After A Tree Falls

Back in September of last year, I posted an account of the removal of the tree out in front of my home, whose presence we had enjoyed for the previous thirty years of residence in our neighborhood, and I shared a video of me reciting the poem I wrote in response to the event itself, but also to the significance of the event for me personally, as the caretaker of that magnificent natural structure.

Since posting that account, I have observed the natural progress of the living entities which surround our modest home, and have marveled at the tenacity and the almost human determination exhibited by the plants and trees to not only survive, but also to thrive, in spite of the determined efforts on my part to remove and diminish their presence at my location.

While I have not really wanted to conduct the necessary trimming and pruning and removal of the natural plants and trees in the yard, intellectually I understood the need for doing so, and deliberately approached the tasks with respect and affection, even as I had to acknowledge that my efforts were, in some ways, detrimental to the natural life all around me.

Back in December of 2018, I posted images of the results of my pruning and removal efforts out in my front yard, where a sapling descended from the original tree out front had grown so tall and so formidably so close to the house that I had to remove it.  After I chopped the fledgling tree down to less than a foot from the ground, I followed up with an image of the bush that sprang up from the stump I left in the ground.

In an image I shared that was taken in the following autumn of 2019, you could see that the “bush” had not turned to the colorful results I had hoped would occur, and I supposed at that time that there wouldn’t be such a development.

In the spring of 2020, I forcibly removed all of the ivy crawling up the front of the house, and cut the stump completely down to the ground level once again. 

Imagine my astonishment when I began to attend to the summer outdoor chores this year of cutting the grass and straightening up the yard, and observed the incredibly dynamic return of almost every living thing out in front of the house.  The ivy had not only returned, but appeared to be twice as thick and dense as it was when I had removed it.

Fast forward to June of 2021, and against every expectation, not only had the “bush” from the sapling returned with a vengeance, but the stump of the original tree out front had sprouted new life in an amazing display of determination in resisting the efforts to be removed completely.

Clearly, I had taken no pleasure whatsoever in the removal of the tree out front, even though it was done with respect and due consideration of what was necessary and prudent, given the circumstances.  My admiration for the power of nature to restore itself had already been well established, and my awareness of the sometimes astonishing abilities of the natural world to replenish itself in the face of detrimental conditions and adverse circumstances had been admired by me, well before any of these events.   

While consideration and reflection by me on all of these ideas had taken place over the course of many years of participation in activities in the remote forests and mountains of the northeast corridor of the USA, and elsewhere, it occurred to me that knowledge of these principles could just as easily have happened, right in my own yard.

It seems likely that it will be necessary, as time progresses, to attend to these matters with some degree of regularity, if I am to maintain a handle on the chaos and dynamics playing out in my local plot of land, but even as I plan for the steps to take to keep nature at bay here, I realize that the natural world cannot be tamed completely, no matter where you travel in the world. 

What You Hold In Thought

“The evolution of life in the double direction of individuality and association has nothing accidental about it: it is due to the very nature of life.”

“Essential also is the progress to reflection. If our analysis is correct, it is consciousness, or rather supra-consciousness, that is at the origin of life. Consciousness, or supra-consciousness, is the name for the rocket whose extinguished fragments fall back as matter; consciousness, again, is the name for that which subsists of the rocket itself, passing through the fragments and lighting them up into organisms.”

“The effort we make to transcend pure understanding introduces us into that more vast something out of which our understanding is cut, and from which it has detached itself. And, as matter is determined by intelligence, as there is between them an evident agreement, we cannot make the genesis of the one without making the genesis of the other. An identical process must have cut out matter and the intellect, at the same time, from a stuff that contained both. Into this reality we shall get back more and more completely, in proportion as we compel ourselves to transcend pure intelligence.”

“On this new ground philosophy ought then to follow science, in order to superpose on scientific truth knowledge of another kind, which may be called metaphysical. Thus combined, all our knowledge, both scientific and metaphysical, is heightened. In the absolute we live and move and have our being. The knowledge we possess of it is incomplete, no doubt, but not external or relative. It is reality itself, in the profoundest meaning of the word that we reach by the combined and progressive development of science and of philosophy.”

—excerpts from “Creative Evolution,” by Henri Bergson, 1907

The world is neither simply what we perceive it to be, nor is it strictly a metaphysical mystery beyond our understanding.  These two apparently opposing approaches to our understanding are, it seems to me, more correctly to be two components of the same conundrum.  We tend these days to gravitate toward specialization in almost every arena of endeavor, and in doing so, we seem often to be missing the larger picture of what might be most helpful in increasing our understanding generally.

