A Teacher’s Dream

 

A Teacher’s Dream On the Nature of Time

 

After enduring an intense and startling dream about a difficult personal experience,  upon rising it was apparent to me that during the dream, I had acknowledged an important aspect of my own way of being, which has occasionally created challenges for others, due to my inclination toward emotional involvement, when interacting with them. While still in the dream, I seemed to understand and appreciate the predicament my emotional intensity could sometimes create, depending on the circumstances, even though I was still unable to avoid expressing it in real terms as I understood it.

In this instance, I had been engaged in an emotional conversation with a friend, and while it wasn’t a particularly unpleasant interaction, I left the room abruptly and proceeded down a hallway to a short set of stairs, where I promptly sat down in the stairway and began to weep for a moment or two.

 

 

The very next moment, I found myself walking outside in a large park of some kind, and pulled open a large green metal gate, just enough to allow myself to squeeze by and descend a long walkway leading to an open area, where a family activity was underway, and as I engaged the members of the family in the middle of this scene, I somehow found myself having to explain my reason for being there.

I shortly left that area and walked up to an adjacent building, and entered a hallway leading up to a large room with a group of young students, waiting to have a class.  The subject of the class was to be the nature of time, and it became apparent after a few moments that I was about to assume the role of teacher in that room.  As the classroom settled down, I started to speak.

 

 

 What follows is a surprisingly lengthy accounting of the ideas I expressed in that setting:

 

“The nature of time is not like a river,” I began, “as most people think of it.  It is more like a continuum.”

 

“The concept of time itself is still somewhat mysterious, especially when you consider that the current wisdom on the subject suggests it is not a linear phenomenon moving inexorably from the past to the future, creating a relentless flow of events taking place, but rather as a streaming sequence of moments that follow each other at all times. It appears now that we may be the ones traveling through time, which exists as a constant, and within which we always participate in our own way.”

 

 

“When we speak of ‘where we are’ at any given moment, it may be more correct to speak of ‘when we are,’ when that moment takes place.  The moment in which any event takes place has always been there before we ‘arrived,’ and remains there long after we have ‘departed’; it is we who are ‘traveling’ through the time continuum, experiencing each moment as we ‘arrive’ in it, and remembering each moment after we move on to the next.  Time doesn’t flow; moments in time remain where they have always been since time began, and where they will remain for whatever amount of time our universe continues to exist.”

 

 

“The beginning of the existence of space occurred at the ‘Big Bang,’ and with it, the existence of time as we experience it also began.  As we now know, for example, the light ‘arriving’ on Earth from space of distant stars, depending on how many ‘light years’ distant they are from us, is doing so long after that light actually left the location of those stars, and so the light from a star that is 100 thousand light years away, is only now arriving when we look up at the area of the sky where it can be seen, but what we see is light that left that location 100 thousand years ago.”

 

 

“The idea that time flows is based on the assumptions we make as physical creatures, who exist on a planet which rotates predictably about every 24 hours in its orbit around the sun, part of the time facing the sun, and part of the time facing away from the sun, which is also tilted part of the time more toward the sun in one hemisphere, which then eventually ‘wobbles’ back the other way, so that the opposite hemisphere then is tilted more toward the sun.  The entire planet travels in an orbit around the sun, predictably about every 365 days, and presents us with the experience of the ‘passage of time,’ with seasonal changes taking place as a result of the tilting of the angle of the Earth toward the sun, and the apparent ‘rising’ and ‘setting’ of the sun as we spin on an axis.”

 

 

“Time itself is unchanging, unmoving, existing at all moments as we experience them, and those ‘moments’ that seem to unfold as we ‘arrive,’ have been there waiting for us all along, and the moments which we describe as being in the ‘past,’ are still there, as we remember them, but to which we cannot physically return, since we are the ones ‘traveling,’ through the continuum of time.”

 

“It’s not obvious from our experience of the time continuum that this is the case, and as physical creatures, our perceptions of time and space and of the sequential events that we experience as our daily existence, rely on our sensory systems of sight and sound, scent and taste, and the all-important sense of touch, to determine what is happening in each moment.  Since we are limited in each of these areas regarding the range of what we can experience, as sophisticated and complex as the process of sensory experience truly can be for each of us, our perceptions of our experience can only provide us with a partial picture at best.”

 

 

Some Afterthoughts Upon Reflection

When I awoke from the dream, I immediately got up and wrote down everything I could remember.  I was astonished to see how much I was able to recall of what transpired in the dream.  It was an extraordinary dream sequence that I actually found somewhat disturbing, at least in the sense that I seemed to be quite familiar with the environment and the individuals within it, but have never actually experienced any such circumstance in my waking state.  I don’t have a clear sense of how I could have arrived at an explanation of the nature of time in this dream, even though it seemed to make sense to me while in the dream state.

