From the June 1962 cover of National Geographic
Please have a look at this blogpost I wrote a while back about this amazing American…May he rest in peace….
February 20th marked the 50th anniversary of the day astronaut John Glenn orbited of Earth. He was one of NASA’s original Mercury astronauts, depicted in the recent film, “The Right Stuff.” The mission lasted just under five hours, allowing Glenn to circle the globe three times in the capsule he named, ” Friendship 7.”
When John Glenn made his historic flight, I was just 9 years old, but it had a huge affect on me even then. My father was an executive in the General Electric Company in the Missile and Space Division for many of the years leading up to the moon landing in 1969, and would often come home with souvenirs from NASA and the related teams that were a part of the space program. One day, when my Dad came home from work, he made all of us wash our hands in the kitchen. We couldn’t figure out why but did as we were told.
Once we had clean hands, he lined us up in a row and shook each of our hands like he was a visiting relative or dignitary who had just been introduced to us. When he was done, he told us, “You just shook the hand of the man who shook hands with John Glenn!” We were astonished, and began jumping up and down and shouting about our amazement. John Glenn had visited the facility where he worked that day and he had the opportunity to meet and talk to him briefly as the manager of his division. He also got an autograph, and told Glenn that he had a few amateur astronauts at home. Here is the paper with the autograph on it:
Soon after the memorabilia started to accumulate, I started to gather it in a large scrapbook, like other boys my age, and dreamed of being an astronaut. I called my scrapbook, “Man Reaches for the Stars: The History of Manned Space Flight,” and continued to accumulate newspaper clippings and images from magazines, and a variety of actual photos that my father was able to bring home to me from his workplace. I never once really thought I had the “Right Stuff,” but I loved to dream about traveling to space and loved everything about space. We were on vacation down at the shore in Brigantine, New Jersey, when the American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, and we sat together with my Dad, and marveled at how far we had come since the days of the Mercury Astronauts.
Looking through my scrapbook this evening, I felt a little nostalgia for those days of amazement and wonder, and for the richness of the world my father had helped to paint for me, and how he encouraged me to dream big dreams, even if they wouldn’t all come true. I still share the fascination with space today, and when I look at the images of the earth from space, it always makes me long to see the view for myself, to experience the amazing sight first-hand. No view is quite like it…
“If we seek genuine psychological understanding of the human being of our own time, we must know his spiritual history absolutely. We cannot reduce him to mere biological data, since he is not by nature merely biological, but is a product also of spiritual presuppositions.” – -Carl Jung from a presentation at the C. G. Jung Institute Zurich, Küsnacht, 15 Nov 1953
“If we can reconcile ourselves to the mysterious truth that the spirit is the life of the body seen from within, and the body the outward manifestation of the life of the spirit–the two being really one–then we can understand why the striving to transcend the present level of consciousness through the acceptance of the unconscious must give the body its due, and why recognition of the body cannot tolerate a philosophy that denies it in the name of the spirit.” – C.G.Jung from “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man, CW, vol.10
The persistent assertion by modern scientists regarding the development of consciousness and the human mind as “an accident of nature,” is an idea which not only opposes our natural inclinations as cognitive human creatures, but also one that is difficult to sustain in a definitive way given the equally persistent assertions to the contrary by researchers in a variety of disciplines. The tendency of modern science to view the development of our human mind as an accident seems to me to be more a result of the limitations of science to explain it, rather than being a conclusion that is justified by the evidence.
Considering that it took hundreds of millions of years and countless variations of living creatures for life on Earth to produce Homo-sapiens, one could be forgiving of the empiricists for being a bit skeptical, considering that it is only one variation–an anomaly so to speak–in the pantheon of life. Considering the nearly miraculous confluence of events which permitted life to evolve on Earth in the first place, any suggestion that it was not only BOUND to happen, but inescapably bound up in the fabric of life, does require a bit of a leap intellectually. Although there have been some exciting and compelling exceptions over the millennia, scientists are frequently reluctant to include their intuition, and tend to resist directing their imaginative inclinations outside the realm of science.