Mr. Bergson, who wrote extensively about the nature of matter and intelligence more than 100 years ago, even without the accelerated advances in knowledge we enjoy currently, correctly framed the question of how we might advance our understanding.  We cannot simply focus on a narrow selection of material, intellectual, or spiritual criteria and cannot reasonably consider only one approach as sufficient to give us the broadest understanding.  Mr. Bergson just wasn’t equipped enough by the technology of his day to take it further.

Today, we know more and understand better about the world in which we live, but we are still struggling to catch up on the broadest inclusion of ideas possible, and we must allow the full investigation to proceed in each of the three realms of material, intellectual, and the spiritual.  It’s not possible to eliminate any reasonable approach just yet, but these three each have important components to contribute.  It’s a generalization in terms of describing the issue, but we definitely need to expand our realm of possibilities to include a variety of approaches which just may support the others in some useful way.

Lots of new material is in progress here at John’s Consciousness, and I hope my visitors and readers will be patient with me as I navigate the path forward.  I have been immersed in some of the most important and profound life works of my nearly 70 years of living this past year or so, and, like most of us, I feel like I just want to break out of isolation into something that truly matters.  I’ve been developing a new approach to sharing my writing here, and when I am ready, I will begin to engage more fully with the content of my writings, and to share more fully the ideas which occupy my heart, mind, and soul. 

Stay tuned.

A Capacity for Intelligence

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

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

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

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

http://blog.brainfacts.org/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

artificial-intelligence-8-638

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

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

artificial Human-Evolution1

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

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

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

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

artificial33

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

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

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

2 brains

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

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

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

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

A Teacher’s Dream

 

A Teacher’s Dream On the Nature of Time

 

After enduring an intense and startling dream about a difficult personal experience,  upon rising it was apparent to me that during the dream, I had acknowledged an important aspect of my own way of being, which has occasionally created challenges for others, due to my inclination toward emotional involvement, when interacting with them. While still in the dream, I seemed to understand and appreciate the predicament my emotional intensity could sometimes create, depending on the circumstances, even though I was still unable to avoid expressing it in real terms as I understood it.

In this instance, I had been engaged in an emotional conversation with a friend, and while it wasn’t a particularly unpleasant interaction, I left the room abruptly and proceeded down a hallway to a short set of stairs, where I promptly sat down in the stairway and began to weep for a moment or two.

 

 

The very next moment, I found myself walking outside in a large park of some kind, and pulled open a large green metal gate, just enough to allow myself to squeeze by and descend a long walkway leading to an open area, where a family activity was underway, and as I engaged the members of the family in the middle of this scene, I somehow found myself having to explain my reason for being there.

I shortly left that area and walked up to an adjacent building, and entered a hallway leading up to a large room with a group of young students, waiting to have a class.  The subject of the class was to be the nature of time, and it became apparent after a few moments that I was about to assume the role of teacher in that room.  As the classroom settled down, I started to speak.

 

 

 What follows is a surprisingly lengthy accounting of the ideas I expressed in that setting:

 

“The nature of time is not like a river,” I began, “as most people think of it.  It is more like a continuum.”

 

“The concept of time itself is still somewhat mysterious, especially when you consider that the current wisdom on the subject suggests it is not a linear phenomenon moving inexorably from the past to the future, creating a relentless flow of events taking place, but rather as a streaming sequence of moments that follow each other at all times. It appears now that we may be the ones traveling through time, which exists as a constant, and within which we always participate in our own way.”

 

 

“When we speak of ‘where we are’ at any given moment, it may be more correct to speak of ‘when we are,’ when that moment takes place.  The moment in which any event takes place has always been there before we ‘arrived,’ and remains there long after we have ‘departed’; it is we who are ‘traveling’ through the time continuum, experiencing each moment as we ‘arrive’ in it, and remembering each moment after we move on to the next.  Time doesn’t flow; moments in time remain where they have always been since time began, and where they will remain for whatever amount of time our universe continues to exist.”

 

 

“The beginning of the existence of space occurred at the ‘Big Bang,’ and with it, the existence of time as we experience it also began.  As we now know, for example, the light ‘arriving’ on Earth from space of distant stars, depending on how many ‘light years’ distant they are from us, is doing so long after that light actually left the location of those stars, and so the light from a star that is 100 thousand light years away, is only now arriving when we look up at the area of the sky where it can be seen, but what we see is light that left that location 100 thousand years ago.”

 

 

“The idea that time flows is based on the assumptions we make as physical creatures, who exist on a planet which rotates predictably about every 24 hours in its orbit around the sun, part of the time facing the sun, and part of the time facing away from the sun, which is also tilted part of the time more toward the sun in one hemisphere, which then eventually ‘wobbles’ back the other way, so that the opposite hemisphere then is tilted more toward the sun.  The entire planet travels in an orbit around the sun, predictably about every 365 days, and presents us with the experience of the ‘passage of time,’ with seasonal changes taking place as a result of the tilting of the angle of the Earth toward the sun, and the apparent ‘rising’ and ‘setting’ of the sun as we spin on an axis.”

