“Great men are they who see that spiritual is stronger than material force, that thoughts rule the world.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Although Woolf knew that experience is made out of a "shower of innumerable atoms," she believed that the elusive self bound those atoms into a whole. It took the "shivering fragments" of sensation and turned them into a coherent stream of consciousness. "I press to my centre," Woolf wrote in her diary, "and there is something there."
Experience and The Self by John J. Hyland
Imagine cascading electrochemical fluctuations activating an astonishing array of neural pathways in the brain, some from memory, some from sensation, some from our emotional and cognitive areas, all converging in a spectacular symphony of what we commonly call “experience.” Imagine the “shower of innumerable atoms,” penetrating every fiber of brain tissue and of the visceral components that comprise the pathways of the central nervous system—every bone, every sinew, every nuance of every cell structure—alive with subatomic activity. How fantastic to realize that eventually it all coalesces almost magically “into a coherent stream of consciousness.”
Unless you are a philosopher or a creative neuroscientist or brain surgeon, it would probably not occur to you to envision the process of perception and self-awareness in this way, and yet even the most modestly educated individuals in the modern civilized world know that everything is made up of atoms and molecules of one sort or another, and that electrons and protons and neutrons are governed by forces that we normally cannot observe, and that they exist in places so far removed from our everyday reality we scarcely give them a moment’s thought. How often has anyone asked you, “What is your experience of your true self like today?”
In his blog, Lehrer posted an essay he wrote about Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves,” and describes her take on why there are such differences in everyone’s perceptions of reality:
“Whenever we sense something, we naturally invent a subject for our sensation, a perceiver for our perception. The self is simply this subject; it is the story we tell ourselves about our experience. It just so happens that everyone writes the story a little bit differently.”
What is there about our “experience” of reality that results in the necessity for “inventing” a self to be the one “having” the experience? What the heck does it mean to “have an experience,” and how do we conjure up this “self” who seems necessary to explain the experience of perception in the first place?
Our sense of having a "self" or an identifiable person contained within our bodies, clearly results from possessing a nominally functional brain with a minimal amount of experience as a living being, achieving a reasonable ability with language, and being able to express both our thoughts and our basic awareness of existing as an individual. Our observations of other sentient beings suggests that we exist outside of them, and our common sense notion that "you" are not inside "me." Because the brain is so central to our identity as an individual and to the existence of what we call "the mind," places it center stage in any discussion of "self," even though the primary role of the brain is as the hub of all activity within the human body; a sort of clearinghouse or control center for a living being.
Some would describe the terms, "mind," "self," and "soul," as interchangeable, and indeed there are vitally important relationships being described when we use those terms, but there are also very important distinctions contained in them. When we refer to "the mind," we are referring to the functioning of a brain with a highly-developed structure like ours; a process of cognition which is a synthesis of many operations and inputs. Once these cognitive processes reach a nominal level of functionality, a being develops a sense of a "self," a whole person identifiable as a specific and independent entity who is in possession of "a mind." That "identifiable self" in possession of "a mind," eventually becomes aware of an animating force or energy which supports it, sometimes described as the "human spirit," which is distinct from the mind and the self.
Most living creatures with an adequately developed and functional nervous system, given sufficient stimulation in the appropriate circumstance, will generally demonstrate a fairly predictable response in their behavior, including, many times, human beings. The familiar “fight-or-flight” response when in close proximity to a dangerous carnivore would be a good example. Under most circumstances, depending on the degree of danger and the creature’s inherited abilities and previous conditioning with regard to facing such danger, if adequate motivation was present for either running away or standing up to the danger, most organisms would instinctively tend to select the behavior which provided the best option for survival. While this behavior could still ultimately result in the demise of the organism, in spite of whatever resources may be available to them, when the behavior is instinctively chosen, no judgment or further implication can be made.
Conversely, as cognitive creatures, with both instinctual and volitional capacities, humans can not only deliberately override instinctive tendencies, but can also consciously review the available behavioral selections, calculate the likelihood of success of any choice, contemplate previously untried alternatives, innovate extemporaneously with available resources, and even in the face of very low probabilities of success, choose behaviors which instinct alone would generally not permit. In the human brain, with all of its inherited and deeply-rooted predispositions, as well as a variety of involuntary and unconscious functions, we observe mitigation of this sort by virtue of the capacities provided by our distinctly human version of the cerebral cortex, which distinguishes us from all other animals.
One might wish to argue that humans respond instinctively all the time, or that we tend to confer deliberate choice to our actions far more often than is actually the case, but we cannot easily disregard millions of years of evolution simply because we now have a sufficiently sophisticated cognitive capacity.
No one disputes the essential nature of neurological functioning in achieving an awareness of experience. All one has to do is observe the devastating effect of trauma to the brain to establish how vital brain function is to awareness. Without a nominally functional mental organ, there can be no access to the world of experience. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the subjective experience of consciousness is created by the brain.
Indeed, neurological functioning involves a multitude of interactions within the brain itself, a process of fragmentation and integration of multiple components, neurons firing in sequence, synaptic transferal of electro-chemical impulses, sensory input, cross-referencing of iconic imagery and stored experiences. (Ask any parent of a teenage girl about how complex the thought process can be!) It is the very complexity of the process which leads me to believe that any reduction of it to biology alone must surely fall short of the mark. We may be dependent on our brain for our capacity as human beings to experience our existence, but it seems unlikely to me that our brain generates that experience.