No one disputes the essential nature of neurological functioning in achieving an awareness of experience. All one has to do is observe the devastating effect of trauma to the brain to establish how vital brain function is to awareness. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the subjective experience of consciousness is created SOLELY by the brain. Neurological functioning involves a multitude of interactions within the brain itself. It includes a process of fragmentation and re-integration of multiple components: neurons firing in specific sequences, synaptic transferal of electro-chemical impulses, sensory input, cross-referencing of iconic imagery and memories of previous experiences. It is a very complex process which still eludes our understanding, and any attempt to reduce it to biology alone must surely fall short of the mark. We may be DEPENDENT on our brains to enjoy our capacity as human beings to experience our existence, but it seems unlikely to me that our brains GENERATE that experience.
In an enormously compelling and technically superb rendering of how the brain supports and grants us access to the world of conscious experience, Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, and his colleague, Giulio Tononi, explore at length the foundational elements and functional components of our complex thalamocortical system in “A Universe of Consciousness,” and their treatment of the subject is “highly plausible” according to the book review excerpt on the cover. The level of attention to detail in discussing the various aspects of conscious states is reasonably accessible for anyone with an intense interest in the subject, and they present the reader with an enormous body of information relevant to brain functioning. In a refreshing change from many treatments of the subject, the authors acknowledge the limitations of what we are so far able to discern about this complex organ:
“The ability of the nervous system to carry out perceptual categorization of different signals for sight, sound, and so forth, dividing them into coherent classes without a pre-arranged code is certainly special, and is still unmatched by computers. We do not presently understand fully how this categorization is done…but we believe it arises through the selection of certain distributed patterns of neural activity as the brain interacts with the body and the environment.”
When addressing this “distributed neural activity,” they cite the example of how we are able to read after “…a time in which we had consciously to learn about letters and words in a laborious way, but afterward these processes become effortless and automatic.” They then acknowledge “…How our brain performs these demanding tasks remains largely unknown to us.”
As someone who feels certain that a comprehensive theory of consciousness will eventually require us to include some sort of essential non-physical interaction, the anecdotal reports of visions, apparitions, and other psychic phenomena which humans periodically report, while mostly amusing to scientists and philosophers in our day, all suggest at least the possibility of an interaction with the ineffable or the mysterious. All of my research and study into the nature of our cognitive functioning continues to intrigue me beyond measure, but nothing I have encountered thus far has eliminated this possibility for me. On the contrary, much of it seems to ENHANCE the possibility! Much of the literature and astonishing progress in neuroscience points toward activity that is INFUSED with the spirit. Far from being dissuasive regarding a potentially “spiritual component” to human consciousness, examining the astonishing complexity of neuroscientific progress seems to me a fair indication of its PRESENCE!
It may well be that LIFE itself has, as a natural component of its nature, the infusion of nor-corporeal aspects for which there may only be a subjective awareness. That we are unable as yet to establish with certainty, a universal experience of a transcendent consciousness for all humanity is not sufficient cause to suppose that it does not exist. The quality and nature of our lives generally compare in many ways to that of all other living entities, and it is not difficult to detect subjectively, a profound connection to the natural world all around us, and to recognize that we are an essential member of the terrestrial community of life on Earth. Our higher cognitive capacities distinguish us in important ways, adding a significant element to our human nature which allows us to perceive and appreciate our interconnection with ALL life.
We owe the scientific community a great debt for the many benefits we enjoy today as a result of the advancement of empirical knowledge and the elimination of superstition and fanaticism which were the cornerstones of our ancient worldview. Science has brought us a long way from the “Earth as center of the universe,” mindset of ancient times, and in modern times it has created “miraculous” technologies that have enhanced life on this planet a hundredfold, and we need to continue to pursue its advancement vigorously.
But even as solid and predictable as the the laws of physics seem to us today, not one of them eliminates the existence of the human spirit, just as the many avenues of pursuing the human spirit cannot alter or eliminate the laws of physics. It doesn’t take an Einstein to conclude that both can co-exist and that each may be dependent on the other in important ways. Our subjective sense of “being” relies on being able to use our senses, but our senses do not BRING US into being, nor do they determine the significance of our existence. They are our window to the world of experience, and it is that world of experience that connects us to our sense of being and to the spirit.
