Origins of Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ancient Beginnings

–Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen.

“We must fight…against old age. We must compensate for its drawbacks by constant care and attend to its defects as if it were a disease. We can do this by following a plan of healthy living, exercising in moderation, and eating and drinking just enough to restore our bodies without overburdening them. And as much as we should care for our bodies, we should pay even more attention to our minds and spirits. For they, like lamps of oil, will grow dim with time if not replenished. And even though physical exercise may tire the body, mental activity makes the mind sharper.”

“How wonderful it is for the soul when—after so many struggles with lust, ambition, strife, quarreling, and other passions—these battles are at last ended and it can return, as they say, to live within itself. There is no greater satisfaction to be had in life than a leisurely old age devoted to knowledge and learning.”

—excerpts from Cicero’s essay, “On Old Age,” —44 B.C.

An orator, philosopher, poet, and activist politician in his day, Cicero became consul of Rome in 63 BC—Rome’s highest political office. He wrote much that is worth reviewing and the quote above seemed to resonate for me currently, as I am paying “even more attention to (my) mind and spirit, so that they won’t “…grow dim with time.” My life is not what I would describe as “leisurely” exactly, and although I do have more time to devote to “knowledge and learning,” it’s still a struggle to balance what is possible to do and what is required of me.

This month I wanted to set the stage for a review of some of the main foundational subjects about which I have been writing, particularly for those who may be only recently encountering the nearly three hundred postings here. Over the past several weeks, I have spent a fair amount of time in support of my newest granddaughter, who just arrived home from the hospital this past weekend, and I’m happy to report that she is not only well and healthy, but simply perfect in every way.

Holding my beautiful granddaughter and sharing intimate family moments is not only a privilege of great value to me, but perhaps even more importantly, it is an unambiguous affirmation of the existence of the human spirit, which may not be possible to achieve in another way. The awareness of the presence of spirit in this situation is primarily intuitive and subjective, but unmistakable.

Her arrival on Earth has been a momentous one for the family and watching my son and his wife caring for their first child, feeling all of the emotions and concerns that come along with it, I can’t help but reflect on these very same moments in my own life, when I brought my son home for the first time.

 

 

The experiences I have known as a grandfather or any number of individual phenomena clearly cannot, by themselves, fully explain or illuminate comprehensively the broader subject of the nature of our subjective experience of human consciousness, nor do they necessarily compare in intensity or magnitude to other reported mystical or spiritual awakenings over the centuries, but considered together in the broadest sense of human experience, they do provide a window into the character and quality of our humanity, and since I bring decades of serious contemplation of the subject with me to such experiences, for me, they lead to at least a solid opening for a discussion.

In order to begin to understand our subjective inner experience, we have to imagine what life must have been like for our earliest ancestors, who possessed all the requisite physical structures for a comprehensive cognitive system in their brain architecture, but were only slowly becoming self-aware in a meaningful way, and who were beginning to devise ways of demonstrating it to themselves and to their fellow Homo sapiens. These capacities did not develop suddenly, nor were our early ancestors equipped initially to make use of them once they did appear. Our ancient beginnings were humble indeed.

Although several locations in Europe boast of ancient cave paintings with remarkably detailed renderings of a variety of animals known to exist in prehistory, there have been very few discoveries of images or objects depicting human figures recovered in excavations of prehistoric archeological sites in Europe, and the earliest occurrence of such images in any significant number now appear to have been located in South Africa, in the Drakensberg Mountains.

According to the popular PBS documentary series, “Civilizations,” the San Bushmen hunter/gatherer culture produced a number of displays of prehistoric artwork, placed there tens of thousands of years ago, which feature multiple instances of human figures included in the paintings on the cave walls of those ancient sites, indicating some of the earliest links to what the narrator describes as “…clues to the birth of the creative impulse, and modern human self-consciousness.” I highly recommend you locate this series on your local PBS station or other outlet, and several of these images are from the series.

Discoveries in several locations throughout the African continent provide remnants from the ancient world, which suggest evidence of the earliest attempts to build large communities, based on practical considerations of sustenance and survival, like the early development of agriculture about ten thousand years ago.

