Tumultuous Transitions

After a tumultuous series of experiences in late 1973 and early 1974, and after a sufficient amount of time had passed to regain my bearings, I was able to complete my advanced training in Massachusetts, and was reassigned to a duty station in Monterey, California for training as a linguist. I didn’t know it at that time, but my adventure into spiritual awakening was about to expand exponentially.

Unbeknownst to me, I was being sent to one of the most beautiful coastal communities in the country, and be in close proximity to a number of the most startling natural locations anywhere in the world. Up to that time I had always enjoyed being outdoors and often visited local parks and recreational areas as the opportunity came up, but nothing could have prepared me for the exquisite natural beauty which would surround me, as I immersed myself in one of the most intense language regimens ever devised.

At the same time, whenever free time was made available, I took full advantage of every opportunity to expand my knowledge of the world around me, and traveled extensively to places like San Francisco, Big Sur, Coastal Highway number one, Pinnacles National Park, and Yosemite. It was precisely the right place to be, at the exact right time, for me to engage my inner world, explore what had occurred in Massachusetts, and expand my awareness of the nature of the human spirit.

Almost six months into my assignment, traveling home from a late night double-feature at the local movie theater, on the dark coastal highway that had become so familiar to me from my frequent visits to share in the many activities which took place along that stretch of highway, I was nearly killed by two cars racing around one of the treacherous winding curves, and the car I was driving landed upside down on the side of the road. It had been raining and as I slammed on my brakes and turned hard to the right into what looked like the side of a mountain, my little Volkswagen actually drove up onto what looked like a wall on my right, and I watched in my peripheral vision as the two pairs of headlights passed me on the left. For a brief second or two, I thought I might have been able to return to the road safely, except right in the middle of that wall stood a sturdy wooden telephone pole, which seemed to come right up into my face as I blacked out. The drivers of the cars racing by did not stop.

According to the police report, they estimated that I laid upside down in my car on the side of the road for almost forty minutes, until a Good Samaritan pulled over and figured out a way to get me to safety, and called for an ambulance. This Good Samaritan never left his name or any way to get in touch with him. The hospital staff only knew that he was a nurse who just happened by that night and stopped to help.

Thankfully, I had been wearing my seat belt, which saved my life, but did not prevent my head from bashing against the frame of the windshield. I suffered a severe concussion and loss of memory of the event. I woke up several days later after being admitted to the hospital, and only learned what happened almost a week later, after my schoolmates came to visit me and told me what they knew.

It would take several weeks to begin to piece together some of what happened, when my memory started to slowly come back. After being released from the hospital, I was weeks behind in my linguist classes, and had to be tutored for about a month after the normal school hours to catch up.

The car had been towed to a local garage and when my friends took me over to look at it, my one friend remarked, “I thought you said you hit a telephone pole, but the damage is all along the front lengthwise.” I explained that when I hit the pole, the car was traveling sideways along the side of a wall. We looked at each other for a moment in silence, and then we all laughed as we stared at the horizontal indentation along the front of the car.

It seemed impossible to me that I would be able to drive it again, but the mechanic said that since the engine was in the back of the car, all they had to do was to pull the front fenders out a bit and the car started right up when I turned the key.

As I drove back to the base, it occurred to me that I had narrowly escaped death that night, and everything felt different after that.

The Fading of the Light

Watching out my window this evening as the sky slowly abandoned the light of day, fading slowly into twilight, my heart was following along as the sky darkened. In some ways, my heart knows me better than my mind. Within the realm of thoughts and emotions, thoughts have always seemed to eventually defer to my emotions, not because my thoughts were faulty in some way necessarily, but more because the way I feel sometimes tends to be more accurate than my thinking.

