A Leap of Faith

What is the value of positing a theory of consciousness which is beyond our current capacity to demonstrate empirically?

Even supposing that the full explanation behind the extraordinarily vivid and deeply personal subjective experience we enjoy as living creatures, includes aspects or energies that cannot be verified objectively by any known scientific process, does not preclude the existence of such components, simply because we cannot currently determine their precise nature and origin.

There have been other speculative theories and unconventional ideas proposed in the past which were met with derision and thought to be completely wrong, which eventually gained traction and became widely accepted, such as the arrangement of planets in our solar system, the shape of the earth, and the origins of disease.

For a time, these ideas had no means available to be demonstrated empirically, and were thought to be ridiculous by the conventional wisdom of the times in which they appeared. If we have learned anything over the centuries of recorded human history, we have, at the very least, discovered that the limits of our understanding today are very likely to be replaced by an expanded view at some point in the future.

In my view, the only way to accomplish this is to entertain and explore ideas which may, at some point, require us to make a “leap of faith,” in order to begin the process of uncovering what is now hidden or simply misunderstood using the current paradigm.

Some of the current theories being explored in particle physics suggest that the nature of the physical world as we understand it in this epoch may be radically different than what has been proposed in the past, and while much of what is being suggested often pushes the limits of our understanding, there is a growing movement within the scientific community to pursue these ideas, in spite of resistance from other well-established schools of thought. If we are willing to speculate about the existence of a multiverse, of tiny vibrating strings at the heart of the subatomic world, and multiple dimensions beyond our human perceptive abilities, surely the idea that consciousness is a manifestation of a fundamental force pervading the universe could be explored and given a sustained effort to unravel that possibility.

Recently, as I have reviewed many of my own life experiences, many of which I have described here in this blog, I realized that my long and winding path has given me a degree of confidence to assert, now almost thirty years later, that human consciousness, the essential subjective experience of being alive–self-awareness–whatever term you wish to apply–has at its core, a deeply spiritual component. By expressing it in these terms, I do NOT infer a religious component, but rather, a “non-physical” component. While most of the world’s religions have referred to this “non-physical component” as “the soul” or “the divine”, giving it a “religious connotation,” I believe that it is spiritual in nature, meaning “non-physical,” but also with a deep and meaningful implication, alluding to an intelligence beyond human intelligence, (not alien or extraterrestrial) but simply existing outside of the physical universe.

We are only now, in this epoch of humanity, beginning to probe scientifically the nature of human consciousness, including an expansive study of our cognitive functions and brain physiology, developing a comprehensive neuroscience, and figuring out how it all works. There are huge gaps in our ability to explain how all of the neurological functions and synaptic activity, combined with a delicate electro-chemical balance within the brain and nervous system create the results we observe and experience in the richly diverse subjective experience of being alive. In spite of enormous strides in the science of the brain in the past few decades, none of the science so far has been able to explain our profoundly personal and finely textured understanding of what it means to exist as a sentient and keenly self-aware being.

It is my theory, based on almost thirty years of study in all the related fields, that what we sometimes refer to as the “human spirit,” or whatever term you prefer to use, is the manifestation of what may potentially be a non-physical source responsible for the creation of the physical universe, and by inference then, the existence of all life as we know it. It also seems entirely plausible to me that there may exist within us, capacities or aspects as yet unknown or undetermined by our science, which either tap into this “non-physical” source through human consciousness, or which may one day assist us in revealing and explaining the “what it’s like” experience of existing in the physical world.

With the possible exception of philosophers and poets, the inclusion of these concepts in a comprehensive understanding of consciousness continues to be problematical. The suggestion that non-physical energies or forces or components could have a vital role in explaining our subjective experience of the world, especially in consideration of the profoundly important developments in neuroscience, genetics, and cognitive studies, often seems less appealing since empirically establishing such connections is currently beyond our established cognitive capacities. Whether or not we may eventually discover empirical proofs, or perhaps expand those capacities in a way that could allow empirical confirmation of some sort, is still an open question. It is my contention, however, that the only way for such discoveries or capacities to be realized, is to vigorously engage the possibility.