 

 

Through the development of our advanced technologies, we have been able to extend our knowledge about the nature of our physical existence, and expand our understanding beyond the speculations and superstitions of the past. Even with every advancement made over the tens of thousands of years in which humans have been capable of deliberate investigation and subsequent discovery, there still remains much that we have yet to fully understand, and mysteries abound throughout the Universe, some of which we are likely not yet aware.  Exploration continues at an amazing pace in many areas of science and technology, but our understanding and appreciation of the fullness of our experience of life seems often not to be keeping pace.

 

Physical Reality

Physical reality, within which our moment-to-moment experience of life as a human being takes place, has revealed many fascinating and terrible aspects of existing in a physical universe, and we know for certain now, that there are a number of layers to our experience of space and time, which clearly do exist, but which we cannot affirm or prove using any traditional scientific methodology.

 

 

 

No one has ever actually seen an electron, traveled at the speed of light, or penetrated the farthest reaches of space, but their existence is not in question.  Other dimensions outside of the three we experience physically and the one dimension of time as we know it must exist, in order for the ones we experience to be explained.  Since they are somehow beyond the capabilities of our science to detect or demonstrate currently, we must “infer” their existence, based on what we do know.

The entire universe, in which all of everything takes place, appears to be made up mostly of undetectable “dark matter,” and is being influenced by some kind of undetectable force we call “dark energy,” which is responsible for the expansion of the universe currently. 

There are even limits to our knowledge regarding the well-understood force of gravity, which show up when we encounter what we call “black holes,” like the one at the center of our own galaxy.  No one really knows the full extent to which such extreme gravitational forces might affect our physical reality, but we do know that we don’t want to get too close to a black hole.

 

 

All of these ideas and explorations show us an undisputed aspect of our existence—there are a great many parts of our experience as a human being which are clearly understood and known, and still others which are beyond our understanding and which remain, as yet, unknown.  There are many aspects of our existence which we can demonstrate and explain through science, and others which may never yield to any scientific investigation we might devise. Even so, the existence of such aspects can be “inferred,” as a consequence of what we know to be true subjectively, and which point toward a level of experience that exists outside of our temporal existence. 

 

Experience and Existence

The words “experience” and “existence” are themselves an approximation based on our limited physical capacities for perception and observation of physical phenomena.  Any person with a nominally functional sensory apparatus, and central nervous system attached to a functional human brain, who has accumulated a sufficient amount of knowledge of the world, can determine that they exist physically and appreciate the range of experience possible through the use of those assets.

 

             Franklin Institute in Philadelphia – Exhibit from “Your Brain”

Every “experience” in the temporal world is made known to us and is understood through our perceptual and cognitive talents as humans, but our objective knowledge and appreciation of what takes place temporally is only part of the story.  Our objective physical “existence” is perceived and processed by our physical systems, but our moment-to-moment “experience” is profoundly and wholly subjective in nature, in spite of being reliant on our brains and senses to sustain our access to our subjective awareness. 

 

The Nature of Light

Light photons enter our eyes and strike the retina, which is connected to our visual cortex in the brain, which processes the electrical signals it receives in various other regions, which then “inform” us as to what it is we are seeing.  Our memories of having seen similar objects is retained in the neural networks, which have been established from previous encounters, and strengthened by repetition and sustained learning.

The eye is the portal through which light is perceived, but our subjective awareness of what we are seeing does not take place in the eye.  Our cognitive functioning allow us to process all the signals coming in through our sensory apparatus, to remember what we’ve learned, and to respond according to our respective talents. 

 

Subjective Awareness

Our inner subjective awareness of our temporal experience informs us about the nature of our existence, and although it relies on objective physical systems for perception and data processing, the awareness itself is subjective, and it has no physical existence in the same sense as objects do.  Thoughts are not experienced in the same way as objects, even though they are facilitated through similar objective processes. 

We can dissect a brain, determine its physical attributes, and map out the neural pathways through which the electrical signals travel, but we cannot dissect our thoughts with a scalpel, or surgically extract our awareness.  We can injure our brains and surgically remove parts of it to impair or disable our access to awareness, but the awareness itself has no objective substance.

 

              Franklin Institute in Philadelphia – Exhibit from “Your Brain”

What’s Next?

In the weeks to come, I will be re-examining some of my previous work on the nature of subjective experience, in light of more recent investigations and progress in the related fields of thought surrounding the nature of our existence, and hopefully shed some additional light on the continuing struggle to determine how it is that we experience our lives in the way that we do.

