Recent travels to a variety of outdoor locations in pursuit of appreciation for the ever-changing hues of autumn have stirred my heart and mind in all the ways one might expect; viewing the subtle and not-so-subtle transformation from the lush greenery of summer to the vibrant colors of autumn reminds us simultaneously of life’s impermanence and its cyclical nature. But more than that, some recent emotional and mental stirrings within me have created a sense of urgency to consider the interrelatedness of all life, and propelled me to revisit several locations which hold particularly important memories and emotions at their center. One of those locations was the Neshaminy State Park in Pennsylvania, which holds many years of memories and emotions for our family.
Strolling through the path along the Riverwalk a few weeks ago, only the very beginnings of changing color were to be seen, and yet the cool air and the occasional brisk gust of wind hinted at the changes yet to come. It was along this winding path that my late brother enjoyed many of the seasonal changes over the years, and he came to mind often as the path opened ahead.
At times, the path leads through fairly dense tree lines, and the late afternoon sun provided numerous moments of stark contrasts of light and dark, creating silhouettes of the natural branch formations and leaves lingering still upon them.
A highlight of the walk comes where the lowering of the tide reveals a narrow field of stones which provides the opportunity to view the Delaware River as it gives way to Neshaminy Creek. It is very easy to imagine how such scenes might become part of the inner emotional landscape experienced through years of visiting.
In terms of its power to evoke feelings and memories, the natural cycle of the changing seasons is so familiar to those who experience these transitions, that we can easily lose sight of how our memories of years observing them affect us emotionally. In spite of having a clear and powerful biological foundation in brain physiology, our emotional responses are highly subjective in nature, and what immediately stirs the feelings of one human may be met with a degree of indifference in another.
Difficult to define precisely, feelings can direct us in ways that are, in one instance, intuitive and insightful, and in another instance, self-destructive or violent. Our response to stimulus of every sort can be examined, analyzed, and traced to specific locations within the brain, but our physiological responses are only part of the story. Our emotions and feelings can also be influenced by forces far removed from simple biology.
Emotions served our primitive ancestors in their struggle to survive the dangers and challenges of life long ago–emotions which still exist within us today–and we can infer a great deal from our increasing knowledge of the nature of life on our planet over the millions of years that it took for cognitive creatures to evolve on it. What likely began as an advantageous survival strategy has blossomed into a highly complex psycho-social phenomenon with far reaching implications in the study of the cognitive processes which are at the heart of human consciousness. All of our evolutionary progress has built steadily upon the increasing capacity for cognitive development, and on the subsequent dependence on our emotional responses for survival.
Our ability to recall our experiences provides a framework within which we can construct a context, in order to reflect on them, analyze them, and place them in perspective. Without memory, all the experience in the world would be for naught. Indeed, our ability to remember makes it possible to synthesize an entire lifetime of memorable emotional experiences, and damage to the brain can impair the process of memory to the point where it no longer accumulates. It might be argued, in such a circumstance, that if we cannot remember our experiences, in a purely practical sense, it would be the same as not having them. In fact, whether we remember them or not, experiences occur.
The subjective experience of consciousness–that richly textured sense of being–doesn’t require recollection in order to occur. Being is most vividly experienced in this very moment. Our awareness of being is an event of the “here and now.” Every moment which follows such an event (in a creature with a functional brain anyway) contains a memory of the previous moment of experience. Memory is essential to make sense of the world and to glean the benefit of experience, but it doesn’t manufacture experience. Our ability to recall previous experiences and to integrate them into the planning of future actions has been central for survival as a species, but remembering our experiences and having them are distinct phenomena.
We utilize the power of experience to learn and grow. We develop technologies and strategies based largely on what we learn from experience. Our ancient hominid ancestors were, in some cases, not able to survive, and in the case of Homo sapiens, not able to truly flourish and evolve, until they reached a sufficiently advanced level of consciousness. Once it was achieved, humans developed a truly significant sense of having and remembering experiences, as well as a means of expressing and culturally transmitting the importance of those experiences, and as a result, over thousands of years of practice, also acquired a better sense of how to utilize those memories.
Beyond these considerations, and largely the result of achieving higher cognitive capacities, our comprehension of the interrelatedness of all life on our planet has also made us aware of the interactive nature of cognition, and pointed out that we are the stewards of a global community of life forms which are remarkably dependent on each other not just for survival, but for fulfillment of a potential that expands well beyond the physiology of any one species. Humans are slowly coming to understand the importance of diversity not only within ecosystems and cultures, but also within their own individual experiences of consciousness.
The interrelatedness of all life in the phenomenal world reflects the even more complex and comprehensive relationships that support our dynamic inner life, represented in the relationships between cognition and physiology, between neurons and experience, between memory and emotions, and between electrochemical phenomenology and synaptic function. With the right approach, we could easily draw parallels that reach all the way from the most basic subatomic phenomena to the vastness of the known universe. The complexity of the brain is the perfect metaphor for the complexity of the universe!
The relationships between these various components of life in the physical universe, like all such associations, have some aspects in common which are visible and comprehensible, others that are a great deal more subtle, and yet others which are, for the present, utterly incomprehensible. When we take a long walk on a sunny autumn afternoon, we experience our emotions and memories in the moment they take place. When we consider the vastness of time and space which eventually led to the development of life on earth, we can infer relationships based on our observations and analysis of data relevant to the circumstances in which they occurred, or by examining the bits and pieces left behind after centuries have passed. As cognitive creatures, with millions of years of evolution to support us, we can attempt to advance theories based on similar observations and data accumulated over centuries of reflection and contemplation.
“There is an existence for me, of which I am an inseparable part, that is beyond the physical dimensions of time and space. It beckons to me in nightly dreams. Whenever I shift my gaze to my inner world, I sense that there is a path leading to it, and I must find a way to connect to it. Leading me into this world is an ever-present emptiness–a void for which no earthly offering seems sufficient. It is a longing–an unquenchable, unearthly thirst that drives me to seek solace in the waters within.”
- Journal Entry from my personal journal
As a very young boy, I frequently had astonishing experiences in my mind as I grew in my temporal life, which I found perplexing, not because I was young so much, but more importantly because I had no context within which to comprehend them. It was basically forbidden by my parents and teachers, and their strict Catholic rules, to examine anything that happened within or without except as it applied to Church doctrines. If it couldn’t be explained that way, it was simply to be viewed as “one of God’s mysteries.” This environment, which for most young people is stifling at the very least, was for me, a particular torment, as my whole being ‘knew” that this way of looking at things just didn’t make any sense.
