Majesty and Misery, Miracles and Mystery

From one perspective, the month of December signals the arrival of that part of the year after the crops have been harvested, the trees and vines have yielded their ripened fruits, and the leaves have all withered and fallen to the ground. The light of day is at its shortest duration, and the longest periods of darkness at night hold sway until the Earth once again tilts more toward the sun in our hemisphere. The majesty of the renewal of all life in the Spring, the lushness of Summer, and the brilliant colors of Autumn have waned, and the bitter cold misery of Winter nips at the edges of our flesh for weeks to come.

Depending on one’s point-of-view, each of these generalizations about the seasons might ring true, but to those with an open heart and mind, the determination of whether one is experiencing misery or enjoying the majesty may fluctuate in any number of ways. The Spring also brings, for some, the misery of airborne allergens and high pollen counts, as well as seasonal flooding; the Summer also brings days of stifling heat and humidity, and the dangers of heat ailments and sunburn; the Autumn also brings to an end, the lush green symphony of all the plants and trees, the shortening of daylight hours, and the toils of the harvest.

None of these characterizations are necessarily good or bad inherently, and the cycles of the natural world are neither malicious nor benevolent by design; each season simply proceeds through its cycles according to its nature, and as a consequence of the physical laws which govern the actions and reactions of planets and solar systems, contained within our galaxy and beyond. There clearly are aspects of our existence, as we commonly perceive it, which are governed by predictable physical principles, and to which we are all subjected without any deliberate discrimination detectable through our current methods of scientific inquiry. The Universe is what it is and we are unquestionably bound by its nature to either endure or enjoy whatever transpires within it, for whatever time we are granted in this life.

Recent rereading of John Keats’ poetry as a result of a posting by my friend Anthony brought me to review another of Keats’ works called “Bright Star! Would I were as steadfast as thou art,” and this morning, as I slowly returned to waking consciousness, the terms Majesty and Misery, Miracles and Mystery, floated up from my subconscious in a period of contemplation before committing to place my feet on the floor and begin the day. The concepts of each of these terms has been “percolating” within me this past week, and Keats’ poem really brings home the significance of their meaning in an important way.

Keats himself was only twenty-five years along in his life when he was consumed by tuberculosis and perished after an agonizingly difficult period of time suffering with the disease. His brilliance as a poet, and his urgency to express what was within him were enhanced greatly by his awareness that he would not survive long into his twenties, and by his passionate interest in every aspect of his existence, especially in consideration of the brief amount of time he would have to experience it.

The “majesty” part of this poem is in the awareness of the durability of the star, the unparalleled view of the world upon which it shines in the night sky, and its longevity, which Keats envied in a way. He also recognized that while the star enjoyed these advantages, that such longevity for Keats would not be necessary for him to fully appreciate his own life, but simply to live long enough to grow to maturity, and to experience a lifetime in the usual way, with the advantages and simple pleasures of human love, might well seem like an eternity to someone facing their own mortality. The “misery” part might well go beyond the difficulty of disease, and into the longing for something more, and the impending loss of all that might have been.

The “miracles” of our modern lives, no longer simply a phenomenon within the purview of an esoteric religious viewpoint, consist of the broad range of potentials inherent in the birth of every living thing, in the blossoming of that life, and even in the cycles which govern those lifeforms through whatever span of time they take place. Our own experience of life can contain many such moments as those described by Keats, and are all the more precious and miraculous when we consider how he would not survive long after describing those which mattered to him.

The “mystery” aspect of all these ideas are where we have the most fertile soil for contemplation and philosophy. Many of life’s secrets have been revealed by our scientific and medical research over centuries now, and the life of our current poets and philosophers, artists and acrobats, scientists and sensualists, no matter what their persuasion, can be either bitterly brief or roundly robust, but ultimately, how it is that we are born into this world in whatever circumstance and with whatever advantage or lack thereof, we have the opportunity to embrace life and to ponder its mysteries, and even with only a very short time to do so, Keats pointed the way toward the apprehension of life’s mystery–through the recognition of the majesty of life, acceptance of the experience of misery which can occur, the wonder of life’s miracles, and the pursuit of those mysteries, for however long we are granted in this life.