Hello October!

 

                                             When we finally arrive in October,

                                             Our feelings are usually mixed;

                                             We love all your glorious colors;

                                             Our eyes, on your leaves, are transfixed.

 

 

                                              We know that in spite of such splendor,

                                              The winter will soon come again;

                                              It creeps up and sneaks up upon us,

                                              We can’t know with certainty when.

 

 

                                              But nothing is taken for granted,

                                               We cherish the October skies;

                                               We enjoy the true bounty of autumn,

                                               We hope, with the years, to grow wise.

 

(c) Southampton City Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

 

                                                 For love doesn’t fade through the seasons,

                                                 And joy we can find all year long;

                                                 Our children continue to need us;

                                                 Our friendships throughout can stay strong.

 

 

                                                  We greet you with joy unencumbered,,

                                                  It’s truly the way we should live;

                                                  We brace for the scenes of bare branches,

                                                  And treasure each blessing you give.

 

 

                                                  November will shortly be knocking,

                                                  We’ll soon have to open that door;

                                                  But for now we rejoice in our fortune;

                                                  We welcome the chance to do more.

 

 

                                                Be still now and hear your own heart beat,

                                                Don’t fret over leaves that must fall;

                                                October can bolster contentment;

                                                Embrace it right now with your all.

 

 

 

 

Contradiction and Truth

                                         Each moment, as we nearer drew to each,

                                        A stern respect withheld us farther yet,

                                        So that we seemed beyond each other’s reach,

                                        And less acquainted than when we first met.

 

                                        We two were one while we did sympathize,

                                        So could we not the simplest bargain drive;

                                        And what avails it now that we are wise,

                                        If absence doth this doubleness contrive?

 

                                       –excerpt from the poem, “Sympathy,” by Henry Thoreau, 1840

 

Having recently reviewed the 2014 film, “Ask Me Anything,” written and directed by Allison Burnett, which is based on his novel, “Undiscovered Gyrl,” I was struck by a scene in the film where the female lead in the film is presented with a list of “Ten Bitter Truths,” supposedly in response to her request for “lessons about adulthood.”

What struck me most was how cynically slanted the list was and, as a result, I felt compelled to respond with my own less cynical commentary.  The list appears below and the numbering of my comments mirror the numbers in the list.

                                                                                              Guernica by Picasso

Ten Bitter Truths

1.    Complete honesty is a complete lie.

2.    Marriage is sacred only to those who have never been married.

3.    Money is more integral to happiness than romantic love.

4.    Every human being is a contradiction; some hide it better than others.

5.    Never underestimate the tendency of human beings to act contrary to their own best interests.

6.    Were it not for the fear of being caught, most of us would behave like savages.

7.    All sex has consequences, most of them dire.

8.    The older you get the faster time flies until months pass like days.

9.    There’s no such thing as living happily ever after.

10.  Everything gets worse.

 

Scientist leaving the world. Engraving c.1520. 

1.    It isn’t so much that complete honesty is unachievable or that we are somehow incapable of it, but rather that complete honesty isn’t always the most advantageous approach to every situation. There’s no reliably clear advantage to being brutally honest at all times, and even when we might be uncertain, to varying degrees, about what the complete truth of a certain circumstance might be, expressing that uncertainty under some conditions may work against us. The framing of our responses, in a way that mitigates the consequences of those circumstances, it could be argued, can ultimately produce a more desirable outcome, depending on the particulars.  Humans are adaptable by nature, and if we can enhance our ability to adapt, and also improve our ability to survive and thrive simultaneously through sharing a proportionate degree of honesty, in specific instances, the benefits of doing so can outweigh the rigid structural framework of what might be described as “complete honesty.” This is not to suggest that such mitigation is appropriate in EVERY circumstance, but rather, that mindless conformity to any absolute principle of unmitigated honesty or to its opposite, at all times, could sabotage our human abilities for adaptation and mitigation, which might be essential to our long term survivability.      

 

2.    The nature of human interactions with regard to the sacred or the divine aspects of our humanity are not dependent upon any specific institution, and what we describe as “sacred,” refers to elements that have no universal criteria to define them or by which we could, in every case, fairly judge them to be so described. Even in a common social relationship or in a specific religious context, the “sacred” can exist within it, regardless of the milieu in which it occurs. Marriage can either be sacred or not, and relationships which exist outside of institutional marriage can embody the “sacred,” just as reliably as those within it. The idea that only people who are not married think of marriage as sacred underestimates everyone.        

