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.

Shen Yun–Ancient Chinese Wisdom and Quantum Physics

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“Quantum mechanics is the best theory we have for describing the world at the nuts-and-bolts level of atoms and subatomic particles. Perhaps the most renowned of its mysteries is the fact that the outcome of a quantum experiment can change depending on whether or not we choose to measure some property of the particles involved.”

When this “observer effect” was first noticed by the early pioneers of quantum theory, they were deeply troubled. It seemed to undermine the basic assumption behind all science: that there is an objective world out there, irrespective of us. If the way the world behaves depends on how – or if – we look at it, what can “reality” really mean?”

“The physicist Pascual Jordan, who worked with quantum guru Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in the 1920s, put it like this: “observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it… We compel [a quantum particle] to assume a definite position.” In other words, Jordan said, “we ourselves produce the results of measurements.”

“To this day, physicists do not agree on the best way to interpret these quantum experiments, and to some extent what you make of them is (at the moment) up to you. But one way or another, it is hard to avoid the implication that consciousness and quantum mechanics are somehow linked.”

• –Excerpt from article by Philip Ball on BBC.com

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170215-the-strange-link-between-the-human-mind-and-quantum-physics

Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology. He has written widely on the interactions between art and science, and continues to write regularly for Nature. He has a BA in Chemistry from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Physics from the University of Bristol.

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The nature of reality is a key question in every philosophical tradition, and if we are curious enough as individuals existing within the temporal world, we may find ourselves compelled by our circumstances as human cognitive creatures to not only engage the reality we experience on a daily basis, but also to contemplate a variety of alternate realities, which exist only as potential variations of our current objective reality.

It is reasonable to conclude that in order to become aware of alternate realities, we must first allow ourselves to entertain the notion that it is possible to become aware of them, and then also to engage them through deliberate intention to expand our awareness. We have to be willing to explore beyond the limitations of our objective view of the world, and seek to open our hearts and minds to an expanded view of what an alternate reality might look like and how it would feel to be a part of it. Only when we place ourselves on the path of discovery, can we expect to encounter potential realities which might exist outside of our everyday view of our existence.

I know these ideas sound like they might be challenging to pursue, especially if you are unaccustomed to opening yourself to other possibilities, and if you are bogged down with ingrained habits from any number of limiting dogmatic institutions or strictly controlled belief systems like I was growing up, it can be very difficult to even suppose that anything else exists outside of our perceptual experiences as physical beings in a physical universe. The truth is that we often embrace the well-worn paths from our upbringing or limit ourselves to only those ideas which we can be demonstrated empirically to be true, without ever really questioning why or supposing that other ideas outside of those familiar to us could possibly have merit.

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The way we begin to open ourselves to new ideas is to expand our awareness generally by letting go of our restrictive or limited views for a short time and to contemplate what the world might look like if we did not have these restrictions. We don’t have to abandon sobriety or toss out everything that we hold dear in one fell swoop, but rather, simply allow our hearts and minds to release us from the habitual embrace of what we currently know just for a brief period of time, and ask ourselves what other possible ideas might explain or account for our subjective experience of this moment.

It’s a small beginning that doesn’t require us to put forth that much effort, and with some regular attention to the practice, we may start to see how our willingness to simply THINK about other possibilities brings them slowly to the surface for us to examine. The key is to allow these thoughts to enter our minds briefly and to embrace the opportunity in our hearts just to see how they feel to us at that moment. With persistence, and an open approach to new ideas, we can begin to formulate a basis for further inquiry. Once we establish a routine of contemplation and openness to new ideas, we will naturally produce starting points for further investigation. Wherever our thoughts lead us, and in whatever direction our hearts point us, we can look and read about and pursue those beginnings and discover for ourselves what a variety of wonder and curiosity can produce for us to consider.

Whether or not this approach leads to genuine discovery or the opening to new ideas is entirely up to us to determine, and at the very least, it provides an opportunity to expand our inner resources, and enrich our experience of our existence in new ways.