About seven thousand years ago, in what we refer to as the “fertile crescent,” and “the cradle of civilization,” in the area between the Tigress and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq, the first evidence of the establishment of “true cities,” can be found in areas where the remains of ancient cities like Eridu and Uruk were once located.

Perhaps as early as five thousand years ago, artwork became more deliberate and more potent as these early civilizations became more complex as unified cultures, and centers of power. Some of the earliest recorded writings in ancient scripts, according to the narration in the series, recorded ordinary events like “…the payment of taxes,” but sometimes “…told the stories of gods and heroes.”

Around four thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians began to establish trade with the Minoans, on the island of Crete, part of modern day Greece. The gradual rise and eventual disappearance of many of the ancient civilizations led to a blending of traditions, and the dissemination of a variety of languages and cultural influences, which are still evident today in our modern societies.

Even more intriguing, was the discovery of the ancient city of Petra in modern day Jordan, established by the Nabataean Empire around 400 B.C., where the thriving culture carved out some of the most spectacular stone edifices of ancient times. Although the living, breathing trade center and creative culture in what was then the capital city of the time, only lasted approximately three hundred years, they left behind an extraordinary legacy of engineering acumen, evidenced in the “…cisterns and reservoirs,” to trap the winter rains, and a flourishing artistic heritage in the stone sculptures, elaborate mosaics, and legendary gardens, enjoyed by a population at its peak of about 30,000 people.

Looking back over the millennia through recorded human history, it appears that while our cognitive and creative capacities during these early epochs, began to gradually produce ever-more elaborate demonstrations of “modern human self-consciousness,” it would take tens of thousands of years to develop a more nuanced and sophisticated capacity for our modern day form of human consciousness.

…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

The Dawn of Awareness

woman matter and spirit

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.

chauvetcave

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–

Evolution of Cognition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empathy and Intimacy

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In our fast-paced, technologically-driven, and supposedly “hyper-connected” existence in the 21st century, we often do not recognize or appreciate fully the depth of our interconnectedness to all the other living entities, and at times, even less to the natural environment in which we exist, and upon which we are so dependent for our existence. The connections that do seem to pervade modern life these days are often superficially brief in length, shallow in depth, and far less enduring and substantial than our capacities as sentient beings have provided since we first walked upright as modern humans. The capacity to “be aware of…sensitive to…and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others,” without necessarily having to communicate them “in an objectively explicit manner,” imparts an invaluable and clear survival advantage, and unless we begin to reduce the emphasis on the technological side of communicating, and balance it with a greater appreciation for the full range of “feelings, thoughts, and experiences,” of all the varieties of life on our planet, our ability to utilize this capacity may, like any other skill, eventually atrophy from neglect.

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How might we reasonably reduce our increasing dependence on the less personal and ubiquitous forms of interaction, and tip the balance back toward a greater understanding and appreciation of the whole community of life on Earth? The most important first step is to raise our awareness of our unique potential as individuals. Achieving this awareness requires a deliberate, persistent effort, and a mindfulness of purpose. Just as the millions of individual neurons in the brain act together in a symbiosis of numerous neural systems to permit access to a unified individual human consciousness, the collective and coordinated efforts of millions of human individuals could ultimately manifest as a kind of planetary consciousness; a metaphorical “global-self,” that would enrich and support a global community, increasing the likelihood of the achievement of a more peaceful and bountiful world.

In order to pursue this objective successfully, we must be willing to open our hearts and minds, and to consider the possibility that our lives, and our very existence in the physical universe, may be supported by forces or energies which, while clearly existent in some form or dimension of that universe, cannot presently be perceived directly by our physical sensory systems. Empathy in this context demonstrates this possibility well. Gaining a true understanding and vicarious appreciation of the experiences of another sentient being, while acknowledging no objective or explicit means of accomplishing the task, points toward a capacity that, in some way, creates opportunities for moments of transcendence. We all have them; a hunch that a particular way of solving a problem will work; a worrisome feeling that something is wrong with someone we love; an immediate and overwhelming sensation of connection and familiarity with someone we’ve just met; having the same thought at the same time as someone with us; even particularly vivid dream events that later manifest as real-time events–or a strong feeling of deja vu.

