Emergent Realities

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In the Review section of the WSJ this weekend in an article by Frank Wilczek, he casually suggested that it shouldn’t be so difficult to accept, intuitively, that life and mind emerge from matter, as if we were all just somehow mistaken or deluded about the source of life and mind. Wilczek shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 2004. It was awarded jointly to David J. Gross, H. David Politzer and Frank Wilczek “for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction”. According to the dictionary, “…asymptotic refers to a function coming into consideration, as a variable approaches a limit, usually infinity.”

Here is a short blurb about their award from the Nobel website:

“The scientists awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics have solved a mystery surrounding the strongest of nature’s four fundamental forces. The three quarks within the proton can sometimes appear to be free, although no free quarks have ever been observed. The quarks have a quantum mechanical property called colour and interact with each other through the exchange of gluons – nature’s glue.

This year’s prize paves the way for a more fundamental future description of the forces in nature. The electromagnetic, weak and strong forces have much in common and are perhaps different aspects of a single force. They also appear to have the same strength at very high energies, especially if ‘supersymmetric’ particles exist. It may even be possible to include gravity if theories which treat matter as small vibrating strings are correct.”

How Wilczek feels like his visit to an artist’s rendering in an outdoor light display in Phoenix, Arizona somehow equates to an intuitive affirmation of how life and mind “emerged” from matter escapes me. Although the metaphor of lights blinking off and on is suggestive, in a way, of how brain activity might be viewed if such a thing were possible in the same way, to suggest that MRI, PET scanning, and other techniques for detecting blood flow in the brain are somehow visualizations which answer the age old question about how life and mind emerged, strikes me as completely overreaching. Here is a link to the video on WSJ.com: (The narration is only a partial replication of the entire article.)

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After decades of research, study, and contemplation of many diverse features of subjective experience, and having expended an enormous amount of effort and energy in the process of discerning what might possibly be behind our extraordinary human subjective awareness of existing as a physical entity in the physical universe, for me personally, as well as for many prominent thinkers throughout human history, the reality is that while our subjective experience of being alive requires the cooperation and integration of physical systems in order for our temporal existence to register with sentient creatures such as ourselves, it is NOT…and I repeat..NOT in any way certain, by any criteria or judgmental standard, that those physical systems are the absolute SOURCE and PRIMAL DRIVING FORCE responsible for that experience in the first place. It is much more likely, in my view, that our physical existence is founded upon and derives its significance from a source as yet to be established with certainty, and very likely to be beyond our capacities for establishing an empirical proof. This inability to demonstrate or define categorically the source of all Life and consciousness does nothing to negate the possibility, that whatever it is that defines it or explains it, there may still be an ineffable and non-material source that produced all that we perceive with our senses, and all that we observe in the vast universe beyond the Earth.

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The evolution of biological life in the physical universe on planet Earth has provided our species with an astonishing array of sensory systems, complex biological processes, extraordinary cognitive skills, and a profoundly fragile and beautiful physical environment in which to flourish and evolve, and regardless of our prowess in deciphering the scientific and mathematical underpinnings of the mechanisms and systems which facilitate Life on Earth, none of the intricate details and highly complex processes which support that Life can reduce the totality of our SUBJECTIVE HUMAN EXPERIENCE OF CONSCIOUSNESS to those physical mechanisms only. Suggesting that Life (with a capital “L”) can be reduced to an understanding of those mechanisms alone is like handing out speeding tickets at the Daytona 500. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.

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In order to begin to understand how our subjective experience of being alive is even possible in the first place, we clearly do need to consider the gradual development of the complex macro-structure of the brain by examining the various stages of mammalian, primate, and hominid evolution, each of which contributed essential individual brain components, and how that development over millions of years facilitated the gradual sophistication of cognition and higher order thinking. However, once these complex structures and extraordinary cognitive talents were sufficiently developed, it might also be possible to accept intuitively, that it then became possible to utilize them in accessing a much broader intellectual and psychological plateau, and to establish a connection to what we describe as human consciousness or “the subjective experiential awareness of being alive.” This then allows us to hypothesize about the important contributions of specific emergent properties which are a consequence of the evolution and structural hierarchy of the network of various brain regions, while still allowing for the interaction with what C.G. Jung described as “the transcendent function,” or “non-physical substrates,” rather than simply characterizing the results as the “emergence of life and mind from matter.”

To assume from the very beginning of the conversation that it shouldn’t be “…difficult to accept intuitively that life and mind can emerge from matter,” sets a tone that feels limiting right at the outset. Moreover, as a means of coming to terms with the origins of life and mind, one might suggest, by that reasoning, it also shouldn’t be difficult to accept intuitively that life and mind emerged from the seeds planted by advanced beings visiting from some other universe in a multi-verse theory of creation, or perhaps as a result of an inter-dimensional crossover billions of years ago. It is the PRESUMPTION that matter alone might have been the sole source of life and mind which eliminates other possible essential components to their existence. While I completely understand that there are advantages for the scientist to justify their mechanistic worldview by simply claiming that Life and mind emerged from matter, I fail to see why it is so difficult to accept intuitively, the existence of other forces or energies, which we do not yet fully recognize or comprehend, which are equally possible and responsible, and required to provide a more comprehensive explanation for Life and mind.