3.    Determining what constitutes happiness is a completely subjective judgment, and while financial stability can be an important component of our well-being generally, to say that it is more integral to happiness than romantic love is to denigrate the value of both money and romantic love.  “What does it profit a man to gain the entire world, if he suffers the loss of his soul?”  How could any amount of money compensate for a bitter loneliness or an absence of any meaningful interaction with our fellow humans? How often have we heard about couples who have very little in the material sense who are otherwise living happy and balanced lives? Romance is not a cure-all certainly, and it ebbs and flows in every loving relationship, but suggesting that money is MORE integral than romantic love to happiness is just plain wrong.           

4.    Contradiction in a person or in an argument implies some sort of logical incongruity or denial of what otherwise represents an expectation or understanding of a person’s character or the premise of an argument. The entire universe is a conglomeration of opposites—hot and cold; north and south; east and west; male and female; fast and slow; young and old. To suppose that we might be able to escape our contradictions in the way we feel, the way we think, and in many of the ways we live our lives, would be to deny our very nature as a part of the entire universe. Each of us must decide which of the tendencies toward the opposites we will assume as we navigate through our lives, and rarely does anyone follow a single inclination in any of the innumerable ways in which we might engage life through the years. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are a contradiction at all times and that some people are just good at hiding it.  To be human is to change, and to adapt, and to innovate, and to grow, and to learn. Some of us accomplish these tasks with greater ease and ability than others, but changing is less a contradiction than it is a part of our nature to adapt and grow—to progress.           

5.    This is just a variation of the contradiction argument. What may appear to others as an action that is against our own best interest might actually serve us better in the long term. We are constantly changing and adapting and learning from our mistakes, and we as we navigate through the trials and tribulations we encounter, we sometimes fail to choose our actions as wisely as we could. Deciding which actions are in our own best interest and which are not requires a learning curve usually, but to assume that we should expect it as a matter of course ignores the obvious benefits of failure which can serve as a guidepost to making better decisions in the future.       

6.    This item is one of the most cynical of all these ideas.  Anyone with even a minimal amount of life experience can recognize the value of civilized behavior, and if we are minimally observant—just reasonably astute—we can figure out that acting like a savage is a zero-sum game. In the earliest history of humankind, life was indeed savage, brutal, and short. Tribal warfare was common and weaker groups were routinely conquered by the stronger ones. Civilization took a really long time to get past the most savage stage of our development through the centuries.  Suggesting that we are now still all just savages beneath the surface, and only restrained by the consequences of savagery is to ignore the historical record of humanity’s progress into the modern world.  Of course, there are individuals and groups that can act in ways that are reminiscent of our savage roots, and we haven’t completely conquered our instinctive drives in every corner of the world, but empathy and altruistic instincts also are strong within us now, having evolved beyond the early history of our species, and rational, intelligent, and generous humans exist on a much greater scale now than ever before in our history, and to suggest otherwise is cynical in the extreme.     

 

                                                                Balance of Energy is a painting by Deidre Harris    

 

7.    The consequences of engaging in sexual activities can fall within a whole spectrum of results, depending on the individuals and circumstances in which they take place. Most of them are not dire, thankfully, but engaging in them recklessly or irresponsibly can have serious consequences, and if we simply use reasonable caution these days to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, the consequences can be far less dire than suggested by this idea. Most of the dire circumstances that result these days aren’t because of simply engaging in sexual activity, but by doing so without regard for routine precautions, or when inappropriate or unwelcomed by the other person.  To say that most consequences are dire is simply not true.  

 

 

8.    While the years definitely seem to pass more rapidly as we age, even as we approach the later years of our lives, it takes exactly the same amount of time for a year, a month, and a day to pass. When we are five years old, one year represents a fifth of our lives.  When we are 70, a year is 1/70th of our lives. The perspective of years is an obvious factor in how we view time, but even as an older person, months don’t seem like days and the exaggeration isn’t really helpful.  Each and every day is an opportunity to engage with life and to experience a limitless variety of possibilities to fill up the days, weeks, months, and years. If we proceed mindlessly through the hours and days of our lives without a deliberate choice of some sort or without some degree of urgency regarding a purposeful action to serve those choices, time will catch up with us eventually.  Learning is a life-long activity and whatever our circumstances, with personal effort, and maybe some help from our fellow travelers, we can find a way to make use of our time that can slow things down a bit.      

