The Spirit of Notre Dame Is Alive!

Napoleon’s coronation as “Emperor of the French,” was a sacred ceremony held in the great cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris in the presence of Pope Pius VII on December 2, 1804

Watching the live news coverage of the devastating fire in Paris on April 15th at the Cathedral of Notre Dame brought tears to my eyes, and as I wept with the rest of the world, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experience in that city as a young man, which included a particularly poignant memory of attending a Catholic Mass there at the heart of the city. During my very first visit to Paris in the autumn of 1976, I had the opportunity to walk freely about on the streets and, like many first time visitors, I fell in love almost immediately with the beauty and history that is everywhere in Paris. Standing in front of the great Cathedral, I was awestruck and set up my camera on a tripod to capture the moment:

As a young American soldier stationed in Europe, I had accumulated enough time as a ranking NCO to be permitted to have a job in my off-duty hours, and I chose to work in the recreation center as a clerk. Before long, I was assisting clients with travel plans and made a few contacts with the tour agency that was under contract to provide tours for American soldiers and their families. They eventually hired me as a tour guide and I really looked the part:

One of my first assignments as a tour guide brought me to a hotel in the heart of the cosmopolitan capital of France. I could see the spires and towers of Notre Dame from my hotel window:

During my visit, I decided to attend Mass, and afterwards, on the steps outside the church, a group of Frenchmen in hunting attire, serenaded the parishioners with an impromptu concert. It was clear that the well-dressed man at the top of the stairs had made a request, and after the performance, I snapped a quick photo of the crowd’s reactions:

Shortly before departing Paris to return home, I lost my wallet and my military identification card, which required me to get a police report of the loss in order to travel back across the border into Germany. The local police station was unable to provide the document, and I had to be transferred to the Police Nationale headquarters in the center of the city. At the time, I was fluent in German, and they found one of the officers who could translate from the German into French, and it gave them quite a giggle to file the report for an American speaking German:

The night before I was to depart, I took a walk from my hotel to see Paris at night, and dug up these two images from a spectacular fall evening on the streets:

The news from Paris this week wasn’t all bad. Many of the worst outcomes that MIGHT have occurred seemed to be mitigated by the reports of the mostly intact structure of the Cathedral remaining, as well as this news item about a heroic effort by the firefighters who worked a minor miracle themselves which appeared on the internet:

Merci, Père Fournier! Dieu vous bénisse!

The chaplain to the Parisian fire brigade has been hailed as a hero after it was revealed he led efforts to save the priceless holy relics and art stored inside Notre-Dame Cathedral. The story of Father Jean-Marc Fournier was reported by Christian journalist of French Catholic Television station KTOTV, who revealed the chaplain went into the burning cathedral to retrieve relics and art before they could be damaged by fire and falling debris. Reports state the priest formed a human chain to carry the items away from danger.

–excerpt from a blog entry posted in “Fr. Z KUDOS,” and tagged Notre-Dame de Paris.

While we all feel the loss of much of the historical and spiritual values represented in the fire-ravaged damage, the human spirit and the spirit of the people of France still shines through.

Vive La France!

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.

Moments of Being

“Driftwood,” by Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

“I can reach a state where I seem to be watching things happen as if I were there. That is, I suppose, that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen. In certain favorable moods, memories—what one has forgotten—come to the top. Now, if this is so, is it not possible—I often wonder—that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it—the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There at the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into a wall; and listen in to the past…I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.”

—excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s “Moments of Being,” published as a collection of essays in 1976.

Homer’s painting appeared in 1909, a short time before his death, but is reflective of a lifetime of creativity and artistic acumen. Combined with the quote from Woolf, it inspires contemplation of a much more profound idea concerning the nature of being and the significance of the foundational experiences which lead us to become who we are in our lives.

Currently, I am engaged in exploring a number of the complete works of Virginia Woolf, and recently came across a selection of her essays published in 1976 entitled, “Moments of Being.” This collection of her writings has become an important part of my reading regimen, and has sparked a number of recollections, and inspired some self-examination about my own life experience. Her suggestion in the quote above about a device that one might “plug into a wall,” and “listen in to the past,” struck me as precisely what I have been doing these days, recording my recollections of “strong emotion,” and then listening to them with my audio device as a way of once again “getting attached” to them.