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While it is true, as the author suggests, that we have only a limited “…immediate experience when it comes to how physical systems represent information,” I do not agree that it’s primarily because of the way “…our own brains store and manipulate information in patterns of electrical activation.” The author’s report of how “most neuro-biologists accept that those patterns are the physical embodiment of mind,” does not automatically infer that those patterns are the “source” of the human mind, any more than “the patterns of radio waves” are the source of the transmissions we intercept on our car radios. Radio waves are a MEANS of proliferating the ideas and messages and content created by the users of those systems.

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As any investigator of Astronomy can attest, there are many randomly generated radio signals in the wide expanses of the cosmos, but it requires an intelligent and deliberate manipulation of those signals to generate something recognizable as a message or to qualify as a type of specific content that is intelligible and meaningful. The mechanisms of thought are astonishingly complex and fascinating to study, and the advances in neuroscience have increased our understanding of those mechanisms and helped us to determine the nature of pathologies, to devise methods of counteracting the mechanisms of disease, and to find ways of reversing or mitigating the damage caused by injuries to the brain. In order to understand why all of the activity and structural complexity of the human brain is accompanied by a profound subjective experiential awareness, the “what it’s like” experience of being, requires a great deal more than “patterns of electrical activation.”

The artist’s depiction of patterns of light that we find so impressive and suggestive of brain activity is a fabulous work of creativity and artistic expression, and anyone who experiences a walk through the display in Arizona might rightly invoke the metaphor of electrical patterns in the human brain. However, it might be more prudent to equate the display with a representation of an underlying mechanism, which facilitates an artistic expression created for the purpose of inspiring and delighting the observers, who are fortunate enough to attend to the pleasures it offers as a work of art.

Winter’s Promise of Spring

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…the very observation is an act of creation, and that consciousness is doing the creating. ~ Gregg Braden

Opening up the front door this morning brought the image above into consciousness for me, and now for all of my visitors and readers here at John’s Consciousness. The first snow of 2016 may seem like an uneventful moment to carry with it the promise of the Spring to come, but as Mr. Braden wrote, the very observation of the world we inhabit suggests to the discerning eye that there is a great deal more to our experience of existence than simply what we perceive with our senses. Our subjective awareness of our experience has a vital role in how we ultimately determine the quality and character of our existence, and it contributes significantly to our sense of continuity and unity as the seasons pass, one after the other.

Eric Weiner, author of “The Geography of Genius,” reports that recent research into creativity and “cognitive flexibility,” suggests that our intellectual development can be boosted by “…a fresh perspective,” or what psychologist Nigel Barber described “an oblique perspective,” which can take place when we are uprooted from what is familiar. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, he quoted author and cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman of the University of Pennsylvania, who posits that “openness to experience,” is the most important trait found in exceptionally creative people. (WSJ, Review, January 16-17, 2016) Apparently, “…having your world turned upside down,” can be a catalyst for greater creativity.

In view of this conclusion, and considering my own experience of the world, I should be uniquely positioned for a boost in creativity. Over the holiday season, which held a fair amount of both new experience and the familiar, there has been an incremental increase in my creative endeavors, beginning with my previous post, “Christmas at the Lake House,” and included the creation of some interesting “threads of thought” for me to follow in the coming year. While I was visiting the lake house, I took the opportunity to look back at myself while in the midst of new experience, in an attempt to see if there were any obvious signs of an “oblique perspective.” I’m not sure the image indicates any hint of the oblique, but perhaps our visitors here will detect some sign of it:

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It’s not an especially cheerful pose, I admit, but it does accurately capture the psychological state I was experiencing at that moment. Whether or not this translates into a “fresh perspective,” on the year ahead is an open question, but I am determined to continue to pursue the themes and areas of interest this year as I have over the past five years here at WordPress.com. Here is a brief preview of some of the upcoming topics and themes for the year ahead:

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Revisiting the importance of subjective experience.

Every experience of the world, from the most prosaic to the most profound, have a commensurate effect on our brains as human beings, and in spite of how each of us has a remarkably similar brain structure generally speaking, we are as unique cognitively as snowflakes and fingerprints. Viewed broadly, these differences are like viewing the landscape above in the rolling hills of West Virginia. From this distance, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to see either the subtle or the most significant changes taking place in the vast expanse before you, but if you look more closely, profound alterations in the forest floor are occurring all the time, and can change with astonishing swiftness with even just a rudimentary insight into the dynamics which govern its ever-changing nature.

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Ancient worlds and ancient cultures continue to hold true relevance to our understanding of our modern world.