 

 

“Time itself is unchanging, unmoving, existing at all moments as we experience them, and those ‘moments’ that seem to unfold as we ‘arrive,’ have been there waiting for us all along, and the moments which we describe as being in the ‘past,’ are still there, as we remember them, but to which we cannot physically return, since we are the ones ‘traveling,’ through the continuum of time.”

 

“It’s not obvious from our experience of the time continuum that this is the case, and as physical creatures, our perceptions of time and space and of the sequential events that we experience as our daily existence, rely on our sensory systems of sight and sound, scent and taste, and the all-important sense of touch, to determine what is happening in each moment.  Since we are limited in each of these areas regarding the range of what we can experience, as sophisticated and complex as the process of sensory experience truly can be for each of us, our perceptions of our experience can only provide us with a partial picture at best.”

 

 

Some Afterthoughts Upon Reflection

When I awoke from the dream, I immediately got up and wrote down everything I could remember.  I was astonished to see how much I was able to recall of what transpired in the dream.  It was an extraordinary dream sequence that I actually found somewhat disturbing, at least in the sense that I seemed to be quite familiar with the environment and the individuals within it, but have never actually experienced any such circumstance in my waking state.  I don’t have a clear sense of how I could have arrived at an explanation of the nature of time in this dream, even though it seemed to make sense to me while in the dream state.

 

 

Through the development of our advanced technologies, we have been able to extend our knowledge about the nature of our physical existence, and expand our understanding beyond the speculations and superstitions of the past. Even with every advancement made over the tens of thousands of years in which humans have been capable of deliberate investigation and subsequent discovery, there still remains much that we have yet to fully understand, and mysteries abound throughout the Universe, some of which we are likely not yet aware.  Exploration continues at an amazing pace in many areas of science and technology, but our understanding and appreciation of the fullness of our experience of life seems often not to be keeping pace.

 

Physical Reality

Physical reality, within which our moment-to-moment experience of life as a human being takes place, has revealed many fascinating and terrible aspects of existing in a physical universe, and we know for certain now, that there are a number of layers to our experience of space and time, which clearly do exist, but which we cannot affirm or prove using any traditional scientific methodology.

 

 

 

No one has ever actually seen an electron, traveled at the speed of light, or penetrated the farthest reaches of space, but their existence is not in question.  Other dimensions outside of the three we experience physically and the one dimension of time as we know it must exist, in order for the ones we experience to be explained.  Since they are somehow beyond the capabilities of our science to detect or demonstrate currently, we must “infer” their existence, based on what we do know.

The entire universe, in which all of everything takes place, appears to be made up mostly of undetectable “dark matter,” and is being influenced by some kind of undetectable force we call “dark energy,” which is responsible for the expansion of the universe currently. 

There are even limits to our knowledge regarding the well-understood force of gravity, which show up when we encounter what we call “black holes,” like the one at the center of our own galaxy.  No one really knows the full extent to which such extreme gravitational forces might affect our physical reality, but we do know that we don’t want to get too close to a black hole.

 

 

All of these ideas and explorations show us an undisputed aspect of our existence—there are a great many parts of our experience as a human being which are clearly understood and known, and still others which are beyond our understanding and which remain, as yet, unknown.  There are many aspects of our existence which we can demonstrate and explain through science, and others which may never yield to any scientific investigation we might devise. Even so, the existence of such aspects can be “inferred,” as a consequence of what we know to be true subjectively, and which point toward a level of experience that exists outside of our temporal existence. 

 

Experience and Existence

The words “experience” and “existence” are themselves an approximation based on our limited physical capacities for perception and observation of physical phenomena.  Any person with a nominally functional sensory apparatus, and central nervous system attached to a functional human brain, who has accumulated a sufficient amount of knowledge of the world, can determine that they exist physically and appreciate the range of experience possible through the use of those assets.

 

             Franklin Institute in Philadelphia – Exhibit from “Your Brain”

Every “experience” in the temporal world is made known to us and is understood through our perceptual and cognitive talents as humans, but our objective knowledge and appreciation of what takes place temporally is only part of the story.  Our objective physical “existence” is perceived and processed by our physical systems, but our moment-to-moment “experience” is profoundly and wholly subjective in nature, in spite of being reliant on our brains and senses to sustain our access to our subjective awareness. 