Since beginning the process of documenting my journey of discovery and enrichment of my inner world, my personal and research journals have gradually become more concerned with the inclusion of many empirical sources, and serious consideration of my personal perspective from the standpoint of those who do not necessarily share my enthusiasm for inclusion of elements that are currently outside of empirical scrutiny. Several of these sources have had a profound effect on my evaluations and conclusions, and have served to temper my enthusiasm somewhat, but in a way that has enhanced my progress.

Everything I have studied and read and felt since my own profoundly disturbing and consciousness-altering mystical experience in 1973 at the age of twenty, which I have come to view as an encounter with what Jung describes as “unconscious contents,” has pointed in the direction of a blending of the empirical with the mystical. At the heart of the dilemma in bringing these two disparate ends together is not so much the inexplicable resistance to unconventional ideas that Jung referred to in his autobiography, as it is the essential quality of maintaining a degree of certainty from both sides that is only truly possible to experience subjectively.

The physiological processes in the brain which make it possible for us to confirm at least subjectively that we possess a keen and potent “awareness” and which allow us to interact in a meaningful way with other sentient beings are indeed fascinating, and modern humans have clearly evolved both culturally and cognitively in a way that the hominids of 160,000 years ago could not have even imagined. The overload of connections which currently plague many of us are undoubtedly in need of attention, and I find myself in complete agreement with those who suggest a regimen of contemplation, periodic disconnection from all the maddening chaos of modern life, in order to create an environment within which we can make a beginning toward recognizing that we truly have an obligation to direct the results of our conscious awareness in a considerate and thoughtful manner.

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

There have been a significant number of individuals in my life with whom I have felt a clearly powerful and profoundly affective connection, and even though our individual temporal lives often eventually went in a completely different direction, continuing to pursue each opportunity to develop new unique relationships has remained a priority for me, not just on a personal level, but also as an affirmation of a much more expansive, natural, and spiritual aspect to human nature.

Mind Matters

A recent conversation with a psychologist friend of mine brought up the importance of our very human version of neurobiology, and how little we still understand about the complex neurobiological processes that are responsible for behavior and our ability to interact with our fellow cognitive creatures. While much has been discovered about the mechanisms of both cognition and genetics as they relate to brain development and how it all relates to human activities, not much material is actually available that definitively addresses the implications, sources, and treatments for specific pathologies as they relate in the fields of neuroscience and biology. A quick check into the sources of information on neurobiology in general will provide a wide range of options from which to choose, but so much is still not being studied and not wholly understood.

http://www.drdansiegel.com/home/

With all the research and scholarship taking place in the field of cognitive studies and neurobiology, there are a few hopeful signs that an expanded view of what might constitute a comprehensive theory of the subjective experience of consciousness might finally be emerging. UCLA psychiatry professor, Daniel Siegel, whose most recent book is “Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human,” has a supportive view. On the website, “Big Think,” Siegel’s idea is reviewed and his idea is phrased in this way: “We’ve come to accept that the brain is the instrument that plays the mind, but Siegel takes it one step further by positing that your mind isn’t limited to the confines of your skull, or even the barrier of your skin anywhere in your body. Your mind is emergent – it’s beyond your physiology, and it exists in many different places at once.”

http://bigthink.com/videos/daniel-siegel-on-emergent-minds?utm_source=Big+Think+Weekly+Newsletter+Subscribers&utm_campaign=f4a5c82fe3-Weekly_Newsletter_030917&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6d098f42ff-f4a5c82fe3-40211698

Supporting Seigel’s ideas is an impressive background in a wide range of studies in psychiatry and philosophy, and his serious attention to the science of the mind and brain give his ideas some genuine gravitas. According to his bio on his website, “…Daniel J. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry.  He served as a National Institute of Mental Health Research Fellow at UCLA, studying family interactions with an emphasis on how attachment experiences influence emotions, behavior, autobiographical memory and narrative. Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. An award-winning educator, he is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.”