After what has felt like almost a lifetime of contemplation and pursuing my curiosity in a whole variety of ways, every new experience now becomes an opening to a broader view of existence for me, and the persistent application of embracing each one with an open heart and mind has allowed me to expand my own ideas beyond anything I could have imagined before I began in earnest to contemplate the nature of my own reality on my own terms.

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My most recent opening to new experience took the form of a public performance in Philadelphia at the Merriam Theater of an extraordinary production entitled, “Shen Yun.” Through a series of musical vignettes from a rich tradition of ancient dances and philosophical themes from over 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, a modern day interpretation created by “…an independent nonprofit organization based in New York City,” according to the program, brought together “leading Chinese artists from around the world,” in an effort to “revive authentic Chinese culture.”

You might think that a program which featured classical Chinese dance wouldn’t necessarily provide me with an opening to a broader view of my own personal reality, but quite the opposite turned out to be true. As an observer in the spectacle of “China’s rich cultural heritage,” it became quickly apparent to me that my participation in the event allowed me to enjoy “…one of humankind’s greatest treasures.” As the evening unfolded, I found myself profoundly engaged by the music, the movement, and the artistry of the performers.

Again, according to the program provided:

“The Shen Yun Orchestra delivered this musical experience by blending the singular beauty of Chinese melodies with the precision and power of the Western orchestra…Ancient instruments like the erhu and pipa lead the melody on top of a full Western orchestra—strings, woodwinds, and brass. It is the only orchestra in the world to combine these instruments as permanent members.”

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By combining the artistry of modern day performance with the spirituality of an ancient Chinese culture, “…Shen Yun’s performers draw their spiritual inspiration from…a practice called Falun Dafa…also known as Falun Gong…rooted in China’s ancient spiritual traditions…(whose) practitioners strive to live by the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.”

Every episode of the performance contained some jeweled offering to the audience, from the plentiful variety of spectacular costumes, to the exquisite beauty of the coordinated precision choreography, and unique special effects. A host of selections from thousands of years of Chinese mythology and history over several hours often solicited gasps of astonishment and delight from an international audience of enthusiastic theater goers. I found myself periodically overwhelmed by both the emotional and spiritual content of the stories, and at particular moments, on the verge of tears as I opened myself to the unfolding spectacle.

Of particular note were the episodes “Bestowing the Tao,” about the story of Lao-Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, another entitled, “The Dream,” which warned that our choice between good or evil would decide our fate, and the last two of the evening, “The Divine Path is Near,” which suggests that we are called to follow the divine path, and “Boundless Compassion,” which points out that we are “…following in the footsteps of the ancient spiritual traditions,” which presents our modern culture with great challenges, but promises that if we pursue these traditions with appropriate fervor,“…a new era of hope begins.”

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This extraordinary evening of music, dance, and culture, when combined with a modern technological invention of an integrated digital background which “…allowed the performers to travel back and forth between the stage and the animated backdrop,” profoundly affected me in a number of ways. The ancient messages from the myths and stories came to life for me; the beauty of the dances enthralled me; the hypnotic effect of the animated background, and the mystical fog which appeared at the beginning of each half of the performance left me awestruck! The spiritual nature of our humanity was on such clear display, that I left the theater uplifted and moved beyond words.

With luck, and a continuing effort to remain open to new experiences and to gain additional insights from them as I progress in my efforts to more fully appreciate the human subjective experience of consciousness, I hope to provide a degree of inspiration to others who visit here in the days and weeks to come.

Warm regards….John H.