From the earliest epochs of human migration across the vast expanses of the ancient world, through the development of the earliest beginnings of civilizations across the globe, through the age of exploration and discovery that formed our modern world, great upheavals and subtle incremental changes in human progress contain small pivotal moments, as well as the rise and fall of great empires, each of which produced a variety of central figures of every sort, who created thought-provoking and timeless contributions to the pantheon of human history, human thought, and the arts. As we advance technologically, we mustn’t lose sight of the lessons learned, nor can we abandon them, as our educational systems seem to be doing these days, and as I encounter important examples, I will include them in future posts and highlight those which seem most universal and timeless.

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Developing and Enlarging our understanding of Neuroscience and our very Human Nature.

Enormous progress is being made in our understanding of cognitive functioning and what it is that truly makes us human, and the field is wide open regarding what might be included in that progress and understanding. We have only really begun to scratch the surface in our neuroscientific endeavors, and there are hopeful signs that more and more scientists are beginning to challenge the conventional wisdom that has prevailed for decades regarding the true underpinnings of our cognitive talents as human beings. I am hopeful that the scientific community which supports our efforts to understand consciousness will continue to challenge the prevailing assumptions of materialism and reductionist thinking. I intend to persist in investigating and opening the conversation for as long as I am able.

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Monitoring and keeping tabs on our progress with Artificial Intelligence.

Few subjects are as controversial and as promising as the development of what is called, “strong A.I.” and while there is much to consider in the ethical and technical limitations of this research currently, the rapid pace of exponential growth in this particular field is both frightening and exhilarating for most of us. As we move forward into the 21st century, we must dedicate the proper attention to safeguards and to ethical application of the new technologies.

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The continuing Journey of the Human Spirit.

Few topics of study and conversation in the realm of human subjective experience can be said to be fully engaged without consideration of the very life force which supports every human endeavor. Few people who study, research, and write about our human nature can avoid the foundational subject of the human spirit. For me, there can be no discussion of any of the surrounding topics covered here without the inclusion in some way of our spiritual nature. It doesn’t require us to invoke any particular religious connotation and whether or not we have a background devoid of religious training or have lived lives steeped in a particular regimen of religious belief, the conversation surrounding consciousness and human subjective experience clearly begs the question of an underlying force or energy that may not ultimately yield to empirical scrutiny, but which is, nonetheless, a vital aspect of the conversation from my point of view.

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With best wishes to all my readers and visitors from around the world for everything good that is possible in the coming year, and with gratitude for the many generous comments and regular support from you all these past five years.

Kindest regards…..John H.

An Artificial Version of Human Intelligence?

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According to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, intelligence is defined as:

noun
1. capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.
2. manifestation of a high mental capacity: “He writes with intelligence and wit.”

In a recent study conducted at the University of Western Ontario, researchers acknowledged the limitations of current scientific research, but offered a basis for suggesting factors to consider. They “looked into the brain areas that are activated by tasks that are typically used to test for intelligence,” and reported their results–

“…based on the set of brain areas that might contribute to those tasks. However don’t get too excited, the methods used have severe limitations and we are still only at the hypothesis level. We do not know how these areas contribute to performance in intelligence tests and we do not know why they are activated and how they interact together to create the behavior.”

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According to a recently published neuroscientific paper, “a broader definition was agreed to by 52 prominent researchers on intelligence:”

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

Reviewing the many related brain structures involved in cognitive functioning, researchers concluded that:

“…variations in these structures and functions may be “endophenotypes” for intelligence — that is, they might be intermediate physiological markers that contribute directly to intelligence. Therefore, genes involved in intelligence might be more closely linked to these variations in brain structure and function than to intelligence itself. In fact, in all studies to date, the genetic influences on these structures and functions were highly correlated with those on general intelligence.”

–excerpts from “The Neuroscience of Human Intelligence Differences,” by Ian J.Deary, Lars Penke and Wendy Johnson

There are a number of individuals today who are beginning to make associations between the technological advances of modern science and some of the ancient esoteric traditions like yoga, in an attempt to explain our subjective experience of consciousness:

“If hypothetical machinery inside neurons fails to explain qualia, (the ‘what-it’s-like’ quality of experience) must we then consider the molecules that make up the neuronal machinery, or the atoms inside the molecules, or the subatomic particles inside the atoms? Where is the difference that causes the qualia of subjective experience? A less problematic explanation is possible. German scientist, Gottfried Leibniz, postulated irreducible quanta of consciousness he termed ‘monads.’ Matter does not create consciousness. Instead, matter is animated by monads. It seems hardly a coincidence that Leibniz’ monads would perfectly fit between the moments of time that lead to Kaivalya, (Yoga term for enlightenment or nirvana.)

Ultimately, Kaivalya is an ineffable experience. But the claim of yoga is that it provides means to experience what is outside of the individualized mind. The experience of going through the center of consciousness and emerging, as it were, on the other side is very much one of turning inside out. In our ordinary consciousness we are turned outwards towards the world-image which we externalized around us.