I recently reviewed Siegel’s 2011 presentation to the Garrison Institute on YouTube and recommend it as a good introduction to the idea that the mind is, in Siegel’s words, “…an embodied and relational emergent process that regulates the flow of energy and information,” and in the video he describes “the role of awareness and attention in monitoring and modifying the mind.”

These are complex ideas and challenging for many people to wrap their own minds around them, but Siegel presents them in an accessible way to a more general audience and goes to great lengths to explain in detail, how it is that the “mind” includes the physiology of the brain, but is not limited to the physical structures of the brain, or indeed to the body itself. The implications for subjective experience in particular, and our very human version of consciousness generally, are far reaching and intriguing for anyone interested in the subject.

In the coming weeks, I hope to write about some of the recent ideas and investigations going on in our current century, and also to reflect a bit on some of the more expansive ideas from some of the great thinkers of the past few centuries. It’s interesting to me how many of the ideas from the past are now receiving greater attention due to the efforts of scholars like Siegel, and look forward to sharing my thoughts and musings with my readers here.

What It Means To Feel

Since there is so much conversation going on these days about Artificial Intelligence and what we might expect in the coming years as scientists and researchers advance in constructing ever-more complex machines, I thought it might be a good time to consider not only what it means to be “intelligent,” but also what importance the term “artificial” carries with it when using the two terms together in a sentence. In recent years, cognitive scientists and AI researchers have made significant progress in producing machines which can perform specific tasks and demonstrate specialized capacities for accomplishing remarkable feats of machine intelligence, and in very specific ways, have outperformed humans in circumstances which previously were thought to be beyond such artificial constructs.

While all of the hoopla and publicity surrounding such events generally results in hyperbole and sensational headlines, there is a degree of fundamental achievement underneath it all that warrants our attention and could be described as commendable in the context of modern scientific research. Most media consumers and television viewers have encountered the commercials for IBM’s Watson, and have likely been exposed to reports of Watson’s abilities and accomplishments. There is much to admire in the work that resulted in the existence of such a system, and the benefits are fairly straightforward as presented by the advertisements, although it is also clear that they have been designed to feature what might be the most benign and easy-to-understand characteristics of a system which accomplishes its tasks using artificial intelligence. Much of the underlying science, potential risks, and limits of such research are rarely discussed in such ads.

In order to make some kind of sense of it all, and to think about what it is exactly that is being accomplished with artificial intelligence, what forces and processes are being employed, and how the results compare to other cognitive achievements, especially as it relates to human intelligence and human cognitive processes, we have to understand something about the most important differences between a system like Watson, and the cognitive processes and brain physiology of modern humans. While some stunning similarities exist between the basic architecture of neural networks in the brain and modern AI devices, not a single project currently being undertaken is anywhere near the goal of rising to an equivalent level of general capability or even just achieving a basic understanding what it takes to create a human mind. It’s not that it’s an impossible undertaking, nor is it impossible to imagine how human minds might eventually make great leaps in both constructing advanced systems and in making progress toward a greater level of understanding. After all, the human mind is pretty stunning all by itself!

What is most discouraging from my point of view is how much emphasis is being placed on the mechanics of intelligence–the structural underpinning of physical systems–instead of including a more holistic and comprehensive approach to increasing our understanding. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Yale University computer science professor, David Gelernter, (Review, March 19-20, 2017) posits that “…software can simulate feeling. A robot can tell you it’s depressed and act depressed, although it feels nothing.” Whether or not this approach might bring us closer to “machines that can think and feel,” successfully doing so seems like a long shot. If all we can do is “simulate” a human mind, is that really accomplishing anything?