Body, Mind, Spirit

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“If we seek genuine psychological understanding of the human being of our own time, we must know his spiritual history absolutely. We cannot reduce him to mere biological data, since he is not by nature merely biological, but is a product also of spiritual presuppositions.” – -Carl Jung from a presentation at the C. G. Jung Institute Zurich, Küsnacht, 15 Nov 1953

“If we can reconcile ourselves to the mysterious truth that the spirit is the life of the body seen from within, and the body the outward manifestation of the life of the spirit–the two being really one–then we can understand why the striving to transcend the present level of consciousness through the acceptance of the unconscious must give the body its due, and why recognition of the body cannot tolerate a philosophy that denies it in the name of the spirit.” – C.G.Jung from “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man, CW, vol.10

The persistent assertion by modern scientists regarding the development of consciousness and the human mind as “an accident of nature,” is an idea which not only opposes our natural inclinations as cognitive human creatures, but also one that is difficult to sustain in a definitive way given the equally persistent assertions to the contrary by researchers in a variety of disciplines. The tendency of modern science to view the development of our human mind as an accident seems to me to be more a result of the limitations of science to explain it, rather than being a conclusion that is justified by the evidence.

Considering that it took hundreds of millions of years and countless variations of living creatures for life on Earth to produce Homo-sapiens, one could be forgiving of the empiricists for being a bit skeptical, considering that it is only one variation–an anomaly so to speak–in the pantheon of life. Considering the nearly miraculous confluence of events which permitted life to evolve on Earth in the first place, any suggestion that it was not only BOUND to happen, but inescapably bound up in the fabric of life, does require a bit of a leap intellectually. Although there have been some exciting and compelling exceptions over the millennia, scientists are frequently reluctant to include their intuition, and tend to resist directing their imaginative inclinations outside the realm of science.

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No one disputes the essential nature of neurological functioning in achieving an awareness of experience. All one has to do is observe the devastating effect of trauma to the brain to establish how vital brain function is to awareness. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the subjective experience of consciousness is created SOLELY by the brain. Neurological functioning involves a multitude of interactions within the brain itself. It includes a process of fragmentation and re-integration of multiple components: neurons firing in specific sequences, synaptic transferal of electro-chemical impulses, sensory input, cross-referencing of iconic imagery and memories of previous experiences. It is a very complex process which still eludes our understanding, and any attempt to reduce it to biology alone must surely fall short of the mark. We may be DEPENDENT on our brains to enjoy our capacity as human beings to experience our existence, but it seems unlikely to me that our brains GENERATE that experience.

In an enormously compelling and technically superb rendering of how the brain supports and grants us access to the world of conscious experience, Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, and his colleague, Giulio Tononi, explore at length the foundational elements and functional components of our complex thalamocortical system in “A Universe of Consciousness,” and their treatment of the subject is “highly plausible” according to the book review excerpt on the cover. The level of attention to detail in discussing the various aspects of conscious states is reasonably accessible for anyone with an intense interest in the subject, and they present the reader with an enormous body of information relevant to brain functioning. In a refreshing change from many treatments of the subject, the authors acknowledge the limitations of what we are so far able to discern about this complex organ:

“The ability of the nervous system to carry out perceptual categorization of different signals for sight, sound, and so forth, dividing them into coherent classes without a pre-arranged code is certainly special, and is still unmatched by computers. We do not presently understand fully how this categorization is done…but we believe it arises through the selection of certain distributed patterns of neural activity as the brain interacts with the body and the environment.”

When addressing this “distributed neural activity,” they cite the example of how we are able to read after “…a time in which we had consciously to learn about letters and words in a laborious way, but afterward these processes become effortless and automatic.” They then acknowledge “…How our brain performs these demanding tasks remains largely unknown to us.”

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“A Soul Brought to Heaven,” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

As someone who feels certain that a comprehensive theory of consciousness will eventually require us to include some sort of essential non-physical interaction, the anecdotal reports of visions, apparitions, and other psychic phenomena which humans periodically report, while mostly amusing to scientists and philosophers in our day, all suggest at least the possibility of an interaction with the ineffable or the mysterious. All of my research and study into the nature of our cognitive functioning continues to intrigue me beyond measure, but nothing I have encountered thus far has eliminated this possibility for me. On the contrary, much of it seems to ENHANCE the possibility! Much of the literature and astonishing progress in neuroscience points toward activity that is INFUSED with the spirit. Far from being dissuasive regarding a potentially “spiritual component” to human consciousness, examining the astonishing complexity of neuroscientific progress seems to me a fair indication of its PRESENCE!

