The Soul That Rises With Us

There is a movement within me, an awareness—a deeply personal transcendent awareness—which, from my perspective, clearly does not originate from some temporal source in the world. There are those who might say such concepts are an illusion. I have often thought that they said such things to make the world seem more comprehensible—to make them feel better about not truly knowing.

The same might be said about some of the things that have happened to me, which seemed objectively real to me. I know my consciousness exists IN the world, and that I have become manifest as a sentient being in the physical world, and yet, everything within me harkens back to the beginning, starting with my first memories, and when I reflect on those earliest recollections of existing as a “self,” it inevitably reminds me of how mysterious life seemed at that time. There were so many questions, and so much of what took place in the world that evoked within me, a deep sense of mystery. William Wordsworth wrote:

“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and freshness of a dream.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Had hath elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:

–excerpt from Wordsworth’s poem, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

We often think as we arrive into our advanced years that we have conquered some of these mysteries—that we have penetrated them somehow—at least to a degree. In some ways, of course, we actually have unraveled portions of what previously had been considered ineffable and mysterious.

The comprehension of brain physiology has been enormously illuminating for someone like me, and the advances in neuroscience have expanded our understanding of our mental life exponentially. It often makes me laugh when some prominent neuroscientist feels so confident to assert some “discovery” of why things work the way they do, or what makes us human.

Of all the aspects of our advances in understanding, of all the qualities of our human physiology that distinguish us as creatures who possess a uniquely “human perspective,” our grasp of how the human brain operates, and our ever-increasing knowledge of our particular neural architecture, explain with generally accepted agreement among neuroscientists, the basic fundamentals of how it is that we possess such an astonishing array of cognitive functions.

So much of our ability to make good use of our experience of the world is made possible by our higher cognitive functioning—by the firing of neurons, which send out electrical impulses, which propagate along the strings of dendrites, and by the transfer of ions across synapses—chemicals crossing cellular barriers between neurons—and by the eventual cooperation and coordination of whole brain regions. So much of sensation and comprehension and cognition require this exchange of energy and information, and even the small understanding that we currently possess is absolutely astonishing!

As miraculous as all of this seems, for me, it mostly shines a light on the SOURCE of consciousness, and the FOUNDATIONAL MECHANISM of our ability to be aware of our subjective experience. Everything I see and know and understand, and everything I feel, points toward an appreciation of our cognitive capacities, as a MEANS to access the phenomenon of human subjective experience, which is the link between our temporal existence and our true nature as manifestations of a non-physical reality. I recognize that there are cognitive illusions, and that there is bias, and limited apprehension by humanity of the physical universe currently.

As much as we see and understand, we see and understand so little, compared to what there IS to see and understand. It seems to me and to many others, that most of what we think we know only scratches the surface of what there is to know. Our fullest and most current understanding of our existence as physical beings in a physical universe only POINTS in the direction of the fullness of understanding that is achievable.

We constantly approach thresholds where all of our knowledge and complex scientific comprehension leave us empty-handed when they try to explain the true and full nature of our subjective experience of being alive as sentient cognitive beings. It’s not a failure of our scientific talents and it’s not an indictment of our human version of intelligence as being inadequate to the task.

Author and lifelong teacher, Joseph Campbell, who was the leading mythologist and former member of the literature faculty at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, expressed it best when he wrote that all of our efforts in life are not a search for meaning, but instead, he believed that “…we are seeking an experience of being alive that resonates with our innermost being and reality.” According to Campbell, the life experiences that we have are intended to help us “…feel the rapture of being alive.” In his view, myths are “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.”

With an expectation that you will find some causal link between brain physiology and the full explanation of the phenomenon of human subjective experience of consciousness, it seems to me, that you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

It is my most fervent hope in this life, that there is still sufficient time for me to share all that I have learned by being who I am, and that as many people as possible, hear the message—the song of the universe—the song of absolute balance in life—not giving everything away and not withholding anything, just being, surviving and helping anyone we can.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees the world as it could be—there are those who seek to control and manipulate rather than allow and cooperate. As a result, those of us who seek balance have to work hard to prevent as much suffering in the world as we can.

One day, all of us, regardless of what side of the fence we are on, will be confronted by circumstances which require our best life-affirming response. At that moment, we will know what to do. If we are able to do as much right as possible, the world will turn out better in the long run.

Inner Worlds Within Worlds – Redux

Title: Self Awareness: Size: 21.5” x 30.5”x 1.75″: Media: acrylic, oil, collage & assemblage: Surface: canvas over masonite & board with wooden framework: copyright 2009 Lisa L. Cyr, Cyr Studio LLC, http://www.cyrstudio.com

“The only right and legitimate way to (a mystical) experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path, which leads you to a higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher understanding of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism.”