 

The Nature of Light

Light photons enter our eyes and strike the retina, which is connected to our visual cortex in the brain, which processes the electrical signals it receives in various other regions, which then “inform” us as to what it is we are seeing.  Our memories of having seen similar objects is retained in the neural networks, which have been established from previous encounters, and strengthened by repetition and sustained learning.

The eye is the portal through which light is perceived, but our subjective awareness of what we are seeing does not take place in the eye.  Our cognitive functioning allows us to process all the signals coming in through our sensory apparatus, to remember what we’ve learned, and to respond according to our respective talents. 

 

Subjective Awareness

Our inner subjective awareness of our temporal experience informs us about the nature of our existence, and although it relies on objective physical systems for perception and data processing, the awareness itself is subjective, and it has no physical existence in the same sense as objects do.  Thoughts are not experienced in the same way as objects, even though they are facilitated through similar objective processes. 

We can dissect a brain, determine its physical attributes, and map out the neural pathways through which the electrical signals travel, but we cannot dissect our thoughts with a scalpel, or surgically extract our awareness.  We can injure our brains and surgically remove parts of it to impair or disable our access to awareness, but the awareness itself has no objective substance.

 

              Franklin Institute in Philadelphia – Exhibit from “Your Brain”

What’s Next?

In the weeks to come, I will be re-examining some of my previous work on the nature of subjective experience, in light of more recent investigations and progress in the related fields of thought surrounding the nature of our existence, and hopefully shed some additional light on the continuing struggle to determine how it is that we experience our lives in the way that we do.

A Tree of Life Story

“Trees are poems that the Earth writes upon the sky.”

–Kahlil Gibran

“The best friend on Earth of man is the tree. When we use the tree respectfully and economically, we have one of the greatest resources on the Earth.”

–Frank Lloyd Wright

 

                                         
                                                                           Winter time shows the structure of the tree.

I recently wrote a blog post about the trees in the yard where I have lived for the past thirty years, and shared another about the installation of solar panels on the roof of that same house:

 

Tree History

 

Solar Story

 

A few days ago, I received the news that the professional tree removal team would be arriving on Monday to take the tree down. Up to this point, even though the tree had been problematical for others, and in spite of the fact that it blocked the sun’s rays from the front portion of the roof, I wrestled with the idea of having to remove it, all the while almost hoping that it wouldn’t happen. When the message arrived with an actual removal date, my heart sank a little, despite knowing about the inevitable approach of this event for some time now.

 

                      
                                                                                   “Upon whose bosom snow has lain:”

I’ve spent the past few days mentally and psychologically preparing myself for the removal of this “silent friend,” by looking through years of photos and memories to see just how many I could locate, and was pleased to find a fair number of both. It has been reasonably cathartic to review these images and to appreciate how it has actually been necessary and beneficial in the main to trim the trees and remove dead branches ever since I first arrived at this location.

 

                                                    
                               “A tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray.”

As the day wore on, I was becoming clear that the impending destruction was such a significant change, and so important to my well-being, that a brief ceremony and the need to make another video were essential.

 

                                                  
    “A tree that may in summer wear, a nest of robins in her hair.”                  Photo by Graham Sorenson

If you would like to see the video and hear me recite the poem, “Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer, click on the link below:

 

Tree Video

 

Later this week, after I have some time to recover and consider more at length the consequences of this development, I will attempt to reconcile my feelings and speak fondly of my “silent friend,” in the next post–

                                                                       When A Tree Falls…

Time Passes Away, But Slowly

 

“Quartering the topmost branches of one of the tall trees, an invisible bird was striving to make the day seem shorter, exploring with a long-drawn note the solitude that pressed it on every side, but it received at once so unanimous an answer, so powerful a repercussion of silence and of immobility, that one felt it had arrested for all eternity the moment which it had been trying to make pass more quickly.” ― Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

 

As I wrote in a previous post, the time will soon arrive when the tree out front of the house will have to be removed, but with the pandemic slowing everything down, it has been postponed for the time being, and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to photograph both the tree out front and the larger one out in the backyard. Reviewing the images, I was struck by the sense of how much larger they seemed to be these days, and decided to see if I could find some earlier pictures to compare. Much to my surprise, I was able to locate several from the day we moved in back in 1990, almost exactly thirty years ago. It seemed like a natural development to then place them side-by-side and the resulting images showed a degree of growth and expansion that is eye-catching.

Aside from the notable differences in the appearance of the house from the various improvements and replacement windows, the girth and height of the limbs is clearly visible, and several of the limbs from years of storms and wind are clearly missing in the recent images. Periodically, the power company trims the branches near the power lines as a matter of course also, but it’s usually just a few of the higher branches, and now the necessity of having to lop off so many of the larger branches has sealed the fate of our arboreal friend. We’ve accepted this necessity and understand that all lifespans are finite throughout the life cycles of every organism, but all life forms have their own unique value in the ecosystem and should be preserved and protected as far as possible. In this instance, we have acknowledged that there is sufficient cause for clearing the area, and will honor the importance of the tree by storing the wood for future use.