It may well be that LIFE itself has, as a natural component of its nature, the infusion of nor-corporeal aspects for which there may only be a subjective awareness. That we are unable as yet to establish with certainty, a universal experience of a transcendent consciousness for all humanity is not sufficient cause to suppose that it does not exist. The quality and nature of our lives generally compare in many ways to that of all other living entities, and it is not difficult to detect subjectively, a profound connection to the natural world all around us, and to recognize that we are an essential member of the terrestrial community of life on Earth. Our higher cognitive capacities distinguish us in important ways, adding a significant element to our human nature which allows us to perceive and appreciate our interconnection with ALL life.

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We owe the scientific community a great debt for the many benefits we enjoy today as a result of the advancement of empirical knowledge and the elimination of superstition and fanaticism which were the cornerstones of our ancient worldview. Science has brought us a long way from the “Earth as center of the universe,” mindset of ancient times, and in modern times it has created “miraculous” technologies that have enhanced life on this planet a hundredfold, and we need to continue to pursue its advancement vigorously.

But even as solid and predictable as the the laws of physics seem to us today, not one of them eliminates the existence of the human spirit, just as the many avenues of pursuing the human spirit cannot alter or eliminate the laws of physics. It doesn’t take an Einstein to conclude that both can co-exist and that each may be dependent on the other in important ways. Our subjective sense of “being” relies on being able to use our senses, but our senses do not BRING US into being, nor do they determine the significance of our existence. They are our window to the world of experience, and it is that world of experience that connects us to our sense of being and to the spirit.

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.

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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.

To Everything…There is a Season

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“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

Time is my enemy now. Not only does it often seem to be in short supply when the work of writing begins for me, but over the years, it has been so heavy-laden with intrusions which divert me from the task, that many times, I have found myself near despair. Recently, I have only been able to manage short bursts of productive effort, and with all the chaos of late, I have been so frequently interrupted by a host of other considerations, it seems amazing to me that I’ve accomplished anything at all.

Modern technology has made great strides since the time I began this work, and I have been fortunate to have access to materials and resources that have helped me to make even the meager progress I have managed so far. With only a very limited budget over the years, and many competing priorities for the funds that were available, it has only recently become possible to acquire the tools needed to truly begin to construct a comprehensive summary of what has occupied me for more than thirty years now. At first, much of the work was recorded on hand-written loose-leaf papers, and whatever else I could get my hands on. Unfortunately, many of my original papers have been lost after moving and all the various changes which occurred in those years. However, I was able to preserve the core elements of the writings in the subsequent revisions and copies which I recorded in a series of paper-bound journals that I kept relentlessly during that time.

In recent years, as I was able to acquire a computer and access to the digital world, I was able to preserve and store the accumulating documents on compact discs, along with the many photos which were taken during the early days of my struggle to come to terms with the extraordinary events which led to my ongoing investigations. This blog represents my best efforts to gather the materials from my research and writing, and to make some kind of sense of it all.

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Secret Double by Magritte

“If a man sits down to think, he is immediately asked if he has a headache.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson from a journal entry in 1833

In the autumn of 1973, I experienced what C.G. Jung described as “an eruption of unconscious contents,” which led me to create a document entitled, “The Beginning, The Foundation, The Entrance.” Although I did not recognize it as such at the time, I have gradually come to view the experience as a pivotal event in my life, and I have spent much of the time since it occurred attempting to decipher the meaning contained in the document. The bulk of the document’s contents remained poorly understood by me for many years afterwards, and only in recent years have I finally begun to comprehend it more fully, and to begin to place it in a broader perspective. Magritte’s image above seemed an appropriate illustration of what felt like an agonizing struggle to reveal the inner workings of the process, which I subsequently engaged in attempting to discover what it was that erupted from within me.