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Photo is of a Moroccan ammonite from the Cretaceous period (Albian stage approx. 100 mya), cut longitudinally and polished.
http://www.photomacrography.net

As inexplicable as these moments can be when they occur, often with no discernible cause or clear conscious motivation, we are compelled to respond to them because we intuitively “know” that we must. If we examine these intuitive urges and the significance of the connections associated with them, we can begin to uncover what it might be that links us to each other, and to every epoch of time. Life on our planet today still resonates with the ancient life from millions of years ago, as is evidenced in the photo above, which shows the fossilized shell of an extinct ammonite, which is related to our modern octopus and squid. Discerning some sort of connection to an extinct life form, (or indeed to an octopus) while far from being a clear or direct link for most people, can be accomplished when placed in the context of the abundant life that has flourished on our humble planet since life first emerged billions of years ago. We tend not to think of such life as even relevant to us today, except when we examine life intimately, and contemplate the complex paths of evolution and contingency which led to mammals and primates and ultimately to humans. The very survival of our species may depend on our ability to apprehend the full significance of our interconnection to life in all of its manifestations.

In my previous post, I suggested that we need to consider more comprehensively how we are altering the changing landscape of our own evolution as cognitive creatures in ways that may end up being disadvantageous, by focusing too narrowly on aspects which offer only temporary or limited advantages. Our progress as modern humans, which resulted from adaptive utilization of our increased cognitive abilities over thousands of years, points to important developmental differences, which may indicate that further variance can be expected, and we must consider the profound implications of the character of that variance, before we lose our way.

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David Lewis-Williams, in his recent book entitled, “The Mind in the Cave,” reports the reactions of three individuals who investigated the now famous cave paintings in the Chauvet Cave in Ardeche, France, placed there by our ancient ancestors some 35,000 years ago:

“Deeply impressed, we were weighed down by the feeling that we were not alone; the artist’s souls and spirits surrounded us. We thought we could feel their presence; we were disturbing them.”

David goes on to question how it is that modern people are “rational enough to travel to the moon,” but still believe in “supernatural entities and forces that transcend all the laws of physics on which (the) moon journey depended.” The suggestion that the laws of physics are somehow incompatible with the existence of supernatural forces is at the very heart of many of the barriers to progress in understanding consciousness. These are not really opposing forces or mutually exclusive in my view. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the difficulty in coming to terms with or to attempt to explain the nature of the subjective experience of human consciousness. There are all sorts of unanswered questions that may, at some point, be answerable through empirical methodology, and what we know already is nothing short of miraculous in its own way.

Just as we can determine a link to extinct ancient marine life forms to those existent in our oceans currently, these modern explorers experienced what could only be described as a moment of some sort of “shared consciousness,” which not only suggests an intimate link to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the cave artists, but also to a profound connection to all life, in every epoch, and along the way on the journey of discovery to unveil the true nature of subjective experience, it is completely plausible to me that our capacity for empathy, and the intimate nature of consciousness itself, may contain elements which we inherited or somehow retained from our distant ancestors. The link, I believe lies in the very nature of consciousness itself. Many of the people involved in the research of the subject struggle with the inexplicable nature of subjective experience because they seem insistent on finding an empirical solution which eludes us. Resisting our intuitive, empathetic, and natural inclinations, or shutting the door on alternative viewpoints because we are unable to demonstrate some empirical cause and effect is, in my view, one of the main obstacles to achieving further progress.

face brain

We have become so enamored of the scientific in our technology-driven world, that any theory which even hints at the possibility of a metaphysical component is increasingly considered daydreaming or irrelevant. And yet, throughout human history, there have been otherwise scientifically sound ideas which have been considered equally irrelevant in their time, whose proponents were either dismissed or even arrested for advocating them. Today, we should recognize that it is only through encouraging new or alternative ideas that we can expand our understanding of our complex nature. If we can find a way to open up the range of our current social context with regard to our ideas about consciousness, we may also find our way back to increased empathy and intimacy, which will tip the balance back toward our inherited capacities, and may even ensure the survival of our species.

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.