A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry c. 1917

As an additional aid in recalling my own memories, I have been rereading what Woolf described as “A Sketch of the Past,” and sifting again through some of the photographic evidence of my early life, and the practice has stirred my creative juices in some surprising ways. What follows are a few samples of the results that have appeared lately.

In Woolf’s accounts of her memories of her mother, who passed away when she was only thirteen in 1895, she describes moments which struck a chord within me in recollections of my own mother. To me, when I was similarly youthful, my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, and even though she was quite attractive in a number of ways, my child-like view of her exceeded any of the other mother’s in my admittedly limited circle.

My mother holding me on the occasion of my christening in 1953

I feel fortunate to have many happy memories of sitting either with her or beside her as she read books to us, or told us stories about her own life growing up. Woolf’s accounts are particularly vivid and have sparked a host of “moments of being” within me.

There are moments in a lifetime, some fleeting and some lasting, which alter us in ways we did not expect or want, but which, nonetheless, result in forward movement toward becoming who we WILL be. We fill in the spaces between those moments, if we are fortunate enough, with a search for who that person might be. If we can recognize that person as who we are, at that time, we might then get to choose our path forward with greater confidence. We don’t always get the chance to make that choice for ourselves, but we do dream of the day when our life’s choices are more frequently founded in this person we have become. It’s not easy, and there are no guarantees, but I believe we must first acknowledge that something is possible, before it ever will be.

In a stroller in 1954

The dynamics of each unique personal relationship has always been a subject of interest for me, especially since I began to explore the nature of human interactions as they relate to our very human spirit. As we make our way through our lives, we probably encounter hundreds of other individuals through our educational and social circles, but normally only a very select few become particularly significant to us in one way or another.

These images of my earlier self along with my parents and siblings are now even more startling, as I begin to contemplate how those early connections set the stage for those which would follow and form as I grew into adulthood.

My father, myself, and my son pictured at age six in first grade

We generally become aware of these connections when proximity permits sufficient opportunity to do so, but proximity alone cannot account for the development of close, personal (and dare I say….spiritual) connections, particularly those which endure across great distance and long years. While there are many different foundations for our unique relationships, and much that is not necessarily self-evident regarding the psychology which supports them, the existence of a powerful personal and emotional affinity for another clearly infers a greater degree of connection not explicable by simple biology, psychology, chemistry or mere chance.

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

There have been very few individuals in my life with whom I have felt a clearly powerful and profoundly affective connection as those of my parents and siblings, and even though our individual temporal lives may go in completely different directions, continuing a unique relationship is very important, not just on a personal level, but also as an affirmation of a much more expansive, natural, and spiritual aspect to human nature.

We must expect that when we forge new paths, listen to the beat of our own hearts, and follow what is, for us, the only true choice we can make and remain who we are, there will be those who cannot see what you see, who cannot feel what you feel, and who genuinely could not know life in precisely the same light that you do. Be as gracious as you can be with those who do not share your vision, but do not be persuaded beyond reason and what’s in your own heart and mind.

What I am embarked upon is nothing less than the assignment of a lifetime. These many years I have struggled to maintain the continuity of my family, and to eek out a semblance of a beginning to understanding what it is that makes us uniquely human. The search has taken me to the limits of credulity, tested me more than any temporal challenge whether of my own choosing, or thrust upon me, as has been so often the case lately. There can be no doubt that I have struck upon something of great importance to my stated goal, which is to come to terms with the person I have become.

Connecting to the World Within

Giving deliberate and purposeful attention to developing some form of contemplative practice is essential for promoting a greater degree of self-awareness, and for encouraging us to conduct the deep inner searching necessary to reach and explore the world within us. In order to begin this process, we must be able to still the mind and quiet the relentless inner voice of conscious thoughts. Allowing the mind to settle down and become quiet, releases us from thoughts about daily activities and concerns, and prepares our mind to turn its attention to a more directed period of contemplation.

My own daily practice usually includes early morning meditation, typically lasting twenty to thirty minutes after breakfast and before consuming my morning coffee. I generally spend my coffee time catching up on correspondence, reading the paper if I have time, and then looking at whatever tasks I hope to achieve in the day ahead, with the purpose of deciding on whatever amount of time I can set aside throughout the day for deliberate thoughtful reflection, which often includes some deliberate choice of gentle musical accompaniment that assists me in achieving a relaxed state of mind. There is no set formula, and there are times when it isn’t possible at all to do so. The important part of any program isn’t a precise adherence to a rigid routine, but rather, a deliberate choice to incorporate time for contemplation on whatever schedule the day allows.

