As many of my regular readers may recall, back in 2012, my family and I suffered the personal loss of our dear brother, Michael, and at that time, our personal experiences surrounding that loss, and having to endure the profound sadness that accompanied those events, presented us with an unprecedented challenge of finding a path forward that did not include his presence among us. It seemed, in many ways, like an impossible task, and although each of us still struggles to some degree with the memories of the last days of his life, in the intervening five years since then, we have continued to support and love one another, and to honor his memory by celebrating as a family whenever possible.
Over the past few days, as the five year mark has approached, I have spent some time considering the broader view of the significance of life, including lessons from the past, as well as those of our own time, and I hope a brief look at the value of this moment from a different perspective, will be of some small comfort and solace to those who may presently be enduring a similar challenge in their own lives.
Beyond the potent personal memory of the loss which occurred on this day in 2012, this commemoration also provides an opportunity to share what are, perhaps, the even more important aspects of our contemplation, which are, to remember our dear brother with love, and to celebrate the abundant love we all still share, as we constantly seek a new beginning; a way to look ahead to the future with hope.
In preparing to write this blog post, I came across a bible passage from Ecclesiastes, which speaks to the heart of the matter. It’s taken from Chapter one, verses four through eleven:
“One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down…All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full…There is no remembrance of the men of old; nor of those to come will there be any remembrance among those who come after them.” Ecclesiastes 1:4-11
The world in which these words were written was a very different world than the one we now know. When it was written, which scholars believe was probably about three centuries before Christ, Alexander the Great was moving through Asia and into Europe, and he eventually conquered most of the known world, before succumbing to a fever, at age 32.
While we rightly mourned the loss of our beloved brother at the age of 61, who was known primarily to his extended family, friends, and coworkers, I couldn’t help but ponder, in contrast to the effect of our loss, how much impact the loss of Alexander must have had on the world at large, when one of the most famous human conquerors and world leaders of all human history passed away having barely entered his thirties.
What is now apparent to our modern sensibilities, with the benefit of an historical perspective, is that the precise world that Alexander knew, the empire he established and which endured over many centuries, has now also passed into history. Generations of human beings have been born, have perished, and have been followed by succeeding generations, and yet, the earth remains.
From age to age, the human race has continued, but each one of us, exists only briefly on this earth, like a shadow, quickly skimming across the surface of the planet, with the changing light of day.
Considering the lives of all the previous generations of our family, the world that WE all know, is a reflection of their tireless efforts to promote and preserve the values that we now possess as the inheritors of that legacy. Our family history is replete with examples of steadfast love and support, across all the generations that preceded ours. It has been an unshakable love, which created a robust tradition of faith and family values, all too often absent in the world these days.
But neither the earth, nor the world in which we exist upon it, remain unchanged. Each new generation builds upon the one before, and although we create our individual worlds as we grow, we introduce changes which are sometimes profound, and perhaps sometimes unnoticed, but undeniably, these differences contribute either to the destruction of what came before, or to the construction of the world that is yet to come.
It should give us pause to consider, especially now, as we contemplate the passing of the most recent previous generation of our family, that we must find a reason to be grateful, and to be encouraged, and perhaps, to be a bit more hopeful regarding the prospects that life holds for us, as we make our way into the future. In Ecclesiastes, we are reminded that humans often don’t remember long the people and the lessons of the past, but no matter how many generations come and go, our legacy of love will endure if we nurture it.
Our science tells us that even the earth will eventually succumb to the death of the sun at the center of our solar system, which nourishes our planet currently, but what it is that has been created here on earth, and indeed, throughout the entire universe itself, is the manifestation of the divine source of all things, and that, like the love we now inherit from previous generations, truly does abide forever.
I found myself traveling today along the rural back roads near my home, on my way back from visiting with my children, and I had the rare opportunity to enjoy a pleasant drive through brilliant sunshine and vibrant blue skies, surrounded by farmland and the exquisite greens of a late summer afternoon. My heart has been burdened lately with a host of concerns that have made settling down to write here on my blog a bit problematical, and today it finally seemed like the sun was poking through within me, just enough to gather a few words to share with all of you.