–Excerpt from a letter from Carl Jung to Bill Wilson – Jan. 30, 1961

Recently, I have begun to review some of my core postings here in John’s Consciousness, and in revisiting several of them these past few weeks, I have found that some of my insights and expressions have retained their centrality and sense of urgency even now. My experiences in the temporal world continue to point toward a synthesis of my many writings regarding the subjective experience of human consciousness, and my ever-expanding world within, when it is possible to attend to it directly, has benefited from the recent inclusion of serendipitous audio recordings of a kind of stream of consciousness that I have allowed to flow from within as I contemplate the stirrings within me. Central to these outpourings is a keen sense of longing to connect with other like-minded spirits out across the wider temporal world made available through modern technological advancements in communication and social media, and a much deeper personal and interior sense of longing for the kind of intimate sharing that can only result from developing a more spiritual worldview.

All of our longings, both temporal and spiritual, as well as the pain of new growth are felt both within and without. For me, the pain experienced within has always been the strongest and most difficult to endure. As an adult, I have come to understand more clearly now that something within me, long ago born and over countless centuries grown seeks acknowledgement in consciousness. As a youth, I felt this strange urge to express thoughts and feelings which burst forth without warning, and which I could not comprehend. Each time I would attempt to grasp the meaning of this inner force, bits and pieces of the curious puzzle would become clear briefly, and then vanish in the strictly-controlled religious world of saints and sinners and unquestioning obedience.

Occasionally, I would get glimpses of this inner world despite the pervasive atmosphere of strict controls and absolute rules, but could not sustain the thoughts and feelings long enough to make any significant headway. Looking back over the years, my whole being has now shifted from a traditional middle-class, religious upbringing, to a more unconventional and classless view of life that is a sharp contrast to the way it all began. Between moments of cognition in my inner realm, as rich and expansive as they continue to be, are extended periods of redundancy of obligation in the temporal. While most of these efforts represent necessary items that produce important results, it is often difficult to endure these gaps between meaningful awareness and dedicated efforts to sustenance, and it seems like endurance becomes more the goal than the means to an end at times.

Inner Worlds Within Worlds Art by Norman E. Masters

For some time now, the world outside of me has been at such odds with the world inside of me, that as I strive to maintain stability in both, I seem to be constantly shoring up the walls of one, deteriorating from neglect, and then racing back to devote my energies to the other. The subsequent chaos from running breathlessly between the two usually results in both alternately suffering to varying degrees. To complicate matters further, I have recently gained greater momentum in coming to terms with my inner world, significantly raising my expectations of achieving the goals I established for myself years ago. This hopeful progress, though uplifting, has created serious conflicts with my temporal existence. Thus far I have resisted abandoning my obligations for the sake of my work, and likewise refused to consider abandoning my work in favor of temporal considerations.

As with most esoteric undertakings, increasing comprehension precedes further progress. As my knowledge and appreciation of the complexities and subtleties of the evolution of consciousness grows, the many diverse and related theories begin to coalesce into a synthesis which is more comprehensive and quite beautiful in its depth and breadth. Human evolution, however convoluted or complex, has resulted in access to the penetrating self-awareness which characterizes human consciousness, and precipitated the development of human cultures, religions, and mythologies, as well as human psychology, philosophy, and a variety of sciences, all branching out like the veins of a large leaf, or a complex crystal formation.

The Psyche, according to Pythagoras “is the intermediary between two worlds: the Material and the Spiritual worlds. It is the Vital Energy that nests and inhabits in the matter”.

When we contemplate the astonishing variety of contingency necessary for human life to have progressed to this point, and to continue to progress beyond this point, it compels us to consider even some very unconventional points-of-view. How else can we arrive at such a distant destination in comprehension, as that of human consciousness, unless we remain open to alternative methods of enhancing our current comprehension, augmenting our current capacities, and altering our current level of consciousness? If the development of our ability to access higher levels of cognitive functioning, achieving an expanded intellect, and becoming self-aware, all were only just necessary adaptations for survival, and merely the consequence of natural selection, favoring those hominids with more complex brain architecture, there would be no compelling reason for consciousness to have progressed beyond a certain “survivability” level.

But if, as modern physics has demonstrated, we are all ultimately linked to the universal energies present in the early universe, and made from “the stuff of stars,” subatomic particles floating in the Higgs field, then it seems to me, that whatever forces govern the quarks, and hadrons, and leptons, and most recently, the theoretical “Higgs boson,” must be, in some manner, active within the wider universe of humans, planets, galaxies and super-clusters. All of existence, both temporal and metaphysical, must be a manifestation of and possess some degree of consciousness, only on a much grander scale.