Professor Gelernter goes to great lengths to describe the levels of a functional human mind, and gives us valuable insights into the way our own minds work, and he illuminates the way we shift between levels of awareness, as well as how we make such good use of our unique brand of intelligence. He then suggests that AI could create these same circumstances in a “computer mind,” and that it could “…in principle, build a simulated mind that reproduced all of the nuances of human thought, and (which) dealt with the world in a thoroughly human way, despite being unconscious.” He takes great pains to enumerate all the ways in which the “spectrum” of a human mind operates, and then concludes that “Once AI has decided to notice and accept this spectrum–this basic fact about the mind–we will be able to reproduce it in software.”

We cannot reduce what it means to feel to the astonishingly complex machinations of the human brain, any more than we can boil down the complexity of the human brain to the point where an artfully written piece of software can recreate anything even close to human feelings–what it actually feels like to be a living, breathing, cognitive human being. As Hamlet explains to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare’s intimation on the limitations of even human thought should give us pause to consider the limitations of producing it artificially.

—more to come—

How We Experience The World

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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.

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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.

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It is not unusual for individuals with a robust and stimulating early environment to excel in adolescence and through the teen years, and upon entering the second decade of life, many times these individuals are already working toward specific goals and pursuing specific interests as they enter the college level challenges of their early twenties. Deliberately focusing their energies and attentions on specific tasks related to a well-defined goal requires a foundation of relevant previous experience to draw upon and to compare results in a progressively more complex effort to achieve an ability to deal with each new experience. Since every single moment of conscious awareness constitutes some variety and degree of experience, regardless of how often we may have one of a particular variety, examining the nature and characteristics of our subjective awareness become central to our understanding generally.

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David Chalmers, the philosopher of consciousness from New York University expressed his view this way….”There is this beautiful scientific picture…the great chain of explanation…physics explains chemistry, and chemistry explains biology, and biology at least explains aspects of psychology, aspects of sociology, and so on, but although there is a whole lot there that we haven’t worked out, we at least have a sense of the picture and how the pieces fit together, and what’s interesting about consciousness, is that it just doesn’t seem to fit easily into that picture at all…because this is a picture of the world in terms of objective mechanisms described from the objective point of view…and consciousness is the quintessentially subjective phenomenon. It’s how things feel from the inside, it’s how we experience the world from a subjective point of view, and nothing in this objective picture of the world seems, on the face of it, to tell you why there’s going to be subjectivity.”

…more to come…

The Dawn of Awareness

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Nature is not matter only, she is also spirit. ~Carl Jung; CW 13; Paragraph 229.

Travel with me for a moment or two. Back…Back in time…even further back…to the dawn of the fullness of true self-awareness in our primitive ancestors.

What a moment it must have been when humans were able to finally know with certainty…”We are here–we exist.” Sentient human beings, at some point, were able to acknowledge, “I know that I am.” It seems likely that it was not possible to articulate this acknowledgement at first. The realization may have been simply a very rudimentary kind of “knowing.” It must have taken much longer to develop a means of expressing this fundamental acquisition. It is also likely that the earliest form of cognition was visual or composed mostly of mental images, and perhaps the initial apprehension of awareness consisted mostly of abstractions that had no practical means to be expressed except through gestures and actions which eventually drove the necessity of expressing them through the early forms of language.

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Countless eons passed with no true appreciation of this fuller and more specific form of awareness or knowledge of existing as an individual, and as a larger social group or species. But when it finally appeared, it must have been astonishing to those who experienced it. Some initial form of it must have been percolating below the surface–protruding into the primitive mind. There was no formal oral language. Perhaps some rudimentary signalling or series of gestures appeared at first, which communicated urgent instinctual needs and desires. At some point, the first truly sentient humans became meaningfully self-aware. At that moment, I can only imagine how they must have opened their eyes one morning, and knew that something was completely different than the day before. It clearly must have been a gradual unfolding, not an instantaneous realization, but when it finally took hold, it began the journey toward self-realization until it eventually blossomed into modern consciousness. On that morning, the early Homo sapiens must have been awestruck, and may not have known what to do with it, or why it was there. Without language, it would be impossible to express the experience in a meaningful way. It may have been frightening in a way, even disturbing. Imagine yourself having an extraordinary experience or brand new sensation and NOT being able to ask yourself or another with words, “What is this strange sensation?” “What does it mean?”