As I traversed the beautiful byways between where I was and where I was going, I decided to insert the soundtrack to the film, “Amadeus,” into the CD player, (yes…some of us still do that…) and the music brought me to a place that nearly always is provocative and contemplative simultaneously–the musical landscape created by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The traffic was light today, so driving down the road alone, taking in such spectacular visual delights as I listened, allowed my mind to wander a bit, and also to connect with the creative human spirit which was Mozart, opening my heart and mind to both the nature and the nurture possible in such circumstances.
The visit with my son included an opportunity to enjoy the play of light and the elements that make up the environment where he lives. Lounging in the old fashioned kitchen was the perfect prelude to the journey through the rural landscape, and before I headed out on the highway, I took a few minutes to capture several images of the magic light which always seems to illuminate the kitchens in our family.
As I turned out of the driveway, I slipped in the Mozart CD and was surprised by the power of the music to fill in the gaps of the silence within me; it seemed to accompany the passing sights perfectly, particularly two choral renditions, one from his opera, “Don Giovanni,” and the Requiem, K626. The performances were nearly hypnotic in their effect, and I thought it a bit synchronous for the music which was created so many years ago, (Mozart lived from 1756 to 1791) to be able to match perfectly this 21st century road trip.
My inner landscape also seemed to match the outer one as the excursion progressed, and I briefly felt completely one with all the elements of my experience, placing those concerns and delights into a temporary state of equilibrium. A recent conversation with a dear friend who encouraged me to continue with my work here, gave me just the push I needed to find a moment to bring it all together and share it with all of you.
The challenges are great for me at present, but I have been journaling and recording ideas for expanding my mission and my vision, even though none of it, so far, has made an appearance here. As I contemplated what I might write about this particular day, it occurred to me that having to endure situations like mine is one of the reasons God sent us Mozart. He was like a brilliant shooting star across the skies of life in the 1700’s, but his music and his genius have endured across the centuries to fill in the gaps of our inner silence, even today…
…more to come…
An image from the Cassini spacecraft shows Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn.
Credit – Space Science Institute/JPL-Caltech/NASA
Thanks to the leaps in satellite technology, undertaken by NASA and others, as well as scientific advances as a result of humanity’s efforts to conduct space travel, there now exist many unique images of the Earth, taken from a number of different perspectives, and as living, cognitive beings in the 21st century of recorded human history, we have been privileged to have the opportunity to view the earth in ways that were impossible only 60 years ago. Many creative and innovative methods of photographing the Earth from above, from aerial photographs taken by kites, balloons, and even carrier pigeons, to those from airplanes and early attempts at rocketry, all contributed to our perspective in interesting ways. It would take several years after the advent of human space flight to finally accomplish the task of taking a photograph of the entire earth. On November 17th, 1967, the NASA/ATS-3 synchronous satellite, orbiting the earth at a distance of 22,300 miles, directly above the Amazon River, took the image below utilizing an Electronic Image Systems Photorecorder, transmitting the image to the Weather Satellite Ground station in Rosman, North Carolina:
I received a print of this photograph from the original negative, described as the “first color photo ever made of the entire earth,” as a result of my father’s employment at the Missile and Space Division of the General Electric Company, engaged in the effort to put an American astronaut on the moon. The souvenir photo was presented to me at age 15 as a gift intended to inspire and encourage my interest in all things related to space travel and to astronomy. I have lovingly preserved the image these many years, and although it is beginning to show its age, it still holds a particular fascination for me, and continues to inspire and encourage my interest in the perspective only possible to achieve from stepping away from the earth-bound view of life.