What, then, might it be that our fantastically agile and miraculously complex brain has accomplished by evolving to its present state of cognitive capacity? Can it be that the basic physiology of brain functioning, neuronal firing and synaptic transferal alone provide us with such a richly textured sense of ourselves and our subjective experience of that self? Is it conceivable that every moment of our existence is simply and only just one more biological event with no more significance than digestion or respiration?
In our everyday experience amongst our fellow humans, we generally equate consciousness with our normal waking state, about which most of us have at least some general agreement with regard to the nature and quality of that experience. Within the routine parameters of commonplace social interactions, we appear to each other to be awake and, based on our interactive exchanges with each other, to varying degrees articulate and intelligent. In spite of not being able to verify the nature and quality of conscious experience in others, with the same degree of subjective certainty that our individual experience provides, we still suppose that others are experiencing it in a similar fashion. We infer that our observations of their responses to us indicate at least a degree of shared experience.
We know how we judge our own experiences and actions, and within certain limits, accept that when the behaviors and reactions of others compare reasonably to our own, that they are experiencing the moment in much the same manner.
As we now know it, normal waking consciousness is but a single aspect of a much more complex phenomenon. Considering the countless numbers of individuals produced over the millions of years that “conscious” hominids have existed on our planet, it seems far more likely that our individual experience of existence, while sharing many similar general characteristics, is, to a large degree, unique amongst our fellow terrestrial creatures. It also seems likely that with so much complexity, there may be a great deal more to explaining consciousness than “electro-chemical activity in the ‘wiring’ of the brain.”
While there is no conclusive evidence to support a significant alteration of the basic physiology of the brain since the first moment of self-awareness in modern humans, a remarkable evolution in the results achieved by Homo sapiens, (utilizing the brain’s miraculous capacities) shows that something is happening. Our development as a species, gaining as it has from the wealth of experience of its members throughout human history, clearly indicates a parallel development of consciousness, not explicable in biological terms alone.
If human consciousness itself is still expanding, or if our capacity as cognitive creatures is greater now, it only increases the likelihood of a component to it that is not driven by biology. We are compelled by biology to reproduce and to breathe and to generate energy through digestion, but there is no compelling biological drive to expand consciousness. What we are able to achieve with our present capacities is, so far as we know, sufficient to sustain us biologically, at least for the foreseeable future.
There also isn’t much evidence of an evolutionary advantage to achieving an even greater degree of expanded consciousness. The fossil records show that the initial efforts of our early hominid ancestors to scratch out a life with less cognitive talent, made the early going profoundly more difficult than it is today. However, once a certain level of cognitive skill was achieved, expansion seemed to level off with the lesser need for any specific form of cognitive development.
The subjective experience of consciousness, as all functionally cognitive people know it, is in a constant state of flux. The person you were yesterday when you experienced a ride on a roller coaster or jumped out of a perfectly good airplane for the first time is not the same person you are today, having had that experience. Your conscious awareness is enhanced (hopefully) or altered by the new experience. The change may be barely noticeable or not noticeable at all. But, over long periods of time, with the accumulation of experience, our conscious awareness may change, based on our new perspective which was not possible without having had those experiences.
We are, by most cosmic standards, a fledgling species, whose progress from being primarily impulsive creatures with a survival instinct to the more modern self-aware variety has spanned less than a hundred thousand years. Whatever degree of cognitive skill might have been adequate to qualify the earliest version of modern humans as “conscious” or “significantly self-aware,” the earliest evidence of such characteristics being demonstrated seems to fall during the Upper Paleolithic period, which saw the coexistence of the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon.
In the waning years of survival for the Neanderthals, some evidence of expanding skills with tools has been found, and examinations of Neanderthal fossils show that the skull architecture would have supported the ability to produce language if they were able, but the available fossil evidence is not adequate to support a definitive conclusion in this regard, and there is a fair amount of speculation and disagreement as to what exactly constitutes a fully developed and meaningful vocal communication. However, the capacity and ability with language is one of the predominant characteristics of modern Homo sapiens, and represents a significant evolutionary survival advantage.
Along with the ability to communicate through language, modern humans were finally able to associate temporal objects with symbolic representations of those objects, as evidenced in the ancient cave paintings in Ardeche, France in the Caves of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, now believed to have been placed there some 34,000 years ago by the Aurignacian culture. However the actual progressive skills of Homo sapiens unfolded, it is clear that when it finally became possible for our ancient ancestors to make significant and meaningful use of their cognitive skills, human beings were profoundly altered, and were no longer simply another primate species struggling for survival in the ancient world.
If we begin with the idea that truly modern humans had finally achieved a significant degree of useful and discernable “consciousness” around this time, it would take another 30,000 years for the first appearance of “writing” to occur, when the Sumerians created their “cuneiform” writing system, and by definition, the beginning of “recorded history.” Everything that happened in between these two landmark developments represents a period of “blossoming” of our human consciousness, within which both language and culture flourished and expanded into what would become a global phenomenon.
Methods for communication have also been documented among other species on our planet, and we have observed a whole range of behaviors which could be described as an indication of various degrees of “consciousness,” in those life forms, including astonishing achievements in the construction of habitats, particularly tenacious species surviving unimaginable adversity, and mind-boggling evolutionary adaptations within species, over the millions of years of evolution. As amazing as they are, these accomplishments pale in comparison to what one lonely branch of primates has managed in the last 50,000 years. Overcoming instinctive behaviors, deliberately and “consciously” choosing our path through the millennia, as disastrous as some of those choices have been and continue to be, distinguishes humans from every other known species. Whether we are able to survive and thrive in the future, could very well depend not just on our progress toward understanding human consciousness, but also on our willingness to transcend both our history and our narrow view of what might possibly explain “consciousness.”
© June 2009 by John J. Hyland, III