Reviewing the cryptic writing in this document has always been problematical for me, as doing so not only reminded me of how it came into existence, but also of how much I struggled to make some kind of sense out of what initially seemed like a “stream of unconsciousness.” Over the years, even though the opportunities to spend time on the writing have been far fewer than my own inclinations would have provided, I have devoted every available temporal and mental resource in the service of enhancing my understanding of both the experience itself, and of the content in the original document. My temporal life during this time, all too often, “pushed” active pursuit of my goals to “another day.” Forced to find ways of getting to the research, I resorted to recording my incremental progress and my relevant observations in those journals, which at least provided a consistent location where I could continue to work as time permitted.

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According to the famous Swiss psychiatrist and scholar, C.G. Jung:

In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature, there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually, but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents. It is man’s task to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious.”

After several exposures to what Jung described as “unconscious contents,” in my early twenties, it became apparent to me that a greater comprehension of my own cognitive processes was necessary if I was ever going to come to terms with the inexplicable nature of these extraordinary personal experiences. The learning process has engaged my own consciousness in ways that have been both rewarding and challenging. In the coming months, it is my goal to organize and communicate this process, as a means of formalizing a theory which will summarize and bring together all of the many pathways which I have been traveling these many years.

To all of the many wonderful readers and visitors here, I extend my best wishes for much success to you all in the coming year……

Consciousness in the World: Ancient Ideas Still Resonate Today

“The reflective understanding of reality has seemed to me helped by the incursion into the present moment of remembered situations from which one gains his bearings and his stance as a human being. Thus the re-collective understanding of one’s actual experience is intimately connected with the reflective understanding of reality…Above all else, then, I trust in the remembrance of what I have loved and respected; remembrance in which love and respect are clarified. And I trust in such remembrance to guide my reflections in the path of essential truth.”

— Henry Bugbee from “The Inward Morning,” July 1953

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Image from the burial chamber of Sennedjem, Egypt; Scene: Plowing farmer.

Part of my fascination with the study of human consciousness clearly stems from my intense interest in ancient human history, which was originally piqued by its introduction in my earliest educational experiences. As far back as I can remember, images of ancient peoples and civilizations always seemed to engage my mind whenever I encountered them. In particular, images from the first books of children’s stories of mythological creatures and ancient hunters, and early text books which contained stories and illustrations of ancient cultures in distant lands, all excited my imagination and prompted me to imagine myself participating in the lives of such cultures. The intensity of this interest has stayed with me my whole life, and in the unfolding of my education through the years, I accumulated dozens of books about a variety of ancient civilizations. Our complex modern-day existence and our deepest sense of our humanity has been built upon ancient beginnings, and even as our modern lives become entangled in advancing technological innovations of every sort, there are indications of our ancient beginnings which resonate in our modern consciousness.

Farming scenes in the Tomb_of_Nakht

Agricultural scene from the tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty Thebes

One of the most important adaptations which resulted from a shift in the sophistication of human consciousness was the one which saw the transition of the many nomadic groups of early human hunter gatherers to the development of agriculture and small communities of individuals engaged in farming the ancient lands. According to most estimates, (Wikipedia) deliberate and organized “sowing and harvesting of plants,” appeared somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 years ago, and arose independently in the various continents of the world, but was quickly adopted among many adjacent civilizations as the advantages of food production which would support “increased population densities,” necessary to support expansion of the various cultures of antiquity. In Egypt, as farming developed in the fertile Nile Valley, images like the one above began to appear in many of the illustrations of life in those times. Eventually, this shift to agriculture contributed significantly to the expansion of communities into cities, cities into regions, and larger and larger aggregations of humans into empires and great civilizations.

modern farmers2

Recently, I visited the location of a brand new farm in the early stages of being established locally by my son and several others, and as I photographed them on the modern bulldozer which was clearing the land in preparation for planting, I couldn’t help but reflect on how far we’ve come in some ways from those ancient “farmers,” and how much we owe to those intrepid innovators of antiquity for so much of our modern mindset. The ancient farmers had no such advantages as bulldozers or modern day tractors:

modern tractor2

The path of illumination and discovery, not to mention technological innovation over the centuries, could only have occurred with a commensurate expansion of human consciousness. We infer from the available evidence in the fossil record that while our ancient hominid predecessors may have possessed a remarkably similar brain architecture for hundreds of thousands of years, it seems apparent that they were not initially as fully and cognitively self-aware in a way that would allow them to utilize that awareness for much of that time. From an evolutionary perspective, any ability or pattern of behavior which enhanced the survivability of our species would favor those who employed them, and at some point, higher levels of cognitive functioning began to impart what scientists like to describe as “secondary” or “coincidental” advantages and capacities. Creative use of our development of cognitive skills for survival, also presented us with a capacity for art, music, and mythology. Awareness of our inner mental imagery, and the development of language to express that imagery as an enhanced survival strategy, also just happened to provide us with a way to construct elaborate creative solutions like farming, and led to contemplation about the mysterious workings of the world around us.

According to Carl Jung, in his writings on Gnosticism:

“The ancient mind rejected the material world and felt that everything originated outside of himself. The modern mind rejects the gods and is smugly satisfied with the false material nature of both himself and the world. The mind of today must acknowledge the origins of self in the unconscious and the duality of humanity as being both material and non-material.”

Deep within us lies a tremendous storehouse of knowledge–not knowledge in the sense of information, statistics, or formulas–but rather, knowledge of centuries old memories, ancient thoughts, and the progressive synthesis of understanding inherited from the dawn of humanity. The synthesis of old and new, much like the changes that occur in us genetically through periodic advantageous mutations, produces variations of our inner life that did not exist previously. While those changes may be incrementally small and subtle, after a time they result in profound differences in the depth and breadth of our inner lives. The signposts of these changes range from subtle cultural changes as are evident in the ebb and flow of conventional wisdom, to the unfolding of dramatic alterations that come to define a shift in the direction of our species. One need only contemplate the progression of humanity from ancient times to today to realize that it required not only imagination, intuition, and innovation, but also a fundamental alteration in the depth and breadth of our inner worlds to support those possibilities…

Body, Mind, Spirit

body mind spirit2

“If we seek genuine psychological understanding of the human being of our own time, we must know his spiritual history absolutely. We cannot reduce him to mere biological data, since he is not by nature merely biological, but is a product also of spiritual presuppositions.” – -Carl Jung from a presentation at the C. G. Jung Institute Zurich, Küsnacht, 15 Nov 1953

“If we can reconcile ourselves to the mysterious truth that the spirit is the life of the body seen from within, and the body the outward manifestation of the life of the spirit–the two being really one–then we can understand why the striving to transcend the present level of consciousness through the acceptance of the unconscious must give the body its due, and why recognition of the body cannot tolerate a philosophy that denies it in the name of the spirit.” – C.G.Jung from “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man, CW, vol.10

The persistent assertion by modern scientists regarding the development of consciousness and the human mind as “an accident of nature,” is an idea which not only opposes our natural inclinations as cognitive human creatures, but also one that is difficult to sustain in a definitive way given the equally persistent assertions to the contrary by researchers in a variety of disciplines. The tendency of modern science to view the development of our human mind as an accident seems to me to be more a result of the limitations of science to explain it, rather than being a conclusion that is justified by the evidence.

Considering that it took hundreds of millions of years and countless variations of living creatures for life on Earth to produce Homo-sapiens, one could be forgiving of the empiricists for being a bit skeptical, considering that it is only one variation–an anomaly so to speak–in the pantheon of life. Considering the nearly miraculous confluence of events which permitted life to evolve on Earth in the first place, any suggestion that it was not only BOUND to happen, but inescapably bound up in the fabric of life, does require a bit of a leap intellectually. Although there have been some exciting and compelling exceptions over the millennia, scientists are frequently reluctant to include their intuition, and tend to resist directing their imaginative inclinations outside the realm of science.

nervecell2

No one disputes the essential nature of neurological functioning in achieving an awareness of experience. All one has to do is observe the devastating effect of trauma to the brain to establish how vital brain function is to awareness. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the subjective experience of consciousness is created SOLELY by the brain. Neurological functioning involves a multitude of interactions within the brain itself. It includes a process of fragmentation and re-integration of multiple components: neurons firing in specific sequences, synaptic transferal of electro-chemical impulses, sensory input, cross-referencing of iconic imagery and memories of previous experiences. It is a very complex process which still eludes our understanding, and any attempt to reduce it to biology alone must surely fall short of the mark. We may be DEPENDENT on our brains to enjoy our capacity as human beings to experience our existence, but it seems unlikely to me that our brains GENERATE that experience.