Most people remember the iconic image of the Earth from the moon taken in 1968 by the Apollo astronauts on their way to orbiting that nearest extraterrestrial orb, and in some ways, the simple fact that it was a cognitive human person recording that image on his way to the moon that gave it much of its appeal, but it was on August 23, 1966 that we first got to see the Earth from the vicinity of the moon, in an image taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter I:
Many astonishing and beautiful images of the earth from spacecraft orbiting the Earth have been recorded over the years, from John Glenn’s initial orbits of the Earth in February of 1962, to the many views of our planet recorded from the space shuttle flights, all the way to those being made available regularly from the International Space Station. As our technology progressed, we found new and interesting ways to record our place in the universe, and the image below, recorded in 1977 by the Voyager I spacecraft, shows both the Earth and the Moon in the blackness of space:
The image at the top of this post, recently sent from the Cassini spacecraft, recorded at a distance of only 900 million miles, is reminiscent of the very last image from Voyager II in 1990, which was taken just before the batteries ran out, at a distance of approximately 3.7 billion miles away. Carl Sagan famously used the photograph as a launch point for his book, “Pale Blue Dot, A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”
The perspective available to us as a result of these accomplishments, aside from being humbling and awe-inspiring, is one that we have only recently begun to appreciate more fully. We still have all the squabbling and competition among peoples and nations all over the globe, but we have far less of an excuse for not recognizing just how small our home planet looms against the immensity of the galaxy and indeed the whole known universe. We will eventually have to recognize the need to bring all people and nations together into a cooperative organized union of nations in order to preserve the Earth for future generations. Our place in the universe is not yet fully developed, nor do we seem any closer to bringing the people of the world together when we look at the conflicts and trouble spots in the world.
We hold the future of our species in our hands now. We are the caretakers of the earth presently, and the path ahead has some real challenges if we are to leave a sustainable and reasonably livable Earth to our children and grandchildren. Our place in the universe is uncertain in some ways, but we can work toward a greater understanding of our fellow cognitive beings and what it is that gives us our unique perspective. This is my hope in contributing to this blog–to join with all the other voices that are pressing us forward to a more sustainable future, and to achieving a greater appreciation of our privilege as Earth’s caretakers. The subjective experience of consciousness is the door through which we bring to fruition, the future of our fragile place in the universe.
A recent conversation with a psychologist friend of mine brought up the importance of our very human version of neurobiology, and how little we still understand about the complex neurobiological processes that are responsible for behavior and our ability to interact with our fellow cognitive creatures. While much has been discovered about the mechanisms of both cognition and genetics as they relate to brain development and how it all relates to human activities, not much material is actually available that definitively addresses the implications, sources, and treatments for specific pathologies as they relate in the fields of neuroscience and biology. A quick check into the sources of information on neurobiology in general will provide a wide range of options from which to choose, but so much is still not being studied and not wholly understood.
With all the research and scholarship taking place in the field of cognitive studies and neurobiology, there are a few hopeful signs that an expanded view of what might constitute a comprehensive theory of the subjective experience of consciousness might finally be emerging. UCLA psychiatry professor, Daniel Siegel, whose most recent book is “Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human,” has a supportive view. On the website, “Big Think,” Siegel’s idea is reviewed and his idea is phrased in this way: “We’ve come to accept that the brain is the instrument that plays the mind, but Siegel takes it one step further by positing that your mind isn’t limited to the confines of your skull, or even the barrier of your skin anywhere in your body. Your mind is emergent – it’s beyond your physiology, and it exists in many different places at once.”
Supporting Seigel’s ideas is an impressive background in a wide range of studies in psychiatry and philosophy, and his serious attention to the science of the mind and brain give his ideas some genuine gravitas. According to his bio on his website, “…Daniel J. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He served as a National Institute of Mental Health Research Fellow at UCLA, studying family interactions with an emphasis on how attachment experiences influence emotions, behavior, autobiographical memory and narrative. Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. An award-winning educator, he is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.”
