Origins of Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Genes and What Really Matters

“Every human being, and every human mind, has roots that extend indefinitely far back through time…the consciousness of the individual is inextricably tied to the consciousness of the whole…Everything in nature is actually connected or implicated with everything else….(and) Whether we like it or not, consciousness has a persistent habit of intruding into all our discussions about the nature of mathematics, physics, and reality as a whole. We cannot just step outside of ourselves to discover what things would be like–assuming they still existed at all–if we were not here.”

“We have been compelled by modern physics to regard things in a very different light. As we shall see, we have been forced to concede that not only may consciousness have a purpose, but that it may actually be indispensable to the universe in which we live.”

–excerpts from his book, “Equations of Eternity,” by David Darling

As human beings, it is our nature to explore and to question and to seek the answers to the nature of the universe. It is an inclination as natural as any we can name. Carl Sagan, in his celebrated series “Cosmos,” said that he believed, “our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float, like a mote of dust floating in the morning sky.” Part of understanding the cosmos is investigating and trying to understand how our genes affect our biological nature, and if we can find ways to decipher and replicate the beneficial aspects of genes, without compounding or magnifying the negative aspects, we will, perhaps, contribute to that understanding.

Whether or not we ultimately find a way to connect the dots genetically to the mechanisms of disease, or replicate the chemical composition of DNA to construct synthetic microbes, or arrive at a comprehensive theory to describe the subjective experience of sentient life, the urgency for all of these endeavors to include as central to our understanding of them, something more profound than science has never been greater.

We recently celebrated the arrival of the newest member of our extended family tree, and it occurred to me that our search for scientific knowledge, particularly as it concerns the very nature of life itself, while of obvious value in gaining “insights” into our biological nature, could use a little of the kind of wisdom we can only obtain as we contemplate the results of the genetic mingling of chromosomes, DNA, and genetic markers.

Holding my granddaughter in my arms, recognizing that this tiny, squirming, and beautiful human being carries within her cells the genetic components of her parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and ancestors for generations, inspires me to feel a connection to her biologically to be sure, but far more immediate is the connection I feel spiritually, as someone who loves her and each of her extended family members. Without that connection, the science of genetics remains unaffected, but the significance of the consequences of that spiritual deficit could be profound. If we did NOT know about the genomic relationships at all, our spiritual connection would also remain unaffected, and there’s no way to know if simply acquiring this knowledge of genetic links would affect the relationship significantly at all.

All around us are challenges that point directly to the need to expand our collective mindset toward the planet Earth, in order to preserve it for future generations. Global Climate Change, a documented and increasingly worrisome source of severe weather as a result of increased carbon emissions in the atmosphere, will affect everyone on the planet, and we must begin to see that we are all in this together. Scientific investigations of the wider cosmos, from the possibility of discovering other sentient life beyond our solar system, all the way down to the elementary particles that govern our very existence, have profound implications for the future of our world, and as living, thinking, feeling, and creative creatures, we need to see ourselves as being an integral part of the equations that govern the physical world, as well as being capable of altering the outcome of our interactions on every level.

Looking into the eyes of your newborn grandchild is an experience I can recommend without hesitation, to anyone who seeks a greater understanding of the cosmos, even when a specific biological connection is not an element in the equation. I have been privileged to gaze into the eyes of each and every one of my grandchildren very soon after their arrival on earth. Each of them is precious in my eyes, and the spiritual connection of which I speak exists in exactly the same way and to the same degree as the one most recently established.

We may not ever achieve anything particularly notable in the eyes of the world no matter how long we live, but I can assure you, that seeing ourselves as “part or parcel” of all of creation, an inevitable consequence of a self-creating universe, and spiritually connected to all life, would go a long way toward enhancing our greater understanding of any part of the cosmos in which we float.

Einstein and the Human Spirit

Overview description of the original production from the website:

https://worldsciencefestival.qtix.com.au/event/wsfb_light_falls_16.aspx

“Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s discovery of the general theory of relativity, this original work weaves together dramatic portrayals, state-of-the-art animation and innovative projection techniques to trace Einstein’s electrifying journey toward one of the most beautiful ideas ever conceived. Brian Greene and an ensemble cast tells the dramatic story of the breakthrough moments, near misses, agonizing frustrations, and emergence into the light, as one intrepid mind took on the universe … and won.”