It took leaving home at the age of 20 to join the military to escape what felt like the absolute rule over my mind and soul, and once liberated from this suppression, it was not surprising at all that the first really extraordinary event came at me with such force, that it nearly disabled me completely. It was so disturbing, that I took the extraordinary risk of seeking out a mental health professional at the military base where I was stationed. It was a risk because I was training as a military intelligence specialist with a security clearance, and any demonstration of unusual or reckless behavior or any report of such behavior, could lead to dismissal and reassignment. Much to my surprise, my sessions with this professional person, while not particularly helpful in resolving the explanation of this event, did point me in a helpful direction, and I began my own research into a variety of disciplines in my quest for understanding. The event was dismissed by the counselor as the stress of being separated from my family for the first time in my life, and I went on to successfully become an accomplished military intelligence specialist.
The more I studied and read and contemplated and researched, the more intrigued I became by the notion of an “inner life.” Some of the most extraordinary events of my life took place during those years, half of which were in the USA and the other half in Europe. It was during the cold war, and I was assigned to monitoring and intercepting Soviet military transmissions and operations in East Germany. During my tenure in Europe, I had the distinct advantage of having been trained in the USA as a German linguist, and this proved to be the single-most important training I had ever received. It opened many doors and resulted in extraordinary experiences that never could have happened otherwise.
At the height of my powers with the language and my research, I attended a German school in the city of Kaiserslautern, taking a course of instruction on the “Science of Creative Intelligence,” which included Transcendental Meditation as the means to reach the core principle of all creative potential within us. It launched me into the world within me in a way that no other experience ever had. I seized upon the knowledge and the openings it provided with great enthusiasm, and upon my return to civilian life, I continued the search whenever the opportunity allowed.
I wrote a fairly lengthy report of this experience when it occurred, but was never really able to make heads or tails of most of it. I continued to review and refine the writing over the years, and have recently felt that I have progressed sufficiently in my understanding to begin the work of formalizing the writing into some form that might be useful to many others, who I suspect have faced similar difficulties. Perhaps it might shed some light on our current world circumstances in a way that would increase the chances for an eventual resolution.
Of particular relevance is the portion of the work which deals with the recognition of particular individuals we encounter and our efforts to determine their importance in the grand scheme of our lives. Since I have come to terms with these experiences from my past, almost always, when I encounter startling or unusual circumstances, it generally signals to me that I should be alerted to the arrival of an important event in my inner world.
The compelling inner conviction I have regarding the existence of a spiritual component to consciousness is so strong, so real, and so powerful, that even if I could set it aside, I do not believe that I would. It is saturated with positive energy. It feels so intensely right in my heart, so powerfully stimulating to my mind, and so beneficial to my soul, that all of my previous education and conditioning to resist the experiences that inevitably result, have failed to dissuade me from pursuing it.
This conviction is strengthened whenever I reflect upon how I have been affected in the past by what I perceived to be the lack of success in previous experiences. My repeated failure in my youth to connect in a meaningful way with the other spirits I encountered often left me so bereft of fulfillment that I would try to compensate in ways that were not especially productive. In retrospect, I recognize how unprepared I was when such spirits would burst forth into my temporal existence. After examining a lifetime of what I considered “lost opportunities,” it seems more probable to me now that other forces may have been at work in my life. When I found myself in the presence of a particularly kindred spirit, the spirit within ME surged with an urgency to move closer. All of my work to come to terms with and to put into words, the core matter of the nature of human consciousness since that time represents nothing less than the very essence of my spiritual longings.
Even these days, when I encounter a kindred soul, each moment increases the certainty of feeling of being connected to them, and yet, it is frequently accompanied by a chaotic swirl of uncertainty regarding how to reckon with the feeling. The periodic incongruous nature of particular temporal circumstances, which appear to be in disharmony with the spiritual, used to be a great deal more daunting for me. There are still times when I am perplexed by the character of the experiences surrounding particular events and pivotal moments. I used to attribute this disharmony to my own inability to bring the circumstances together correctly. It always seemed that there was something wrong with ME.
The realities of the temporal world have not escaped me. I haven’t been flying blindly into the sun. I’ve lost my footing on occasion due to some extraordinary circumstances which occasionally accompany these experiences, but even what initially may seem like a disappointment can eventually lead to further positive development of our growth as an individual. Every aspect of the spirit within me is invigorated by the possibilities existent in the potential represented in the spiritual connections we encounter as we move forward.
More recently, I have come to understand that the very nature of life itself is rooted in uncertainty, and most temporal outcomes are largely undetermined, except in the laws governing phenomenal properties and principles. The laws of physics are both beautiful and exquisitely illuminating with regard to the physical universe. They can be relied upon to predict many outcomes with astonishing precision. However, as well as science has equipped us to understand the nature of particular temporal events and phenomena, the unpredictable intervention of human beings and their cognitive responses to natural events are far less comprehensible.
Within the temporal world of the phenomenal and the predictable, but likely beyond both the laws of physics and the dogmas of religion, we may one day discover the unpredictable and poorly understood world of unseen and currently undetectable forces that may be driving life itself. What we might call the “universe of the spirit,” and the degree to which we can interact with it or gain access to it, is at the heart of the uncertainty of life. In my view, life is a manifestation of the “universe of the spirit,” and the nature of that existence, and everything that can be described within that universe, cannot be explained completely in terms of only either belief or reason.
All of our experiences as cognitive creatures over the centuries since consciousness has manifested itself have required us to devise ways of referring to these ineffable aspects of life and existence, particularly as they apply to human nature. We must acknowledge them as being existent in a domain which is as far removed from the temporal plane, as we are from both the quantum world of the very small, and the farthest reaches of the physical universe.