“Everything remembered is dear, touching, precious….at least the past is safe, though we didn’t know it at the time. We know it now, because we have survived.” –Susan Sontag, Partisan Review Winter 1967
“Daydreaming is good for you. It fosters creativity, happiness and mental health…Daydreaming, letting your wishes and instincts play out, is so important because the real you– your true, authentic, emotional, free and spontaneous self comes to life. When you express the true self you are less likely to feel anxious or depressed and more likely to feel creative and content…Memories, fantasies, intuitions and inner conflicts that need to be worked through find a place for expression in daydreams. When your deeper mind opens up, you feel better, see possibilities and uncover solutions. Daydreaming strengthens the identity, fosters awareness and helps you grow…”
–excerpts from article in Psychology Today, “Creativity, Happiness and Daydreaming,” posted May 27, 2012, by Carrie Barron M.D.
Reflecting recently on the idea of the wandering mind, it occurred to me that daydreams often take up a significant portion of my daily mental life, and as the quote from Dr. Barron points out, it can have benefits for those who employ it in moderation. Recently, though, it seems that engaging in wandering mentally has become what I prefer to do whenever the opportunity presents itself, and seems to affirm her conclusions, particularly the one about opening your deeper mind allowing you to “…feel better, see possibilities, and uncover solutions.”
During a recent episode of concentrated daydreaming, I decided to record my wandering thoughts, hoping to gain some perspective or intuition from the stream of daydreaming consciousness. The recording took place in solitude, in a warm bath, and in a spontaneous state of mind:
“There is a single candle burning in the corner. The water is warm and surrounds me on all sides. There is no light except for the candle, and yet, this is not completely true. There is another kind of light in the room, but it is not of the visible sort. It is, in some ways, a memory of light–in some ways the essence of light–and in other ways, a monument of light.
The memory of light, as it once shown, occurs often enough to evoke the feeling of the experience of the light, even as I might sit with eyes closed, allowing my wandering mind to illuminate the darkness without the benefit of an actual source of light being present. And yet I feel such comfort from the flame of the candle in the corner. It is a very small flame, but it speaks to something much greater–the sense of mystery and awe that I am even here to observe it in the first place.”
There have been a number of times in my life when I came close to extinguishing myself through accident or serendipity–never by intention–even though we often conduct our lives with other intentions of one sort or another, we occasionally place ourselves on the path of danger. I have been on the path of danger many times. Danger and I are old friends. As I contemplate the possibilities which may endanger me on the path ahead, perhaps the greatest danger is revealed upon reflection of the past:
“A long time ago, in centuries past, we existed on a plane that can no longer be reached. It is clearly in the past, but it also here and now in my wandering mind. We breathed the same air. Our hearts beat in rhythmic unison. I gazed deeply into your eyes; inhaled the scent which rose from your body; embraced the spirit inside you. At such moments, though bodies touch and hearts beat independently, we were one. My heart rose with each embrace. My spirit expanded until it encompassed yours; it has happened a hundred times a hundred times over centuries…and now…I know your spirit. I can see myself in you; our paths are illuminated by each other.
We have no patience. We cannot say what makes all of us as one. It must be experienced. In the ages past, when we first encountered the path, everything else disappeared. The whole physical world went dark except for the immediate area which surrounded us. As my eyes fell upon you, there was a powerful moment of astonishment and utter fascination. I couldn’t be sure if what I saw was the brilliance of the morning sun or a natural aura surrounding you. Like the fascination one feels staring into a fire in the darkness, I couldn’t turn my gaze away.”
Life itself contains the essence of light. We sometimes refer to difficult days as “dark days,” and celebrate joyful people as “lighting up a room,” whenever they enter it. When we lose the trail of thought or come to a point on our path where we lose track of our direction, we say the trail has “gone dark,” and conversely, when we see a path forward, we may say that our path is now “illuminated.”
When I was a very young grammar school student I was fascinated by the ancient world, far beyond what any of my fellow classmates seemed to be, and I delved into it mentally with a passionate intensity within my own inner world, and it seemed to me that no one even noticed my absence in the room as I wandered through the thoughts of what it must have been like to live in ancient times. There was no frame of reference for me or for the others either, but somehow I persisted and continued to indulge my daydreams. I wasn’t able to express the content or the character of those machinations. It was probably about the age of twelve when I realized that I obviously was contemplating experiences that could not be the result of what was manifesting in my everyday real world. I never lost this dual awareness as I grew, and even as a young man in the modern military in Germany, I couldn’t help but spend any available moment staring out the window, lost in the inner world of my daydreams.