In an enormously compelling and technically superb rendering of how the brain supports and grants us access to the world of conscious experience, Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, and his colleague, Giulio Tononi, explore at length the foundational elements and functional components of our complex thalamocortical system in “A Universe of Consciousness,” and their treatment of the subject is “highly plausible” according to the book review excerpt on the cover. The level of attention to detail in discussing the various aspects of conscious states is reasonably accessible for anyone with an intense interest in the subject, and they present the reader with an enormous body of information relevant to brain functioning. In a refreshing change from many treatments of the subject, the authors acknowledge the limitations of what we are so far able to discern about this complex organ:

“The ability of the nervous system to carry out perceptual categorization of different signals for sight, sound, and so forth, dividing them into coherent classes without a pre-arranged code is certainly special, and is still unmatched by computers. We do not presently understand fully how this categorization is done…but we believe it arises through the selection of certain distributed patterns of neural activity as the brain interacts with the body and the environment.”

When addressing this “distributed neural activity,” they cite the example of how we are able to read after “…a time in which we had consciously to learn about letters and words in a laborious way, but afterward these processes become effortless and automatic.” They then acknowledge “…How our brain performs these demanding tasks remains largely unknown to us.”

bouguereau23
“A Soul Brought to Heaven,” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

As someone who feels certain that a comprehensive theory of consciousness will eventually require us to include some sort of essential non-physical interaction, the anecdotal reports of visions, apparitions, and other psychic phenomena which humans periodically report, while mostly amusing to scientists and philosophers in our day, all suggest at least the possibility of an interaction with the ineffable or the mysterious. All of my research and study into the nature of our cognitive functioning continues to intrigue me beyond measure, but nothing I have encountered thus far has eliminated this possibility for me. On the contrary, much of it seems to ENHANCE the possibility! Much of the literature and astonishing progress in neuroscience points toward activity that is INFUSED with the spirit. Far from being dissuasive regarding a potentially “spiritual component” to human consciousness, examining the astonishing complexity of neuroscientific progress seems to me a fair indication of its PRESENCE!

It may well be that LIFE itself has, as a natural component of its nature, the infusion of nor-corporeal aspects for which there may only be a subjective awareness. That we are unable as yet to establish with certainty, a universal experience of a transcendent consciousness for all humanity is not sufficient cause to suppose that it does not exist. The quality and nature of our lives generally compare in many ways to that of all other living entities, and it is not difficult to detect subjectively, a profound connection to the natural world all around us, and to recognize that we are an essential member of the terrestrial community of life on Earth. Our higher cognitive capacities distinguish us in important ways, adding a significant element to our human nature which allows us to perceive and appreciate our interconnection with ALL life.

scientists

We owe the scientific community a great debt for the many benefits we enjoy today as a result of the advancement of empirical knowledge and the elimination of superstition and fanaticism which were the cornerstones of our ancient worldview. Science has brought us a long way from the “Earth as center of the universe,” mindset of ancient times, and in modern times it has created “miraculous” technologies that have enhanced life on this planet a hundredfold, and we need to continue to pursue its advancement vigorously.

But even as solid and predictable as the the laws of physics seem to us today, not one of them eliminates the existence of the human spirit, just as the many avenues of pursuing the human spirit cannot alter or eliminate the laws of physics. It doesn’t take an Einstein to conclude that both can co-exist and that each may be dependent on the other in important ways. Our subjective sense of “being” relies on being able to use our senses, but our senses do not BRING US into being, nor do they determine the significance of our existence. They are our window to the world of experience, and it is that world of experience that connects us to our sense of being and to the spirit.