If awareness of consciousness is an inevitable consequence of any evolutionary life process which produces creatures of sufficient cognitive ability and architectural complexity in the cognitive apparatus, then consciousness may well be what we can expect to find at the heart of the universe, manifested in an infinite variety of displays throughout. We will never know unless we expand our range of explanations to include every conceivable and inconceivable possibility.

marilyn connect to others

Reflection on these ideas has produced within me a greater expansion of the role of connection to others in my ruminations. Time after time, whenever a heightened sense of connection to another kindred soul enters my awareness, many of the ideas which have been percolating within me come (sometimes suddenly) to the surface, and I am occasionally intrigued beyond words at the prospect of opening up to a wider world of subjective experience as a direct result of these encounters. In the weeks to come, I hope to explore these connections more directly as they relate to this idea, and to seek a greater understanding of how these connections lead to a deeper sense of self.

–more to come–

The Voice of Thought

Ever since the hominid brain evolved sufficiently to provide modern humans with a degree of cognitive talent that still surpasses any other known species, the blossoming of conscious awareness slowly provided Homo sapiens with the ability to not only be aware that they exist, but to utilize this new ability deliberately and with purpose. It seems likely that some form of this ability may have been present in several other early hominid species, but only began to coalesce into a functional process during the Aurignacian epoch, where the full development of the higher functions were made possible by a significant increase in the complexity of the cerebral cortex. While very little solid evidence of any truly functional self awareness has been found prior to that time, I think even the most empirically-minded paleontologist would concede the likelihood, that the process of human evolution provided the capacity for our enhanced cognitive skills long before we were able to take full advantage of them or to demonstrate them.

Cognitive self awareness is, so far as we know, an exclusively human attribute that allows us to know we exist as a unique, individual person. It is my contention that it is made possible by virtue of an elaborate synthesis of both temporal and ineffable elements. While this idea represents a challenge to our 21st century scientific community, it is not completely intractable. As with most phenomena with multiple layers of both coherent and ambiguous components, the connections between disparate elements are often only possible to discern with determined effort and an open-minded approach as to how these aspects might come together.

The ability for complex thinking and to remember what we think, when combined with an expanding comprehension of the world generally in which the thinking occurred, led to an increasingly sophisticated thought process which may initially have flourished because it enhanced our ability to survive as a species, but ultimately imparted a great deal more than a survival advantage. Once the potential for self awareness was in place, it slowly began to manifest in demonstrative ways as we have seen in the early cave paintings by our primitive ancestors. The journey from those ancient beginnings to the modern day variety of human consciousness shows a remarkable range and variety of progress and aptitude, which was directly influenced by the development of self awareness.

Imagine the early Homo sapiens as they gradually began to make use of their newly acquired “functional consciousness,” awakening to the world of objects like never before. Modern humans were finally able to associate temporal objects with symbolic representations of those objects, as evidenced in the ancient cave paintings discovered in Ardeche, France in the caves of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, now believed to have been placed there some 35,000 years ago by the Aurignacian culture. These were not mental giants compared to 21st century Homo sapiens. They were not very sophisticated at all by today’s standards, but they were quantitatively more sophisticated cognitively than the Neanderthals, and were better able to compete for limited resources, enabling them to outlast their predecessors by thousands of years.

No matter what concepts or images or ideas may have occurred to the early humans, there was no way to overtly confirm the existence of a thought until there was a way to express a thought. It was no accident that the first demonstrations of consciousness were images—primitive symbols painted on cave walls—as visualization within the brain originally had no other way to be expressed than the memory of what the objects looked like in the world. Whatever level and degree of brain activity led to the development of language, visualizing the objects and events of the ancient consciousness became the symbol of those same entities, just as the sounds uttered by the early humans expanded their abilities to express them and to pass these symbols on to future generations.

It is also not surprising that the early attempts at producing formal symbols to represent the world resulted in pictographic languages such as cuneiform by the Sumerians and hieroglyphics by the Egyptians, all of which were precursors of ancient alphabets. Spoken language, once it took hold, became the voice of thought.

…more to come

Emergent Realities

artificial33

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.

universal-flow

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.

skulls_3

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.

brain-scans

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.

radiowaves

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.

An Artificial Version of Human Intelligence?

artificial-intelligence22

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

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

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

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

http://blog.brainfacts.org/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

artificial-intelligence-8-638

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

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

artificial Human-Evolution1

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

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

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

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

artificial33

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

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

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

2 brains

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

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

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

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

Evolution of Cognition

IMG_12795596808649

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

2 brains

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

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

early humans2

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

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

lr003722

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

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

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

Freedom of the Spirit

freedom of the spirit2

Freedom of the Human Spirit, is a 28-foot-tall bronze figurative sculpture that sits just to the east of Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was created by Marshall M. Fredericks for the 1964 World’s Fair.

