In our fast-paced, technologically-driven, and supposedly “hyper-connected” existence in the 21st century, we often do not recognize or appreciate fully the depth of our interconnectedness to all the other living entities, and at times, even less to the natural environment in which we exist, and upon which we are so dependent for our existence. The connections that do seem to pervade modern life these days are often superficially brief in length, shallow in depth, and far less enduring and substantial than our capacities as sentient beings have provided since we first walked upright as modern humans. The capacity to “be aware of…sensitive to…and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others,” without necessarily having to communicate them “in an objectively explicit manner,” imparts an invaluable and clear survival advantage, and unless we begin to reduce the emphasis on the technological side of communicating, and balance it with a greater appreciation for the full range of “feelings, thoughts, and experiences,” of all the varieties of life on our planet, our ability to utilize this capacity may, like any other skill, eventually atrophy from neglect.
How might we reasonably reduce our increasing dependence on the less personal and ubiquitous forms of interaction, and tip the balance back toward a greater understanding and appreciation of the whole community of life on Earth? The most important first step is to raise our awareness of our unique potential as individuals. Achieving this awareness requires a deliberate, persistent effort, and a mindfulness of purpose. Just as the millions of individual neurons in the brain act together in a symbiosis of numerous neural systems to permit access to a unified individual human consciousness, the collective and coordinated efforts of millions of human individuals could ultimately manifest as a kind of planetary consciousness; a metaphorical “global-self,” that would enrich and support a global community, increasing the likelihood of the achievement of a more peaceful and bountiful world.
In order to pursue this objective successfully, we must be willing to open our hearts and minds, and to consider the possibility that our lives, and our very existence in the physical universe, may be supported by forces or energies which, while clearly existent in some form or dimension of that universe, cannot presently be perceived directly by our physical sensory systems. Empathy in this context demonstrates this possibility well. Gaining a true understanding and vicarious appreciation of the experiences of another sentient being, while acknowledging no objective or explicit means of accomplishing the task, points toward a capacity that, in some way, creates opportunities for moments of transcendence. We all have them; a hunch that a particular way of solving a problem will work; a worrisome feeling that something is wrong with someone we love; an immediate and overwhelming sensation of connection and familiarity with someone we’ve just met; having the same thought at the same time as someone with us; even particularly vivid dream events that later manifest as real-time events–or a strong feeling of deja vu.
Photo is of a Moroccan ammonite from the Cretaceous period (Albian stage approx. 100 mya), cut longitudinally and polished.
As inexplicable as these moments can be when they occur, often with no discernible cause or clear conscious motivation, we are compelled to respond to them because we intuitively “know” that we must. If we examine these intuitive urges and the significance of the connections associated with them, we can begin to uncover what it might be that links us to each other, and to every epoch of time. Life on our planet today still resonates with the ancient life from millions of years ago, as is evidenced in the photo above, which shows the fossilized shell of an extinct ammonite, which is related to our modern octopus and squid. Discerning some sort of connection to an extinct life form, (or indeed to an octopus) while far from being a clear or direct link for most people, can be accomplished when placed in the context of the abundant life that has flourished on our humble planet since life first emerged billions of years ago. We tend not to think of such life as even relevant to us today, except when we examine life intimately, and contemplate the complex paths of evolution and contingency which led to mammals and primates and ultimately to humans. The very survival of our species may depend on our ability to apprehend the full significance of our interconnection to life in all of its manifestations.
In my previous post, I suggested that we need to consider more comprehensively how we are altering the changing landscape of our own evolution as cognitive creatures in ways that may end up being disadvantageous, by focusing too narrowly on aspects which offer only temporary or limited advantages. Our progress as modern humans, which resulted from adaptive utilization of our increased cognitive abilities over thousands of years, points to important developmental differences, which may indicate that further variance can be expected, and we must consider the profound implications of the character of that variance, before we lose our way.
David Lewis-Williams, in his recent book entitled, “The Mind in the Cave,” reports the reactions of three individuals who investigated the now famous cave paintings in the Chauvet Cave in Ardeche, France, placed there by our ancient ancestors some 35,000 years ago:
“Deeply impressed, we were weighed down by the feeling that we were not alone; the artist’s souls and spirits surrounded us. We thought we could feel their presence; we were disturbing them.”
David goes on to question how it is that modern people are “rational enough to travel to the moon,” but still believe in “supernatural entities and forces that transcend all the laws of physics on which (the) moon journey depended.” The suggestion that the laws of physics are somehow incompatible with the existence of supernatural forces is at the very heart of many of the barriers to progress in understanding consciousness. These are not really opposing forces or mutually exclusive in my view. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the difficulty in coming to terms with or to attempt to explain the nature of the subjective experience of human consciousness. There are all sorts of unanswered questions that may, at some point, be answerable through empirical methodology, and what we know already is nothing short of miraculous in its own way.
Just as we can determine a link to extinct ancient marine life forms to those existent in our oceans currently, these modern explorers experienced what could only be described as a moment of some sort of “shared consciousness,” which not only suggests an intimate link to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the cave artists, but also to a profound connection to all life, in every epoch, and along the way on the journey of discovery to unveil the true nature of subjective experience, it is completely plausible to me that our capacity for empathy, and the intimate nature of consciousness itself, may contain elements which we inherited or somehow retained from our distant ancestors. The link, I believe lies in the very nature of consciousness itself. Many of the people involved in the research of the subject struggle with the inexplicable nature of subjective experience because they seem insistent on finding an empirical solution which eludes us. Resisting our intuitive, empathetic, and natural inclinations, or shutting the door on alternative viewpoints because we are unable to demonstrate some empirical cause and effect is, in my view, one of the main obstacles to achieving further progress.
We have become so enamored of the scientific in our technology-driven world, that any theory which even hints at the possibility of a metaphysical component is increasingly considered daydreaming or irrelevant. And yet, throughout human history, there have been otherwise scientifically sound ideas which have been considered equally irrelevant in their time, whose proponents were either dismissed or even arrested for advocating them. Today, we should recognize that it is only through encouraging new or alternative ideas that we can expand our understanding of our complex nature. If we can find a way to open up the range of our current social context with regard to our ideas about consciousness, we may also find our way back to increased empathy and intimacy, which will tip the balance back toward our inherited capacities, and may even ensure the survival of our species.