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With regular attention and consistent effort, it is possible to find a number of opportunities for even short periods of time each day to disengage from daily routines, long enough to give consideration to contemplative endeavors. I also find it useful at the end of the day to review whatever conclusions may have occurred during my time in contemplation, if any, and record those thoughts in either my writing journal or in my recent alternative “audio journaling” recording sessions. Seeing progress in a written journal, and reviewing audio recordings I’ve made over time, helps me to reinforce the ideas that have resulted from those efforts, recorded when they were freshly arrived in a deliberately chosen and purposeful state of consciousness.

Many illuminating moments can be encountered during directed contemplation, particularly when it is preceded by a clearly delineated mental and spiritual preparation to withdraw from the temporal world, as well as a reasonable degree of either silence or a calming environment, with at least no more than a background murmur to contend with that doesn’t distract me.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I spend as much time as I can in some variety of a natural setting in the wilderness or a recreational area in the temperate times of the year, which always seems to have an effortless transformational effect on me. Even during the winter, a walk in the early morning snow or a late night stroll around the block can elicit a profound inner connection to the world within. For me, though, communing with the natural world and escaping the daily routines in any significant way is my link to the phenomenon of consciousness, that richly-textured subjective experience of existence, which, for me, points so clearly to the non-material aspects of that existence.

Currently, we can only verify consciousness subjectively, but this does not mean that the door is closed exactly on searching for other ways to do so. I may not be able to verify YOUR consciousness with the same subjective certainty that I can verify my own, but we limit ourselves when we look at the physical plane and temporal existence as the “real world,” and everything else as unreal. Non-material aspects, while not having any demonstrable material existence, can still exist just as certainly as those which can be seen with a telescope or under a microscope, only in a manner inaccessible to our science.

Modern physicists have recently proposed string theory as a way of resolving the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics, and it posits the idea that our universe has many more dimensions than are discernible to us as physical beings, suggesting that the material world itself may also be composed of some variety of non-material aspects.

If we examine the currently available evidence of human evolution over millions of years, allowing for informed inferences based on as much of both science and metaphysics as can be tolerated; there is a path that leads toward a greater understanding of the evolution of consciousness, its role in the temporal, and its foundation in the non-material.

I sometimes like to frame the argument for differentiating consciousness from cognition by comparing them in terms of a radio broadcast. The radio transmitter, the radio antenna, the propagation of radio waves through the atmosphere, and the radio receiver are the mechanisms of radio transmission and reception. The radio equipment doesn’t CREATE the content of the radio broadcast. All the radio equipment in the world is useless without the person who INITIATES the transmission and composes a comprehensible message. A conscious entity of sufficient intelligence can design, build, and operate the equipment, but without the capacity for creating some message or transmission to communicate, the mere existence of the equipment is insufficient to make productive use of its abilities. That requires something more—a creator of the message!

In the same way, I do not believe that human consciousness is generated solely by our EQUIPMENT. Our neurons, synapses, coordinated brain regions and sufficiently developed frontal lobes—all of it evolved finally in hominids to the point where we became aware of a wider existence beyond simply experiencing life. As I experience it, the life within me is my real life. Neurons and synapses provide the means to access consciousness. That is a distinction which is, in my view, unavoidable.

It will become even clearer when the technology eventually catches up to the brain with a manufactured device that somehow utilizes trillions of switches, emulating our interconnected networks of neurons that mirror in some fashion the architecture of the brain. It is my view, that when they are finally able to construct even the most sophisticated version of a precisely constructed BRAIN INSTRUMENT, which is comparable to the architecture of a human brain, it may produce a very sophisticated device that mimics brain activity, but is unlikely to possess anything truly comparable to human consciousness. Simply recreating the structure of the brain will be insufficient to bring to life a fully developed living being, with all the capacities and richness of our experiential subjective aliveness, since it hasn’t been established at all that brain activity alone can account for our own subjective experience.

There is so much more to human subjective experience than brain activity alone, and even our own ancient human ancestors had a structurally similar physical brain for thousands of years before demonstrating significant self-awareness and the ability to begin to comprehend the world. The stark difference between what took nature millions of years of biological evolution to produce, and what a future technology might produce with whatever synthetic materials are developed along the way, will very likely show this contrast definitively.