Here at John’s Consciousness, the pursuit of apprehending life’s mysteries continues; the appreciation of life’s miracles are frequently expressed, the periods of misery are acknowledged, and the full embrace of life’s majesty is often recommended and expressed.

Looking forward to my tenth year of sharing the miracles and mysteries in 2020!

Three Hundreth Blog Post; Falling Back

As the ever-changing fall weather begins to manifest into cooler nights and milder days, this particular change of seasons nearly always finds me looking backwards in time. The inspiration for this rearward journey has its roots in both my personal history, and in the relentless search for understanding that has occupied me for decades. It usually begins without deliberate intention or planning, but immediately feels familiar as my mind wanders into seasons past, reminding me that I have been here many times before.

As I drift off into an autumnal reverie, I often feel as though I am moving through the world in reverse. Relaxing on the deck out back with my morning coffee, I pause momentarily to sit back, inhale the cool fresh air, embracing the warmth of the late morning sun as it softly spreads across the yard, and all at once, I find myself adrift.

Going back now—back through time. In some ways, it’s almost like falling, only it’s more like being in a vehicle that’s moving in reverse at a very high speed. The other day I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of the local grocery store, next to a large puddle which had a whole bunch of fallen leaves floating upon it, and I looked down to my left out the window, momentarily losing my bearings—the leaves were floating across the surface of the puddle with the wind, in a way that made me think the car was moving, and I briefly endured the sensation of backwards movement.

Instinctively, I let out an exclamation of surprise, and abruptly grabbed the steering wheel while stepping on the brakes. For just a moment, I felt as though I had lost control of my vehicle through some accidental warping of time. Once I realized that it was not me who was moving, it occurred to me that if one day someone does invent some mechanism for time travel, that it might require the traveler to endure a similarly abrupt and unexpected sensation.

Way back in my personal lifetime, on another early autumn day, very likely in October, I remember sitting on the lawn out front of my childhood home; the sun was out, but there were a number of white, puffy clouds floating across the otherwise bluish sky, with perhaps a slightly gentler breeze than the one I was experiencing on this day, but it still was sufficiently strong to stir the leaves on the large chestnut tree which covered the front lawn years ago, forcing the crackling noise of the decaying and brittle leaves, scraping up against each other, along with the whooshing sound that we hear so often when the wind gusts during this time of year.

I was sitting cross-legged, up on my hands at the top of the hill; it was maybe midday or a little later, and the air was cool and fresh, and the sun felt warm on my face. I had nowhere to go. I was not responsible for anything. I knew nothing of the world outside of my own small world. At that moment, without knowing exactly why, I memorized that moment. I looked around carefully, noting every detail; there was no traffic on the street, no pedestrians walking by, and the only thing moving was the limbs of the trees and the leaves as they let go their tenuous hold on the fragile branches—the gusting wind would occasionally blow through the blades of grass, bending them in a swirling pattern across the lawn. As a young man, I had virtually no hair to speak of, most often sporting the common sight of a “crew cut,” so popular among the parents of young boys in those days. Somehow, I knew that one day this moment would have meaning for me, even though at the time I had no framework for discerning why. I committed those moments to memory, knowing that I would be glad some day in the future.

Further along in my grammar school education, I used to walk every day back and forth to school, and I remember my feet swishing through the leaves on the sidewalks, and I loved the sound that the fragile brown leaves would make as I floated through them—and the pleasure of admiring the beautiful colors all mixed together as I made my way to and from my home each day, and for a short time, this ritual would sometimes include a shower of leaves as they broke loose and were falling all around me.

It seems to me now, in retrospect, that I was falling too…

The Fading of the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***more to come***

Stillness After The Storm

Recently, it seems that we are hearing more frequent reports of a chaotic climate and an increase in unpredictable storms that disrupt the everyday lives of people everywhere, and while the debate continues over what steps we should take now in response to our changing climate, very little has been written about the disruptions which occur within us as we endure the turmoil all around us.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1833, recorded these words in his personal journals:

“The wise man in the storm prays God, not for safety from danger, but deliverance from fear. It is the storm within which endangers him, not the storm without.”