Magritte – The Big Family
“I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and by blood is part of the sea. My soul knows that I am part of the human race, my soul is an organic part of the great human race, as my spirit is part of my nation. In my very own self, I am part of my family.” – D.H. Lawrence, Apocalypse, 1931
A year ago this week, our family was participating in an around-the-clock vigil at home with our dear brother, who was slowly losing his grip on life due to cancer. It was naturally a difficult time in many ways, and we endured the difficult parts as best we could, while working very hard to make those days as comfortable as possible for him, and as comforting for each of us as we could. We looked for ways to brighten the room, to lift our brother’s spirits, and to keep love and joy at the forefront of every moment. We succeeded often, and even found hope in what we felt for certain were indications that our brother was still very much with us, even when he could no longer speak or even open his eyes.
Throughout our vigil, twice daily, hundreds of birds would perch on the trees outside his window, and chirp madly for a time. While he was still conscious, he loved to experience the clamor and chaos of those moments, and we found it comforting to anticipate their arrival each day, even after he seemed not to be able to notice. Shortly after enduring his last moments beside us, we all sat silently beside him as the birds arrived on queue to squire him away. It was a remarkable experience that felt like an indication of the presence of spirit.
“The quick of the universe is in our own bodies–deep in us. And as we see the universe, so it is. But also, it is much more than we ever see or can see. And as the soul changes in us–turns over with a new creative move–the whole aspect of things changes. And again we see the universe as it is. But it is not as we saw it before. It is an utterly new reality. We are clothed with a new awareness in a new world. The universe is all the things that man knows or has known or ever will know. It is all there. We only need become aware.”
- D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
As the first anniversary of our vigil approaches, we have seen a repeat of the appearances of flocks of birds, and in these experiences we sense the presence of spirit in much the same way as we did a year ago. For my sister, it appeared as she awoke in the morning, to the sounds of innumerable birds chirping outside her window, which was opened to receive the benefit of the fresh, cool autumn air flowing in from outside. As she looked out on the scene, the birds took the opportunity to take flight as one group, and my sister was able to feel the whoosh of the air being pushed ahead of the massive momentary exodus, as it pressed against her face. For me, as I walked along the highway across from the local park, en-route to pick up what was once my brother’s vehicle from the repair shop down the street from me, my brother came immediately to mind as hundreds of birds took flight from the trees across the highway, diving and swooping in a rhythmic dance directly over my head for several minutes. I was absolutely stopped in my tracks, nearly hypnotized by the sight for several minutes. Then, all at once, they stopped and flew back into the trees across the way.
“The face is the mirror of the mind. In the human person, creation finds the intimacy it mutely craves. Within the mirror of the mind, it becomes possible for diffuse and endless nature to behold itself.” – John O’Donahue from “Anam Cara”
In my personal journal last year, I recorded this quote from my reading as I contemplated the circumstances of life at that time, and I remember well the feeling it gave me as I stepped out into the cool air, underneath blue skies, sipping on my morning coffee. I looked out at the trees, momentarily alone, pondering the sweetness of the day’s beginning, noticing the hints of color as autumn had only begun its rise to fullness. I was reminded at that time of many other moments of bliss experienced in the many natural settings of beauty in the wilderness while camping, where I “beheld creation,” and contemplated how the creation of human beings, and the subsequent development of conscious self-awareness in humans, may have been a way for a “creator” to experience his creation. What better way for a transcendent existence to cross over and “behold itself,” than to become manifest in a phenomenal existence–to create a tangible, observable, experiential place to “become,” and then to create a means of touching, observing, and experiencing that place. Once again at my brother’s side, I wrote:
“As I write, my brother sleeps peacefully beside me, and I monitor his shallow breathing with the football game on television playing unnoticed in the background. Our periodic conversations are warm and playful, and in particular moments, our happy sharing bursts into shared smiles. His medications sometimes seem to have a profound effect on his state of mind, but most of the time, he seems lucid and alert, only occasionally enduring bouts of minor confusion, as the tides of his wellness ebb and flow. My sense of the presence of his spirit never leaves me, even as his mind seems to drift away.”
Most remarkable of all is the development of a world only discernible within us–one that makes the ultimate use of the senses, impaired and imperfect though they may be, giving us important information to use in reflection. Our ability to interpret the phenomenal world through our senses is a platform from which we can build our path through life, and form a vision of that world. Our senses tell us a great deal, but everything that exists may not be apprehended through them alone. Beyond the physical world, there is much as yet unknown, and all our attempts to articulate a transcendent portion to reality still escapes our grasp, but our awareness of the transcendent, particularly when it seems to present itself so unambiguously, may only be possible to experience subjectively, and our subjective awareness only one component in the equation of eternity.
This week at the memorial for my brother, I will read these words:”
The fish in the water is silent,
the animal on the earth is noisy,
the bird in the air is singing,
But Man has in him the silence of the sea,
the noise of the earth
and the music of the air.
– excerpt from “Stray Birds,” by Rabindranath Tagore
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.
It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth
and of death, in ebb and in flow.
I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.
– Rabindranath Tagore
The days of sultry summer have begun to vanish like forgotten promises, and although they seem to swiftly fade, my heart still clings to the hope that some remnant of their charm and character will be sustained as the seasons change. Yesterday morning, after an extended period of work to generate income, I stepped out into the blossoming light of day, hoping to absorb some of this essential life-affirming light, to infuse my heart and soul with its gifts, since several cups of coffee in the cool morning air had little or no discernible effect. In spite of our best efforts at times, it can still feel as if someone pulled the plug, and somehow drained all the energy out of the world. Even after several hours of quiet solitude, I still seemed to need more. This morning, I lay in bed as the sun rose to fullness, slipping back and forth between awareness and sleep. Something was different. My heart felt lighter. I lingered as long as I could in this state, before finally rising to meet the day.
The significance of my half-conscious state, drifting in and out of consciousness, is beginning to coalesce within me, and my mind seemed to clear a bit, as my heart opened to the gifts imparted by my vigil in the morning light. The tasks that are ahead for me in the days to come seem daunting, but I know there is a connection to the stream of life available to me. The opening to the stream has always been there, since my days as a child, and the realization came to me again this morning in the form of a daydream while reflecting on my life as a young boy. Many of those moments were spent in a similar condition of solitude, and as I contemplated the opening to the stream of life that I was feeling today, it provoked a vivid memory of the very same feeling I experienced as a child.