I recently reviewed Siegel’s 2011 presentation to the Garrison Institute on YouTube and recommend it as a good introduction to the idea that the mind is, in Siegel’s words, “…an embodied and relational emergent process that regulates the flow of energy and information,” and in the video he describes “the role of awareness and attention in monitoring and modifying the mind.”
These are complex ideas and challenging for many people to wrap their own minds around them, but Siegel presents them in an accessible way to a more general audience and goes to great lengths to explain in detail, how it is that the “mind” includes the physiology of the brain, but is not limited to the physical structures of the brain, or indeed to the body itself. The implications for subjective experience in particular, and our very human version of consciousness generally, are far reaching and intriguing for anyone interested in the subject.
In the coming weeks, I hope to write about some of the recent ideas and investigations going on in our current century, and also to reflect a bit on some of the more expansive ideas from some of the great thinkers of the past few centuries. It’s interesting to me how many of the ideas from the past are now receiving greater attention due to the efforts of scholars like Siegel, and look forward to sharing my thoughts and musings with my readers here.
Since there is so much conversation going on these days about Artificial Intelligence and what we might expect in the coming years as scientists and researchers advance in constructing ever-more complex machines, I thought it might be a good time to consider not only what it means to be “intelligent,” but also what importance the term “artificial” carries with it when using the two terms together in a sentence. In recent years, cognitive scientists and AI researchers have made significant progress in producing machines which can perform specific tasks and demonstrate specialized capacities for accomplishing remarkable feats of machine intelligence, and in very specific ways, have outperformed humans in circumstances which previously were thought to be beyond such artificial constructs.
While all of the hoopla and publicity surrounding such events generally results in hyperbole and sensational headlines, there is a degree of fundamental achievement underneath it all that warrants our attention and could be described as commendable in the context of modern scientific research. Most media consumers and television viewers have encountered the commercials for IBM’s Watson, and have likely been exposed to reports of Watson’s abilities and accomplishments. There is much to admire in the work that resulted in the existence of such a system, and the benefits are fairly straightforward as presented by the advertisements, although it is also clear that they have been designed to feature what might be the most benign and easy-to-understand characteristics of a system which accomplishes its tasks using artificial intelligence. Much of the underlying science, potential risks, and limits of such research are rarely discussed in such ads.
In order to make some kind of sense of it all, and to think about what it is exactly that is being accomplished with artificial intelligence, what forces and processes are being employed, and how the results compare to other cognitive achievements, especially as it relates to human intelligence and human cognitive processes, we have to understand something about the most important differences between a system like Watson, and the cognitive processes and brain physiology of modern humans. While some stunning similarities exist between the basic architecture of neural networks in the brain and modern AI devices, not a single project currently being undertaken is anywhere near the goal of rising to an equivalent level of general capability or even just achieving a basic understanding what it takes to create a human mind. It’s not that it’s an impossible undertaking, nor is it impossible to imagine how human minds might eventually make great leaps in both constructing advanced systems and in making progress toward a greater level of understanding. After all, the human mind is pretty stunning all by itself!
What is most discouraging from my point of view is how much emphasis is being placed on the mechanics of intelligence–the structural underpinning of physical systems–instead of including a more holistic and comprehensive approach to increasing our understanding. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Yale University computer science professor, David Gelernter, (Review, March 19-20, 2017) posits that “…software can simulate feeling. A robot can tell you it’s depressed and act depressed, although it feels nothing.” Whether or not this approach might bring us closer to “machines that can think and feel,” successfully doing so seems like a long shot. If all we can do is “simulate” a human mind, is that really accomplishing anything?
Professor Gelernter goes to great lengths to describe the levels of a functional human mind, and gives us valuable insights into the way our own minds work, and he illuminates the way we shift between levels of awareness, as well as how we make such good use of our unique brand of intelligence. He then suggests that AI could create these same circumstances in a “computer mind,” and that it could “…in principle, build a simulated mind that reproduced all of the nuances of human thought, and (which) dealt with the world in a thoroughly human way, despite being unconscious.” He takes great pains to enumerate all the ways in which the “spectrum” of a human mind operates, and then concludes that “Once AI has decided to notice and accept this spectrum–this basic fact about the mind–we will be able to reproduce it in software.”