 

 

9.    While the concept of living “happily ever after” is usually introduced at a very early age in children’s stories and fairy tales, it isn’t meant to suggest that living “happily” means without any challenges or difficulties for the rest of our lives. We can live a life that we can consider “happy” generally, even though it may contain “bumps in the road.” Children need time to accumulate life experience in order to grasp the broader implications of how one might be able to live as life progresses, but they will usually bounce back in spite of encountering innumerable challenges at a young age. Even in the face of some personal tragedy which might occur, they often demonstrate a resilience that can surprise most adults. A happy life isn’t one free of difficulty.  Inevitably, it is one that has some capacity for overcoming adversity when it occurs; one that appreciates the joys when they arrive; and one that strives to make something worthwhile out of the time they are given.   

 

10.  This one is the most cynical of all.  Lots of things can get worse given the right conditions, but there are plenty of things that can get better given the same chance.  We can either actively contribute to our own betterment or allow our actions or inaction to result in our own detriment at any given time.  Of course, there are times when detrimental events occur that are beyond our control, and we don’t always have the luxury of choosing the results when life occasionally “happens,” but we usually have a choice as to how we respond to what happens, or at least how we think about what happens.  Not everything gets worse.   

 

“Eternity may not the chance repeat,

But I must tread my single way alone,

In sad remembrance that we once did meet,

And know that bliss irrevocably gone.”

–excerpt from poem, “Sympathy,” by Henry Thoreau

 

Adulthood does have its challenges, and our lives and ways of being are not without a degree of contradiction, trials, and imbalance, but even as we reflect on any “sad remembrance,” each of us must recognize that for every “bliss irrevocably gone,” there is inevitably a subsequent opportunity for new experience—another opportunity to say, “We two were one while we did sympathize.”

Our True Nature

 

“The Buddha taught that our true nature is emptiness- a lack of a permanent Self- and when this true nature is realized, the divine states of the Brahma-viharas – loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity- emerge.”

“In the teachings of the great yoga masters, our true nature is Brahman, the universal soul, of which the individual soul is simply a part. When this is realized there is ‘satchidananda,’ the awareness of bliss, from the knowing that pure awareness is our ultimate nature.”

“There are moments small and large when we are filled with the transcendent, as though we have been lifted out of our bodies or the Divine has entered us as grace.”

“Both the path of transcendence and the path of immanence are beautiful, whole, and worthy. It is your heart that must find its true path.”

–excerpts from “Realizing Your True Nature,” by Phillip Moffitt

 

 

Inspired this week by a personal challenge to the true nature of our world and our humanity, it occurred to me that any unnecessarily extreme version of a worldview, whether it is based on science or religion or philosophy, can mitigate our ability to navigate  in the world of our everyday living, and if we could only see that much of the discord in the world could be lessened significantly by striving for a balanced approach to addressing any of the most vexing questions we are engaged in answering, we might find that greater progress is possible.

No matter how much effort we pour into finding an explanation of how everything works in the physical universe, and no matter how much progress we achieve in all of the related sciences surrounding our subjective experience of human consciousness, any effort to compose a comprehensive accounting for every aspect of our existence, if it does not include the contributions made possible through transcendence and immanence, will likely fall short of an actual understanding of our true nature.

One need not be an advocate of Buddhism in order to arrive at a better understanding of our true nature as living beings, and although ideas like the ones expressed by Phillip Moffitt provide an excellent starting place for approaching the subject in conversation and study, even those with no inclination generally to support specific religious viewpoints can join the conversation by examining the basic principles they address.  Whether or not we embrace such ideas as a matter of course or bring other opposing views to such interactions,  giving consideration to the full realm of possibility, at least as a starting point to explore the ideas presented in the quotes above, is a helpful tool in our progressive discernment process.

 

 

We are beginning to see a few hopeful signs in the willingness of scientists, philosophers, and poets, to at least listen to a greater range of ideas from their unique viewpoints, which include sincere scientific approaches, as well as genuine philosophical and spiritual inclinations found often in music, art, and poetry.  Just because some ideas come from a creative approach to human expression, they shouldn’t be automatically dismissed as “wishful thinking,” and well-reasoned, thoroughly-researched, and innovative scientific ideas should be given commensurate consideration when they are presented in the interest of moving our understanding forward.

In asking ourselves questions such as, “What could account for our intuitive sense of the unity of all life, when such clear divisions exist between species and among all levels within major branches of the tree of life?,” or “Why does anyone suppose because we are not able currently to fully account for experiences of transcendence and immanence as measurable phenomena, that giving consideration to the potential existence of such an idea isn’t worthwhile?,” we begin a dialog that can lead to an expansion of the realm of what’s possible.