Even though I wasn’t consciously thinking about my youthful reveries, the recognition of the feeling was unmistakeable. We can think about breathing sometimes and can alter it to a degree deliberately with effort, but thankfully it occurs most often without conscious intervention. We actually have the ability to temporarily affect the functioning of our normally involuntary responses while conscious, but nature has seen to it that the really important stuff is maintained even when we are unconscious. Our conscious minds are constantly reviewing such an array of different thoughts, that sheer volume of neural firing at times can be overwhelming without some effort to focus them. In the twilight world of slowly coming to consciousness in the morning, or whenever we are waking up from sleep or unconsciousness, the pace is usually stepped down to allow something that has been trying to come up, to finally rise. What follows is some of what rose up from within me this morning:
“I can sense the power behind my heartbeat. As fragile as our humanity can sometimes be, as tenuous and uncertain as life can be, there is also a truly awesome power that drives us. We witness it in the flurry of events on our planet each day. We see it in the fleeting moments of our lives.
We see it in the faces of children. We sense it strongly in times of great anxiety, and great joy. We can feel it and sense it and see it with every breath–every miraculous breath. Since we only get a limited number of breaths, each one is a gift. Even if that breath is labored or painful due to some malady, by virtue of its limited duration, and its ability to sustain our lives, it is nothing less than a miracle. The power of the heartbeat, the necessity of air, the way we struggle when it comes with difficulty, are all indications of the spirit of life–the unseen world which has a causal effect on the seen. It is not detectable through any scientific experiment or proof, nor can logic, or reasoning, or technology reveal it. Without it, nothing lives.
Something has been stirring within me these past few weeks. It contains both anticipation of new experience and a degree of anxiety produced by the uncertainty of it all. Generally, I tend to look forward to new experience, but in this case, the uncertainty finds me feeling puzzled. The weight of these considerations has led me to suspend my response to them repeatedly, but in my unguarded moments during the everyday routines, I can feel them pressing me forward, and my desire to make progress and to unravel the mysteries eventually wins out. Everything within me points in the direction of engaging my longings, and everything outside of me points toward pressing myself toward the future. It is unclear to me whether these are complementary urges or opposite inclinations, but the chaos within is contrasted by the beauty of the world around me, leaving me somewhat uncertain just how to feel. Thankfully, as I paused today amidst the chaos, I was able to marvel at the splendor of the changing season against a brilliant blue sky. I inhaled deeply in the afternoon air, with gentle sunlight on my face, and for a few moments, I forgot all about the uncertainty.
Swishing my feet through the ankle deep golden leaves as I walked along the path home each day as a child is one of my fondest memories of those days, and I distinctly remember collecting the most beautiful leaves I encountered along the way and bringing them home with me. When I look out on the changing leaves today, I briefly close my eyes and swish my feet through the memories of those days, forever locked in my heart and mind, and contemplate the feeling in this moment now, and how it is that we arrive at a place where we can open to the stream of life.
“Our experience of the world involves us in a mystery which can be intelligible to us only as a mystery. The more we experience things in depth, the more we participate in a mystery intelligible to us only as such, and the more we understand our world to be an unknown world. Our true home is wilderness, even the world of everyday.”
“Unfortunately, (a) true sense of the mystery of things which may, in fact, deepen in the course of scientific investigation…finds no articulate place in the articulated results of scientific investigation…Philosophical interpretation of the experience of the activity of scientific investigation is seldom offered. Thus the wonder, respect, and love for things investigated, which may be at the heart of scientific experience, virtually escape reflective interpretation and testimony.”
– Henry Bugbee from “Inward Morning.”
The title of this post was inspired by the announcement of an exhibition of the works of Rene Magritte, the quintessential surrealist artist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. While contemplating the subject of this posting, it occurred to me that what I may have been struggling with all this time is the mystery of the ordinary. We take so much for granted as temporal beings in a material world, supposing that since we have come to unravel so much of the mystery of our existence through science and technology, that it is simply a matter of time before we unravel it all. It seems unlikely to me that we could continue to thrive or even exist without coming to terms with the mysterious, and the quote from Henry Bugbee puts it in perspective for us.
The events of my personal life recently have given me some pause in this regard. I must confess to a certain degree of reluctance to submit myself to the trials inherent in the process of assimilating the many different aspects of spiritual discovery, and of coming to terms with my own experience of consciousness. My heightened sense of awareness of other people’s emotions and their spiritual selves has been unsettling at times, creating a degree of conflict as a direct result of my sensitivity. Occasionally, contact with the stream of life from their inner worlds has evoked emotional responses and triggered instinctive behaviors that might no have occurred ordinarily. Particularly high degrees of openness in a few cases have resulted in a commensurate degree of confusion. and I have not always been adequately prepared for the unrestrained response in my own inner world.
Even when there is an intellectual awareness of the possibilities which may arise in such situations, depending on which end of the spectrum one finds oneself, it can either enhance the experience or send it wildly out of control. There is also a potential for an unavoidable encounter with individuals who we perceive as particularly spiritually vital, but who are, for whatever reason, inadequately prepared for such an encounter themselves.
Opening ourselves to another individual, exposing our inner world and having another’s put before us, can be a considerable risk in some ways. Without careful consideration regarding the possible effects of unrestrained responses, or of insufficient control of one’s emotions, it is unpredictable what may happen. Sometimes, it requires a true leap of faith.
Recently, I was formally introduced to an engineering consultant from the upper levels of management, and ended up in a lengthy discussion, surprisingly not only about philosophy and religion which are of particular interest to me, but also about personal beliefs and the news regarding the state of our culture in the United States and abroad. This bright and engaging fellow is from Pakistan, a Muslim by birth, and a curious mixture of enlightened intellect and pessimistic practicality. His double major of Mechanical Engineering and Religion at the university level struck me as uncommon, although not entirely unrelated. On the surface one doesn’t seem to have much in common with the other, but as is often the case, perceived divisions between subject areas can be dispelled with a persistent effort to find commonalities. At the heart of all knowledge, there is some kind of ultimate reality which reflects the unifying force within life itself. E. O. Wilson wrote a book called, “Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge,” in which he makes a compelling case for finding our modern day version of “Ariadne’s Thread,” the one which assisted Theseus to “…retrace his steps through and out of the labyrinth.” The enthusiasm of our philosophical discussion easily diverted our attention away from the task at hand. Several reminders were needed from others about what we were supposed to be doing, because we repeatedly got caught up in our conversation and didn’t realize how much time had passed between reminders.