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(Photo : REUTERS/Nikola Solic )

As time progressed, the earliest individuals with this new capacity, may have begun to notice this same strange new awareness in others. Perhaps, a glance, a signal, which on a previous day would have naturally resulted in an instinctual response, at some point, saw a day when that instinctual response rose up, but was quieted, suddenly paused, or halted, or stifled. It must have been confusing, having a sense that what was happening had never happened before. Gradually, every experience which followed must have seemed, in an important way, like a new experience, unlike the others before it. The emotional response to such a radical alteration of their daily experience might have produced a degree of chaos initially, making them fearful to some degree. We can only imagine how the experience of self-awareness in each individual may have affected their interactions with others as they struggled to comprehend the ancient world. It may have been like waking up from a dream, suddenly realizing you’re awake. We all know that experience, when maybe we have a repetitious dream, one we’ve had many times, and it suddenly goes quiet. There’s a transitional moment or two when you awake and you’re startled, and you think to yourself, “My God…it was a dream,” or even, “What WAS that?…it felt so real.” For those ancient humans, it WAS real.

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This capacity to be aware of being aware, might very well have been the driving force behind the development of a more complex and grammatical language, beyond the practical necessities of communicating the day-to-day urgencies of life during those early epochs. Think of all the questions that must have come up, with no words and no one to answer them but themselves. No one to look to, no guidance, no reference books, no wise elder who had already been aware for many years–nothing could have prepared them for the acquisition of such a radical alteration of their daily existence. Try to imagine what it might have been like to experience those first days and nights with full self-awareness, when it truly all came together and was realized by the individual having that experience! When we think back to our earliest childhood memories, they are like little glimpses–fleeting moments where aspects of our experiences suddenly made sense. It must have been very much like that for those early humans, perhaps having been asleep and upon waking, able now to wonder what it was all about. All those moments when they had brief flickering episodes of awareness, now could have a fuller sense of a context within which to better understand the nature of their everyday experiences.

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Imagine how compelling it must have been to finally be aware of a subjective experience, and how that might have pressed those early humans to want to EXPRESS and share this feeling, with no possibility at first of doing so except with non-verbal communication. Think about what it must have been like for them to have the realization, for example, of how every clear morning they would see the sun rise above the horizon, and perhaps, before awareness, they would point to it and usually make a sound or a gesture, without realizing what it was, and now, with awareness, it felt necessary to associate that brilliant, blazing, yellow-orange ball in the sky with the gesture or by uttering a sound, as if to indicate, “There it is again, look at it!” Attempting to communicate the sentiment of the idea, not the idea itself, but the feeling which arose within them, may have been the very vehicle for associating what they saw with the gesture or sound that they uttered. At some point, others in those social groups started making the same gesture or sound when they saw the sun in the morning, and whenever any individual had that experience, they also would repeat the sound, and eventually, through repetition, that concept became accepted and associated with that sound.

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After many years of primitive associative activity, and the spread of humanity throughout the different regions of the world, different developmental achievements from the various social groups were acquired, shared, and assimilated into the local cultures. The instinctive usefulness of fundamental tasks which enabled the early humans to survive, with this new awareness, could be enhanced and expanded through a more complex cultural and social development. With the eventual creation of language, the ability to teach what had been learned to ensure the survival of their children gave the early humans a unique advantage over every other species. When, at last, they descended into what would become known as the Caves of Chauvet and Lascaux, the pictures that they drew of the animals became symbols of the animals that they encountered in the world. It took many thousands of years more for the very first pictographic languages to appear, but the groundwork had been established, and the beginnings of self-awareness that gave rise to the NEED for self-expression, altered the landscape of humanity forever.