“While in between tasks, (during a recent study) researchers noticed that a set of brain structures in their participants started to become more active. These same structures turned off as soon as the participants began to engage in the cognitive tasks that were the original focus of the research.
Eventually, scientists were able to pinpoint this set of specific brain structures which we now know as the brain’s “default network.” This network links parts of the frontal cortex, the limbic system, and several other cortical areas involved in sensory experiences. While active, the default network turns itself on and generates its own stimulation. The technical term for such a product of the default network is “stimulus independent thought,” a thought about something other than events that originate from the outside environment. In common speech, stimulus independent thoughts make up fantasies and daydream, the stuff of mind wandering.
Apart from entertaining us when we’re bored…the preponderance of evidence suggests that the default network is there to help us explore our inner experiences (Buckner et al., 2008). Specifically, we engage our default network when we’re thinking about our past experiences, imagining an event that might take place in the future, trying to understand what other people are thinking, and assisting us in making moral decisions.”
–excerpts from article posted on Psychology Today website, “Why and How You Daydream,” Jan 08, 2013 by Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.
In the evening, as the days grow longer, and the daylight lingers, I sense a change beyond my control. I don’t know at all how I might survive it. Clinging to the grasp I have, I try to express myself in positive terms. I am uncertain about the future. What I do know, is that there is something more for me, my world–it is headed for the unknown, the incongruous, the ambiguous–the complete and utter boundlessness that the realm of possibility presents. I can stare blankly ahead, I can retreat, look away, drop into obscurity, but no matter where I go, my destiny will find me. When it does come, with luck, I will be able to pursue it. When my star rises, and the wheels begin to turn in that direction, perhaps there is a chance, after all these years of contemplation and writing, I may be approaching the culmination of the sum of all my daydreams.
As human beings, we are, in large part, unremarkably different from many other species on our planet in our physical core components and basic constituent parts and systems. In our most fundamental nature, we exist physically as they do, we are made up of the same essential molecular structures, we rely on very similar biological systems, and we require the same physical environment to sustain us. Our genetic structures and specific biological architecture are unique in some important ways, and our complex cognitive functioning distinguishes us from most other species to a degree that has permitted us to achieve dominance as a species overall, but these differences could easily be made irrelevant by catastrophic changes in our physical environment, similar to those which resulted in the demise of the dinosaurs.
Life has many layers and levels. Evolution has changed and continues to change the character of our existence in microscopically small increments, and we are only now, in this epoch of human history, beginning to see just how important our contributions have been as subjectively aware, cognitively capable, and intelligent beings and just how important they will be to the future of our world. For all the bluster and bravado of our human sciences, and the deeply entrenched and volatile pronouncements of our human religions, we still seem unable to reach beyond it all to come to terms with the true nature of our existence. None of it seems completely satisfying to most of us. It has always been my feeling that the reason for this has much less to do with the comprehensibility of our sciences or the verity of our spiritual inclinations, as it does with our understanding of the phenomenon of consciousness itself.
Reviewing material related to artificial intelligence lately has given me some cause to reflect on precisely what it is that we may be missing in all of the fascinating and thought-provoking conversations taking place around the issue. There are a number of efforts being made to recreate the physical structure of the human brain in some of the most prestigious institutions of our day, and several of the key figures of these efforts are genuinely striving to understand the processes which drive the cognitive apparatus inside our heads, in an effort to enhance the process of producing an artificial construct that can mimic the human brain. As compelling as these efforts are and as important as they may be for our understanding generally, (not to mention the progress we may achieve in correcting and alleviating brain pathologies,) what we will ultimately achieve by these efforts is still a matter of much speculation.
In a fascinating book by V.S. Ramachandran entitled, “The Tell-tale Brain,” we see not only a scientist enthralled by the subject of brain physiology, pathology, and functionality, but one captured by the implications of our struggle to understand how it all fits together with our experience of the world provided by the nearly miraculous capacities that our brains provide as a result of both function and comprehension:
“We are vertebrates. We are pulpy, throbbing colonies of tens of trillions of cells. We are all of these things, but we are not ‘merely’ these things. And we are, in addition to all of these things, something unique, something unprecedented, something transcendent. We are something truly new under the sun, with uncharted and perhaps unlimited potential. We are the first and only species whose fate has rested in its own hands, and NOT just in the hands of chemistry and instinct.”