These past few weeks have seen an increase in the number of violent thunderstorm systems in the northeastern United States and several of them have passed through the local area here. Strong winds and numerous lightning strikes have occurred during each of these weather fronts, producing downed trees and isolated damage to the areas affected. During these chaotic events, it is easy to see why people are sometimes overwhelmed by the intensity of the wind and rain. Severe weather alerts and flood warnings have become more frequent during these episodes.

This past weekend, during the most recent appearance of one of the local storms, I became concerned as the skies darkened and the winds became more intense while at the supermarket. With no small amount of anxiety, I quickly scrambled to load the car after about an hour shopping for groceries, and was thoroughly soaked in the downpour that resulted from the release of those black clouds that appeared so suddenly overhead. Within a few short minutes, it went from merely overcast, to a veritable deluge. The drive home was a mixture of soaking rain and intense winds, coupled with brief periods of no rain at all as I crossed between long stretches of intermittent storm activity along the interstate highway. It took several minutes to unload the groceries once I returned home, and as soon as the refrigerated items had been safely stowed away, I took the opportunity to change out of the wet clothes and took a few deep breaths.

The early afternoon chaos eventually settled down enough to make it possible to sit out on the deck out in back of the house, as the daylight once again slowly returned to display a gentler and brighter sky. Since the view in the summer months out back is normally filled with the greenery of all the plants and trees that surround the yard, once the sky cleared, the verdure once again appeared in full bloom. I sat in stillness for some time, simply being present in the moment, gazing out into the yard and pondering the transition from an anxious traveler in the storm to casual observer of nature’s play. Participating in the scene in this way became so appealing, it prompted me to record the view, with the intention of capturing the highlights of raindrops which lingered on the leaves and branches all around me. The stillness in this instance did indeed direct my words and actions.

I love how the raindrops lingered upon the tiny leaves and glistened in the radiant sunlight.

They almost seem to be glowing from within.

The sunlight found its way momentarily even to the tiny shrub on the ground next to the backyard fence.

Right above it, the leaves seemed to form a green stairway to the brightening sky…

My eyes were easily led to look up, although I had to avert them to capture the moment.

Every year, tiny new branches appear, sprouting off the main trunk, highlighted by the resurgent sun.

A closer look shows the raindrops have already begun to evaporate, much in the same way as my anxiety.

The newly emergent sunlight illuminates even the densest cluster of leaves on the backyard tree.

The contrast of the aging surface of the tree bark and the newly born sprout was prescient.

As I pondered both the violence of the storm and the display of beauty from the aftermath, I was reminded of an encounter I had years ago with a passage about suffering from “The Oresteia,” a trilogy written by the Greek playwright, Aeschylus:

The translation of this passage is by Robert Fagles, from part one, “Agamemnon,” by Aeschylus:

“Zeus has led us on to know, the Helmsman lays it down as law that we must suffer, suffer into truth. We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart, the pain of pain remembered comes again, and we resist, but ripeness comes as well. From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench* there comes a violent love.” *-the bench of the ship where the helmsman sat

After a few minutes my curiosity got the better of me, so I looked up the passage from Aeschylus and came across an excerpt from the introduction to “The Oresteia,” from the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces:

“The Aeschylean Trilogy is nothing less than an attempt to “justify the ways of God to men.” In the opening ode it 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. The suffering is shown to us as the fulfillment of a purpose we can understand, a purpose beneficent to humanity.”

If indeed it is suffering that brings us a better understanding of our nature, and if it serves the purpose of helping us to learn and gain in wisdom, then perhaps all of our suffering, whether it seems to help us specifically in our own lives or not, may not be completely without at least some merit. In this instance, enduring the storm and waiting patiently for the skies to clear did at least grant me a pleasing perspective, right in my own back yard.

Memories and Humble Beginnings

Life moves forward always. It swirls and slides and strikes at the very heart of me. At this point in my life, having accumulated more than sixty years of living memory, looking back, for me, is long. For at least that long, I have held on to some specific recollections of my early days. Of course, before memory even appears on our radar as children, we pass through a number of earlier stages, as a newborn and a toddler, where unconscious experiences contribute to our formative years in ways that we are only now beginning to truly appreciate.

My maternal and paternal grandparents taking turns holding me in 1953.

