers on intelligence, agreed to a broad definition of the term, “Intelligence:”

“Intelligence is a very general capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test‑taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do. Intelligence, so defined, can be measured, and intelligence tests measure it well”

–Gottfredson, L. S. Mainstream science on intelligence: excerpt from an editorial with 52 signatories, history, and bibliography. Intelligence 24, 13–23 (1997).

Intelligence of the artificial variety, if it is ever to be considered on a par with the human variety, should then include each of these abilities, as well as the capabilities for comprehension, “catching on,” etc. A recent film about this very subject has captured some very important aspects of concern, supposing that there is some sort of breakthrough eventually that creates what might be described as a “conscious machine.”

“Ex Machina,” the 2015 Universal Studio film, directed by Alex Garland, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac, tells the story of a reclusive billionaire genius who owns the largest search engine company in the world, who has built a research facility in a remote mountain setting for the purpose of building an artificially intelligent robot, with the expressed goal of passing the well-known “Turing Test,” for determining if the “machine” is self-aware. As the film opens, Caleb, an employee of the high-tech firm, has won a lottery drawing within the company to visit the CEO, Nathan, at his research station and, as a result, has the opportunity to test the A.I. to see if it is truly “self-aware.” If Nathan has succeeded, he claims that it would be “the most important event in the history of man.” Domhnall Gleeson’s character corrects him by describing it as “the most important event in the history of gods.”

We are immediately thrown into the astonishing world of the newly “born” A.I., Ava, and by virtue of the design of a special high-tech suit, Alicia Vikander’s character appears to be constructed of wires and metal bones, illuminated by a variety of internal lights, and covered strategically by patches of flesh-like “skin,” allowing for the display of facial movements, and to give “Ava,” a basic human appearance. The internal workings are visible enough to suggest how the robot functions, while still providing the basic contours of the human form. It is an accomplished display of special effects which are both astonishingly realistic and profoundly disturbing at the same time. The contrast is designed to be unsettling to the moviegoer—to draw us in and to shock us into believing that it could be accomplished.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is a powerfully compelling story, and I recommend it wholeheartedly as a morality tale, which begs the question of how we would have to treat such entities should they actually qualify as being self-aware, as well as a serious warning about what might happen if we don’t get it right. The character of the robot’s creator, Nathan, clearly isn’t sufficiently cautious regarding the implications of bringing a self-aware robot “online,” and he seems callous and narcissistic as an eccentric billionaire genius.

Story elements aside, many of which were designed to create drama and provide tension, the underlying implications of the circumstances surrounding such an endeavor gave me pause to consider why any future human being capable of such a feat would even want to dabble in such an undertaking in the first place. Regardless of the level of extraordinary intelligence required, bringing such an entity into existence would also require just the right balance of human decency, compassion, and empathy, coupled with profound and penetrating neuroscientific acumen. While the technological and scientific principles supporting such an invention would be of great interest to artificial intelligence advocates generally, and those who would stand to benefit financially and otherwise would have an understandable motive to see it through, the actual created entity itself would present humanity with the most challenging and perplexing dilemma it could ever face—how to know if it would turn out to be a powerfully beneficial scientific breakthrough, or the eventual instrument of our own obsolescence!

At this point in human evolution, the possibility of constructing anything even close to the self-aware robot we meet in the film seems, on the face of it, to be a very unlikely development for a number of reasons. Throughout the film, we are presented with brief glimpses of the architecture and underlying technologies which provide the foundation for how such an entity might be constructed and assembled to achieve the desired result of the project, and none of those elements exist currently in any form even resembling in the slightest degree that which would be necessary for accomplishing this enormously complex task. Using even the most sophisticated and powerful computers known to humanity, we can barely reach a level of AI that even just approximates the sophistication of the most basic nervous system of the most minimally sentient creature.

Several projects being undertaken to “mimic” the human brain, using our most promising approaches for “deep learning,” and the giant “supercomputers” like IBM’s Watson, are simply nowhere near being able to reproduce anything resembling even a fraction of the innate capabilities that our own three pound squishy mental organ can manage, with its trillions of connections inside our exquisitely shaped and evolutionarily designed skulls. This inheritance of the long evolutionary path of modern primates provided Homo sapiens with a distinctly and uniquely capable cognitive system, which exists (so far as we know) only within human beings, and consists of the most complex arrangement of neural networks of any known species. It is presumptuous indeed to suppose that any artificial system might one day exist, which could recreate precisely, that which now exists within us, possessing the same character and quality of a living, breathing, sentient modern human.

Even the tiniest quantum “neurons,” represented by the atomic scale of the components proposed by the advent of quantum computers, require supporting technologies that would seriously prohibit squeezing them into a space as small as the human skull. The character of Ava, portrayed unflinchingly in the film by Alicia Vikander, has so many affectations of modern humans, and is intriguing beyond any expectation of her creator or her Turing tester, that we easily get caught up in suspending our knowledge that no such creature currently exists. The interplay between Caleb and Ava reaches a fever pitch eventually, and we are compelled to hang on to the edge of our seats as the drama unfolds.

It is well worth the investment of the resources available to produce sophisticated and intelligent machines, and I’m not suggesting that we abandon artificial intelligence research and development. Many of the films which attempt to portray what might take place in a world where such inventions exist, often only offer a superficial portrayal of the opposing characters, glossing over the significant differences between artificial machines and sentient living humans. In the film, “Ex Machina,” the contrast is absolutely startling, as both human and machine present a potent display of the limits of both the technology and our human understanding of what makes us truly self-aware.

What it usually boils down to is whether or not the film makers believe consciousness is a product of brain physiology—whether it “emerges” out of the firing of neurons and the electrochemical processes defined by neuroscience, or instead exists as a phenomenon of indeterminate origin which is made available to us by virtue of possessing “the right stuff,” –a sufficiently complex cognitive organ.

Any attempt to reduce the complexity and holistic phenomenal experience of consciousness to simply putting together enough neurons in the right arrangement and coordinating systems and functions in just the right manner, seriously underestimates not only the phenomenon itself, but fails to take into account the awesome and sometimes mysterious character of our humanity. Human nature and nurture won’t ever be truly obsolete, as long as we continue to appreciate the supreme value of human life, and acknowledge with gratitude, our awareness of our subjective experience of existing as complex sentient beings. We are imperfect creatures who often don’t understand or appreciate fully how miraculous it is to be a participant in the experience of life on Earth, and we cannot expect any artificial “life” to be anything other than a reflection of the moral character and scientific competence of its creator.