The ease with which our conversations progressed and the similarity in our areas of interest were powerful incentives to continue with them, and to discover such a common interest base with an individual raised and educated in such a radically different worldview almost defied belief. We were both struck by the notion, and delightfully surprised to find a degree of personal compatibility which resulted in becoming such fast friends. Lately, it seems that I have been approached by many of the people who come across my path, who have required my attention or counsel. It has resulted in an odd mixture of anxiety and anticipation, and in the coming together of certain aspects of my inner voice and spirit with the external world. At times, it feels synchronistic like signposts of crossroads, and I am alternately encouraged and uplifted, as well as a bit fearful and anxious, from the feelings inspired by progress spiritually, as well as what feels like a widening gap between the world being revealed to me in the process and the world in which I must engage the process. Within the world of the ordinary experiences, it seems that I am being drawn inexorably deeper and further away from the everyday world, and moving toward the uncertainty of new experience.
Magritte’s surreal artworks are intriguing and thought-provoking. I remain in awe of the flow of the stream of life, and must trust in the wisdom that guides us on our journey of the spirit.
“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Nature.”
Every year, particularly for those living in regions which experience the full range of seasonal changes from Spring through Winter, Emerson reminds us to use an “attentive eye,” to see the beauty contained in every season. Each period of the year has its particular rewards: the renewal of all life in the Spring is an affirmation of life; the warmth and lush greenery of Summer is an experience of the fullness of life; the brilliant colors and easing of the summer heat provide both beauty and solace at its peak; and scenes of pristine snowfalls and brilliantly clear winter skies at night remind us that all life is finite in one sense, and limitless in another. Emerson also reminds us that beauty is not confined to the temporal world:
“Beauty is the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world. All privilege is that of beauty;for there are many beauties; as, of general nature, of the human face and form, of manners, of brain, or method, moral beauty, or beauty of the soul.” – from his essay, “Beauty,” (1860)
It was in the Autumn of 1956 when I first began to establish moments of conscious experience in memory, and had the first recollections of acknowledging my existence as an individual person. I can recall only brief moments of awareness for the most part, but they are potent and remarkably clear to a degree I find surprising these many years later. The image above was an attempt to recreate one such moment, in which I found myself staring at length at a patch of autumn leaves on the lawn of my childhood home. While similar scenes are easily reproduced each year as the leaves begin to accumulate wherever there are trees in seasonal transition, as Emerson suggests, every moment is unique in its own way, and will never be repeated precisely.
At this tender age, even though I had acquired a fair talent for both language and the association of words with objects and people, I wasn’t able to fully comprehend the implications of my experiences, nor was I fully competent cognitively. My brain was clearly functional in every way that the age would permit, and my ability to learn and respond to typical social interactions was well established, but the level of awareness was still in the process of unfolding to fullness, in spite of all that I was capable of doing with my brain. We tend to think of memory as something that only accumulates in the immediate experience of our lives, but as an emerging adult and after years of deliberate and steady contemplation of the significance of my life experiences, so many of the notions of familiarity with the content of those experiences are remarkably varied in their character that it seems possible their origins could be the result of a much wider range of sources and levels of consciousness. The theory of a “collective unconscious” from C. G. Jung suggests a framework for a collection of forms or “archetypes,” elementary constructs that already exist within us, which are filled in by conscious experience, and which resonate in the psyche in ways that we are just beginning to understand.
We know now that memory is not an isolated process that takes place in any localized region of the brain, but is rather a symphony of processes acting fluidly in harmonious cooperation to stimulate an astonishing array of neural pathways, which reassemble the components of our recollections. We also know that memory is not like a video recording of events reproduced in exacting detail, but rather more like reconstructing those elements as we perceived them when they occurred. In many cases, we remember more precisely how we felt at the time the memory was formed. The more significant the event or the greater importance our interpretation of the event holds, the more profound and detailed the memory may be. This fluid processing is directly linked to the structure of the brain, formed as the human embryo develops during a nearly miraculous process of cell migration governed by instructions from our inherited genome. As complex and intricately woven as these neural pathways end up, since memory is a combined form of energy and information, stored and recalled through electro-chemical impulses between neurons, the process necessarily depends on particular structural foundations in order to function properly and must, at least to some degree, reflect the nature of that structure.
With the publication of their essay, “The Extended Mind,” – – David Chalmers and Andy Clark began the conversation about just how far the process of mind may actually go. We tend to think of the mind as something inside our heads, or at least contained within or constructed by the brain, but as we investigate and contemplate these matters in the 21st century, we are beginning to see that our understanding generally may only be scratching the surface. There are clearly very specific and necessary neural substrates which support our ability to access consciousness, and if they become compromised by some sort of injury or illness, that access can be diminished accordingly. What is not so clear is the exact relationship between the source of consciousness and the temporal structures which support our access to it. Homo sapiens required hundreds of thousands of years to achieve a level of useful cognitive awareness before even the simplest demonstrations of possessing a mind could be made.
In this important essay, Clark and Chalmers make the case for categorizing some of our uses of modern technologies as not simply a means for producing gadgets for consumption, but as manifestations of our cognitive abilities–an actual “extension” of our human mind out into the world:
“Language appears to be a central means by which cognitive processes are extended into the world. Think of a group of people brainstorming around a table, or a philosopher who thinks best by writing, developing her ideas as she goes. It may be that language evolved, in part, to enable such extensions of our cognitive resources within actively coupled systems.”
“It is widely accepted that all sorts of processes beyond the borders of consciousness play a crucial role in cognitive processing: in the retrieval of memories, linguistic processes, and skill acquisition, for example. So the mere fact that external processes are external where consciousness is internal is no reason to deny that those processes are cognitive.”
Excerpts from “The Extended Mind” (with Dave Chalmers) ANALYSIS 58: 1: 1998 p.7-19
What I am proposing in my own work here, while advocating my own interpretations with enthusiasm, is not an especially radical departure from the mainstream views found elsewhere, but might be viewed by some as being a bit “outside-the-box,” in both its premise and development. My life experiences in my years on this planet encompass qualities and characteristics which suggest a range of possibilities which might explain the nature of the mind and consciousness in ways that mirror ideas like the extended mind. Many of the writings and ideas of history’s most notable philosophers and revolutionary thinkers and innovators have been met with great resistance initially, and only gained more widespread acceptance after much consideration and review by a more measured or deliberate approach.