In going through our consciousness the entire process is reversed, we experience an inversion…that which was without becomes within. In fact, when we succeed in going through our center of consciousness and emerge on the other side, we do not so much realize a new world around us as a new world within us. We seem to be on the surface of a sphere having all within ourselves and yet to be at each point of it simultaneously…the outstanding reality of our experience…is the amazing fact that nothing is outside us.”

–excerpts from article by DONALD J. DEGRACIA, Associate Professor of Physiology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, in EDGESCIENCE MAGAZINE #16 • NOVEMBER 2013

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Recent research in artificial intelligence has begun to approach what might be described as a kind of tipping point, where the lines will likely begin to blur between what is clearly a type of machine intelligence, like the current offerings in robotics and self-driving cars, to something more akin to the kind of intelligence that talks back to you or responds in a more conversational manner like Apple’s “Siri,” and the Windows 10 offering of a personal assistant application called “Cortana.” Many of these innovations are built upon interest in the idea of eventually being able to develop the technologies surrounding A.I. to the point where they will function so much like the human brain, that communicating with them will be virtually indistinguishable from doing so with another live human person.

While this is an enormously appealing concept to our modern sensibilities, and currently fueling a huge amount of research in the industry, even supposing that it might be possible to produce a device or platform commensurate with the trillions of connections between neurons in the human brain, characterizing any resulting machine as either “intelligent” or “conscious,” requires us to re-examine what it means to be intelligent and conscious. Our current understanding of these terms, even as they apply to humans, is still not especially comprehensive or complete, and looking at the development of “human” or “biological” intelligence through the millennia, demonstrates a key component of the challenge in creating an artificial version that might qualify as equivalent.

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Early humans and their fellow primates and mammals, along with all the various species endowed with sufficiently complex neural structures and central nervous systems, at some point, eventually possessed a brain or other neural configuration of adequate strength, size, and architecture, which allowed for the retention of memories, and for processing the sensory data gleaned through the available senses. These structures, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, at some point provided the necessary support for adaptive learning or for acquiring a sufficient degree of species-specific abilities, in order for the organism to make efficient use of that information, and to produce a range of results, commensurate with their species-specific capacities and habitation, which enhanced their survival in their respective environments.

Once our ancient ancestors reached a certain level of development, through the integration of incremental evolutionary changes, they achieved a nominal degree of enhanced cognitive talents, attaining a sufficient capacity for what we describe as “human intelligence,” which eventually led to the ability to reason and plan well enough to override emotional distractions, needs and desires, and to awaken to a penetrating level of subjective self-awareness. As any parent of a healthy child can tell you, intelligence does not appear immediately even in modern human children. In spite of advantageous circumstances and environments in which these amazing cognitive human creatures develop, it still requires a minimal degree of relevant experience in the world to accumulate a useful and functional knowledge base, to hone learning skills, and to be able to draw on a collection of memories, which enhance whatever cognitive, genetic, and other physiological resources they might bring to the process.

As a consequence of the random combinations of chromosomes in the human reproductive process, there is a sufficient degree of diversity in the general distribution of combinations available to the human genome, so that each human child has a relatively unique set of circumstances genetically. This diversity is necessary for the health of our species, and as a result, we observe a full range of endowment, which can result in bestowing our descendents with a general baseline capacity for the development of cognitive efficiency, or at the other end of the spectrum, a potential for an enhanced intellectual development, right from the start. A vast array of cultural and environmental variables can either promote or inhibit whatever potential is present, and throughout human history, we have observed how a viable or disadvantageous environment, as well as individual initiative or apathy, can alter the equation in either direction.

It seems likely, in view of these mitigating factors, that it is through a combination of innate cognitive talent, genetic endowment, and environmental conditions that we see contributions to the general flow of intelligence either making a significant appearance, or faltering and struggling to gain ground, in much the same way as it has been since the earliest neural structures appeared in whatever creatures are still existent today. In every case, whatever degree of potential existed within a particular species, it was either successfully developed and exploited for survival, or ended up being thwarted by circumstances from developing successfully enough to sustain a niche for a particular species, resulting in their extinction.

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Our challenge in the 21st century is finding a way to determine which contributing factors for increasing intelligence can be safely selected by humans for the most productive incorporation into what we are currently describing as “artificial intelligence,” or “machine intelligence.” Unfortunately, no matter what we are ultimately able to do, in my view, we won’t be able to incorporate our humanity fully into machines, nor will we be able to artificially endow them with the experience of “being human.” In order for us to be aware of our experience of existing as a human being, while clearly requiring a variety of nominally functional, finely-tuned, and integrated biological systems, each of which are essential currently, because there is so much more to being a subjectively aware human person, there must be something that it is like to be human, which cannot be precisely replicated by any technological advancement or created through sheer engineering genius. The subjective experience of human consciousness utilizes our very human capacity for intelligence, as well as our access to a penetrating awareness provided by an astonishing array of electrochemical processes in our miraculous brains, but what we are accessing is not PRODUCED by the brain, but rather it is PERCEIVED by it.