Whatever capabilities such technologies will enable in a manufactured device, it will not be ALIVE, nor will it be able to comprehensively assume the identity or house the consciousness of a preexistent biological human. Science fiction stories of such developments gloss over the finer points of our humanity, and often neglect to acknowledge that our bodies and brains are receptacles—mechanisms which are animated by energies and aspects which have no corresponding physical existence in the same way that our bodies do.

Our current medical technologies can ensure that virtually every single human bodily function operates at a nominal level. With the exception of brain cells, we can reconstruct or repair virtually any damage to human tissue, and, in some cases, even stimulate artificially the process of regenerating cells, but no matter how sophisticated we get, we won’t be able to precisely produce a human egg or sperm synthetically. We cannot even produce a human zygote by synthetic means, without starting off with genuine human biological tissues.

We may end up manipulating the biological components produced by our human biological inheritance, and even though we risk a great deal by doing so, it may alter future generations in ways we could not now anticipate, but any process or procedure that utilizes materials that are not wholly biological cannot hope to produce some variation of a truly biological human.

The reason for this is because what underlies, supports, and is ESSENTIAL to those living components and materials—the very kernel of their nature—is NON-MATERIAL. When you begin to consider the nature of human existence by supposing that a non-material dimension or aspect to existence is a given, then it seems conceivable to me that we may one day achieve a comprehensive understanding of the nature of human consciousness, which will not be forthcoming unless we integrate these essential aspects.

In order for us to continue to evolve as a species and to survive in the eons which lay before us, we must seek a greater understanding of our true nature. It is not religion, but it is not purely science either, and it is DEFINITELY NOT dogma from either area of study that will ultimately illuminate our comprehension of human consciousness.

Memories and Humble Beginnings

Life moves forward always. It swirls and slides and strikes at the very heart of me. At this point in my life, having accumulated more than sixty years of living memory, looking back, for me, is long. For at least that long, I have held on to some specific recollections of my early days. Of course, before memory even appears on our radar as children, we pass through a number of earlier stages, as a newborn and a toddler, where unconscious experiences contribute to our formative years in ways that we are only now beginning to truly appreciate.

My maternal and paternal grandparents taking turns holding me in 1953.

My first ordinary memories as a young boy, playing outside in the yard at the first home I remember, sitting in the window sill in the living room watching my older sister and brothers going off to school, were in stark contrast to some of my dreams. One particularly memorable dream began with all of us sitting on the floor with the front door open in the summertime, my father looking out the window, with some sort of giant approaching—stomp—stomp—stomp—the vibrations were shaking me. I was strangely unafraid, with the anticipation being greater than my anxiety.

Another especially clear childhood memory involved playing outside on a steamy hot summer day. As we occasionally did on a typical day, we snuck around the fence into Mr. Nicholson’s garden, only this time, he was there. Although he didn’t seem angry or mean, he did seem like he didn’t want us there. We stopped right in our tracks, looked at him wide-eyed and after a moment of silence, turned and ran back into our own yard, huffing and puffing to catch our breath, vowing never to try it again.

I remember sitting out on our back porch with my brothers, talking and laughing, waiting for dinner to be ready. Eventually, Mom would call us in and remind us, as always, “Go upstairs and wash your hands,” since she knew we had probably been playing in the dirt or just getting dirty. We’d all run up to the landing in the corner of the kitchen, up the hardwood stairs to the bathroom, and wait our turn at the sink. I remember turning the bargain brand of bar soap around in my hands for maybe thirty seconds, setting it down for the next one, rubbing for a minute and then rinsing off. There was usually a tug of war at the towel too. When we were done, we would race back down the stairs to the dining room, to stand behind our assigned seats.

Rummaging recently through the enormous volume of photographs and memories, as I sifted through the piles of accumulated stuff in my office, I came across this amazing image of my kindergarten class at the local public school taken in 1958. There are only a few of the faces of my classmates in the image that still jog a memory of their name, but I doubt I will ever forget the woman who first introduced me to the world outside of my family, Mrs. Derr. Her gentle way of nurturing us and encouraging us to think about the world made me think of her as much more than my first schoolteacher.