“The development of science and of the creative activities of the spirit in general requires still another kind of freedom, which may be characterized as inward freedom. It is this freedom of the spirit which consists in the independence of thought from the restrictions of authoritarian and social prejudices as well as from un-philosophical routinizing and habit in general. This inward freedom is an infrequent gift of nature and a worthy objective for the individual.”

–from an article “On Freedom,” Einstein, 1954

In my previous post, I began an exploration of how our subjective experience of consciousness suggests to me that there may be a kind of intimacy at the very heart of it, connecting our temporal existence with a transcendent aspect of our nature as humans. Since it is our experience of the world which results in the establishment of new neural networks and strengthening of existent ones in some cases, we can follow the process within which these activities manifest as actual physical changes in the structure of the brain, demonstrating in a much clearer way, how there may be a connection between this process and our intimate relationship with the subjective experience of consciousness. In both postings, I began with a quote from Albert Einstein, in which one of the greatest scientific minds of human history, somehow found a way to link our experience of the world to the human spirit, while also acknowledging our intimate connection to everyone and everything else in the universe. The quote suggests that an “inward freedom,” to pursue our thoughts without interference or prejudice is not only a necessity, but an outright gift only infrequently enjoyed in those pursuits.

sol photo

As usual, while my mind is so occupied with the subjects of my writing, it is in a fierce competition with my heart and my emotions, which makes my subjective experience feel tumultuous and profoundly affective. At times like these, my inner life stirs to almost fever pitch, and the mundane tasks and topics for conversation seem almost intrusive to me. I crave the connection to the intimacy of consciousness, and to commune with like spirits who connect with me there, but I cannot abandon social conventions completely, in consideration of others. And yet, I could easily wish to fly away from most other circumstances in order to delve into the intimate world of consciousness, in favor of a connection that brings me directly into the heart of it. The photo above came out of a moment of intense solitude as the day ended recently, while simultaneously sensing my connection to a deeper experience of the world just beyond the horizon.

An intense feeling of restlessness, which began in earnest more than 30 years ago now, has never left me and weighs heavily on my heart as I write. Contemplating the passage of time, and the lives of my ancestors both ancient and familial, has brought my thoughts of the human spirit to the forefront of my mind. I sense that there is a connection between my personal heritage and the heritage as a human being on Earth, and at moments such as these, the rhythms of my heart, mind, and soul seem to merge in the fullness of the moment. I believe it is an important component of any attempt to define or describe our subjective experience to at least examine the delicate balance between the science and the mystery of what might be behind all the science, and to consider the distinction between what makes the brain work, and what there is about cognitive creatures whose brains work this way that results in access to the subjective experience of the world, with regard to both the phenomenal and the abstract.

early humans2

Over the millennia since humans first became truly conscious in a meaningful way, able to demonstrate in a clear way that they not only knew they existed, but could recall events, thoughts, and ideas and convey them adequately to other sentient beings, human consciousness has continued to evolve, allowing for an expansion of cognitive functions far more useful than what these earliest humans possessed. Our own 21st century version of cognitive ability is mirrored in our advancing technological innovation, and increased our access to a fuller and far richer experience of consciousness today. As with most periods of prodigious innovation and adaptation, we suffer losses and gain advantages, and the changes which offer the most advantageous outcomes are usually selected. We humans are beginning to alter this scenario profoundly by periodically selecting disadvantageous behaviors, and by focusing too narrowly on others, which may only offer a temporary or limited advantage.

During the Enlightenment, a particularly important period of transition in our understanding of the world generally, and the true birth and burgeoning of modern science, we increased and expanded our comprehension of the world in such a profound way, that we began to develop our responses to our increased understanding, seeing further and digging deeper, both temporally and spiritually, without necessarily realizing the full spectrum of consequences that would result from doing so. It is not so surprising, that modern scientists and materialists of every variety have such a difficult time reconciling the facts of neuroscience with the subjective experience of consciousness, since by far, the most astonishing aspect of our understanding is that consciousness even exists at all. Based on what is currently known of our neural functioning, since there is no definitive scientific evidence that consciousness even exists, our subjective experience of it, which is so real to us as individuals living inside ourselves, flies completely in the face of the materialist view.

It is becoming clearer, as we view the behaviors of humans all over the world, that an even greater expansion of consciousness, and achieving a better understanding of the full range of its power and source, may be one of the most important undertakings of this and all future generations.