It’s interesting to me how some scientists and thinkers in all the various fields of investigation into artificial intelligence believe that it is simply a matter of achieving a sufficient degree of complexity in the structures we devise for the processing of the voluminous data necessary to be equivalent to the human brain, constructing a sufficiently pliable, flexible, and interactive software, driven by the necessary algorithms, and we will eventually produce a sentient, intelligent, and conscious machine.

In his fascinating and expansive book entitled, “The Universe in a Nutshell,” Stephen Hawking posits that if “very complicated chemical molecules can operate in humans to make them intelligent,” it should follow that “equally complicated electronic circuits can also make computers act in an intelligent way.” He goes on to say that electronic circuits have the same problem as our chemical processes in the brain, which is to process data at a useful speed. He also rightly points out that computers currently have less computational power than “a humble earthworm,” and while they “have the advantage of speed…they show no sign of intelligence.” He also reminds us that even with our capacity for what we call intelligence, that “the human race does not have a very good record of intelligent behavior.”

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The possession of a capacity for intelligence of any sort, artificial or otherwise, is clearly not a “stand-alone” feature that is sufficient to sustain any species in and of itself. As we have observed throughout the evolutionary history of the natural world, constructing and sustaining a successful organism requires the development of a range of compensatory and complimentary abilities and potentials, commensurate with the designs and functions of a particular species, in order to achieve a requisite degree of balance.

In the case of Homo sapiens, our particular brand of human intelligence, as we currently understand it, appears to be primarily the result of human evolution and progress throughout our history as upright, bipedal, and increasingly cognitive beings. As a result, our species is apparently uniquely well-suited for our evolutionary niche, and dominates currently among the other living organisms, mostly for this very reason. While we share much in common with our primate and mammalian family of creatures, and bearing in mind that we are equally indebted to all living things and to the Earth itself for our continued ability to sustain ourselves, intelligence appears to exist in remarkably adaptive and unique ways in each of the various evolutionary paths for each family of species that coexist with us today.

It would be arrogant to suggest that our variety of intelligence is in any way superior to that enjoyed by other organisms on our planet, except in the context of its usefulness to our specific nature as humans. Our own highly-adaptive nature is fairly well-suited generally to the requirements of our species, and while one might reasonably argue that our inclinations and intelligence are lacking in one way or another, for the most part, even considering our limitations, foibles, and perceived deficits, human intelligence has managed to keep pace with the unfolding of our continued evolution thus far, and providing that we persist in developing and adapting to our ever-changing circumstances, there is cause for optimism in my view.

What we tend to miss in most of our estimations of what sort of artificial intelligence might emerge from our efforts to produce it, is that no matter what results are forthcoming, it will very likely be profoundly different than our own ultimately, in spite of how specifically we aim to recreate the mental processes and physiological structures of our own exquisitely adaptive brains.

Oliver Sacks – 1933-2015

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“My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.

–excerpt from New York Times article The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.) By Oliver Sacks, JULY 6, 2013

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

–excerpt from “My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer,” New York Times, February 19, 2015

“Dr. Sacks, who died on Sunday at 82, was a polymath and an ardent humanist, and whether he was writing about his patients, or his love of chemistry or the power of music, he leapfrogged among disciplines, shedding light on the strange and wonderful interconnectedness of life — the connections between science and art, physiology and psychology, the beauty and economy of the natural world and the magic of the human imagination.”

–excerpt from New York Times article “Oliver Sacks, Casting Light on the Interconnectedness of Life,” By Michiko Kakutani August 30, 2015

For me, Oliver Sacks represented the best of what scientists, doctors, neurologists, and just plain humans can aspire to in life. While his books, essays, and articles frequently prompted criticism and were often considered controversial, he never lost his connection to his humanity, and demonstrated deep concern and compassion for his many patients, as well as his colleagues, family, and friends.

There is little that I can add to the many tributes appearing now in all the media outlets and online, but like many others, I first encountered the story and character of Dr. Sacks from the 1990 film, “Awakenings,” starring Robin Williams, and later during the 1993 PBS series called, “A Glorious Accident,” which included a round-table of prominent thinkers which included Oliver Sacks, Daniel C. Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould, Rupert Sheldrake, Freeman Dyson, and Stephen Toulmin.

Subsequent reading and viewing over the years of the work of Dr. Sacks, only increased my admiration and respect for his open-minded and humanistic approach to every subject. He left behind a legacy of scholarship and compassionate inspiration.

Godspeed, Oliver!

