A World of Consciousness and Consciousness in the World

As an attentive consumer of various scientific publications available in the world today, particularly those concerning the science of mind and brain, while the information is often intriguing and illuminating in regards to how the physiology of the brain results in the extraordinary variety of symptoms, characteristics, and behavior of modern humans, what is often lacking, in my view, is the simple connection to humanity itself, which we might wish to describe as the “human factor.” No matter how ingenious these researchers are as they structure the studies to produce useful results, what we frequently end up with in the end is an explanation of a process, or a determination of how it is that our fantastically wondrous temporal mental assets manifest a particular result, either as an ability or some sort of pathology.

What genuinely supports and nourishes our miraculous brains is endlessly fascinating for those of us who contemplate its many intricate layers and functional prowess, but at the very heart of our humanity is something far greater and eminently more profound in nature, that neuroscience has, so far, only been able to reach peripherally at best. According to a variety of thinkers across the globe and throughout human history, there are layers of reality, that infer a depth and breadth to our existence, to which our temporal talents may not be particularly well-suited in our efforts to reveal them. Focusing on this apparent disparity between the understanding we seek and our temporal capacities may be what is currently preventing us from moving forward. It may hinder us from exploring new avenues and broadening our understanding, simply because we aren’t looking at our existence except through a narrow band of what is possible.

Over the coming months, I hope to present some of the ways in which, it seems to me, it is possible to detect consciousness in the world, through our own observations and through the lens of our particular world of consciousness. I do not pretend to have any powers beyond those of mortal men, and only offer my personal thoughts and observations and suggestions in the interest of broadening the dialog on the subject.

In this posting, I wanted to offer several examples from the ancient world of individuals and events which point to some attempts to express the greater depth and breadth of our existence:

ANCIENT EGYPT

From the earliest epoch of Egyptian civilization, whose 1st Dynasty dates back to 3100 B.C., the refinement of written and pictographic languages took place in an atmosphere heavy with a religious or spiritual symbolism, and while today we view this development through the prism of history, at the time, it was commonplace to address the world as being of two natures, with many unseen features figuring prominently in the everyday lives of the people. Scribes and artisans of every persuasion recorded not only the temporal triumphs and rituals of kings and pharaohs, but also the very personal thoughts and feelings of these figures.

Beginning in the year 1279 B.C., the third ruler of the 19th Dynasty, Ramesses II, son of Seti I, reigned as Pharaoh of the New Kingdom of Egypt. Of his four royal wives, Nefertari was his favorite, and he believed that she was destined to be with him for eternity. The Egyptians believed their souls could live forever if their bodies were preserved. The intact body of Ramesses II still resides today in the Egyptian museum in Cairo. In Nefertari’s tomb, the tribute he wrote and had inscribed on the walls to endure through “endless ages” reads as follows:

“Princess, rich in grace, lady perfection, sweet with love, mistress of the two lands, songstress of the beautiful countenance, greatest in the herum of the Lord of the Palace, all that you say will be done for you–everything beautiful according to your wish. All your words bring contentment to the face, wherefore men love to hear your voice.”

ANCIENT INDIA

“Spiritual life is one but it is vast and rich in expression. The human mind conceives it differently. If the human mind was uniform without different depths, heights and levels of subtlety; or if all men had the same mind, the same psyche, the same imagination, the same needs, in short, if all men were the same, then perhaps One God would do. But a man’s mind is not a fixed quantity and men and their powers and needs are different. So only some form of polytheism alone can do justice to this variety and richness.” – The Word As Revelation: Names of Gods, 1980.

About this same time, the Aryans of Europe were invading India and the foundations of Hinduism were being forged. The Hindu principle of repeated birth and death (samsara) although not recorded until much later in Sanskrit texts called, “Vedas,” is at the core of what is considered one of the oldest known religions. Many of the ideas expressed in these texts address questions regarding the spiritual nature of humanity, and do not require one to become fanatical or go to extremes to entertain the notions contained in the core doctrines. Modern scholars like C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell have included some of the material from these traditions in their work in psychology and mythology, and even without a particular interest in religious tracts, it makes for interesting reading. As far back as these traditions go, that they persist today is indicative of some quality or nature to the ideas that continue to resonate for modern people.