 

 

Digging a little deeper through the family archive, I was able to locate several images I took of the tree in the backyard, and again was quite surprised by the huge difference in the width and growth upwards that took place over the last thirty years. The backyard tree was one of the key selling points when we were first considering several of the homes in the area, not only because it would obviously be an asset as far as providing shade in the summer months, but also because it seemed to dominate the landscape in the yard in a way that gave me confidence that it would provide much more as a backdrop for all the future events that would take place in the years to come. We were going to be raising our children in whatever home we chose, and it felt like this tree represented a solid foundation for taking on that important task. Shortly after moving in, in the first Spring, I photographed our gang standing by the old girl.

 

 

They are all grown up now, but the backyard tree was a constant presence during every outdoor family event at our home in their young lives, and it has been a constant companion for us all. It’s especially interesting to look at the early image now, side-by-side with the recent one, to see the other changes that took place all around the tree. Even to my attentive eye, the tree never actually seemed to change at all as the years passed, but in fact, as the time slowly passed, enormous changes were taking place inside the tree, hidden from our eyes by the nature of such gradual exponential growth on such a small scale that it was virtually invisible. Every year the branches would come alive in the Spring, dropping the seed packs all over the yard and the deck, and every Summer the lush greenery would sprout predictably turning the view into a jungle of green and shade, and every Autumn, the leaves faithfully burst into vivid colors that could reliably astound.

 

 

Even in Winter, the tree became a vital part of the backyard landscape, and provided the same steady, constant, reliable presence, all throughout the blizzards and bitter cold.

 

 

 

 

 

There are many changes that take place in a lifetime, some are fleeting and some lasting, which can alter us in ways we did not expect or want, but which, nonetheless, result in forward movement toward the person we WILL be. We cannot always predict the consequences of change, regardless of whether we initiate the change deliberately or it is thrust upon us by circumstance. Ultimately, change will come, one way or another, and the only sensible role we can play in the process, once it takes hold, is in shaping our response to the change. The degree to which it can be said that we might actually be able to participate in directing the course of change when it comes, depends largely on the person we are when it occurs, and our level of experience in dealing with the changes we encountered in the past.

The very nature of life, as demonstrated over hundreds of millions of years of evolution on our planet, is to adapt to changing circumstances. We rarely consider this background of change over many epochs of time as relevant to our cosmically brief existence as sentient beings, but it seems clear that our lives today, even down to the changes that occur within our own sphere of influence over a single, human lifetime, are one of the many consequences of the countless changes that have manifested over the millennia, and by that reckoning, we must then suppose that our adaptive responses to the changes occurring in our own lives, in some way, affect the continuum of which we are all an essential component.

Reading in a Quiet House

 

The simple pleasures are often the ones that fall to the side when life gets complicated or hectic in its pace and most often, out of necessity, we are compelled to engage in the more immediate tasks and responsibilities that such circumstances require of us.  When we all recently had to confront the consequences of a global pandemic, again out of necessity, those of us in “non-essential” roles and occupations found ourselves isolated from most of our normal daily routines and social associations. The resulting conditions suddenly presented us with a much greater amount of time alone or at least with very few options with regard to activities and opportunities beyond the boundaries of our immediate locations at home.

 

 

Depending on the personal resources each of us can bring to bear on such circumstances, and the degree of wellness we experience during this time, the “social distancing” mandated by “an invisible enemy” created an environment where the constant stimulation of our modern existence dropped off precipitously, leaving many of us to our own devices as far as how to fill the time normally consumed by the routines of work and social interactions of every sort. Those who depended heavily on such interactions and work obligations for deciding which activity would take priority, suddenly find themselves in a kind of middle ground between the two worlds of routine activity and the strangeness of unexpected isolation.

 

We can certainly appreciate the challenges for parents with small and school-age children at home, as well as caretakers of those who require daily assistance under these conditions, and must acknowledge the difficulty for those whose dependents may be geographically distant. My own familial circumstances, as the parent of six grown children widely dispersed across the Northeast corridor and several southern states, at least has a familiar amount of social distancing experience taking place as a matter of course, but the social limitations and travel restrictions imposed by the current crisis affects even these routines, as visitations which were planned and might have taken place must now be postponed in the interest of reducing the spread of a highly contagious virus wreaking havoc now throughout all fifty states.