My first ordinary memories as a young boy, playing outside in the yard at the first home I remember, sitting in the window sill in the living room watching my older sister and brothers going off to school, were in stark contrast to some of my dreams. One particularly memorable dream began with all of us sitting on the floor with the front door open in the summertime, my father looking out the window, with some sort of giant approaching—stomp—stomp—stomp—the vibrations were shaking me. I was strangely unafraid, with the anticipation being greater than my anxiety.

Another especially clear childhood memory involved playing outside on a steamy hot summer day. As we occasionally did on a typical day, we snuck around the fence into Mr. Nicholson’s garden, only this time, he was there. Although he didn’t seem angry or mean, he did seem like he didn’t want us there. We stopped right in our tracks, looked at him wide-eyed and after a moment of silence, turned and ran back into our own yard, huffing and puffing to catch our breath, vowing never to try it again.

I remember sitting out on our back porch with my brothers, talking and laughing, waiting for dinner to be ready. Eventually, Mom would call us in and remind us, as always, “Go upstairs and wash your hands,” since she knew we had probably been playing in the dirt or just getting dirty. We’d all run up to the landing in the corner of the kitchen, up the hardwood stairs to the bathroom, and wait our turn at the sink. I remember turning the bargain brand of bar soap around in my hands for maybe thirty seconds, setting it down for the next one, rubbing for a minute and then rinsing off. There was usually a tug of war at the towel too. When we were done, we would race back down the stairs to the dining room, to stand behind our assigned seats.

Rummaging recently through the enormous volume of photographs and memories, as I sifted through the piles of accumulated stuff in my office, I came across this amazing image of my kindergarten class at the local public school taken in 1958. There are only a few of the faces of my classmates in the image that still jog a memory of their name, but I doubt I will ever forget the woman who first introduced me to the world outside of my family, Mrs. Derr. Her gentle way of nurturing us and encouraging us to think about the world made me think of her as much more than my first schoolteacher.

At age five, I remember my mother walking with me to school on the first day, holding her hand as I crossed the six or seven streets along the way, stopping at the one traffic light at the end, waiting for the light to change so I could cross the one “busy street.” A handful of specific memories of particular days still exist in my mind. I remember sitting in a little chair next to a little table, drinking out of a half pint carton of milk, eating cookies, with several pretty ladies and the teacher all talking at the same time, supervising us and towering above me.

There was also one particular day when I was given the opportunity to occupy the “playhouse,” with pretend dishes and pans and other household items, along with a six bottle wooden holder with wooden milk bottles. At one point, a girl came up to me and asked if she could play too. At first I said no, that these were my milk bottles, since I was the milkman. She then asked me, “Can I have just one?” I replied, “Alright, you can have one.” For the rest of that year, I walked by myself back and forth to school every day, and thought nothing of it. Those were very different times.

Aristotle and Experience

In Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote:

“In man, experience is a result of his memory, for many memories of doing the same thing end in creating a sense of a single experience. Experience seems almost the same as science and art. But in fact science and art come to men through experience.”

Our ability to recall our experiences provides a framework within which we can construct a context, in order to reflect on them, analyze them, and place them in perspective. So, in one sense, Aristotle was correct, in that without memory, all the experience in the world would be for naught. Indeed, our ability to remember makes it possible to synthesize an entire lifetime of memorable experiences. Damage to the brain can impair the process of memory to the point where it no longer accumulates, and it could be argued that if we cannot remember our experiences, for all practical purposes, it would be the same as not having them. But, in fact, whether we remember them or not, experiences occur.

The subjective experience of consciousness—that richly textured sense of being—doesn’t require recollection in order to occur. Being is most vividly experienced in this very moment. Our awareness of being is an event of the “here and now.” Every moment that follows such an event (in a cognitively advanced and functional brain) contains a memory of the previous moment of experience. Memory is essential to make sense of the world and to glean the benefit of experience, but it does not manufacture experience. Our ability to recall previous experiences and to integrate them into the planning of future actions has been one of the main contributing factors for our survival as a species, but remembering our experiences and having them are two totally distinct phenomena.

