“The truly sacred attitude toward life is in no sense an escape from the sense of nothingness that assails us when we are left alone with ourselves…the sacred attitude is one which does not recoil from our own inner emptiness, but rather penetrates into it with awe and reverence, and with the awareness of mystery. There is a subtle but inescapable connection between the ‘sacred’ attitude and the acceptance of one’s inmost self. The movement of recognition which accepts our own obscure and unknown self produces the sensation of a ‘numinous’ presence within us…” – Thomas Merton from “The Inner Experience.”
Much of what we experience in our everyday lives consists of elements or components which are relatively easy to explain, and describable in terms that can be broadly understood generally. The physical laws which govern our universe offer us a window into many of the previously mysterious aspects of our existence. The march of scientific discovery which has brought us into the 21st century has revealed astonishing explanations for what we observe and experience, from the nature of galaxies and the cornucopia of cosmic phenomena, to the most basic building blocks of matter in the quantum world of the very small. Looking ahead into the centuries to come, we have cause for optimism that many phenomena which remain mysterious presently may be revealed by the science of the future. We are frequently humbled by such discoveries, revealing as they do what was once a great mystery to humanity, but as Robert Sapolsky suggests in the quote below, sometimes, all that science can really do is give us a new perspective:
Some time ago, as my mind began slowly stirring in the early morning hours, I briefly resisted the inclination for rising fully to consciousness immediately, and lingered in the twilight world in between waking and sleep. A host of pleasant thoughts were meandering through my half-conscious mind, when I suddenly felt an important idea percolating to the surface. I had been fully engaged in the process of gathering my work into a semblance of order for several months and had made only miniscule progress. On this particular morning, in this hypnopompic state, I heard myself outlining the chapter headings by the subject of my work in a specific order.
Each of the topics had been receiving individual treatment as they came up in my reading and writing work, but no specific organizational idea had been conceived or written by me previously. As I enumerated the central ideas, I began to arrange them in a sequence which felt absolutely clear as the correct way to arrange them, even in my semi-conscious condition. After several repetitions in the dream-like haze of early morning, I repeated the sequence one final time, certain that I had it right. As I began to rise to full consciousness, I knew that I had precious little time to reconstruct my idea before it would vanish, so a grabbed a pen on the nightstand, and as the precious seconds of memory were ticking away, I was scrambling for something to write on, realizing that the notebook I normally placed at my bedside had been removed the day before to refer to it at my desk.
I knew I couldn’t leave the room, and searched frantically for something to write on. I started tossing items on the floor that were unsuitable, digging through the drawer in the nightstand, starting to worry that I might lose the thought, and finally picked up my address book. I opened it clumsily, leafing quickly to the back pages which I thought might offer a blank spot, but ended up writing on the inside of the back cover. I leaned back on the bed and wrote haltingly at first, with some uncertainty creeping in, but I was ultimately able to reconstruct the topics in sequence, just before the fullness of waking released the remaining haze of sleep. The certainty I felt in my nearly unconscious dream state had vanished, but the list was there in front of me:
In the weeks to come, I will begin to expand and describe at greater length my work on these specific ideas, and with luck, weave it all together into a more comprehensive presentation. In the meantime, consider a few introductory thoughts:
1. Thirty-five thousand years ago, our Cro-Magnon ancestors drew images of animals on cave walls. These were not mental giants. They were not very sophisticated at all. But they were so much more sophisticated than the Neanderthals, that they outlived them by thousands of years. They also left behind indications that they had a consciousness – an awareness of certain cognitive abilities – and they acted on them in demonstrative ways.
2. Even five thousand years ago, with all the sophistication of ancient civilizations (which did not spring up overnight by the way) they were still limited in their conceptual capacities and technologies. We can infer this from the written and evidential history of those ancient beginnings.
3. The acquisition of access to the human variety of consciousness is a complex process that developed in our species, with its sufficiently complex nervous system, which is able to support our unique array of cognitive functions. There are many different philosophic and scientific ideas regarding the nature and scope of human cognitive ability and what constitutes consciousness. No matter what we say about it, it did not appear suddenly, and it did not always function as well or as much as it does today.
4. There is much that is not well understood about the human subjective experience of consciousness, and even cognitive scientists, with all they know specifically about the cognitive process and brain function, cannot penetrate its mysteries as yet. There is also much speculation in the current literature of the cognitive sciences about how long it will be before we are able to emulate brain function artificially in such a way as to re-create consciousness as well. What is missing from all these speculations is that if we are able to somehow manage it, what we will discover will not be human consciousness. It may be similar in many ways and function as a device, but it will not be alive!! It may be powered by a battery or plugged in to a wall socket, but it won’t have LIFE!! It would be a very narrow definition of what it means to be human to reduce us to the biological and cognitive processes that support consciousness. Our lives and our subjective experience of the world is dependent on a functional body coordinated by a functional brain, but what animates the organic material in our bodies and brains, what is essential and what accounts for the totality of our existence as sentient beings with subjective experience, may not lend itself completely to demonstration by science.
No matter how advanced our skills at reproducing consciousness may become, we will never devise a formula to reproduce a living, breathing, cognitive human person. Our cognitive functions have progressed to the point where we can acknowledge a connection to the ineffable. We are not simply a conglomeration of organic systems. We are part of a dynamic synergy of life in the phenomenal universe. Our conscious experience of life allows us to interact with life in its many manifestations. Our connection to the source of that dynamic synergy is only attainable through our awareness, but not generated BY our awareness. This awareness includes, for now, the mystery of human consciousness.