In a recent preparation to deliver remarks at a memorial service, I quoted Descartes well-known axiom, “I think, therefore I am,” and suggested that for me personally, it seemed more correct to say, “I feel, therefore I am.” Feeling any potent emotion has always felt more compelling to me as an indication that I truly existed, as opposed to even the most considered and volatile thoughts. Of course, in order to “know” what I felt required the ability to acknowledge intellectually the arrival of the emotion within me, or to even recognize that emotions were active in my experiential awareness. Cognition and awareness of existing subjectively are vitally important partners in experiential reality.

Looking out my window at the still reasonably bright sky, when I initially arrived in the chair which provided the view out the window, found me both thoughtful and emotional. Intellectually, I knew that the time of day and the view out the window were already conspiring to reveal the day’s relentless progression toward the night, but my emotional state was not only reluctant to allow this acknowledgement to take hold, but also fully engaged in the recognition of how keenly the gradual diminishment of light in the sky mirrored the same in my heart.

Intellectually, I was fully cognitive of the causes for the light to fade, and the expectations one must have as the day concludes and the night arrives, but emotionally, even though my mind told me that it was inevitable and unstoppable, my heart wanted the light to linger, and felt keenly how much I longed for the light to remain. This longing held sway mostly due to how I felt about it, rather than what my mind knew was the cause of it. In my mind, I knew it was inevitable, but for my heart, it was a painful and lamentable development, for which no amount of thinking would provide even the slightest solace.

Aside from these meandering thoughts and feelings about the loss of the light, which were mostly secondary in the moment, there was an emotional reverie taking place in both my heart and mind, which formed the foundation for the contrast in the first place. Having nearly a lifetime of sunrises and sunsets to look back on gives each new arrival and departure of daylight and nightfall greater import, based on the recognition that there are clearly fewer opportunities remaining to experience them, compared to the approximately 21,000 which I have already experienced.

Reviewing the hundreds of photographs from my family history that I inherited some years ago, I was struck by the absolute lack of images other than those of family members and family occasions. Even when the images in the family archive began to appear in color in the late fifties and early sixties, there were perhaps less than a handful which consisted of landscapes or mountain vistas, and most of them had someone else in the foreground.

The same review of my own personal collection of photographs showed a relatively greater number of images of the natural world that surrounded me, regardless of whether or not the final images included friends or family members. Almost immediately, as I became more familiar with the process of photography, it occurred to me that the world itself provided many scenes which were worthwhile to capture, and which, in some cases, meant more to me than the simple fact of their existence at the time they were photographed. The motivation for me to remember the beauty and the atmosphere of some of these places was often on the same footing, and was informed by the same degree of interest, that I had in remembering the people who occupied those spaces.

Reflecting now, after all this time, on the experiences surrounding the events and the locations in which they took place, it seems to me that the environment and the scope of the surroundings themselves became such a vital aspect of these experiences for me, that in order to fully represent the totality of particular events, and to help me to subsequently reconstruct the fullness of my experiences, it became necessary to expand the collection of photographs to include whatever else made those experiences feel the way they did to me. It may have been the natural inclinations of the budding artist within me, or it may have been the impending spiritual awakening which was, unbeknownst to me, shortly to appear on the horizon, but as time passed, my photographs began to reflect a much more thoughtful approach, and often were created from the wellspring of emotion bubbling under the surface of my life. Looking back on it now, I am almost embarrassed to report that I had not even the slightest inkling of what was transpiring within me at the time, but by the time I had reached the period of my life which took place overseas, the universe had conspired to point it out to me in ways that I could never have anticipated.

After the abrupt and traumatic events in 1973, the escalation emotionally and psychologically of my world view was the perfect vehicle to launch my intense interest in photography, and it clearly fed the fervor of my investigations into the world within me to such a degree, that almost every important moment of those times required me to record that urgency in every way at my disposal.

The depth of my understanding of the world, and my awareness of the extent to which spirituality would eventually direct the course of my life, prior to my awakening in the autumn of 1973 in Massachusetts, was so limited and incomplete, it hardly seems possible that such an expansion of my artistic and spiritual senses could even have taken place without some drastic change or pivotal event.