Currently available for viewing at http://www.pbs.org until June 26th, this original and entertaining account of the development of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, presents us with a very down-to-earth and understandable human rendering of the struggles and triumphs that brought our scientific understanding of the physical universe forward in what can only be described as a “quantum leap.”

Brian Greene, Rhodes Scholar and Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University, and author of “The Elegant Universe,” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” presents the viewer with a very human view of the journey of discovery through the medium of theater, and in the process, opens the world of the science of cosmology to a much broader audience than ever before.

For most of us, Einstein’s theories and the subject of cosmology generally seem like something that only dedicated scientists and physicists can appreciate well, but Brian Greene and his theatrical associates bring us along the path that Einstein followed in a way that even amateur scientists like me can follow. For all its benefits and explanations of complex ideas, for me personally, this production led me to consider the implications of my own research, and affirmed for me, the importance of the inclusion of the ineffable in developing a greater understanding of our very human version of consciousness.

Although many modern scientists generally avoid inserting any sort of philosophical thinking into their deliberations, Brian Greene seems less inclined to avoid such iterations in his work, and at the conclusion of “Light Falls,” we hear from both men, as they ponder the experience of life as it relates to the mysteries of our existence in the physical universe:

EINSTEIN:

“To we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent. All the anxious years of wandering in the dark, with their intense longing, the intense alternations between confidence and exhaustion, and the final emergence into the light, only those who have experienced it can understand it.”

BRIAN GREENE:

“No one else had or has experienced it. Our species has surely produced great scientists, who have taken on great challenges to achieve great things, but Einstein’s radical assault on the most basic elements of experience–space, time, matter, energy, gravity–all waged by one lone mind, wrestling with reality…well…that was a singular achievement. And yet, it is in that singular achievement that we recognize the depth of the human drive for…coherence; for unity.

It is within the singular that we see the capacity of the human mind to lift itself above the ordinary, and catch a glimpse of the transcendent. And it is within the singular that we witness the power of the human spirit to rise above the all-too-real concerns of life on planet earth, and even if for just a moment, to stretch for the stars.”

In his epic publication, “The Elegant Universe,” Brian Greene offers a perfect rationale for giving serious attention to achieving a greater understanding of the mysteries surrounding the nature of reality:

“Humans throughout history have had a passionate drive to understand the origin of the universe. There is, perhaps, no single question that so transcends cultural and temporal divides, inspiring the imagination of our ancient forebears as well as the research of the modern cosmologist. At a deep level, there is a collective longing for an explanation of why there is a universe, how it has come to take the form we witness, and for the rationale–the principle–that drives its evolution.”

Professor Greene’s willingness to infer that in seeking to understand why there is a universe, we might “catch a glimpse of the transcendent,” should encourage all of us to consider that there is, in fact, a transcendent aspect to our existence, and that there is a greater understanding which awaits us, which may be achieved while pursuing any one of the many diverse paths to that understanding.

I highly recommend the PBS production, “Light Falls,” to anyone who has a serious interest in knowing more.

Our View of the Universe

Map of Christian Constellations from Harmonia Macrocosmica by Andreas Cellarius (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In our modern 21st century world, we often seem to take for granted that we have a fairly complete understanding of the physical laws governing the Universe and that we have, with a few exceptions, explained the way things work in the Cosmos. We sometimes look back at the Ptolemaic view of our world with amusement, which placed the Earth at the center of it all. Many of the conceptual ideas about the nature and structure of the physical universe in the medieval world seem almost quaint now, and illustrations like the one above often included signs of the Zodiac and other mythological references which gave the Universe a much more mysterious and esoteric character.

A current exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles takes a look at the medieval view of the universe in “The Wondrous Cosmos in Medieval Manuscripts.” A recent review in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Saenger (April 19) highlights a few of the items on display, one of which caught my eye as an interesting starting point for appreciating our own view of the Universe.