 

 

I was recently able to review a National Geographic documentary, distributed by PBS, and appearing on Disney Plus streaming service, called, “The Greeks,” and prior to the Greek Civilization, much of what occurred in the world was cloaked in superstition and thought to be the result of the influence of benign Gods and malicious demons, but according to this presentation, that all changed once the Greeks set out to understand the world through reasoning and focused attention on philosophical thinking.  The mini-series is informative and interesting with a number of modern-day thinkers contributing to an overall view of how the Greeks contributed to important changes in the course of human history.

Did our inclination to abandon the notion of Gods and Demons influencing and directing the fate of humanity in the world originate in Ancient Greece?  According to historian, J.M. Roberts, who wrote a volume of “Ancient History,” published by Duncan Baird Publishing, 2004:

 

 

“The Greek challenge to the weight of irrationality in social and intellectual activity tempered its force as it had never been tempered before…They invented the philosophical question as part and parcel of one of the greatest intuitions of all time, which was that a coherent and logical explanation of things could be found…the liberating effect of this emphasis was felt again and again for thousands of years…It was the greatest single Greek achievement.”

Whether or not a “coherent and logical” accounting of consciousness might eventually include aspects of transcendence and immanence as essential components is still an open question, but a comprehensive account of the true nature of things begs the question, and requires a serious look at the kind of philosophical thinking inspired by the Greeks!

Poetry and the World Within

 

“The language and topics of the art of poetry are ultimately decisions of the poet himself. William Wordsworth believes the poet is someone who has the ability to be affected by absence. He is “a man pleased with his own passions… [and] rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life” (1502) and uses his imagination to create a presence which others cannot conceive.”

“This view is intensely optimistic and shows the power of the mind in the world Wordsworth is subject to. He believes that poets have a greater ability to comprehend nature and they are ‘nothing different in kind from other men, only in degree.” (1505).

“The ordinary man, Wordsworth believes, is closer to nature; and therefore closer to human-nature. Wordsworth’s faith in the ability of poetry to express the mind leads to an ultimate truth that is deeper than that which is tangible.”

–excerpt from Stephen Greenblatt, “The Norton Anthology of English Literature,” 8th ed. Vol 2. (pgs. 1498-1505).

 

Have you ever been transported to another time as you became lost in a powerfully written book, or suddenly relocated to another environment by imagining yourself there? Have you ever found yourself totally immersed in a world created by an especially captivating motion picture? Our mental projection into those thoughts and feelings during those experiences often make it seem as though we are actually “experiencing” those imaginings, although they actually have only a virtual existence and not a physical one.

Indeed, what transpires in our minds during experiential awareness of our journey can occasionally seem less real than our imagined journey, lacking some degree of fulfillment of our expectations.  Wordsworth straddled these two worlds often and well, including this gem from “Lyrical Ballads:”

Artists and poets can sometimes evoke an experience of a moment in another world by presenting us with the most essential markers of an experience, which we then use to “fill in the rest.” Andrew Wyeth was particularly talented in this way.  Many of his works transport us into a particular moment in time, where what is most essential to the experience of that moment come vividly alive. 

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth — American painter, 1948 The Museum of Modern Art, New York Tempera

 

Ever since the invention of languages and the realization of a deeper meaning to our existence, human beings have felt the need to express what they find within. Our inner worlds, far richer and profoundly more expansive than the world without, permit the creative expression of that world, but in terms that must attempt to communicate its ineffable nature.

A well-executed and pleasing piece of poetry invites us to appreciate the many assets we all might find within ourselves if we would only look. I find much encouragement in gentle words and heart-felt lines, rich in the poetic. For me, poetry has always been a release or a letting go or a spilling out. Many times, I am surprised by what arrives on the page when I set the poetry wheels in motion.

When poetry erupts and breaks the smooth surface of conscious awareness, it can feel like an intrusion, even though it is a welcomed one. The ripples are often felt long after the words arrive, and I feel compelled to return to the poem for another look.

I have had the urge to write down my thoughts as poems ever since being introduced to poetry as a schoolboy. I recall vividly the experience of my mother reading poetry to us from a volume of children’s rhymes, and the first time that poetry was introduced in the classroom.

In the spirit of Wordsworth’s poem, I offer one of my own original works from years ago, which reaches for this ideal of assets we all might find within ourselves, if we would only look:”

 

 

 

 

Galileo’s Error


Anil Seth Twitter

Finally made substantial progress with Philip Goff’s recent offering on the subject of consciousness, and as someone equally intrigued by the advancements of science and their implications for both neuroscience and the efforts to develop a science of consciousness, I must admit that I find myself in agreement with many of Goff’s assertions, even though I’m not quite completely convinced by all of his arguments. His review of the variety of approaches to understanding the nature of human consciousness and his fairly even-handed treatment of views which differ from his own is especially encouraging, since this approach is less evident in other treatments of the subject.