Characterizing external processes and devices as extensions of the human mind, as controversial as this may seem to some, is an intriguing component of the search for a comprehensive understanding of the mind, and the arguments put forward by Clark and Chalmers are coherent and substantial in supporting their premise. It clearly requires a profoundly sophisticated cognitive structure to produce devices which qualify as extensions of those structures. The parallels between our own cognitive components and those which we have produced as cognitive creatures in the modern world are not so far fetched as some would suggest. There are arguably several potential fields of endeavor currently which may well produce what may appear as a genuine cognitive system, with some degree of similarity to our own. At the same time, we should not expect those devices to begin spontaneously producing other extensions of themselves, nor should we expect them to be on a par with the human mind by any comprehensive standard. My overriding sense is that no manufactured device could be expected to appreciate human experiences without actually having them. Not every human can fully appreciate the experience of another human in every case. As C. G. Jung wrote:
“The collective unconscious contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution, born anew in the brain structure of every individual. In their present form, religion, science, philosophy, and ethics are variants of archetypal ideas. It is the function of consciousness to not only assimilate the external world through the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us.” – from Jung’s “Symbols of Transformation.”
“By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but nature more,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.
Dark-heaving; boundless, endless, and sublime,
the image of Eternity,–the throne of the Invisible!”
- George Gordon Noel Byron from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
The words that normally flow in great waves from my heart have, of late, fallen silent, even though my life has been pressing me into contemplation and reflection much more than usual. I have been engaged in a cooperative process with my siblings of caring for my mother, who is, in her own words, “facing eternity.” In the face of this perplexing “drought,” what I feel seems to make no sense at all. I have been in a heightened state of awareness, as the world around me swirls with an avalanche of decisions, distractions, and intrusions, all which seem to be disrupting the momentum of my life. I can barely assimilate the many notions and questions which press on me currently, and the circumstances of my existence hardly seem like a life presently. This posting is an attempt to see through the chaos and to attempt to find the light. I need to move forward toward the future in some way in order to see clearer, and to feel stronger.
I feel sometimes that I am bound away, destined to be far removed from all that I know, into a future which I could not know or see in a million years. It might be a heartbeat away or not to come for many years, but I know it is there waiting. An avalanche of distraction is not dissuading me from the task at hand, and there may yet be some purposeful element to be revealed. My mind is going in so many directions simultaneously that concentration has become challenging. As is often the case, when such conditions present themselves, I tend to turn inward. Resting in bed this morning, I was reminded of a passage from “Anam Cara,” by John O’Donohue:
“If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will become hungry with a hunger no image, person, or deed can still. In order to keep our balance, we need to hold the interior and exterior, the visible and the invisible together.”
Time seeks us out occasionally to remind us of its passing, sometimes in subtle ways, and at other times dramatically. The passing of time can mark the ending of a period of joy that evokes melancholy, or it can signal the relief from the pressure of a deadline. It can deliver us regrettably at a point of agonizing separation, or finally to a point beyond prolonged pain. In every case there is likely some underlying wisdom to be gleaned at that moment. For better or worse, our response can ultimately only be to move forward, each of us at our own pace, if we are to live fully and well thereafter. With the additional perspective of passing time, we can usually see more clearly, the wisdom contained in these pivotal moments, and whatever degree of difficult pain we may have endured, in retrospect, usually seems less daunting, however indelibly imprinted it may be in our memory.
One of the major disadvantages of the accelerated pace of modern life is the increasingly shorter time there seems to be allocated for contemplation. So rare can the opportunity present itself to engage in it, that when we are standing at a significant crossroad in life, which may require a choice with long-term consequences, we are wholly unprepared for contemplation. In order to reverse this trend, it is necessary to make a dedicated effort to increasing our regular attention to shifting our awareness in a quiet, thoughtful manner. A consistent practice of setting aside even small blocks of time everyday to simply stop the world and get off for a few minutes can work wonders. Taking a walk outside briefly if the conditions permit, looking up at the sky; sitting quietly and breathing deeply if it is safe to do so; even just sitting in the shade or out of the weather if it is inclement can bring a moment of beneficial repose. The idea is to fully withdraw from the routines and scenes of everyday activities briefly to give you the opportunity to disengage from the flow and let the constant stream of thoughts subside.
Reading this afternoon when the house finally got quiet, I was reviewing Colin McGinn’s book, “The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World,” and I was struck by his insistence that as humans we “postulate unobservable entities…because otherwise, we would not be able to explain what we observe.” This strikes me as argumentative rather than instructive. While our psychological desire for explanation and inclination to rationalize are fairly universal in human development, it seems unlikely to me that it is strictly due to having no other avenue to pursue in every case. As is often the case with our hunches, expectations, and even during anticipation, our intuitive responses and instinctive awareness can often alert us to the presence of actual phenomena. When we sense danger, or have expectations of success after becoming reasonably expert at certain tasks, we are tapping into our inner awareness and memories of our previous experiences. We are not predicting the future when we have a hunch about what is wrong with the car that turns out to be correct, but neither are we conjuring “unobservable entities.”
Postulating the existence of molecules, atoms, quarks, and the like may seem like an attempt to explain our observations, but it may also be that we are connecting to a level of awareness which is an enhanced perception of an independent reality, made possible by capacities which we have totally independent of our inclinations to conjure and explain. We have seen throughout the history of science, an “unobservable nature,” or quality to many phenomena that did not preclude an explanation and an eventual comprehension of it. It has always been my contention that we must first imagine a possibility before we can ever determine if it has any basis in temporal reality. There are some phenomena that are observable and known, and some that are unobservable and known, so it seems reasonable to me that my inclinations to consider a spiritual component to humanity in general, and to consciousness in particular, may simply be currently unobservable, but subjectively very real. I have been in the presence of certain individuals with whom I have felt a powerful, yet unobservable, spiritual connection, even though they themselves could not explain the awareness of it. In my own case, I have been sometimes painfully aware of my own nature in this regard, but have not been certain just how to make any useful progress in getting others to become more aware of what is clear to me, though not observable through any temporal methodology.
What seems to be consistently missing from McGinn’s arguments is a willingness to pursue them to other possible resolutions. Although he acknowledges the existence of a variety of possible explanations for consciousness, he prefers to argue that it makes more sense to say that we are “unable” to comprehend it, rather than suggest any solution which cannot be empirically demonstrated.
The Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, wrote about the “two aspects of mind,” calling them “ordinary mind – flickering, unstable, grasping… and the nature of mind – a primordial, pure, pristine awareness, that is at once, intelligent, cognizant, radiant, and always awake.” This idea is quite a leap from conventional thinking, but if there is a subjectively real interaction with a transcendent nature to our existence, it implies a reference to that which cannot be understood simply through normal sensory experience, and by its very nature, cannot be comprehended or described accurately in temporal terms alone. Its source may very well exist beyond what is observable and accessible as a temporal phenomenon.
Before we are born, and after we cease to exist within our bodies, we may reside in a state of being so radically outside of our understanding, and unobservable in temporal terms, that our attempts to reconcile what we are able to understand, and what is beyond our understanding, forces us to contemplate and consider the very transcendent source we seek….
“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
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.
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.
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:
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…
As I was stirring slowly to consciousness this morning, reluctant to relinquish sleep as the light peeked through the curtains, I wandered in and out of awareness for some time, drifting between a lucid dream and my resistance to let it go. The image above which I took some years ago while on a camping trip kept appearing in my mind’s eye, and the perennial philosophical question kept playing over and over in my thoughts.
“If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
The question is mostly intended to stir our thoughts to consider the inherent connection all events have in light of either the presence or absence of a conscious awareness that it has taken place. Since most events at any given time in the world escape our personal awareness, taking place when we are asleep, far distant from us, or when we are otherwise occupied, we are generally only able to be conscious of our personal environment at any given time. Recent advances in technology have made it possible to witness certain far distant events with live news coverage and satellite communications, but the event of a tree falling in the woods, when we are present, has a much different impact than when we are absent. In the photo above, I was greatly impressed by the size of the tree which had fallen in my absence, and I imagined that it must have made quite a loud noise when it fell. Even being fully aware that trees fall all the time in my absence, and that it is a natural consequence of many different variables depending on the conditions in the forest, I felt a clearly personal sense of loss, that such variables resulted in the demise of this particular living organism. As I admired the beauty of all the other trees surrounding the one that fell, it occurred to me that the other trees almost appeared to have caught the falling tree. I felt a twinge of sadness as I stood reviewing the scene, and walked around to the base of the tree, which provided a spectacular view of the bed of roots which had given way during a storm.
From a strictly temporal viewpoint, it seems completely reasonable to conclude that when this tree fell, there was indeed a loud crashing sound of some sort, whether or not anyone was physically present at the time. When large objects fall and come in contact with another surface or object, we observe all the time that such events are accompanied by sounds of one degree or another, and each of us can probably recall hearing some loud bang or crashing noise in the distance, which we later discover was the result of some object falling or crashing, even though we weren’t near enough to see it or to be present as it crashed. The more central issue contained in the original question, is whether our awareness of the event is necessary in order for the event to have actually occurred, or to have significance, and by inference, we are made to consider what significance there might be to ANYTHING, were there no consciously aware creatures such as ourselves to register the event and to assign some sort of value to our awareness. If no one is aware of an event, does whether or not it actually occurred make any difference in the world?
A lot depends on how you look at it! The two images of the mushroom above are the same scene from two different angles. Most mushrooms appear in a forest landscape completely unobserved in most cases, and the one above was off the beaten path, discovered a fair distance away from the trail I was following, and it seemed likely to me that I may have been the first one to be aware that it existed at all. Had I not taken that specific path, or if I hadn’t been searching for a particular image to record, it may not have been discovered ever. I took a number of images in the forest during that time, and made a number of trips into the forest in search of images for a photo essay. It seems likely that many such events take place all over the world, and that in spite of a human presence in nearly every corner of the world, many events go unnoticed and of which no one is aware, and yet, we infer that they occur from the evidence we discover at a later date. No one was around when the Milky Way galaxy was forming, nor when the earth and other planets came into being, and yet we know they are there now, and must have been long before awareness was born on our tiny little speck in the universe.
As we look further and further into the cosmos with our latest technologies, we begin to see that not only are we only a small part of a much larger galaxy, but also that there are innumerable galaxies out beyond our own, and other even larger clusters of galaxies, each of which may support some form of life, with beings who enjoy levels of awareness and creativity beyond anything we have yet been able to conjure here on Earth. There may also be no other life form with our cognitive assets, but in spite of whatever may or may not be out there, our existence is known to us, and we modern humans have been expanding our awareness, intelligence, and creativity for hundreds of thousands of years, and the existence of our ancestors provided the foundation for our existence. Our genetic inheritance as humans and as families continues to provide a foundation for our descendents, and ensures a degree of continuity in that progression. We cannot lose sight of what binds us together, and feeds the spirit of life.
I found it fascinating when the creative teams that sent the rover vehicles to Mars named one of them “Spirit,” because exploring the universe so clearly requires us to be in touch with the spirit of life, the spirit of adventure, and the human spirit, and it is an enormously creative endeavor. My belief is that what we refer to as “creative,” is, in its most essential nature, a spiritual phenomenon, and that our consciousness is a conduit through which the unmanifest becomes manifest. It is through a symbiosis of the temporal and the spiritual that such endeavors are made manifest. The desire of critics to reduce the spirit to a phenomenon that rationality can dispel or refute completely misses the mark in my view. It was once considered “irrational” to believe that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, and that “invisible entities,” like bacteria and germs were causing illness. All rational thoughts are judged to be so, relevant to the times in which they are presented, and while we may not be able to resolve issues of transcendence and spirit to the satisfaction of the materialists and skeptics, it is largely in the world of subjective experience where these issues are confronted. Our inclinations toward the spiritual as human beings may be a natural consequence of our evolutionary development. Such a predisposition, should it be established, would not eliminate the possibility of the spiritual as an essential component in any of it. The human spirit may manifest within us precisely due to our inclinations, and we may have them in order for us to be aware of the existence of the spirit.
In his now famous book, “A Brief History of Time,” Stephen Hawking wrote:
“The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.”
…..more to come….
“Brightly colored brain scans are a media favorite as they are both attractive to the eye and apparently easy to understand, but in reality they represent some of the most complex scientific information we have. They are not maps of activity, but maps of the outcome of complex statistical comparisons of blood flow that unevenly relate to actual brain function. This is a problem that scientists are painfully aware of, but it is often glossed over when the results get into the press.”