“The Sphere, Newly Translated into the Vernacular,”c. 1537 – Johannes de Sacrobosco (1195-1256), England, “Sphaera volgare novamente tradotta,” Image from manuscript courtesy of the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota

“An Astronomer,” is an illustration from a medieval astronomy textbook written by Johannes de Sacrobosco, from an edition published in 1537 entitled, “Tractatus de Sphaera.” Photo: Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

According to a description on “https://apps.carleton.edu/museum/”

“This volume is an important medieval astronomy textbook originally published ca. 1230, which demonstrates the Ptolemaic, or geocentric, theory of the universe in which heavenly bodies orbit around the earth. Sacrobosco’s text was in use for centuries; between 1472 and 1650, over 60 editions appeared in several languages. The frontispiece illustration presents the astronomer himself in monk’s robes. He is surrounded by the instruments of his discipline, including the quadrant and astrolabe, drafting tools, and – in the top border, an hourglass and pocket sundial for measuring time.”

Image credit: NASA / Hubble team, via http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/farthest-galaxy.html.

We may view these medieval ideas with some amusement today, particularly since we know well from the advanced tools in Astronomy that we now have available to us, like the Hubble Space Telescope, which has allowed us to make a “quantum leap” in our understanding, but even some 800 years ago, when Sacrobosco articulated the Ptolemaic view, it was generally accepted that their view was accurate and explained what they observed quite well. As the currently dominant species on the planet, we may believe that we are now in possession of a comprehensive and accurate view. No other known species has appeared to even approach such capabilities as Homo sapiens thus far, and our capacity for a richly textured subjective experiential awareness today appears to have advanced far beyond our predecessors.

What is so clearly different about most every other known species on Earth is that no matter how gifted they are in their perceptual or cognitive talents, it does not appear that any of them possess our comprehensive, penetrating, and complex awareness of our limitations and gifts. There are a few with exceptional perceptual talents that far exceed our own, and several species with many similar capacities that seem to indicate at least some level of awareness, but as yet, nothing truly indicative of a human-like consciousness.

This is not to say that we are somehow better or more important than any other species, only that our experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our ability to express it, and contemplate it, and influence it, and to deliberately and purposefully alter the world as a result of it, is not evident in a clearly discernible way in any other part of nature. There are a great many species on our planet with amazing perceptual differences from us, and which can perform at levels no human could hope to do, and you are right to appreciate these differences, and not to suppose that just because we have an apparently significant cognitive advantage, that we always get it right or do things better. One look at the totality of the human presence in the world and it is clear we often make mistakes, in spite of that advantage.

What is even more revealing, in my view, is not only our inclination to associate meaning and purpose to many of our experiences, but that we tend to dismiss many of the experiences we have as being chance and circumstance, when there truly is meaning and purpose to be gleaned from them. Deepak Chopra once wrote in detail about human life at the cellular level, and spoke eloquently about how our cells and systems within our bodies are often telling us things that we ignore or dismiss as indigestion or something, when in fact, our human cells, evolved over millions of years, have not as yet evolved enough to doubt their own thinking. Our human cognitive system sometimes seems to embrace doubt where there should be none, and, at other times, moves confidently into circumstances where doubt would be of genuine value. The benefit bestowed upon us by higher cognitive capacity, can also prevent us from perceiving the value of the natural world, and from embracing the perceptions of our fellow creatures, whose instincts are not mitigated by doubt.

It is my view that our richly-textured, experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our development as a cognitive species, as significant as our advances have been, may appear equally “amusing” to our descendants 800 years from now. Our evolutionary endowment, achieved as cognitive temporal beings in a physical universe, in no way guarantees our continued dominance, and unless we expand the realm of what we consider possible, we may not achieve the level of understanding necessary to sustain our existence here on Earth.

As much as I have studied and contemplated the richness, diversity, and astonishing complexity of the human brain, and as clearly as one can conceivably comprehend it in context of life on Earth, our human consciousness has not only pointed out our perceptual limits physically, but provided humanity with access to an awareness that transcends the physical universe, opening up our hearts and minds and spirits to a richness beyond perception.

Our Human Powers


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“Finally we must make use of all the aids which intellect, imagination, sense-perception, and memory afford in order, firstly, to intuit simple propositions distinctly; secondly, to combine correctly (compare) the matters under investigation with what we already know, so that they too may be known; and thirdly, to find out what things should be compared with each other so that we may make the most thorough use of all our human powers.”

–Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, circa 1628

Throughout each of my personal investigations of the subjects related to my experiences in the early seventies, especially those which catapulted me into the most astonishing, chaotic, and emotional period of my life, I have been compelled to attempt to penetrate their mysteries and implications, based on both the intellectual and metaphysical foundations of human endeavors. At first, as an uninitiated and rudderless spirit in the world, I could only take stabs in the dark–disoriented in the extreme as I was–and while it took some time to decipher and organize these efforts, I gradually progressed beyond the chaotic stage and began to comprehend the experiences more broadly.

In the autumn of 1973, I experienced what C.G. Jung described as “an eruption of unconscious contents,” which led me to create a document entitled, “The Beginning, The Foundation, The Entrance.” Although I did not recognize it as such at the time, I have gradually come to view the experience as a pivotal event in my life, and I have spent much of the time since it occurred attempting to decipher the meaning contained in the document. The bulk of the document’s contents remained poorly understood by me for many years afterwards, and only in recent years have I finally begun to comprehend it more fully, and to begin to place it in a broader perspective.

Way back in 2014, I began to tell the story of the events “which catapulted me” into my investigations, and for those who may not have encountered the beginning of the story, here is a link to that posting:

Story Beginning

After applying years of persistent and determined mental effort, it seems to me, that we may only be said to truly comprehend our lives experientially, while still requiring and receiving much benefit from research and expansion of our knowledge generally. Our perceptions of the world, through an array of sensory faculties and cognitive skills, assist us as we construct and try to make sense of our daily reality, and although there are characteristics of our sensory systems which are subject to potentially erroneous interpretation of their input, as is the case with optical illusions, there are adequate safeguards available to nominally functionally brains and sense organs to feel confident in making judgements regarding the true nature of what we perceive, and to determine with reasonable certainty that we exist in the physical universe, as a substantial living entity. There have been a variety of accomplished thinkers throughout human history who have written at length regarding the range of what we might express with confidence in this regard, and I am not so enamored of the conclusions drawn from my own experiences to suppose that they represent some sort of comprehensive explanation. I present my ideas and thoughts here more as an explanation of what has brought me to suggest them as a beginning to unravel it all.

theory_everything

With basic functionality of all our perceptual and intellectual systems intact, we are able to propose judgements regarding our perceptions. Quite independent from the actual quality or accuracy of those judgements, we have good cause to feel at least reasonably confident that as conscious cognitive creatures, that we are HAVING experiences based on our ability to perceive. Acute perceptual disabilities caused by disease or injury to the brain, and heightened perceptual capacities such as the many varieties of synesthesia, represent the low and high range of quality possible in our experiences, and to some degree, we generally rely on the agreement of our fellow sentient beings to assist us in gauging the reliability of our interpretations, along with whatever previous experiences we might have available to us in memory. It is clear that we each enjoy a unique perspective as an independent observer of our own experiences, and that we interpret them from a relatively narrow subjective viewpoint most of the time. Not surprisingly, we may occasionally find ourselves as the lone possessor of a solitary interpretation of a particular subjective experience, as with personal trauma, as well as sharing what might ultimately turn out to be a mistaken view of the ideas and experiences of thousands of other confident perceivers, as with those who believed that the earth was flat, or that the earth was the center of the universe.

Numerous considerations including social, cultural, biological, and specific neurological components can contribute to the general run of experience for most of us, but our individual interpretations of our unique experience of existence, while clearly difficult to verify subjectively for those who are NOT us, even when they are standing right next to us, rely on what can constitute a remarkably different perspective, and in spite of possessing a similar range of shared experiences and education, may seem quite out-of-the-ordinary to other sentient beings.

Desc: Scientist leaving the world. Engraving c.1520. Allegorical representation of changes in medieval conception or interpretation of the heavens when it was thought that the world was flat ¥ Credit: [ The Art Archive / Kharbine-Tapabor ] ¥ Ref: AA529033

“Just as the imagination employs figures in order to conceive of bodies, so, in order to frame ideas of spiritual things, the intellect makes use of certain bodies which are perceived through the senses, such as wind and light…The wind signifies spirit; movement with the passage of time signifies life; light signifies knowledge; heat signifies love; and instantaneous activity signifies creation…It may seem surprising to find weighty judgements in the writings of the poets rather than the philosophers. The reason is that the poets were driven to write by enthusiasm and the force of imagination. We have within us the sparks of knowledge, as in a flint: philosophers extract them through reason, but poets force them out through the sharp blows of the imagination, so that they shine more brightly.”