Justus Sustermans Uffizi Gallery, Florence

One of the most interesting general starting points in Goff’s approach is when he pointed out Galileo’s idea to separate our subjective experience of objects from the objects themselves: “Just as beauty exists only in the eye of the beholder, so colors, smells, tastes, and sounds exist only in the conscious soul of a human being as she experiences the world. In other words, Galileo transformed the sensory qualities from features of things in the world—such as lemons—into forms of consciousness in the souls of human beings.”

This “error” led to the scientific revolution where mathematics could describe the phenomenal world like never before. Galileo also was able to deduce through reasoning alone that objects, no matter how much they weigh, fall at the same rate, by revealing the contradiction in the idea that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. Goff takes great pains to point out the value of philosophy in this way:

“It is sometimes claimed that the scientific revolution, and the great progress which followed it, have rendered philosophy impotent as a tool for understanding the natural world. And yet the father of the scientific revolution is in fact the great vindicator of the philosophical method. Galileo is one of the few philosophers to have produced a philosophical argument which nobody has ever disputed; and with this argument he transformed our understanding of the physical world.”


NASA.gov

As we know, Galileo’s idea that all objects fall at the same rate was demonstrated by Apollo astronaut, David Scott, who dropped a hammer and a feather during his mission on the moon, and they both hit the surface at the same time. While waking consciousness is made coherent by our ability to remember each moment as it happens and becomes the next moment, our dreaming consciousness, while often remembered, as explained by Goff, may not follow logically in the same way:

“Even in the dreams we do remember when we wake up, what is experienced from moment to moment is often not so tightly bound together by memory. One moment we’re back in high school being taught French by Miss Clarke, and the next moment we’re on top of a mountain without noticing anything has changed. Memory is still recording the dream (if it weren’t we wouldn’t be able to remember it upon waking), but it is not binding moment-to-moment experience into a coherent whole as it does in waking life.”

After reading through this section of the book, I awoke suddenly twice that night from two elaborate dreams: Many of the exact details of the first dream escape me, but realizing that it was quite elaborate in its details surprised me upon waking. Briefly recalling such details after having a dream of such length, made me wish I had gotten up and written it down.

In this dream, I was a teacher or an instructor for a relief agency in a third world area and responsible for helping a large community build relationships for local cooperation between groups. I remember answering questions in a group setting, as well as having one-on-one conversations with individuals in a teacher/student situation. I was definitely enjoying the process and feeling a sense of accomplishment in serving this community. Upon waking, I was surprised at the level of detail within the dream, and how long it seemed to go on. There was barely a hint of light evident in the windows, so it must have been near dawn…

The second dream involved an elaborate journey through a large city. My GPS located the vehicle I drove into the city, and after my activity in town was accomplished, the signal on the GPS screen showed the way back to the car, which took me over a much more elaborate return path, including several buildings, an indoor mall location, a large concrete structure which I had to climb down, and past street vendors with colorful framed images displayed. As I approached the destination, the screen of the GPS showed a network of red boxes connected by red lines. I was frustrated and anxious that I was having so much trouble locating my car, right before I was awakened by someone grabbing my toes.

As the room slowly brightened with the morning light, I was reminded of Emerson…

“I see the spectacle of morning…from daybreak to sunrise with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of clouds float like fishes in a sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations; the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.”

Emerson belonged to the Transcendentalist Movement which expressed the values of “idealism, nonconformity, self-reliance, free thought, and the divinity of nature.” I often find myself in accord with these values in spite of experiences with a fair amount of resistance or push-back from others I have encountered along the way.

Like Carl Jung, who described “a curious resistance” and “an almost total unwillingness to understand,” his choice of psychiatry when he was preparing for his future career, my own experiences with conversations regarding subjective experience as an indication of a non-physical component to human consciousness, which clearly invokes free thought and the divinity of nature, often met with a similar “unwillingness,” even to suppose that such elements exist at all.

As I awaited the fullness of the morning light to brighten in the room, Emerson’s words echoed in my mind, stirring memories of my own struggles with coming to terms with a number of extraordinary experiences in my life. Reflecting on them now, in my maturity, they seem more clearly to embody the transcendentalist values, and re-enforce my resolve to pursue the path I have actively explored these many years. Reading Philip Goff’s book, “Galileo’s Error,” has also provided additional encouragement to persist in my explorations.

Mixing Solar Energy with Summer Melancholy

 

There was a curious mixture this past week of 21st century technology and the pleasure one can only experience in a natural setting, surrounded by nature’s greenery. While I sat out in the backyard, sipping on my morning coffee, a half-dozen men set siege to the roof and commandeered our electric service in the kitchen pantry, in the process of installing an array of solar panels on the front of the house.