I was especially intrigued by chapter nine, in which he deals with the phenomenon of introspection:
“Sometime in the twenty-first century, science will confront one of its last great mysteries:the nature of the self. That lump of flesh in your cranial vault not only generates an ‘objective’ account of the outside world, but also directly experiences an internal world–a rich mental life of sensations, meanings, and feelings. Most mysteriously, your brain also turns its view back on itself to generate your sense of self-awareness…Qualia (the immediate experiential qualities of sensation such as the redness of red) are vexing to philosophers and scientists alike because even though they are palpably real and seem to lie at the very core of mental experience, physical and computational theories about brain function are utterly silent on the question of how they might arise or why they might exist.”
In his most recent book, “How to Create a Mind,” inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil suggests that our efforts in artificial intelligence will eventually result in machines that will “become indistinguishable from biological humans, and they will share in the spiritual value we ascribe to consciousness.” In an attempt to explain the use of the term, “spiritual,” in a way that justifies his ideas to a broader audience, Kurzweil only succeeds in making the problem worse:
“Many people don’t like to use such terminology in relation to consciousness because it implies a set of beliefs that they may not subscribe to. But if we strip away the mystical complexities of religious traditions and simply respect ‘spiritual’ as implying something of profound meaning to humans, then the concept of consciousness fits the bill. It reflects the ultimate spiritual value.”
In my view, regardless of one’s position on the definition of “spiritual,” reducing our ability to access transcendent consciousness to merely putting enough neurons and synapses into one place in the way our brains arranges them, denigrates the profound nature of our humanity, and does little to promote the achievement of a fundamental theory of consciousness. As complex biological creatures, what we possess that the most sophisticated replica of a brain cannot fully manifest is our very human spirit which animates our “pulpy, throbbing colony of cells.” It is my belief that our rich inner life, our “experience” of existence, while facilitated by our complex cognitive functioning, making it intelligible to the degree that we currently enjoy, resists empirical scrutiny precisely because it does not “arise” from our physical systems, even though it may rely on them as a means of making awareness possible in the first place.
What we perceive as “experience” may, in fact, owe a great deal to the physical nervous system, and the foundational and cognitive functions of the brain, but consciousness itself, this ineffable vehicle of experience, may not spring from physical systems at all. It seems much more likely to me, as one who has these experiences, that they are far too rich, deeply personal, and profoundly beyond the natural world for them to be solely dependent on it for their existence. I suppose that removing the question of consciousness from the natural world makes scientists and philosophers a little nervous. Who could blame them? We are only recently ridding the world of many of its superstitions through science and modern philosophy, and all of our spiritual traditions, as diverse and marvelously well-suited to addressing the transcendent as they can be, quite often fall short of any better explanation.
One of the most compelling refutations to those who eschew the existence of anything transcendent or spiritual can be found in the genuine connections we sense between our own and other human spirits. Though these connections can be powerfully real “subjectively,” they cannot be demonstrated empirically. Any potentially tangible evidence that one might perceive for the existence of such connections, should it ever be forthcoming, is unlikely to convincingly persuade those whose experiences in this regard are limited or non-existent. For me though, when we find ourselves standing by the ocean, gazing out beyond the horizon, both the temporal and the transcendent can be viscerally experienced if we are open to them. Being given the privilege of looking deeply into the eyes of our beloved, or holding our newborn children in our arms, has never failed to convince me unerringly of the existence of the spirit. Convincing the world-at-large is a wholly different matter. In the weeks to come, I hope to illuminate some of the ways that we might become convinced to at least consider what a fundamental theory of consciousness might look like if we expand our view to include the ineffable.
In the Review section of the WSJ this weekend in an article by Frank Wilczek, he casually suggested that it shouldn’t be so difficult to accept, intuitively, that life and mind emerge from matter, as if we were all just somehow mistaken or deluded about the source of life and mind. Wilczek shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 2004. It was awarded jointly to David J. Gross, H. David Politzer and Frank Wilczek “for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction”. According to the dictionary, “…asymptotic refers to a function coming into consideration, as a variable approaches a limit, usually infinity.”