 

 

No one would wish to characterize these circumstances as advantageous in any broad sense of the word, and the toll it is taking is nothing short of tragic for thousands of families across the globe.  The pain of loss and the terrible suffering of tens of thousands of individuals across our world now could only be described as completely awful by any measure we might apply to such circumstances. Our own hearts must surely empathize with those inflicted during this time, and the stories of loved ones lost or suffering inflict us all with their potent emotional and psychological effects. We must continue to take every precaution to avoid exposure and maintain vigilance until the threat subsides sufficiently to allow a gradual return to resuming any semblance of our previous daily lives.

 

In the meantime, assuming that our mandatory isolation is taking place in a safe and illness-free environment with our immediate family or normally present occupants, or perhaps even with only ourselves, the task then becomes how to occupy our time and to maintain some degree of equanimity while we endure the crisis.

 

Even a brief review of the online offerings, which show a variety of choices for dealing with the challenge of isolation, and the innovative methods people are employing to encourage and inspire others, have demonstrated a preponderance of creativity and an unexpected level of empathy for our fellow humans that only this kind of seriously difficult circumstance might bring about. We have to decide how we are going to deal with the challenge, and looking for any positive choice possible regarding how to fill this time seems to me to be the only sensible approach, since the alternative would only make our situation worse.

 

 

Whatever method we decide to use, and whatever avenue each of us is inclined to pursue, isolation is now providing us with an opportunity to consider what matters to us personally, and giving serious attention to pursuits that may have been put on hold, as well as returning to simple pleasures that may have fallen to the wayside previously, now assume even greater urgency, given that we are compelled to occupy ourselves in ways that may not have been available before this.

 

For me, this represents a more robust return to quiet contemplation, to long and productive hours of writing, and to actually holding a physical book in my hands, turning pages, and mulling over the worlds represented in those pages, as well as having to step up my game a bit more in order to cover a greater variety of selections.  One such selection came as a suggestion from a fellow writer to review a poem by Wallace Stevens.

 

Isolation Contemplation

With much more time being spent at home these days, I’ve had more time than usual for actually sitting at my desk and have been reading and writing a bit more often, and taking the opportunity to consider more carefully the events in the world-at-large, as well as those closer to home. The photo above was taken of a tree branch right outside the window in my upstairs office, and got me to thinking about an upcoming event in my life that has been the source of some anxiety, and writing about it seemed like a good idea in order to help me prepare for it.

This week I started writing in a brand new writer’s journal presented to me as a gift over the holidays last year. On the cover of the book itself is an ancient map of the world, and as I began to record my thoughts on the first pages, I began to wonder about the origin of the map and launched an investigation to see if I could locate it. It took a fair amount of searching on the internet, but I was able to find it and it is a visually rich and intellectually appealing image, which harkens back to an age of exploration and discovery, no longer possible on the same scale except perhaps in the depths of the oceans, or out into the vastness of space.

Very rare double hemisphere map of the World, engraved by Henri Le Roy in Paris and published by Michael Van Lochum. The map is based on Hondius’ World map of 1617. The map was the first to show Le Maire’s Straits and the islands in the Pacific discovered by Le Maire and his explorations in New Guines.

When it was published in 1636, we were only just beginning to understand and fully appreciate the enormity of our planet, and much of what appears on the map is only suggestive of the actual dimensions and shapes of the land masses so familiar to us now, since we have the perspective of viewing the Earth from space.

Even though the world has been constantly changing since the beginning of time, in ancient times, they believed that most of what we could observe and know was fixed and immutable, and that the Earth was the center of the Universe. Since life was profoundly more difficult to endure and life expectancy much shorter typically, surviving past what we now call “midlife” was rare, and with the world nearly always in a state of war or at the mercy of conquering armies, there wasn’t much an average person could do to affect the outcome of events.

It has taken tens of thousands of years for humans to make sufficient progress in order to make the necessary changes that have brought us to modern life in our century. Yes, times like those we are experiencing currently may cause some to wonder aloud if we’ve actually made much progress at all, but with even a brief investigation of ancient history, we can see that life in ancient times was often “brutish and short,” and the concerns which we all feel so worried about today are, by just about any standard, far less worrisome by comparison.

Still, our lives these days do contain urgent matters with varying degrees of difficulty, given whatever kind of circumstances and limitations we encounter, and when we are pressed to make certain choices these days, it isn’t always clear which one is most or least advantageous. Due to a number of different circumstances where I live, I’ve had to make a choice to cut down the large tree out in front of my house where I have lived for nearly thirty years. She’s a grand old lady, this one, and after months of wrangling with the authorities and pondering the fate of the tree, it became clear that it has to be done.