Whatever indications there were in my personal photographic evidence, and in the products of my various artistic endeavors up to that point, none of them apparently penetrated sufficiently into my daily waking states of consciousness to provide the necessary spark of creativity that would press me toward my destiny.

***more to come***

Looking Back and Looking Forward

When I began this blog in earnest back in January of 2011, my general goals were to share my decades-long journey of personal development, to express what I had learned while researching the nature of the events which occurred in my youth, and to invite my readers to join me in considering some of the avenues of investigation, which I pursued while searching for a path that might lead to a greater understanding of the subjective human experience of consciousness. I am convinced now that the ultimate explanation must go much deeper and be more meaningful and profound than most modern investigators suppose. It is one of the central questions being investigated at the forefront of philosophy generally, and in neuroscience specifically, and there are a number of scholars and other seekers actively searching with equal enthusiasm.

Just as it seems very clear to me now that the physical universe in which we exist, the “material world,” appears to be a manifestation of something that is not material, so too now does consciousness appear to be, at its source, non-material. In saying this I am not suggesting that it is without interaction with the physical world, but rather that its origin, where it stems from, what precisely emerges from Life, goes much deeper—it transcends all that we know intellectually and what we experience sensually.

What has compelled me to pursue it all along has been my own profound sense of something other than the physical world at work in my own experience of existence, and to the extent that I have studied the material sciences, the laws of physics, and listened to the conclusions and musings of the great thinkers across the history of humanity, I know that my own personal experiences of awareness—my own consciousness, is the most vitally important source of information that I could possibly hope to encounter. Balanced against a reasonable and rational science of brain physiology, and in consideration of the great strides we have made in psychology and in working through the philosophical discourse by thinkers and scholars from all over the world, what has transpired within me rings true with both the material and non-material aspects of my experience of existence.

After decades of life spent searching, I have gradually increased my confidence in the validity of those aspects of my experience of the world, which are not visible, not temporal in their nature in the strictest sense, but rather part of an eruption of sorts into the physical. Everything I see, and all the research, reading, and contemplation that has accompanied my efforts to come to terms with many of the events of my life, confirm for me the general notion that I have carried with me my whole life—and that is—every aspect of our physical lives, every nuance of experience, is made possible by a source which cannot be defined well in material terms.

Even when I have been disappointed or saddened or felt a sense of loss for any reason, I still felt close to this non-material source, just as I do in moments of great joy and elation, and during moments of what one might wish to describe as revelation—not in the biblical or religious sense—but rather, as life revealing itself to me in my experience of it.

Recently, interactions with my fellow human beings have become more pronounced in the differences between those who are open to the spirit of life—those within whom the “human spirit” radiates—with those who are less in touch with the core elements of their humanity; the ineffable, the non-physical, or the “spiritual,” if you will. Encountering individuals who embody the radiance of spirit, even if they don’t recognize it themselves, make this pursuit worthwhile, and those who are lacking in their understanding or who haven’t experienced their inner world well, make the expression of my ideas even more compelling.

In particular, when I encounter people with whom I feel an especially powerful connection, which is occasionally so clear and so deeply affective, sometimes even after only a few minutes, it increases my sensitivity to that connection in a “spiritual,” ineffable, and unambiguous way. The struggle that I have often had and continue to have from long ago is figuring out a way to alert these individuals to these connections, and to share my urgent sense of connection to them, without intruding or pressing the issue beyond a reasonable degree.

At least at present, it seems impossible for me to separate myself from my awareness of these connections, which are, to me, so obvious; I sometimes sense them so strongly, that any attempt to ignore them or to dismiss them as belonging to some biological or instinctive process simply makes no sense. During certain encounters over the years, even when there wasn’t any particularly overt cause to explain the connection, even then, the particulars often seemed to lead to the non-material. It often prompted me to consider that energies outside of our physical beings or even within us might be responsible.