The process in the brain that makes it possible to remember our experiences and the process that makes it possible to have experiences in the first place are not the same process at all. Our eyes, nose, skin, ears, and taste buds all send signals to the brain through the nervous system with information about what they are perceiving, and the brain interprets that information as our sense of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. Descartes theorized that because we are able to think, we are able to know that we exist. Without our senses, we could not gather information about the physical world. Without a sufficiently sophisticated brain to process the information gathered by our senses, the information would be far less useful. Without our ability to think, we could not know that we exist.

Although all of these processes exist and could operate without memory, our ability to remember what happened while these processes were operating, and to then reflect on it, makes it possible to learn from the experiences that our senses and brain record. Without memory, we would not be able to remember the information our senses provided to us yesterday, nor would we be able to reaffirm that we exist with the same information we gathered the last time we used our brains, and we would have to start over all the time. The brain records that information and stores it in a marvelously sophisticated process, making it available for future reference when evaluating new experiences. So, while the processes work together in important ways to make sense of consciousness, and to enable us to demonstrate consciousness to others, they also function independently in important ways.

Neuroscience has advanced now to the point where we can clearly see that consciousness is the result of many different processes working together, and that memory is an ever-changing sequence of neural activities within coordinating brain areas and systems. No one area of the brain or neurological process alone can account for either. It is a collection of neurological instruments that orchestrates the symphony of consciousness.

Aristotle also clearly understood that we come to science and art and all manner of human endeavors through experience. We utilize the power of experience to learn and grow, in a way that no other known species has demonstrated. We develop technologies and strategies based largely on what we learn from experience. Our ancient hominid ancestors were, in some cases, not able to survive, and in the case of Homo sapiens, not able to truly flourish and evolve, until they reached a sufficiently advanced level of consciousness.

Once it was achieved, humans developed a truly significant sense of having and remembering experiences, and as a result, a more fully developed sense of how to utilize those memories. Species with only limited awareness and far less cognitive skill have had to carve out a niche in the world of experience that falls significantly short of the one currently occupied by humanity. The ability of humans to exceed what all other known species have been able to accomplish experientially is a direct result of possessing a measurably greater degree of cognitive ability.

Interconnected and Interdependent

“Both intuitive and interactive, the gnostic approach to faith is a sacred quest for greater knowledge, understanding, and wisdom—a deeper penetration of the Mystery. This path leads to a higher degree of the enlightenment experience or gnosis. The Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas reveals how the reader can use each verse in this scripture as a source of daily contemplation and spiritual growth, while exploring…other mystical and magical teachings.”

–from the description of the text on Amazon.com

In a previous posting, I spoke of a “World Outside of Our World,” and wrote about the difficulties we face, as temporal beings, when we attempt to describe, in any comprehensive manner, those aspects of our existence which do not lend themselves easily to such descriptions. Since by the very nature of our subjective experience of the world, we have a unique view that is only possible for us as individuals to know intimately, we must acknowledge a built-in impediment to empirical verification of what it might be like to experience the world for anyone other than us.

At the same time, based on our own reactions to the experience of temporal life, it seems reasonable to allow ourselves, at least to a small degree, some leeway in considering, from the real-world responses of other sentient beings, that there are commonalities and some shared levels of experience that might be described as universal among human participants with regard to “what it’s like” to be human. It is also possible that we share much more in common with our fellow travelers in this life than we realize or can confirm with any certainty, but as a purely philosophical question, I thought it might be more useful to frame the conversation in terms of what MIGHT be possible, since scientific certainty continues to elude us currently in the 21st century.

“To love, to gain knowledge, to uplift humanity…is the purpose and meaning of this life. This name and form have meaning to the extent that (universal) consciousness is embodied. That is why the soul enters into this life, so that the being of the becoming that is within you might incarnate and the world to come might manifest. If you accomplish something of this great work, then all that you do in this life will be filled with meaning.”

–excerpt from Gnostic Gospels, Verse 2

Great progress is being made in the areas of neuroscience, cognitive studies, and in modern psychiatric research, regarding the roles of specific brain regions in higher cognitive functioning, associative chemical and genetic components in pathology and functionality, and a host of other related research projects that are producing new insights and expanding our understanding generally.