The first sparks of consciousness in humans, which likely appeared in our ancient ancestors hundreds of thousands of years before the appearance of Homo sapiens, eventually blossomed into fullness once the requisite components of human development reached the tipping point, probably during the Aurignacian epoch some 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, but was not immediately useful or practical in the way it is for modern humans in the 21st century. Many theorists today suggest that language was acquired and spread rapidly throughout the human population once it began to appear, and although a rudimentary form of subjective consciousness may not have required it in order to exist, it may very well have made its development essential in order for the fullness of the capacity to be self-aware to unfold.

–more to come–

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.)

http://video-api.wsj.com/api-video/player/iframe.html?guid=3404331D-ED39-41DC-8189-D00C39B2361B

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.

The Connection of Souls

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The times when I am at my quietest is when I am best able to recall the connection of souls, lingering in memory. Perhaps, as a memory, reflecting on the connection seems delightful in a way that is sometimes difficult to see when we are actually experiencing the connection. Gazing upon those we love, and sharing the special closeness that can only come from such connections, creates a lovely memory of the experience when it happens. The memory of that experience holds particular pleasure because those aspects which we hold on to, those which mean the most to us, are the parts that we remember, even though there are lots of parts. Lots of silliness and laughing, but also crying, and even profound sadness sometimes. We tend not to want to remember the difficult parts because they take away from the joy and the fulfillment that went along with them.

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Walking in the brisk autumn air now, inhaling deeply, listening to the wind rustling the leaves that are left, the beauty of the oranges and yellows and browns, all around, stir memories from many years ago. Every year at some point, I walk in the autumn air, but this year was a little different because I felt alone in a way that I have not felt in a very long time. Even as a younger person, who was essentially on his own, I still never felt alone, at least, not in the way that I do now. I suppose these are the parts of the autumn that stick with me so much–the beauty all around no matter where you go; the contrast of the colors against the blue sky; the sweetness in the air, and the crystal clarity between myself and the world. I think because I am older now, I feel this loneliness more profoundly, while still recognizing and acknowledging the unity of everything that lives.

The feeling combined with this recognition suggests the dual nature of all aspects of life, especially to be alone, but also to be one with all life simultaneously. It is a gift. It is a consequence of our humanity–a temporal manifestation of the infinite, the spiritual, the ineffable. It is a paradox to know for certain that there is unity among all people, all creatures, all parts of the universe, and to feel so desperately, profoundly alone simultaneously. It evokes mystery; it evokes contemplation. What could it be? What does it mean? Why is it so?

Walking alone down the street, feeling at once completely unified with everything I see and feel and sense, in every way, and yet, distinctly alone, individual, apart. The differences between myself and other living entities is a signal that there is a variety and a number of differences in the way that consciousness manifests in the world. If you go down deep, and when we say “go in deep” or “go inward” we mean not temporally, but spiritually within us–when we do that–it emphasizes both our unification with all life and our inner separateness from it, and the simultaneous recognition of both becomes clearer when we withdraw within.

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

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

I close my eyes and try to see, not with my eyes, “…for they are wise.” But to hear the sounds; to feel the warmth of the sun against my skin; the rising and falling of my chest as I breathe; the air flowing in and out of my lungs; the pulse throbbing in my wrists. Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am,” but for me more than thinking, it is when I FEEL, that I can say with confidence, “therefore I am.” Feeling has always been that which allows me to know that I exist. The temporal feelings or sensations that we get through our five human senses, the sense that we exist, it feels like something–existence as a person–as a human–as a living entity–a sentient being–it feels like something. There is something that it is like to be a human individual, who is, through his spirit or soul, connected to all things.

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All the feeling in the world, all the sensations, all the input to our brain from all the different regions, somehow comes together and synchronizes and processes all that data–electrical impulses flying all throughout the body–reporting the sensory information, extrapolating meaning and memory and discernment, when all of those things coalesce. The focal point of that coalescing is the feeling–the experience of being.