 


It’s been a curious mixture in the sense that I often spend time amongst the summer greenery in the backyard when the weather is agreeable, but most often it is a solitary and almost meditative experience of quiet contemplation, with an occasional interruption of birdsong or the rustling of the trees all around me, which is predictably pleasing in its own way.

 


This particular morning introduced an assortment of unfamiliar interruptions and various other forms of strangeness as a professional crew of electricians and installers intermittently initiated a barrage of grinding, drilling, and hammering sounds as they progressed through the installation process.

 


Most of us tend to gain an appreciation of our decisions and choices in retrospect generally, as the consequences become more apparent, but for several mornings over the past week, I watched as the drama unfolded in front of me, and it was a much more immediate visceral response that captured my attention—right as I sat there observing the process—when I realized I was no longer only an investigator or an observer of the technological revolution, but truly a participant in it, taking the deliberate step to install the state-of-the-art equipment necessary for harnessing the power of solar energy.

 

 

Ninety-three million miles away, the sun is radiating its light energy directly toward the Earth, and after some eight minutes of travel at the speed of light, that energy will now be captured by an array of solar panels on the roof, generating electric power through an astonishingly simple process, converting sunlight into electricity by “exciting electrons in silicon cells using the photons of light from the sun.”

 

 

I checked out the science of solar cells on miro.medium.com and found this fascinating explanation:

 

“Solar panels, also known as modules, contain photovoltaic cells made from silicon that transform incoming sunlight into electricity rather than heat.


(“Photovoltaic” means electricity from light—photo=light, voltaic=electricity.”)


As the photons of sunlight beat down upon these cells, they knock the electrons off the silicon. The negatively-charged free electrons are preferentially attracted to one side of the silicon cell, which creates an electric voltage that can be collected and channeled.  This current is gathered by wiring the individual solar panels together in a series to form a solar photovoltaic array.”

https://jjhiii24.files.wordpress.com/2020/07/c9849-1ywtau6iog8c2cqs-h_ah1a.gif

 

 

The introduction of a very robust and noisy process of implementing 21st century solar science into my normally sedate and quiet morning routine brought out the philosopher in me, as I considered just how interconnected we all are by virtue of our common experiences of sunlight in one sense, but also unique in our perceptions of new experience, which can unfold before us in unexpected ways, while still containing common elements, and inform our thoughts and help us to assimilate that which is uncommon.

 

In a bittersweet almost melancholy moment, I took notice that the view from the ground on this day still included an over-the-rooftop view of the uppermost branches of the tree out in front of the house, which for some reason seemed to me to appear much taller than they did last summer, and it wasn’t lost on me that this would be one of the last opportunities to enjoy such a view, since the tree is slated for removal shortly. While I have been aware of the inevitability of all of these changes for some time now, actually having witnessed the predicted events as they unfolded prompted me to appreciate the gravity of the decision to go forward with them in real-time.

 

While contemplating these changes I was inspired to respond poetically to the “melancholy moment,” and decided to include it with this post. You can listen to my recital of the poem at this link:



 

 

100,000 Page Views – An Appreciation

Appreciation Video

Click the link above to view my appreciation video!

 

 

It gives me great pleasure to acknowledge a new milestone achieved here at John’s Consciousness.com – the accumulation of 100,000 page views by more than 50,000 unique visitors. It has taken me almost ten years to get here, and while I understand that it is still a modest achievement in view of how long I’ve been writing, and in consideration of having reached this level as a result of the many efforts of both individual visitors and an equally modest loyal fan base, even just enduring these many years in order to accomplish the task feels like a reasonably sufficient reason to express my gratitude and acknowledge the important contributions of my readers over that time.

 

 

On the way to achieving this milestone there have been many wonderful people who have stopped by here at johns-consciousness.com, and hundreds of thoughtful and interesting comments posted over the years, from people all over the world. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting some of the most popular posts from nearly a decade of effort in this regard, and sharing some of the behind-the-scenes stories about how they came about and, in some cases, provide some follow-up to the stories I’ve shared from years past.

 

 

I encourage my readers and visitors to share their favorites if they are so inclined, and would be glad to respond to any genuine query about any of the subjects I’ve written about along the way.

Thank you all so much for your support, and I look forward to sharing more as we move forward!

With kind regards…John H.

Intelligence, Cognition, and Consciousness

Vitruvian Man

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://thealchemicalegg.com/leotaroN.html

The Blossoming of Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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