In fact, when it comes to these dual aspects of our humanity, there truly is no “inside of us” or “outside of us,” in any meaningful sense. It is simply a necessary linguistic compromise to distinguish in some way, the material from the non-material, and describing them in that way helps us to realize that both are essential to life, and integral to comprehending the ineffable nature of our subjective experience. When we fall in love or feel strongly compelled toward certain ideas or individuals, or when we seek to participate in certain compelling circumstances, even when we occasionally become obsessed by these ideas, all of these are indications of a combination or coordination between these dual aspects.

Since it seems to me that we are both physical beings with powerful instinctive, biological, and psychological drives, as well as spiritual beings with a number of equally potent intuitive inclinations, it often may seem easier to focus primarily on explaining our experiences as being the result of brain activity, and to insist that those physiological processes are the source of all our inclinations, as opposed to including the possibility that any other non-material source might be at work.

I am firmly convinced that the mechanisms of cognition, intelligence, and brain functions, so vital to our ability to make sense of the world, simply cannot constitute the whole explanation. We see great strides being made with artificial intelligence, and with the efforts to replicate the functioning of neural processes artificially, and while these endeavors are truly fascinating and worthwhile, they cannot compare in significance to the richly-textured and deeply personal inner subjective experience of human consciousness, which has thus far only been possible to confirm subjectively, as to its capacity to exercise influence on our temporal circumstances.

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As I progressed in my research and study of subjective experience, I began to see parallels to many of the descriptions in the literature and scholarship on the subject, over centuries of human endeavor, with my own experiences. When certain events occurred in my early life, I was painfully unaware of what might explain them or help me to understand them better, but now, having become aware of the broad range of thought and theory contained in the history of humanity, and having decades of personal experience to reflect upon, I have been able to associate some of their core findings with my own experiences. Whether or not I have been expressing the conclusions reached by that study in a coherent manner, making them accessible to a wider range of people may be an open question, but doing so has been my goal.

While many of those who ponder these important issues are unwilling to suppose or unable to discern how any influence or energy which has no clearly empirical explanation might be active within and essential to life, for myself, I have to believe that what has been burning within me for so long, and occupied nearly every mental effort I could muster along the way, has been a sufficient cause to express its urgency in my writings.

Considering the wide range of my experiences, both sensual and spiritual, my sincere conviction now is that what I feel, what I sense, and what I experience, not only internally and personally, but also as an observer of the world “outside of me,” especially in consideration of the responses of other individuals under extraordinary circumstances, is that I cannot dismiss out of hand, any experience or conclusion that occurs within me.

In calling my blog, “John’s Consciousness,” I don’t remember thinking too long about it, but when I first saw it on the masthead here, I immediately accepted it as the right choice, in spite of the fact that I wasn’t completely clear in my own mind if it would accurately describe the content I was about to explore in these pages. There is no question in my mind at this point that the ineffable nature of consciousness and the complex machinations of brain physiology, supported by multi-faceted sensory input which support subjective experience, are intimately intertwined, not because there is some direct link discernible to science or immediately obvious to others, but because in my personal experience it has been so. Since it has been so in that way, I feel confident in saying that I have learned to distinguish between those ideas and experiences which are mostly peripheral and those which are profound, and part of the core components of my life.

I have dedicated much of my time and pressed myself to persist in my efforts with great determination to create and present thoughtful, rational, and sincere entries here, and to share my ideas with clarity and balanced argumentation. It is clear from the many insightful responses I have received over the years that certain entries have resonated with my readers more than others, and while I have been formulating these ideas ever since I was a much younger person, even now, as a mature man with sixty-plus years on this planet, I must acknowledge that I am still hampered to some degree by my cultural and familial conditioning, even as I attempt to express what is most urgent within me.

There is so much more to discover. I am compelled to persist in my efforts to dig deeper, and to continue to write about what has been revealed by my decades of searching.

Origins of Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Genes and What Really Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Einstein and the Human Spirit

Overview description of the original production from the website:

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

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

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

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

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

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

EINSTEIN:

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

BRIAN GREENE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our View of the Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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