Here is a short blurb about their award from the Nobel website:
“The scientists awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics have solved a mystery surrounding the strongest of nature’s four fundamental forces. The three quarks within the proton can sometimes appear to be free, although no free quarks have ever been observed. The quarks have a quantum mechanical property called colour and interact with each other through the exchange of gluons – nature’s glue.
This year’s prize paves the way for a more fundamental future description of the forces in nature. The electromagnetic, weak and strong forces have much in common and are perhaps different aspects of a single force. They also appear to have the same strength at very high energies, especially if ‘supersymmetric’ particles exist. It may even be possible to include gravity if theories which treat matter as small vibrating strings are correct.”
How Wilczek feels like his visit to an artist’s rendering in an outdoor light display in Phoenix, Arizona somehow equates to an intuitive affirmation of how life and mind “emerged” from matter escapes me. Although the metaphor of lights blinking off and on is suggestive, in a way, of how brain activity might be viewed if such a thing were possible in the same way, to suggest that MRI, PET scanning, and other techniques for detecting blood flow in the brain are somehow visualizations which answer the age old question about how life and mind emerged, strikes me as completely overreaching. Here is a link to the video on WSJ.com: (The narration is only a partial replication of the entire article.)
After decades of research, study, and contemplation of many diverse features of subjective experience, and having expended an enormous amount of effort and energy in the process of discerning what might possibly be behind our extraordinary human subjective awareness of existing as a physical entity in the physical universe, for me personally, as well as for many prominent thinkers throughout human history, the reality is that while our subjective experience of being alive requires the cooperation and integration of physical systems in order for our temporal existence to register with sentient creatures such as ourselves, it is NOT…and I repeat..NOT in any way certain, by any criteria or judgmental standard, that those physical systems are the absolute SOURCE and PRIMAL DRIVING FORCE responsible for that experience in the first place. It is much more likely, in my view, that our physical existence is founded upon and derives its significance from a source as yet to be established with certainty, and very likely to be beyond our capacities for establishing an empirical proof. This inability to demonstrate or define categorically the source of all Life and consciousness does nothing to negate the possibility, that whatever it is that defines it or explains it, there may still be an ineffable and non-material source that produced all that we perceive with our senses, and all that we observe in the vast universe beyond the Earth.
The evolution of biological life in the physical universe on planet Earth has provided our species with an astonishing array of sensory systems, complex biological processes, extraordinary cognitive skills, and a profoundly fragile and beautiful physical environment in which to flourish and evolve, and regardless of our prowess in deciphering the scientific and mathematical underpinnings of the mechanisms and systems which facilitate Life on Earth, none of the intricate details and highly complex processes which support that Life can reduce the totality of our SUBJECTIVE HUMAN EXPERIENCE OF CONSCIOUSNESS to those physical mechanisms only. Suggesting that Life (with a capital “L”) can be reduced to an understanding of those mechanisms alone is like handing out speeding tickets at the Daytona 500. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.
In order to begin to understand how our subjective experience of being alive is even possible in the first place, we clearly do need to consider the gradual development of the complex macro-structure of the brain by examining the various stages of mammalian, primate, and hominid evolution, each of which contributed essential individual brain components, and how that development over millions of years facilitated the gradual sophistication of cognition and higher order thinking. However, once these complex structures and extraordinary cognitive talents were sufficiently developed, it might also be possible to accept intuitively, that it then became possible to utilize them in accessing a much broader intellectual and psychological plateau, and to establish a connection to what we describe as human consciousness or “the subjective experiential awareness of being alive.” This then allows us to hypothesize about the important contributions of specific emergent properties which are a consequence of the evolution and structural hierarchy of the network of various brain regions, while still allowing for the interaction with what C.G. Jung described as “the transcendent function,” or “non-physical substrates,” rather than simply characterizing the results as the “emergence of life and mind from matter.”