What concerns me greatly, as someone whose major life events have often been characterized by a variety of extraordinary moments and inscrutable experiences, is that not enough attention is being given to experiences that fall outside of our ability to explain empirically, and in the service of giving more attention to those experiences, I’ve consulted a variety of sacred texts and spiritual resources over the years, including, as quoted here, the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas.

While it’s completely reasonable to point out the importance of comprehending the science of the brain, reviewing the full spectrum of thought throughout the thousands of years of human history, as I have done for nearly thirty years now, suggests to me that the more speculative and intangible aspects of human experience may hold even greater significance in coming to terms with human consciousness than any number of studies of the physical brain.

Credit: [ The Art Archive / Kharbine-Tapabor ] ¥ Ref: AA529033

“If you think you are something, if you think you are a substantial and independent self-existence, a solid or fixed entity, it is greatly troubling to discover that your secret center is no-thing, that you are empty of any substantial or independent self-existence. Discovering this, however, you then realize that this is the very nature of everything in existence. You discover that everything is impermanent, that everything changes. Reality is empty of any substantial and independent self-existence.”

–excerpt from Verse 3, Gnostic Gospels

Attempting to describe a “world outside of our world,”—to even call it “a world,”—requires us to acknowledge our current inability to address it in terms that are appropriate as a contrast to the physical world itself. Since we cannot participate fully in or interact directly with any non-physical realm, at least while we participate in our daily waking experience of temporal life, it can appear to the more materialistic among us that such realms fall under the category of either imagination or hallucination.

Many accounts of encounters with mysterious or otherwise temporally inexplicable phenomena often take place under an extreme circumstance like a near-death-experience, during times of great stress, or as the result of trauma. They can also occur while we suspend, in some manner, our usual routines and seek, through the practice of meditation or by an act of deliberate intention, to elicit some temporary deferment of our familiar temporal sensory experience.

“You must seek in order to discover the Spirit and Truth and must continue seeking until you realize the Spirit indwelling you and know the Truth in your own experience. It is not enough that another person has discovered the Truth. Each individual must seek and strive to discover it…”

—excerpt from Gnostic Gospels, Verse 2

If we are reasonably “self-aware,” we can recognize moments where our everyday experience of the senses becomes mitigated enough to approach the threshold of our inner experience of our deeper self. With regular deliberate attention, we open ourselves to acquiring glimpses of this non-corporeal aspect—experiencing moments where the two cross over—and there is an entry point between the two where we encroach upon that threshold, where the spirit which inhabits the body can shine through. As the veneer of physicality recedes, we disassociate ourselves from our physical bodies briefly. It is very difficult to sustain at first, and even with practice, we only seem to be able to persist in such a state for brief periods.

Occasionally, encounters with such mysteries and unexplained phenomena occur spontaneously, or are precipitated by unexpected circumstances over which we have no volitional input. Conversely, just because we actively seek a greater understanding as a matter of course, placing ourselves deliberately on the path toward transcendence and the spirit, we are not necessarily guaranteed an instant or satisfying result in every instance.

“Such is the nature of reality, this magical display of consciousness. The inside and the outside are not separate but are intimately connected. The reality of your experience is the magical display of your own consciousness. A change in consciousness brings about a corresponding change in the reality you encounter. A change in the reality you encounter is an expression of a change in consciousness.”

“The individual, the collective, and the universal consciousness are completely interconnected and interdependent. You alone are not the creator of the reality you experience. Every living being is a unique individual expression of (consciousness)…and a co-creator (with Life) of the reality you experience.”

–edited excerpts from the Gnostic Gospels, Verse 3

This interconnection and interdependence is, in my view, an essential component of our existence as both temporal and spiritual creatures. We are a multifarious conglomeration of systems and circumstances, and in view of this complexity, it seems reasonable to suggest that the whole of our complex human nature cannot be described simply in terms of our physical systems. It may be that we are still too young as a cognitive species, and haven’t had sufficient time to evolve into beings who can broadly perceive this connection—this door opening—this threshold to the world outside of our world.

It might also be true that the spirit which inhabits our bodies, which animates us, which is the vehicle for our awareness of these experiences in this life, also provides access to the world outside of ours, and since it is so difficult to articulate a comprehensive understanding of it, we view it as mysterious and can easily dismiss any potential stimulus from a non-physical source. Experiences which point to the possible existence of a spiritual or non-physical aspect to our nature are also often disregarded because we can provide no rational or empirical cause in temporal terms.

