Over the years, I have consistently focused on the subjective experience of my own consciousness as a starting point for exploring most ideas I have considered related to human consciousness, as it seemed to me that, in doing so, I could speak with greater confidence about them and explore them more fully. If I couldn’t find a way to apprehend an idea as it related my own experience, how could I accurately express it or expect it to be viable for others? In that spirit, I have made a practice of maintaining a personal journal for many years, recording my thoughts, impressions, experiences, and investigations as they occurred whenever I could. Every so often, I try to review these writings in the interest of illuminating my current views, and recently I came across a passage that seemed timely:
“There is a connection to the consciousness of humanity, and to the interaction of emotions and cognitive functions of the brain, with an essence that is clearly transcendent of human nature. Our natural inclinations, particularly with regard to the arts, demonstrate a capacity within us that has as its source, a force or character that is inexplicable in terms of neurobiology alone. The ineffable aspects of our existence, and their connection to our very human nature, driven as it is in large part by biology, are never going to yield to vigorous empirical scrutiny, no matter how profound the comprehension of our biology becomes.”
While this passage attempts to address the ineffable, it actually only describes the problem, and it expresses the heart of my concerns regarding how we might discover a path that can address the challenges the are embodied in the essence of this matter.
The long path of human history, which now seems so familiar to us, was once a future as yet unrealized. As life evolved on our singularly fertile planet at the edge of an unremarkable spiral galaxy, history itself was also forming a foundation of both progress and gradual enhancement of our natural cognitive endowment. The well-worn path of human evolution has provided modern humans with a marvelously complex and adaptive hominid brain, and continues to provide us with access to richly-textured sense of subjective awareness, as yet unrivaled (to our knowledge) by any other known species. The entire spectrum of life on Earth seems to possess some degree of consciousness, and while it is particularly evident in those species whose structure and component systems resemble our own, there is much evidence to support the existence of various degrees and types of consciousness in nearly every living entity known to us.
With the hundreds of thousands of years of a relatively stable environment on earth, humans have been provided with the opportunity to take our natural cognitive endowment, and to evolve and expand our access to consciousness, permitting us to begin to unravel some of the most daunting mysteries of the universe, and to piece together many of the components of the extraordinary progression of life here on Earth. In spite of all our accomplishments, utilizing the cognitive skills made possible by evolution, and the physiological processes of the electrochemical and neural networks within the brain, somehow, the very existence of human consciousness itself remains an elusive mystery, and has eluded all of our attempts to construct a comprehensive understanding of its essential nature.
Some scientists and philosophers have suggested that the intricate web of interdependent systems within the universe itself, not to mention those within the billions of cells and trillions of neural network connections that compose a human brain, by their very nature, are so vast and overwhelmingly complex, that supposing we can unravel them and force them to yield to our scrutiny is somewhere between arrogantly preposterous and laughably hopeless. For those of you who have been following along in my blog here, you know that I tend to disagree with any such evaluation. But in fairness to those who take such a position, examining the development of life on Earth, and in consideration of the astonishing convergence of essential conditions that made intelligent life here possible, you could see how such a conclusion might be drawn.
Conditions in the early universe were chaotic. They fluctuated wildly for billions of years. The temperatures early on were inhospitable to all but the most fundamental of forces and elements. As the universe cooled and expanded, the heavier elements formed. Swirling clouds of dust and debris only began to coalesce into a semblance of discernible matter after a considerable amount of time had passed. The formation of stars and planets and galaxies followed in accordance with physical laws that took unimaginably long stretches of time to stimulate cause and effect.
What is perhaps most astonishing is that any sort of “life” ever got off the ground in the first place. If the various fluctuations in temperature, dispersal of matter, and sufficiently advantageous conditions which permitted life had even been only slightly different in any of the essential requirements, it is highly unlikely that any “beginning” would have resulted in a physical universe of the sort we observe today. Additionally, on our own blue and white oasis in the Milky Way galaxy, there were so many opportunities for the existence of life to fail, that our very existence as “intelligent humans,” constitutes a victory over every potential variation in those conditions which might have prevented it, not to mention the potential for some sort of cosmic disaster which may have been (and may yet be) the cause of our demise.
Since it is reasonable to assume that many such planetary “failures” have occurred throughout the apparently limitless expanses of our universe, even given such far-flung potential for both disaster and failure, by modern scientific estimations, statistical probability predicts that other “successes” such as ours are also conceivable. By virtue of the improbability of our OWN existence, since we DO exist, seems to suggest that we may not be alone in the universe. Even given this improbability, the potential for other intelligent life to exist elsewhere in the universe, should there be any, must surely, at some point, result in a species of some sort which will acquire a cognitive capacity to acknowledge the existence of consciousness in some manner. A natural inclination for the existence of “intelligent life” elsewhere, should it be discovered, would illuminate and inform our awareness of consciousness as a natural consequence of life anywhere.