To assume from the very beginning of the conversation that it shouldn’t be “…difficult to accept intuitively that life and mind can emerge from matter,” sets a tone that feels limiting right at the outset. Moreover, as a means of coming to terms with the origins of life and mind, one might suggest, by that reasoning, it also shouldn’t be difficult to accept intuitively that life and mind emerged from the seeds planted by advanced beings visiting from some other universe in a multi-verse theory of creation, or perhaps as a result of an inter-dimensional crossover billions of years ago. It is the PRESUMPTION that matter alone might have been the sole source of life and mind which eliminates other possible essential components to their existence. While I completely understand that there are advantages for the scientist to justify their mechanistic worldview by simply claiming that Life and mind emerged from matter, I fail to see why it is so difficult to accept intuitively, the existence of other forces or energies, which we do not yet fully recognize or comprehend, which are equally possible and responsible, and required to provide a more comprehensive explanation for Life and mind.
While it is true, as the author suggests, that we have only a limited “…immediate experience when it comes to how physical systems represent information,” I do not agree that it’s primarily because of the way “…our own brains store and manipulate information in patterns of electrical activation.” The author’s report of how “most neuro-biologists accept that those patterns are the physical embodiment of mind,” does not automatically infer that those patterns are the “source” of the human mind, any more than “the patterns of radio waves” are the source of the transmissions we intercept on our car radios. Radio waves are a MEANS of proliferating the ideas and messages and content created by the users of those systems.
As any investigator of Astronomy can attest, there are many randomly generated radio signals in the wide expanses of the cosmos, but it requires an intelligent and deliberate manipulation of those signals to generate something recognizable as a message or to qualify as a type of specific content that is intelligible and meaningful. The mechanisms of thought are astonishingly complex and fascinating to study, and the advances in neuroscience have increased our understanding of those mechanisms and helped us to determine the nature of pathologies, to devise methods of counteracting the mechanisms of disease, and to find ways of reversing or mitigating the damage caused by injuries to the brain. In order to understand why all of the activity and structural complexity of the human brain is accompanied by a profound subjective experiential awareness, the “what it’s like” experience of being, requires a great deal more than “patterns of electrical activation.”
The artist’s depiction of patterns of light that we find so impressive and suggestive of brain activity is a fabulous work of creativity and artistic expression, and anyone who experiences a walk through the display in Arizona might rightly invoke the metaphor of electrical patterns in the human brain. However, it might be more prudent to equate the display with a representation of an underlying mechanism, which facilitates an artistic expression created for the purpose of inspiring and delighting the observers, who are fortunate enough to attend to the pleasures it offers as a work of art.
…the very observation is an act of creation, and that consciousness is doing the creating. ~ Gregg Braden
Opening up the front door this morning brought the image above into consciousness for me, and now for all of my visitors and readers here at John’s Consciousness. The first snow of 2016 may seem like an uneventful moment to carry with it the promise of the Spring to come, but as Mr. Braden wrote, the very observation of the world we inhabit suggests to the discerning eye that there is a great deal more to our experience of existence than simply what we perceive with our senses. Our subjective awareness of our experience has a vital role in how we ultimately determine the quality and character of our existence, and it contributes significantly to our sense of continuity and unity as the seasons pass, one after the other.
Eric Weiner, author of “The Geography of Genius,” reports that recent research into creativity and “cognitive flexibility,” suggests that our intellectual development can be boosted by “…a fresh perspective,” or what psychologist Nigel Barber described “an oblique perspective,” which can take place when we are uprooted from what is familiar. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, he quoted author and cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman of the University of Pennsylvania, who posits that “openness to experience,” is the most important trait found in exceptionally creative people. (WSJ, Review, January 16-17, 2016) Apparently, “…having your world turned upside down,” can be a catalyst for greater creativity.
In view of this conclusion, and considering my own experience of the world, I should be uniquely positioned for a boost in creativity. Over the holiday season, which held a fair amount of both new experience and the familiar, there has been an incremental increase in my creative endeavors, beginning with my previous post, “Christmas at the Lake House,” and included the creation of some interesting “threads of thought” for me to follow in the coming year. While I was visiting the lake house, I took the opportunity to look back at myself while in the midst of new experience, in an attempt to see if there were any obvious signs of an “oblique perspective.” I’m not sure the image indicates any hint of the oblique, but perhaps our visitors here will detect some sign of it:
It’s not an especially cheerful pose, I admit, but it does accurately capture the psychological state I was experiencing at that moment. Whether or not this translates into a “fresh perspective,” on the year ahead is an open question, but I am determined to continue to pursue the themes and areas of interest this year as I have over the past five years here at WordPress.com. Here is a brief preview of some of the upcoming topics and themes for the year ahead:
Revisiting the importance of subjective experience.