We cannot reduce what it means to feel to the astonishingly complex machinations of the human brain, any more than we can boil down the complexity of the human brain to the point where an artfully written piece of software can recreate anything even close to human feelings–what it actually feels like to be a living, breathing, cognitive human being. As Hamlet explains to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare’s intimation on the limitations of even human thought should give us pause to consider the limitations of producing it artificially.
—more to come—
An extraordinary opportunity to travel to Center City Philadelphia this weekend made it possible to fulfill a longtime wish from my younger days to view in person some of the actual original works of Winslow Homer. As a much younger man, full of optimism and the creative spirit, I had thought to become an artist myself, and had taken many steps to achieve that aim throughout my educational journey. Art classes in grammar school, high school, and college only served to heighten my interest in the great works of art created out in the world, and one of my earliest experiences with admiration for other artists involved Mr. Homer, as his paintings were often used as illustrations for poetry books that I never seemed to be able to avoid reading.
The painting at the top of this page, entitled, “Diamond Shoal,” was created around 1905, and captured my imagination not simply as a work of art, but as an inspiration to imagine sailing in such a circumstance myself, as well as prompting what would become a lifelong interest in watercolor painting. Once it became an interest for me, I began attempting to create my own works, a few of which have illustrated my writings here. I never felt like my own skill approached any sort of level that might warrant attention from the art world, but the inspiration of the many works I encountered along the way never left me.
The image above, also by Winslow Homer, is a prime example of how such paintings not only appealed to me as a work of art, but also gave me an appreciation for the content of artwork that the masters unfailingly produced, which I rarely felt that I could embody in my own work. The painting is called, The Trysting Place,” from around 1875, and it depicts a young woman waiting at an appointed meeting place for what the artist described as “…a tardy lover.” You can almost feel the butterflies in her stomach in anticipation of his arrival, and perhaps even some anxiety that he might not show up at all. She is a lovely young woman, dressed in a deliberate choice by the artist as emblematic of the times, and she seems both vulnerable as she wonders what might be keeping her lover, and yet still also courageous to make the arrangement in the first place. Standing in front of these works, knowing that they are the original work of an artist I have long admired and who is world famous with good cause, was both uplifting and inspiring, even as a much older man today. There were hundreds of works by other artists as well and a few of them were especially notable for me as an enthusiastic patron of the exhibit.
This image was painted by one of the many women artists featured at the exhibit. “Bow Sprit,” from around 1916-1918, is a much more impressionistic rendering than some of the others which caught my eye, and I love how the impressions of the water and the sails and the circumstance are more than sufficient to give the viewer a sense of what the artist saw. I love the sparkling array of colors and the fluid movement suggested by her skilled hands. There were many renderings in the exhibit which had similar effects, but this one stood out for me.
At about the half-way point in the journey through these amazing images, there was a section of Winslow Homer works, paired with similar subjects and renderings by another master of watercolor, John Singer Sargent. Both artists were members of the American Watercolor Society in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, but had remarkably different approaches to their work, and the contrast was both illuminating and interesting to contemplate. Homer seemed most often to be more concerned with precision and including important details in his renderings, and Sargent was much more focused on the impressionistic aspects of his final works, but both achieved a very similar result which delights and inspires.
Included in this array of creativity were two images by Georgia O’Keefe, someone whose work I have always admired, but for which I had never had the opportunity to view in person. The image above was one of the two, both renderings described as “Evening Star,” and this one is “number two.” The description reported the works as “experimental in nature,” both created as an exploration of the medium and of the subject. There was a palpable feeling of connection to the artist for me at that moment, and as with many of the other works displayed, a sense of awe and satisfaction that is very difficult to articulate.