Without getting too deep into the whys and the wherefores, the decision to take it down brought me to consider several other similar relationships with other trees, specifically, the even grander and older tree in my backyard, and one that recently came to my attention in the news. Current events have a lot of us thinking more about what is important to us generally, and while contemplating a story about a tree might not seem to fit logically into the narrative of what’s taking place now in the world, it got me to thinking about what meaning might be found in these events, and it felt right to explore it in the context of our connection to the natural world.

The story of the death of a very famous tree in California caught my eye recently and the response of people familiar with the iconic “Witness Tree,” in Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills, California touched me deeply, especially in view of my own impending loss of a familiar arboreal friend out front. The story goes that the “Witness Tree,” was probably more than 100 years old, and had been the site of numerous events for locals during that time, but also served as a location for a number of Hollywood films and television shows, including “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” and HBO’s “Westworld.” In 2018, the now infamous “Woolsey Fire,” destroyed the entire set surrounding the tree, and so badly burned the iconic symbol that it wasn’t able to come back to life. One particular couple, who had their wedding underneath its canopy, posted a couple of photos typical of the many stories surrounding the tree.

 

My own reflections of my thirty-year relationship with the enormously appealing Silent Friend growing still in my backyard, give me a much greater appreciation of how these living arboreal beings could have so much importance to generations of people who interacted with them for decades. Contemplating the loss of any tree that has a familiar place in the events of our lives over a lifetime or more gives us a glimpse of what matters to us in other ways as well.

During this global crisis, with millions of individuals at risk from the virus circulating through the entire population of the Earth, it seems our best defense against it is to hunker down in our own homes, and remain isolated from everyone we know, at least physically, providing us not only with a challenging endurance run of being out of circulation, but also providing an extended period of time to reflect on the importance of all our relationships, including those we acquired right in our own backyard.

There are many thoughts bubbling up from within me as I write these days that beg for expression, and since there is ample time to attend to the need to release them, I have taken to recording them by hand in the beautiful journal that’s been sitting on my desk since the holidays, and reminiscing with my “silent friend,” out in the backyard, contemplating the impending loss of the tree out front, and how the unfortunate need for isolation from the rest of the world-at-large has provided this time for us all.

Reason and Intuition

 

“It has certainly been true in the past that what we call intelligence and scientific discovery has conveyed a survival advantage…provided the universe has evolved in a regular way, we might expect the reasoning abilities that natural selection has given us would be valid also in our search…and so would not lead us to the wrong conclusions.

– Stephen Hawking quoted in “A Brief History of Time.”

 

“Intuition is the indubitable conception of a clear and attentive mind which proceeds solely from the light of reason…By ‘intuition’ I do not mean the fluctuating testimony of the senses or the deceptive judgement of the imagination as it botches things together, but the conception of a clear and attentive mind, which is so easy and so distinct that there can be no room for doubt about what we are understanding…another mode of knowing in addition to intuition (is) deduction, by which we mean the inference of something as following necessarily from some other propositions which are known with certainty…because immediate self-evidence is not required for deduction, as it is for intuition…but the first principles themselves are known only through intuition, and the remote conclusions only through deduction.

– Rene Descartes from “Rules for the Direction of the Mind,” written circa 1628, first Latin edition published in 1701.

“Language is entwined with human life…it reflects the way we grasp reality…It is…a window into human nature…Human intelligence, with its capacity to think an unlimited number of abstract thoughts, evolved out of primate circuitry for coping with the physical and social world, augmented by a capacity to extend these circuits to new domains by metaphorical abstraction…some metaphors can express truths about the world…So even if language and thought use metaphors, that doesn’t imply that knowledge and truth are obsolete. It may imply that metaphors can objectively and truthfully capture aspects of reality.”

– Steven Pinker, from his book, “The Stuff of Thought.”

 

There is something in the air, out in the world, something inside of me, that is pervasive. It’s always there, relentlessly seeking me. It feels like an embrace, and yet it does not always bring me peace. Sometimes, I cannot easily face it. In my life, I have known there is the possibility of pain–the other side of joy–and also of fear, as there has always been. Early in my life, I did not understand–did not see why I had to feel certain things. It didn’t make any sense to me. Why can’t everything just be okay? When you’re young, there’s no way to process or fully understand thoughts like that. There is a keener sense of the unknown; a resistance to potent emotions, inexplicable or mysterious energies, anything that suggests aspects of our reality which may be beyond our normal understanding.

 

Logically, of course, science and reason can provide us with a methodical and considered approach when it comes to investigating the unknown, and can often point to reasonable scientific principles which are clearly at work in certain situations; we can observe them, we experience them and assume because we know WHY these things happen, that we understand them. In my experience, truly apprehending the nature of things requires something more. Naturally, we see what we see, we hear what we hear; we consider information we bring in from the objective world; we interpret what comes through our senses and process the information utilizing the various talents of specific brain regions. We come to conclusions which often can be affirmed by comparing them to our experiences and memories, and by testing them through our subsequent actions, and we may even make choices regarding potential future actions.