— Olympian Matters, Rene Descartes, 1619

Think of the varying degrees of culture shock when an individual is transplanted from a previously narrow or isolated environment of a rural character to a big city or urban center. The individual, having developed keen instincts in the previous realm of experience may find themselves virtually without adequate resources to make sense of the altered environment. Likewise, a sophisticated city dweller who handles the intricacies of city life and who may have a fine command of the urban environment, might find a remote rural landscape equally challenging. In each case, the perceptual and cognitive apparatus are fully functional, but require an additional number of experiences before comprehension can catch up. Imagine now how my own limited experience of the world thwarted my early attempts at comprehending the “eruption of unconscious contents,” (Jung) in 1973. Is it any wonder that I turned to philosophy, poetry, and investigation of the whole range of human thought and experience through the ages in order to come to terms with what happened?

If it is true, as my research and contemplation of the subject of the subjective experience of the human version of consciousness suggests, that consciousness is a manifestation and an expression of a non-physical reality which is the source of all life in the universe, and if we are able to affirm consciousness as a means through which we are able to gain access to the transcendent source of our awareness, aside from the many intellectual and spiritual benefits such knowledge might provide, it may provide, among other things, a source of genuine solace for all sentient beings who might be facing their own mortality or that of another. Reviewing my ideas on the spiritual aspects of existence generally and of consciousness particularly, it seems more urgent than ever to attend to the conclusions they infer for me, based on these ideas.

In the coming months, I will be posting some of the foundational ideas and conclusions drawn from the years of developing myself as a philosopher, poet, and serious student of the science of consciousness, and hope to expand the conversation by including some of my recent reading and research, as well as reporting some relevant experiences that support these ideas.

Echoes of the Moment

Echoes of the Moment

Before I was able to relinquish my tenuous grasp on consciousness,
After writing through the relentless sighing of night,
The irresistible call of the brightness of the spring morning sun,
Pulled my heart and mind to delay fitful sleep,
And instead to persist a while longer,
In order to enjoy a few moments of blissful, temperate,
And delightful contemplation of the season’s gifts.

Waves of sunlight, gentle breaths of wind, and the tranquil
Murmur of memories—echoes of the moment—
Invite the sun’s radiant beauty to streak across the void;
As it lands upon my skin, I relish its gentle but persistent touch,
Reaching my face like the hand of a dear friend,
With a warm and comfortable gesture which soothes my
Most troublesome aches with loving thoughts.

This day, the whispering breeze persuaded my hair
To swing away from my face and tickle my neck.
Birds click and coo pleasingly in the distance as I close my eyes;
Inside me, staring contentedly at the blazing red surface
Of closed eyelids, I enjoy the passing refrain of a distant train,
Competing with a buzzing lawn mower down the street,
As the echoes of the moment reverberate in my consciousness.

The cat wants to have my attention, but I’m not ready,
So she reluctantly falls asleep at my feet like she’s always been there.

© May 2019 by JJHIII24

Awareness of Mystery

“The truly sacred attitude toward life is in no sense an escape from the sense of nothingness that assails us when we are left alone with ourselves…the sacred attitude is one which does not recoil from our own inner emptiness, but rather penetrates into it with awe and reverence, and with the awareness of mystery. There is a subtle but inescapable connection between the ‘sacred’ attitude and the acceptance of one’s inmost self. The movement of recognition which accepts our own obscure and unknown self produces the sensation of a ‘numinous’ presence within us…” – Thomas Merton from “The Inner Experience.”

Much of what we experience in our everyday lives consists of elements or components which are relatively easy to explain, and describable in terms that can be broadly understood generally. The physical laws which govern our universe offer us a window into many of the previously mysterious aspects of our existence. The march of scientific discovery which has brought us into the 21st century has revealed astonishing explanations for what we observe and experience, from the nature of galaxies and the cornucopia of cosmic phenomena, to the most basic building blocks of matter in the quantum world of the very small. Looking ahead into the centuries to come, we have cause for optimism that many phenomena which remain mysterious presently may be revealed by the science of the future. We are frequently humbled by such discoveries, revealing as they do what was once a great mystery to humanity, but as Robert Sapolsky suggests in the quote below, sometimes, all that science can really do is give us a new perspective:

Some time ago, as my mind began slowly stirring in the early morning hours, I briefly resisted the inclination for rising fully to consciousness immediately, and lingered in the twilight world in between waking and sleep. A host of pleasant thoughts were meandering through my half-conscious mind, when I suddenly felt an important idea percolating to the surface. I had been fully engaged in the process of gathering my work into a semblance of order for several months and had made only miniscule progress. On this particular morning, in this hypnopompic state, I heard myself outlining the chapter headings by the subject of my work in a specific order.