Quest for Consciousness

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“The working hypothesis of this book is that consciousness emerges from neuronal features of the brain. Understanding the material basis of consciousness is unlikely to require any exotic new physics, but rather a much deeper appreciation of how highly interconnected networks of a large number of heterogeneous neurons work. The abilities of coalitions of neurons to learn from interactions with the environment and from their own internal activities are routinely underestimated. Individual neurons themselves are complex entities with unique morphologies (form and structure) and thousands of inputs and outputs. Their interconnections, the synapses, are molecular machines that come equipped with learning algorithms that modify the strength and dynamics of synapses across many timescales. Humans have no real experience with such a vast organization. Hence, even biologists struggle to appreciate the properties and power of the nervous system.”

– Christof Koch from his book, “The Quest for Consciousness; A Neurobiological Approach”

“Given the centrality of subjective feelings to everyday life, it would require extraordinary factual evidence before concluding that qualia and feelings are illusory. Philosophical arguments, based on logical analysis coupled to introspection, are not powerful enough to deal with the real world with all of its subtleties in a decisive manner. The philosophical method is at its best when formulating questions, but does not have much of a track record at answering them. The provisional approach I take in this book is to consider first-person accounts as brute facts of life and seek to explain them.”

– Christof Koch from his book, “The Quest for Consciousness; A Neurobiological Approach”

In spite of my great admiration for Christof Koch, and for many of those like him, who approach the subject of human consciousness from a more materialistic view, for me personally, these explanations are ultimately unsatisfying in a big way. In pondering these materialist viewpoints in my own “quest for consciousness,” I keep coming back to the “brute facts of life,” in the unambiguous appearance of the very first indications of sentience in Homo sapiens – omnivorous (eating both animal and plant foods) mammalian primates – Anthropoids – who finally demonstrated evidence of the beginnings of modern consciousness.

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Even with all of the “neuronal features of the brain” present in our earliest ancestors who had them; we still really weren’t fully “conscious” right away in the same sense that we are now. With all of our accumulated experience as a hominid species, and hundreds of thousands of years in possession of the basic components of our “modern” brains, it took both an expansion of the cerebral cortex generally and the frontal lobes in particular, as well as the most advantageous structure and proportion in the brains of modern humans, to finally be ABLE to demonstrate conscious awareness of the sort we are reading about in the quotes above. And even AFTER we acquired this capacity in the Upper Paleolithic period in the Aurignacian culture, we didn’t start right off developing mathematics and science. We painted cave walls with astonishing artwork, formulated primitive ideas, and began to teach our young what we learned, but it took almost another 30,000 years of human progress to come up with cuneiform, developed by the Sumerian culture during the third millennium BC, and establish the foundations for various other systems for communication and formal languages. In nearly every one of the various ancient cultural and regional human societies and various groupings in human history, once it was finally possible to record and express their subjective awareness of existing in the world, an acknowledgement of a non-physical component to the experience of being alive eventually appeared.

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However, just HAVING the “neuronal features of the brain” didn’t automatically produce philosophy or physics. Like all forms of life throughout the history of the planet, we were evolving physically, intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually. The degree of what we may wish to describe as consciousness in many of our fellow primate and mammalian species, while clearly SIMILAR in certain cases to our own, points to an astonishing degree of variance in RESULTS ACHIEVED with only a relatively small degree of difference in physiology.

I keep getting this nagging “feeling” that brain physiology, as ESSENTIAL as it is, cannot be the cause of consciousness “EMERGING” from the brain. Evolution may have “SELECTED” a species-specific brain structure and subsequent functional prowess, but the results of that selection may not have simply and only produced an advantageous survival strategy, but rather, it may have been that by achieving a sufficient number of “neuronal features,” humans may finally have achieved a level of sophistication that provided a fuller degree and quality of ACCESS to an ever-present and ubiquitous “field or force” of consciousness–a fundamental feature of the nature of life in the universe. With all due respect to Christof Koch, in my view, it does not necessarily follow that consciousness EMERGED only as a result of our specific brain structures and functions.

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An interesting corollary subject within the discussion surrounding our subjective experience of consciousness is the way in which all of our previous lifelong subjective experiences provide the foundation for our comprehension and apprehension of our current experience in this very moment. Naturally, without having any previous relevant life or learning experiences to draw upon for comparison, any subsequent experience would, by definition, be viewed as a “new experience.” While new experiences are inherent in any circumstance in which we have not been previously familiar in a specific way, as when we travel to a foreign country for the first time, or when we take our first trip on an airplane, even as the specifics of those circumstances provide a degree of subjective experience that could not have been part of our previous existence, there are other foundational experiences that we use to compare against those which are specifically new. Depending on the extent and variety of prior experiences, the assimilation of those which are “new,” may require a great deal more effort to come to terms with them.