The exhibit is only available in Philadelphia, and only for a few short weeks from March 1st through May 14th. The quality and nature of these paintings are so exquisitely unique, that they are very rarely exhibited due to the harm that results from exposure to light, even the subtle indoor light of the museum. Several of the works had curtains in front of them so as to minimize the amount of exposure the paintings would receive, even during such a short period of time. Going to such lengths to preserve these works is an enormously important factor for future generations, and I walked away from the museum that afternoon enlivened and inspired in a way that is also unfortunately not as frequent as I would like.
Our connection to the artists and the works they produced in the past is a vital link to the very heart of our humanity, and while each of us may not be masters of our chosen creative arts, we each possess the same vital elements within us that connects us to each other and to those who came before us. We are the masters of our own creative spirits, and uniquely qualified to continue to connect to our spiritual and creative sensibilities as only we can.
Winter has finally begun to lose its grasp on the world around me, and as it wanes, I find myself in a fairly predictable state of mind for this time of year. It generally feels like a sort of aching melancholy or some leftover winter suppression or vagueness in my personal emotional experience of life, and while that sounds as though it might be unpleasant, it usually precedes a more buoyant and upbeat condition as the temperatures become more moderate and the Spring begins to really take hold. Since it is only temporary and is normally followed by a more balanced interval, I try to be philosophical about it and look forward to the inevitable lift as the flowers bloom and the world slowly becomes more verdant. Stepping out the front door this morning, I caught my first glimpse of that transitional moment and it inspired me to share some recent thoughts with my readers here.
The image of the blossoms right outside the front door was enough to stir the anticipated and more optimistic emotional response in spite of current conditions being a bit chilly and rainy outside. These blossoms seemed to appear overnight, and every year the various plants always appear on a different schedule, almost competing with each other for bragging rights as to which ones were first and second. While I generally would not definitively or empirically associate such emotions with the flowers that appear in front of my house each year, speaking of them in this way feels completely reasonable to me, and my appreciation for their arrival also appears unfailingly when they arrive. We may wish to call this “imposing” my own emotions on a bunch of plants, but it is more correct to say that my emotions are stirred by the appearance of these plants, and I recognize the part they play in my experience of these emotions.
The image at the top of the post was actually taken out behind the garage, but had no less effect on my emotional response to the plants out front. Having been inspired to walk around the yard by the availability of both time and opportunity, I found myself standing in a fairly moderate rainfall as I attempted to capitalize on the momentary emotional stirring within me. Quite the opposite response occurred as I examined the astonishing progress of the ivy crawling up the side of the garage, which had not been there only a week ago. Each Autumn, I attempt to reduce the presence of the vines in the back by savagely and unapologetically slashing the overgrowth on the back fence, and every Spring, the tenacity of nature and the persistent determination of the vines always seems to win out. I’ve tried every solution known to man to eradicate the chokers of the trees in my yard and the destroyers of my other plants, and every year the vines return, almost as though I hadn’t made any effort at all.
I recently reviewed a new book by Lisa Feldman Barrett called, “How Emotions Are Made,” and while there is much to admire about her work, it struck me as completely counterintuitive to suppose that our brains alone produce our emotions. The book claims to be about “our emotions—what they are, where they come from, why we have them.” She writes, “A mental event, such as fear, is not created by only one set of neurons. Instead, combinations of different neurons can create instances of fear…A single brain area or network contributes to many different mental states.” The implication here seems to be that our emotions are entirely explainable through brain science.
Dr. Barrett is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. According to her webpage: “Dr. Barrett’s research focuses on the nature of emotion from the perspectives of both psychology and neuroscience, and takes inspiration from anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics. Her lab takes an interdisciplinary approach, and incorporates methods from social, clinical, and personality psychology, psychophysiology, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, and visual cognition.”
In the coming weeks, I hope to expand on these ideas and explain how a great deal more goes into our emotional experience of life than can be explained by cognitive science, and to flush out more of my own ideas in the process.