Each of the topics had been receiving individual treatment as they came up in my reading and writing work, but no specific organizational idea had been conceived or written by me previously. As I enumerated the central ideas, I began to arrange them in a sequence which felt absolutely clear as the correct way to arrange them, even in my semi-conscious condition. After several repetitions in the dream-like haze of early morning, I repeated the sequence one final time, certain that I had it right. As I began to rise to full consciousness, I knew that I had precious little time to reconstruct my idea before it would vanish, so a grabbed a pen on the nightstand, and as the precious seconds of memory were ticking away, I was scrambling for something to write on, realizing that the notebook I normally placed at my bedside had been removed the day before to refer to it at my desk.

I knew I couldn’t leave the room, and searched frantically for something to write on. I started tossing items on the floor that were unsuitable, digging through the drawer in the nightstand, starting to worry that I might lose the thought, and finally picked up my address book. I opened it clumsily, leafing quickly to the back pages which I thought might offer a blank spot, but ended up writing on the inside of the back cover. I leaned back on the bed and wrote haltingly at first, with some uncertainty creeping in, but I was ultimately able to reconstruct the topics in sequence, just before the fullness of waking released the remaining haze of sleep. The certainty I felt in my nearly unconscious dream state had vanished, but the list was there in front of me:

In the weeks to come, I will begin to expand and describe at greater length my work on these specific ideas, and with luck, weave it all together into a more comprehensive presentation. In the meantime, consider a few introductory thoughts:

1. Thirty-five thousand years ago, our Cro-Magnon ancestors drew images of animals on cave walls. These were not mental giants. They were not very sophisticated at all. But they were so much more sophisticated than the Neanderthals, that they outlived them by thousands of years. They also left behind indications that they had a consciousness – an awareness of certain cognitive abilities – and they acted on them in demonstrative ways.

2. Even five thousand years ago, with all the sophistication of ancient civilizations (which did not spring up overnight by the way) they were still limited in their conceptual capacities and technologies. We can infer this from the written and evidential history of those ancient beginnings.

3. The acquisition of access to the human variety of consciousness is a complex process that developed in our species, with its sufficiently complex nervous system, which is able to support our unique array of cognitive functions. There are many different philosophic and scientific ideas regarding the nature and scope of human cognitive ability and what constitutes consciousness. No matter what we say about it, it did not appear suddenly, and it did not always function as well or as much as it does today.

4. There is much that is not well understood about the human subjective experience of consciousness, and even cognitive scientists, with all they know specifically about the cognitive process and brain function, cannot penetrate its mysteries as yet. There is also much speculation in the current literature of the cognitive sciences about how long it will be before we are able to emulate brain function artificially in such a way as to re-create consciousness as well. What is missing from all these speculations is that if we are able to somehow manage it, what we will discover will not be human consciousness. It may be similar in many ways and function as a device, but it will not be alive!! It may be powered by a battery or plugged in to a wall socket, but it won’t have LIFE!! It would be a very narrow definition of what it means to be human to reduce us to the biological and cognitive processes that support consciousness. Our lives and our subjective experience of the world is dependent on a functional body coordinated by a functional brain, but what animates the organic material in our bodies and brains, what is essential and what accounts for the totality of our existence as sentient beings with subjective experience, may not lend itself completely to demonstration by science.

No matter how advanced our skills at reproducing consciousness may become, we will never devise a formula to reproduce a living, breathing, cognitive human person. Our cognitive functions have progressed to the point where we can acknowledge a connection to the ineffable. We are not simply a conglomeration of organic systems. We are part of a dynamic synergy of life in the phenomenal universe. Our conscious experience of life allows us to interact with life in its many manifestations. Our connection to the source of that dynamic synergy is only attainable through our awareness, but not generated BY our awareness. This awareness includes, for now, the mystery of human consciousness.