 

As we observe what happens out there, we say, “So that’s why the planets are all traveling in loops around the sun,” or “no wonder it seems that light suddenly appears since it travels so reliably and predictably at the same speed.” All of these aspects of our reality that we can observe and affirm, tell us why things work the way they do, because the laws of physics require them to conform in this way. When all of our observations confirm the laws, we feel confident in establishing those principles as true. I haven’t always been convinced by what I see or hear or observe, not because I supposed that my senses weren’t working properly, but rather because those aspects did not conform precisely with my personal recollections of previous experiences. It’s possible for us to be mistaken about what our senses tell us, as in the case of optical illusions, and we can occasionally be easily misled by the clever application of deliberate or manipulative deception, but it can be much more difficult to persuade us of any suggested explanation of events which does not match up with the way we intuitively feel as we process that input.

 

Experience has taught me to trust the way I feel, especially when it comes to connections to other individuals, places, and ideas which resonate so strongly within me in particular circumstances, but our modern chaotic world doesn’t always encourage us to trust our intuition or to have the confidence always to listen to our genuine “gut” feelings. Throughout my life, there have been innumerable examples of instances where my inner urgings and startling responses to unexpected provocations have been right on the mark. There have been times when it seemed to me that I was virtually “standing on a precipice,” dangerously close to and looking over an edge, either about to fall, or maybe even getting ready to “take a leap of faith.” Conventional wisdom might suggest that if you’re near some sort of a virtual edge and you fall, it’s not necessarily your fault, and yet, at the same time, somehow you got yourself out on that ledge. That same wisdom might suggest that if you find yourself on that proverbial ledge and you decide to jump, for whatever reason, that is a choice for which you alone are responsible.

 

 

We can’t always control what happens TO us, and sometimes we may even feel compelled to make choices that we don’t necessarily agree with completely, and why we feel that way is not always crystal clear. All sorts of influences and pressures from even trusted sources can weigh on us as we contemplate our next steps, distorting or mitigating our normal process of reasoning or, if we are fortunate, clarifying it. Our reasoning can be faulty and we can occasionally even refuse to consider outside influences which are meant to be helpful, but ultimately we must choose, one way or another.

The struggle between reason and intuition has become something of an epic battle these days, and considered and informed opinions may seem less prevalent in our modern social interactions, and so giving attention to sorting it all out is even more important now.

 

 

My Reply to the Expression, “Everything Happens for a Reason.”

A recent visit to a fellow blogger’s site which featured the statement above prompted me to express my response to it, and to address the role of destiny and fate. They aren’t interchangeable terms in my view, and while I understand why it may be comforting to suppose that there is an underlying order to everything in the physical universe, chaos theory posits a degree of randomness that’s hard to ignore.

We all would like to think that there is some good cause for everything that happens in the world, especially for what might happen to us personally in our own lives, but the truth is that sometimes things happen TO us or AROUND us, and sometimes things happen BECAUSE of us or our actions or inactions. In many instances, there may be an EXPLANATION for what happens. There may be causes we can identify for our suffering, just as there are causes for our success. There may be a way to figure out why CERTAIN things come about, but just as often, we may not be ABLE to discern a cause or source or rationale for the events that take place in our life experiences. Such blanket expressions like, “everything happens for a reason,” are not particularly useful nor do they make our lives seem any easier in the face of challenges or troubles.

We cannot control what happens TO us many times, but we can often decide how we are going to act as a RESULT of what happens. We can take whatever talents we manage to acquire and SQUANDER them, or we can strive to improve them and put them to good use. Even when doing so, we may not succeed at what we are striving to accomplish, but life isn’t just about RESULTS; it’s also about the journey itself. We may or may not become successful no matter what happens to us or because of us, but if we want to truly make a deliberate and important contribution to the OUTCOME of our efforts, we must apply whatever resources we can muster and CHOOSE our path when we can, and follow wherever it leads us. Destiny is something we can choose to do or to attempt to do, but we can also ignore it or abandon it.

When we FAIL to choose, or fail to TRY, or fail to act when we should, that’s when fate takes over. What we work toward to the best of our ability is our destiny, fulfilled or not, and we have to acknowledge that our participation is essential if we truly seek to achieve our destiny. Whatever happens will have some sort of explanation ultimately, but the outcome may NOT be for any particular reason, or it may have AS a reason, our determination to achieve it. It’s really up to us.