Quoted from “Our brains, and how they’re not as simple as we think,” by Vaughan Bell, “a neuropsychologist who researches the brain and treats people with neurological difficulties.” The Observer, Saturday 2 March 2013 – http://observer.guardian.co.uk/
“It’s worth noting that philosophers…(generally) do not conclude that there is no sense in which an experience is physical. Seeing red, for example, involves photons striking the retina, followed by a whole string of physical events that process the retinal information before we actually have a subjective sense of color. There’s a purely physical sense in which this is “seeing.” This is why we can say that a surveillance camera “sees” someone entering a room. But the “seeing” camera has no subjective experience; it has no phenomenal awareness of what it’s like to see something. That happens only when we look at what the camera recorded. The claim that experience is not physical applies only to this sense of experience. But, of course, it is experience in this sense that makes up the rich inner experience that matters so much to us.”
David Chalmers,(*) remain(s) one of many “philosophical naturalists,” who maintain(s) that there is no world beyond the natural one in which we live. The “philosophical naturalist’s” claim is rather that this world contains a natural reality (consciousness) that escapes the scope of physical explanation. Chalmers, in particular, supports a “naturalistic dualism” that proposes to supplement physical science by postulating entities with irreducibly subjective (phenomenal) properties that would allow us to give a natural explanation of consciousness. Not surprisingly, however, some philosophers (view) Chalmers’s arguments as supporting a traditional dualism of a natural body and a supernatural soul. — Quoted from the New York Times “Opinionator – A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web” – The Stone March 12, 2013 by Gary Gutting (who) is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.
For years now, I have been researching the human subjective experience of consciousness, studying the many resources surrounding the nature of the mind, investigating as much as I can about the developments in neuroscience, and reading as widely as possible in the many related subjects like psychology, philosophy, and in a variety of spiritual traditions, all in the service of a greater understanding of my own subjective experience of life. I know there are elements coalescing within me, at times bursting to come out, but I am impeded often by both temporal distractions and my own mental exhaustion from a variety of urgent matters. Every once in a while, I like to review my own writing about particular subjects and resources in hopes of stimulating my thought processes, and recently in my current workbook, I came across a review I wrote of Chalmers’ book, “The Conscious Mind,” and it prompted me to give it another look.
One of the main reasons I have admired David’s work over the years is due to the many instances where he has shown a willingness to periodically engage in unconventional thinking as a means of expanding on conventional ideas. Even though there aren’t many others who even go as far as he goes, I can’t help but feel that it still isn’t quite far enough. Even as broad in scope as his book seems to be, it still stays carefully away from anything too potentially controversial. After all, he has a professional reputation to consider, and a vested interest in maintaining academic integrity, but even so, his courage in pursuing his ideas is admirable. The environment in which academics generally must function, often requires that they pay attention to such considerations, and by doing so, hopefully lead them to conduct research that is productive and publishable.
Much has been made of our perception of the natural world through our senses and how little of its true nature is evident through our cognitive functionality. Indeed, as the image above demonstrates, our common sense notions of how an image printed with ink on a piece of paper could not be in motion are immediately called into question. We can explain how it is that our brain translates this image into one that appears to be moving on the page, but the EXPERIENCE of its motion takes place within us subjectively, and that requires more explaining.
Experience is a subjective mental state, according to Chalmers, one that we can know only as we have it. Consciousness can best be characterized, he says, as “the subjective quality of experience.” He enumerates the various types of “conscious experiences,” from the most subtle to the most pronounced, all of which “have a distinct experienced quality.” He goes on to say that “if it were not for our direct evidence in the first-person…the hypothesis (of the existence of conscious experience) would seem unwarranted.” “Consciousness is part of the natural world,” he insists, and suggests two major areas that cry out for explanation: 1) The very existence of consciousness, and 2) the specific character of conscious experiences. Chalmers would like for the theory of consciousness to “enable us to see (it) as in integral part of the natural world,” and frames the problem of consciousness as something that “arises from physical systems.”
I do not believe necessarily that “physical processes give rise to consciousness,” nor that “…the emergence of consciousness needs to be explained in terms that seem intelligible,” if by “intelligible” he means “empirical.” Our experience of our individual existence is clearly dependent upon our temporal capacity for cognition, and is made manifest in the physical world through our central nervous system and our natural cognitive endowment as human beings, but it is my personal view that consciousness itself, this foundational and ineffable vehicle of experience may not originate in our physical systems at all, although there may be, as Chalmers describes it, “a lawful relationship between physical processes and conscious experience.” For some, there isn’t much difference between those two phrases, but being related and simply being are quite different.
What we perceive as experience owes a great deal to the physical nervous system and cognitive functions of the brain, but it seems more likely to me, particularly as one who HAS these experiences, that they are far too rich, deeply personal, and occasionally so profoundly beyond the machinations of the natural world for them to be solely dependent on them for their existence. Just because we rely on our intact and functional physical cognitive system in order that experience may “register,” or for us to be aware of them, does not, in my view, indicate that consciousness “arises” from those physical processes.
We may eventually come to understand why we have these experiences, and David’s reasoning regarding the character and nature of consciousness being possible to explain in terms of his “naturalistic dualism” is perfectly alright with me. The inner workings of every phenomenal process we examine do not easily reveal themselves always through current scientific methodology, but it is certain that our understanding is increasing and expanding due to the efforts of people like David Chalmers, and I am grateful that such individuals exist who ponder these issues. Those who insist on a more tangible, empirical explanation for consciousness may not find much satisfaction in my own ideas and inclinations, but my respect and admiration for David far exceeds any amount of disparity in our views generally. We have corresponded occasionally over the years, and his gracious encouragement and probing questions in response to mine have had the effect of pressing me to dig deeper. In the last chapter of David’s book, he even allows himself to speculate a bit, and warns the reader that such speculation “…falls well into the realm of speculative metaphysics, but speculative metaphysics is probably unavoidable in coming to terms with the ontology of consciousness.”
I couldn’t agree more.
(*)”David Chalmers is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University and also Visiting Professor of Philosophy at New York University. He is the author of “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory,” and numerous other books and articles in philosophy and cognitive science. His 2010 John Locke Lectures at Oxford will shortly be published as “Constructing the World.” – from the website psychoontology.org