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The real issue, though, is in the accumulation of subjective knowledge of our existence in the first place. As all human adults are aware, each of us arrives in the world as newborn babies, with only a very limited unconscious experience of life in the womb. Sensory data acquired during that time, while fairly universal in nature, depending on the health and lifestyle of the mother, have a clear but limited effect on our eventually conscious subjective experience. Our early life as an infant, also subject to the subtleties and specific conditions of the environment in which it takes place, are in large part unconscious for a number of years after birth. There are rare exceptions to the general flow of conscious memory accumulation, which generally begins in the third or fourth year of childhood, but for most of us, our early childhood memories most often transmit only a vague sense of those experiences, and are often characterized by episodic “bits and pieces” or “snippets” of conscious recollection.

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Once a child achieves a rudimentary functional level of conscious subjective awareness, somewhere around five to seven years along, more lasting and significant memories begin to accumulate, and a broader range of foundational subjective experiences allow the young child to begin to interpret the world with a degree of perspective commensurate with whatever experiences were available during their early development. An experience of deprivation or limited nurturing during the early years can profoundly and adversely affect the development of the child, and providing a richer and more stimulating environment can produce a commensurate increase in the quality and character of their development, along with a substantially increased range of productive subjective experiences with which to interpret and understand the world around them.

In combination with our inherited genetic makeup and a host of other mitigating factors in our specific familial and human lineage, as well as whatever degree of cultural orientation or psychological conditioning that may take place, we often navigate through later childhood and adolescence as much unconsciously as consciously, eventually acquiring a more independently achieved view of the world, based many times on which opportunities are either present and utilized, withheld, or unavailable. While there are no guarantees of a specifically positive or negative outcome in spite of any and all of these mitigating factors, the contributions which they potentially represent can affect our ability to assimilate new experiences significantly.

Evolution of Cognition

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The evolution of life on our planet has produced an extraordinary variety and diversity of species, and the paths followed by many of the branches on the tree of life have held sway for millions of years before ending completely or splitting off into whole new species. The ability of each branch to continue into the future has depended on the ability of each particular organism to adapt to changing circumstances, or to develop capacities, talents, or skills which conferred some increased survival advantage. Those organisms which acquired the necessary advantages were able to pass them along to the next generation of offspring through a combination of genetic inheritance and by demonstrating useful survival strategies through their specific nurturing behaviors.

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Anyone who spends time reviewing the recent publications in neuroscientific and cognitive studies is bound to come across the persistent urge of scientists and reductionists to equate “being conscious”–i.e. being awake, alert, and alive–with “consciousness,” which is more correctly viewed as a unified, subjective, and integrated whole phenomena, composed of and supported by a great deal more than that. This disparity within the ranks of those who investigate brain functioning leads many of them to conclude that consciousness is “generated” by the brain alone.

To be fair, every investigation into the subjective nature of human consciousness clearly must address the role of our complex cognitive apparatus in facilitating access to our subjective experience of it. Without a nominally functional brain, educated through a basic selection of life experiences, supported by a rich variety of sensory stimulation, a minimal degree of specific learning activities, access to the storage and retrieval of memories, and some proficiency with language, access to our subjective experience–the “what-it’s-like” character of being would still be taking place, but would be far less useful and be of a wholly different quality.

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Our early hominid ancestors, the earliest versions of Homo sapiens, and perhaps even Homo erectus and Homo habilis, must have possessed some degree of access to consciousness, in spite of having developed only a limited capacity for cognitive awareness. When we examine what is known about the early history of humanity, and compare the progress through the millennia from the earlier versions of “modern” humans who painted images on cave walls some 35,000 years ago, to that of our 21st century human experience, it becomes clear that simply possessing the same requisite brain structure as those previous ancestors was not sufficient to allow them the immediate acquisition of sophisticated and comprehensive appreciation of our subjective experience of consciousness.

The unfolding of human consciousness, the gradual sophistication of human activities, the evolution of the human body and brain structures, and the subsequent increases in cognitive talent, eventually provided the first modern humans with an adequate foundation for apprehending the “what-it’s-like” subjective awareness of being alive, and initiated a coordination of the gradually improving array of brain functions to make use of the more unified subjective awareness of existing as a physical being in the physical universe. In order for these early humans to achieve a penetrating and subjective self-awareness required them to possess not only a nominally functional brain, supported by an equally functional central nervous system, enhanced by each of the sensory systems which provided the necessary neural stimulation for the developing brain, but also to have a reasonably healthy body that was ambulatory with basic cardiovascular and digestive functionality as well. The sustained integration of all these bodily and cognitive functions over tens of thousands of years eventually became sufficient to bring subjective awareness into fullness, which established the groundwork for the development of language, and the subsequent ability to express that awareness in a meaningful way.

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Clearly, even before the arrival of Homo sapiens, some previous and more limited versions of this basic awareness, which might have been present in the hominid populations as the threshold for our more comprehensive cognitive awareness approached a minimal level, may have provided the seeds for the blossoming of our ability to more fully access consciousness as we do in our 21st century world. Many of the advantages and advances along the way for human beings socially, culturally, and cognitively have been enriched and expanded by our subsequent evolution since humans first began to demonstrate their capacity for intelligence and self-awareness, and became more evident as a fuller and more comprehensive human subjective awareness became commonplace.