At age five, I remember my mother walking with me to school on the first day, holding her hand as I crossed the six or seven streets along the way, stopping at the one traffic light at the end, waiting for the light to change so I could cross the one “busy street.” A handful of specific memories of particular days still exist in my mind. I remember sitting in a little chair next to a little table, drinking out of a half pint carton of milk, eating cookies, with several pretty ladies and the teacher all talking at the same time, supervising us and towering above me.

There was also one particular day when I was given the opportunity to occupy the “playhouse,” with pretend dishes and pans and other household items, along with a six bottle wooden holder with wooden milk bottles. At one point, a girl came up to me and asked if she could play too. At first I said no, that these were my milk bottles, since I was the milkman. She then asked me, “Can I have just one?” I replied, “Alright, you can have one.” For the rest of that year, I walked by myself back and forth to school every day, and thought nothing of it. Those were very different times.

Aristotle and Experience

In Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote:

“In man, experience is a result of his memory, for many memories of doing the same thing end in creating a sense of a single experience. Experience seems almost the same as science and art. But in fact science and art come to men through experience.”

Our ability to recall our experiences provides a framework within which we can construct a context, in order to reflect on them, analyze them, and place them in perspective. So, in one sense, Aristotle was correct, in that without memory, all the experience in the world would be for naught. Indeed, our ability to remember makes it possible to synthesize an entire lifetime of memorable experiences. Damage to the brain can impair the process of memory to the point where it no longer accumulates, and it could be argued that if we cannot remember our experiences, for all practical purposes, it would be the same as not having them. But, in fact, whether we remember them or not, experiences occur.

The subjective experience of consciousness—that richly textured sense of being—doesn’t require recollection in order to occur. Being is most vividly experienced in this very moment. Our awareness of being is an event of the “here and now.” Every moment that follows such an event (in a cognitively advanced and functional brain) contains a memory of the previous moment of experience. Memory is essential to make sense of the world and to glean the benefit of experience, but it does not manufacture experience. Our ability to recall previous experiences and to integrate them into the planning of future actions has been one of the main contributing factors for our survival as a species, but remembering our experiences and having them are two totally distinct phenomena.

The process in the brain that makes it possible to remember our experiences and the process that makes it possible to have experiences in the first place are not the same process at all. Our eyes, nose, skin, ears, and taste buds all send signals to the brain through the nervous system with information about what they are perceiving, and the brain interprets that information as our sense of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. Descartes theorized that because we are able to think, we are able to know that we exist. Without our senses, we could not gather information about the physical world. Without a sufficiently sophisticated brain to process the information gathered by our senses, the information would be far less useful. Without our ability to think, we could not know that we exist.

Although all of these processes exist and could operate without memory, our ability to remember what happened while these processes were operating, and to then reflect on it, makes it possible to learn from the experiences that our senses and brain record. Without memory, we would not be able to remember the information our senses provided to us yesterday, nor would we be able to reaffirm that we exist with the same information we gathered the last time we used our brains, and we would have to start over all the time. The brain records that information and stores it in a marvelously sophisticated process, making it available for future reference when evaluating new experiences. So, while the processes work together in important ways to make sense of consciousness, and to enable us to demonstrate consciousness to others, they also function independently in important ways.

Neuroscience has advanced now to the point where we can clearly see that consciousness is the result of many different processes working together, and that memory is an ever-changing sequence of neural activities within coordinating brain areas and systems. No one area of the brain or neurological process alone can account for either. It is a collection of neurological instruments that orchestrates the symphony of consciousness.

Aristotle also clearly understood that we come to science and art and all manner of human endeavors through experience. We utilize the power of experience to learn and grow, in a way that no other known species has demonstrated. We develop technologies and strategies based largely on what we learn from experience. Our ancient hominid ancestors were, in some cases, not able to survive, and in the case of Homo sapiens, not able to truly flourish and evolve, until they reached a sufficiently advanced level of consciousness.

Once it was achieved, humans developed a truly significant sense of having and remembering experiences, and as a result, a more fully developed sense of how to utilize those memories. Species with only limited awareness and far less cognitive skill have had to carve out a niche in the world of experience that falls significantly short of the one currently occupied by humanity. The ability of humans to exceed what all other known species have been able to accomplish experientially is a direct result of possessing a measurably greater degree of cognitive ability.

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.