What frequently flies in the face of all such rational objections are the subjective affirmations which occur inside those of us who, without any wish to do so, endure encounters with extraordinary events. Many times, we often seem only to be able to infer possible explanations. How could such an encounter with a purely subjective embrace of a non-material world be explained other than by inference, by an informed awareness, or by some intuitive rationale? Our entire human history is replete with examples of individuals and groups making earnest attempts to do so, and eventually the subject became the purview of scholarly attentions, many of which persist to this day as potential sources of exploration for all varieties of seekers.

The quotes from the Gnostic Gospels are only one example of many which have appeared throughout human history, and there are many others which have appeared here on my blog over the last eight years or so, and even though I would not endorse any one particular viewpoint, so far, as a definitive source providing a holistic explanation for our subjective experience of human consciousness, when viewed in total, and considering the many overlapping points within each source, it seems to me that we must acknowledge, at least in the broadest sense, that all of them point to the value of exploring and being open to what may be possible.

“Everything is interconnected and interdependent; it is the nature of things ever-becoming. You must learn to accept and embrace the whole of life and the whole of yourself if you would discover the Spirit and Truth. The Light and the Darkness must be joined and you must realize the Sacred Unity.”

“When people speak about the gnostic gospels, they are almost always referring to a collection of ancient writings (in Coptic) that were discovered near the upper Nile village of Nag Hammadi, in Egypt, in 1945. These manuscripts, which scholars have dated to the fourth century, were most likely hidden in an effort to preserve them from destruction following a decree of St. Athanasius banning the use of heretical writings. An English translation of these documents has been published and can be easily referenced online.”

—quote from http://www.nwcatholic.org/spirituality

Artificial Intelligence and Human Life

Fifty-two prominent researchers on intelligence, agreed to a broad definition of the term, “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”

–Gottfredson, L. S. Mainstream science on intelligence: excerpt from an editorial with 52 signatories, history, and bibliography. Intelligence 24, 13–23 (1997).

Intelligence of the artificial variety, if it is ever to be considered on a par with the human variety, should then include each of these abilities, as well as the capabilities for comprehension, “catching on,” etc. A recent film about this very subject has captured some very important aspects of concern, supposing that there is some sort of breakthrough eventually that creates what might be described as a “conscious machine.”

“Ex Machina,” the 2015 Universal Studio film, directed by Alex Garland, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac, tells the story of a reclusive billionaire genius who owns the largest search engine company in the world, who has built a research facility in a remote mountain setting for the purpose of building an artificially intelligent robot, with the expressed goal of passing the well-known “Turing Test,” for determining if the “machine” is self-aware. As the film opens, Caleb, an employee of the high-tech firm, has won a lottery drawing within the company to visit the CEO, Nathan, at his research station and, as a result, has the opportunity to test the A.I. to see if it is truly “self-aware.” If Nathan has succeeded, he claims that it would be “the most important event in the history of man.” Domhnall Gleeson’s character corrects him by describing it as “the most important event in the history of gods.”

We are immediately thrown into the astonishing world of the newly “born” A.I., Ava, and by virtue of the design of a special high-tech suit, Alicia Vikander’s character appears to be constructed of wires and metal bones, illuminated by a variety of internal lights, and covered strategically by patches of flesh-like “skin,” allowing for the display of facial movements, and to give “Ava,” a basic human appearance. The internal workings are visible enough to suggest how the robot functions, while still providing the basic contours of the human form. It is an accomplished display of special effects which are both astonishingly realistic and profoundly disturbing at the same time. The contrast is designed to be unsettling to the moviegoer—to draw us in and to shock us into believing that it could be accomplished.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is a powerfully compelling story, and I recommend it wholeheartedly as a morality tale, which begs the question of how we would have to treat such entities should they actually qualify as being self-aware, as well as a serious warning about what might happen if we don’t get it right. The character of the robot’s creator, Nathan, clearly isn’t sufficiently cautious regarding the implications of bringing a self-aware robot “online,” and he seems callous and narcissistic as an eccentric billionaire genius.