ANCIENT CHINA

A recent exhibition I attended at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore entitled, “The First Emperor,” provided an enormously moving experience that hinted at an ancient corollary to the consciousness in the world. In 221 B.C., Qin Shihuangdi (pronounced chin-shee-wong-dee) unified the warring states of the various petty kingdoms, establishing the country of China, and himself as the first emperor. Over the almost thirty years of his reign, he conscripted hundreds of thousands of laborers to sculpt thousands of terra-cotta figures that were discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well. Standing before these exquisite works of ancient artistry, what I would describe as a flood of ancient memories and impressions of the extraordinary efforts which produced them, captured my imagination and held me enraptured for several hours. In previous visits to other such exhibits over the years, I cannot recall ever being so profoundly and completely affected as I was at this one. I walked away from the museum in a kind of euphoric daze, and couldn’t help but contemplate not only the consciousness of those conscripted artists, but of the emperor who felt the need to construct an army to protect him in the next life.

My explorations of the nature of consciousness, and the subsequent diversions along the way, have led me to make connections to others that led to even further diversions, and many times brought forth remarkable insights to the degree of interconnectedness to all life. We can easily recognize and celebrate our personal connections with other nearby sentient beings, but sometimes fail to see that even individuals who exist thousands of miles away, or who are, in any number of ways removed from us in time and distance, are also very much entangled with us all. There are many opportunities for remaining open to a wider view of the world without relinquishing the value and quality of an equally rigorous open-minded pursuit of science.

Throughout my many journeys of discovery, I have encountered studies in cognitive science and neuroscience which also fascinate and inspire, and often inform the various elements of my writing. I am intrigued beyond words at the richness of the content, and the depth of beauty and even the occasional appearance of humanity described in much of the scientific literature of the day, but none of these studies eliminate the ineffable, nor do they diminish the profound sense of something beyond the boundaries of what we know presently. There is so much more to discover….

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3 comments

  1. Rick Searle

    John, this sounds like a fabulous project, and I look forward to reading the rest.

    I am a big fan of neurophilosophy and neuropsychology, but lately have been confronting the same inadequacy or flatness of these types of models for describing the human condition as you describe.

    My take on why that is, however, is somewhat different from yours. I am beginning to see it as a level of description problem. Let me explain what I mean. Scientists might be able to tell us a lot about the neural architecture underlying love or memory, but a person interested in what these things mean for them as a human being should really turn to religious thinkers, or perhaps even better, to writers and artists. Likewise, physicists can tell us a lot about the nature, origin, and fate of the universe, but they don’t have all that much to say about how we, as mortals, should understand this reality or what our place in such a scheme is. For that we should turn to religious thinkers, philosophers and poets.

    Many of the fights between science and religion/art emerge out of one or the other stepping on the other’s turf. We shouldn’t look for meaning of our human lives in science, nor should we look for the kinds empirical and literal truths science offers in the world of the spirit.

    • jjhiii24

      Rick,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to share your view on this challenging aspect of figuring out how best to address such important issues. There’s plenty of room for interpretation when it comes to a comprehensive understanding of complex issues, but I agree that we may sometimes be looking for answers to particular questions in ways that are not well-suited to those questions.

      We may read about some new scientific study that suggests we are “hard-wired” for empathy, or read an article by some expert which posits some specific brain region as being responsible for “generating” our ideas and concepts, when all it really seems to be demonstrating is how the brain responds to the generation of our ideas and concepts.

      What neuroscience does very well is address how the brain architecture affects function, how various specific regions process particular sensory input, how neural networks form and atrophy, how the electrochemical processes produce specific results, and how particular deficiencies, pathologies, and injuries affect normal functioning. What has been revealed by neuroscientific research in the last fifty years is astonishing!

      I’m not sure we should consider all aspects of the realm of consciousness to be divided into exclusive “turfs” that should be segregated completely and not tread upon. In my view, neuroscience can inform the world of the spirit, just as well as the world of the spirit can inform neuroscience, but your point is well taken. We cannot expect to find answers to literal, empirical questions using philosophical or artistic standards, any more than we can expect to uncover significant meaning and purpose by examining fMRI images.

      What we CAN do, though, is remain open to how these components might COMBINE to increase our understanding–how exploring the different ways of looking at a problem can lead to further discoveries–how important it might be to at least CONSIDER how broadening our investigations to areas outside of our comfort zone might just be the way to get past our currently limited views.

      Great comment!……..John H.

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