As with most other human capacities, cognition is absolutely essential to our survival, and while we need our miraculous brains to make sense of experiences, to retain memories, and to advance our understanding of ourselves and our universe, each of our capacities provides a vital component, and our bodies and each of our sensory and biological systems contribute essential elements that make experiential functionality useful. While our brain represents the central locus of our mental activity, and acts as the coordinator of both bodily and cognitive functions, simply “being conscious,”–alert and awake–does not describe the comprehensive phenomena of consciousness, and to suggest that the brain alone “generates” consciousness reduces this profoundly important aspect of our humanity to merely being another bodily function like respiration and digestion.

Enormously important contributions are being made all the time in neuroscience and cognitive studies, and pursuing the goals of these endeavors helps us to more fully appreciate the astonishing array of important discoveries that often result from attention to them. Surely, in the interest of scientific curiosity and advancement in all areas of human understanding DEMANDS that we remain open to other possible areas of contribution to such a complex and profoundly important phenomena as our subjective experience of consciousness.

In The Beginning

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“Many theories of the origin of life have been proposed, but since it’s hard to prove or disprove them, no fully accepted theory exists,” –Diana Northup, a cave biologist at the University of New Mexico.

Robert Shapiro, a chemist at New York University thinks “…life started with molecules that were smaller and less complex than RNA, which performed simple chemical reactions that eventually led to a self-sustaining system involving the formation of more complex molecules.”

(Both quotes from http://www.livescience.com/)

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Recent discoveries in science have revealed the first indications of a possible scenario for the development of Life on Earth. The components of the fundamental building blocks of Life have been known for some time, but just how these components combined to permit the creation of complex molecules like RNA and DNA is still uncertain. We know that eventually complex molecules DID evolve, since Life on Earth in all its forms are made up of these molecules, but in spite of all the scientific progress made so far, the solution still escapes us. The subtleties and complexities of the process of formation of the galaxies and solar systems which provided the platform for Life on Earth is also still a matter of some conjecture among scientists, but progress is being made in this regard as well. For the purposes of discussing Life (with a capital “L” to indicate all life), a process that eventually led to primates, mammals, and humans, it seemed to me that whatever it was that permitted complex organic life and no matter how that process unfolded, the Tree of Life sprouted here on our planet over billions of years, and the existence of Life as we know it was the first component of the process that brought us to the point where we became aware that we existed, and to every other aspect of awareness, and knowledge, and to the subjective experience of human consciousness. Our “inner evolution,” as I refer to it in the title of this blog, began with Life itself, and there is, in my view, a clear path to the awareness of a transcendent energy, a spiritual foundation, a non-corporeal component at the heart of it all.

 

Here, as promised, is a brief outline of my theory of how we arrived at our awareness of the human spirit:

 

INNER EVOLUTION:

LIFE IS THE SPIRIT (and everything in between)

 

LIFE

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Before there could be any awareness at all, there had to be life. The beginning of life after our solar system formed, with planets and moons as objects revolving around the sun and each other, was humble indeed. One-celled microscopic living organisms, produced by the sun’s rays filtering through the primal atmosphere, interacting with materials brought forth from volcanic eruptions and meteors striking the earth, eventually gave way to the multi-cellular variety and over billions of years, gave rise to an increasing complexity of life, giving rise to mammals, primates, and eventually, primitive humans. With sufficiently developed brain architecture, Homo sapiens finally were able to think and act deliberately, and to be aware that they existed.

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EVOLUTION

Provided the means to adapt and enhance…..

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COGNITIVE FUNCTION

In the brain, so that the

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AWARENESS

Achieved by humans resulted in a rich

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SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE

And an advanced state of

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MODERN CONSCIOUSNESS

Which enabled humans to contemplate and hypothesize, speculate, seek, understand and realize that sensory experience only scratches the surface of our existence, leading us to the

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TRANSCENDENCE

Of the phenomenal world and to the awareness of the existence of the

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SPIRIT.

 

Since Spirit is at the heart of life, the foundation of all things, the spirit actually had to be there first. Life is a manifestation of the spirit. Everything in between is the unfolding of the spirit.

Transcendence is the link between the phenomenal and the spiritual.

Consciousness is the conduit of the spirit in our individual lives.

Subjective Experience is the richness of the spirit at work in our lives this very moment.

Awareness is the mirror of the spirit that reflects it back to us.

Cognitive Function is a miraculous system of fundamental importance through which the spirit can be known.

Evolution is the path of the spirit through the phenomenal world.

Life is the Spirit!!!

“In my view, ‘the sacred’ is not a theoretical idea, but an experience of being deeply connected with everything in the visible universe, and all the forces that lie behind it. When we experience this vital sense of connectedness, life becomes engaging and meaningful.”
–Summer 2001 – Parabola Magazine – David Fideler

…more to come…