Story elements aside, many of which were designed to create drama and provide tension, the underlying implications of the circumstances surrounding such an endeavor gave me pause to consider why any future human being capable of such a feat would even want to dabble in such an undertaking in the first place. Regardless of the level of extraordinary intelligence required, bringing such an entity into existence would also require just the right balance of human decency, compassion, and empathy, coupled with profound and penetrating neuroscientific acumen. While the technological and scientific principles supporting such an invention would be of great interest to artificial intelligence advocates generally, and those who would stand to benefit financially and otherwise would have an understandable motive to see it through, the actual created entity itself would present humanity with the most challenging and perplexing dilemma it could ever face—how to know if it would turn out to be a powerfully beneficial scientific breakthrough, or the eventual instrument of our own obsolescence!

At this point in human evolution, the possibility of constructing anything even close to the self-aware robot we meet in the film seems, on the face of it, to be a very unlikely development for a number of reasons. Throughout the film, we are presented with brief glimpses of the architecture and underlying technologies which provide the foundation for how such an entity might be constructed and assembled to achieve the desired result of the project, and none of those elements exist currently in any form even resembling in the slightest degree that which would be necessary for accomplishing this enormously complex task. Using even the most sophisticated and powerful computers known to humanity, we can barely reach a level of AI that even just approximates the sophistication of the most basic nervous system of the most minimally sentient creature.

Several projects being undertaken to “mimic” the human brain, using our most promising approaches for “deep learning,” and the giant “supercomputers” like IBM’s Watson, are simply nowhere near being able to reproduce anything resembling even a fraction of the innate capabilities that our own three pound squishy mental organ can manage, with its trillions of connections inside our exquisitely shaped and evolutionarily designed skulls. This inheritance of the long evolutionary path of modern primates provided Homo sapiens with a distinctly and uniquely capable cognitive system, which exists (so far as we know) only within human beings, and consists of the most complex arrangement of neural networks of any known species. It is presumptuous indeed to suppose that any artificial system might one day exist, which could recreate precisely, that which now exists within us, possessing the same character and quality of a living, breathing, sentient modern human.

Even the tiniest quantum “neurons,” represented by the atomic scale of the components proposed by the advent of quantum computers, require supporting technologies that would seriously prohibit squeezing them into a space as small as the human skull. The character of Ava, portrayed unflinchingly in the film by Alicia Vikander, has so many affectations of modern humans, and is intriguing beyond any expectation of her creator or her Turing tester, that we easily get caught up in suspending our knowledge that no such creature currently exists. The interplay between Caleb and Ava reaches a fever pitch eventually, and we are compelled to hang on to the edge of our seats as the drama unfolds.

It is well worth the investment of the resources available to produce sophisticated and intelligent machines, and I’m not suggesting that we abandon artificial intelligence research and development. Many of the films which attempt to portray what might take place in a world where such inventions exist, often only offer a superficial portrayal of the opposing characters, glossing over the significant differences between artificial machines and sentient living humans. In the film, “Ex Machina,” the contrast is absolutely startling, as both human and machine present a potent display of the limits of both the technology and our human understanding of what makes us truly self-aware.

What it usually boils down to is whether or not the film makers believe consciousness is a product of brain physiology—whether it “emerges” out of the firing of neurons and the electrochemical processes defined by neuroscience, or instead exists as a phenomenon of indeterminate origin which is made available to us by virtue of possessing “the right stuff,” –a sufficiently complex cognitive organ.

Any attempt to reduce the complexity and holistic phenomenal experience of consciousness to simply putting together enough neurons in the right arrangement and coordinating systems and functions in just the right manner, seriously underestimates not only the phenomenon itself, but fails to take into account the awesome and sometimes mysterious character of our humanity. Human nature and nurture won’t ever be truly obsolete, as long as we continue to appreciate the supreme value of human life, and acknowledge with gratitude, our awareness of our subjective experience of existing as complex sentient beings. We are imperfect creatures who often don’t understand or appreciate fully how miraculous it is to be a participant in the experience of life on Earth, and we cannot expect any artificial “life” to be anything other than a reflection of the moral character and scientific competence of its creator.