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Sitting in a hot tub of water can evoke a feeling that can be blissful. The relaxation in a soothing, warm liquid is an acknowledgement of what all that data can turn into. It evokes contemplation, sensation, and memory. How many times I have laid in a tub surrounded by a very warm liquid, and how often it has brought memory to mind. Memory, as we now know, is not like reading a transcript, or watching a videotape, or constructing a digital rendering of what happened in the past, but an actual reconstruction in our minds. The coordination of the brain regions that are responsible for memory, the flow of stimulation from the hippo-campus, to the frontal cortex which interprets the data from our memory centers, is a tool, a mechanism that brings the memory of the feeling back. It stimulates the brain to recreate the way it felt and that is why we do it. We remember the texture of the skin we once touched or saw. We remember the different aromas which bring us to recall those blissful moments spent inhaling the air, and the processing of the accompanying data that passes through the olfactory senses teaches us how to remember them.

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I have a very distant memory, which feels to me like it may be an ancient memory, of laying in a pool of warm water in a cave where there must have been a natural underground spring that made the water warm. I remember cautiously sinking into it in order to become slowly accustomed to it, and laying back with some leaves and other natural gatherings behind my head. I remember looking up, seeing the steam rising up from the water, in the afternoon, with no worries. There was a hole in the dome which covered me, allowing me to see the sky, which was mostly deeply dark blue, with an occasional swatch of a white, puffy cotton cloud, or a wispy steam of a smoky cloud that would slide by. I seem to remember saying to myself, “I must remember this experience.” It was a deliberate intent to impress the memory in my brain, and to hold it in my soul. It feels like an ancient memory from a distant past, so I cannot say for certain if it was retained somehow through the eons of time, or if I picked it up like a transmission through an antenna in my soul, and now its vibrations resonate in my brain. It feels like a memory to me. I feel, therefore I am. I experience life, therefore I am alive.

If we didn’t have feeling, if we only had knowledge or data from our senses that merely informed us, and we weren’t able to integrate that information into a feeling–if there was no such thing as a feeling– it is MY feeling that we would not converse, we would not communicate, we would not be as alive as we are today. Being alive means feeling genuine, interpreting the data in our brains to the point where it evokes the memory of a feeling, and we re-experience that feeling in memory, and that moment comes alive for us, we suppose, exactly in the way that it did when it was impressed upon the soul.

I remember hearing the seagulls. Perhaps the natural spring was in a mountain near a beach. There was no other sound aside from the water, the birds, and the music in my soul. With eyes closed, the memory of experience was fully engaged. A moment of repose, of silence, of solitude, forcing me to contemplate a memory of a feeling. I cannot completely or precisely replicate them. They only rise up within me in my solitude. In spite of the difference in time and possibilities, the unknown, the uncertain, the vague, all of it comes together in a moment of solitude.

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We always suppose that we might be able to evoke those feelings again, even at such a distance in time and space, like my experience of the warm water in that ancient space, and that somehow, if we could travel through time and relive them, that they would be the same as we remember them. However, my sense is that if we could do that, they might actually seem radically different than our memory of them. It wouldn’t be because our memories are faulty or somehow impaired, but that the feeling and experience of life holds so much more within it, like when we are sharing closely, personally, or intimately. There is a feeling there that would be enhanced by being fully present in the same place. At some point, the fullness of that experience would manifest, with every nuance of it being realized and that would feel differently than the memory of it. We might find it to be a diminishment of the memory in one way or another, but whatever might result, we would still want to hold on to what enhanced it, and to let go of what might diminish it.

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More important than the beauty of the memory of those experiences–those feelings–is the connection of souls. It is more important than any other aspect of those moments. It is, in my view, the ultimate experience of feeling that is possible in our temporal existence. We can hold each other close, feel each other’s skin against us, embrace at length, cuddle, and share the experience unadorned. It can be beautiful, but it will always be temporary. At some point, it won’t be possible to do again, but the connection of souls will never perish. The unity remains, and we must rely on the memory of the connection to sustain us.