Every experience of the world, from the most prosaic to the most profound, have a commensurate effect on our brains as human beings, and in spite of how each of us has a remarkably similar brain structure generally speaking, we are as unique cognitively as snowflakes and fingerprints. Viewed broadly, these differences are like viewing the landscape above in the rolling hills of West Virginia. From this distance, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to see either the subtle or the most significant changes taking place in the vast expanse before you, but if you look more closely, profound alterations in the forest floor are occurring all the time, and can change with astonishing swiftness with even just a rudimentary insight into the dynamics which govern its ever-changing nature.
Ancient worlds and ancient cultures continue to hold true relevance to our understanding of our modern world.
From the earliest epochs of human migration across the vast expanses of the ancient world, through the development of the earliest beginnings of civilizations across the globe, through the age of exploration and discovery that formed our modern world, great upheavals and subtle incremental changes in human progress contain small pivotal moments, as well as the rise and fall of great empires, each of which produced a variety of central figures of every sort, who created thought-provoking and timeless contributions to the pantheon of human history, human thought, and the arts. As we advance technologically, we mustn’t lose sight of the lessons learned, nor can we abandon them, as our educational systems seem to be doing these days, and as I encounter important examples, I will include them in future posts and highlight those which seem most universal and timeless.
Developing and Enlarging our understanding of Neuroscience and our very Human Nature.
Enormous progress is being made in our understanding of cognitive functioning and what it is that truly makes us human, and the field is wide open regarding what might be included in that progress and understanding. We have only really begun to scratch the surface in our neuroscientific endeavors, and there are hopeful signs that more and more scientists are beginning to challenge the conventional wisdom that has prevailed for decades regarding the true underpinnings of our cognitive talents as human beings. I am hopeful that the scientific community which supports our efforts to understand consciousness will continue to challenge the prevailing assumptions of materialism and reductionist thinking. I intend to persist in investigating and opening the conversation for as long as I am able.
Monitoring and keeping tabs on our progress with Artificial Intelligence.
Few subjects are as controversial and as promising as the development of what is called, “strong A.I.” and while there is much to consider in the ethical and technical limitations of this research currently, the rapid pace of exponential growth in this particular field is both frightening and exhilarating for most of us. As we move forward into the 21st century, we must dedicate the proper attention to safeguards and to ethical application of the new technologies.
The continuing Journey of the Human Spirit.
Few topics of study and conversation in the realm of human subjective experience can be said to be fully engaged without consideration of the very life force which supports every human endeavor. Few people who study, research, and write about our human nature can avoid the foundational subject of the human spirit. For me, there can be no discussion of any of the surrounding topics covered here without the inclusion in some way of our spiritual nature. It doesn’t require us to invoke any particular religious connotation and whether or not we have a background devoid of religious training or have lived lives steeped in a particular regimen of religious belief, the conversation surrounding consciousness and human subjective experience clearly begs the question of an underlying force or energy that may not ultimately yield to empirical scrutiny, but which is, nonetheless, a vital aspect of the conversation from my point of view.
With best wishes to all my readers and visitors from around the world for everything good that is possible in the coming year, and with gratitude for the many generous comments and regular support from you all these past five years.
Kindest regards…..John H.
According to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, intelligence is defined as:
1. capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.
2. manifestation of a high mental capacity: “He writes with intelligence and wit.”
In a recent study conducted at the University of Western Ontario, researchers acknowledged the limitations of current scientific research, but offered a basis for suggesting factors to consider. They “looked into the brain areas that are activated by tasks that are typically used to test for intelligence,” and reported their results–
“…based on the set of brain areas that might contribute to those tasks. However don’t get too excited, the methods used have severe limitations and we are still only at the hypothesis level. We do not know how these areas contribute to performance in intelligence tests and we do not know why they are activated and how they interact together to create the behavior.”
According to a recently published neuroscientific paper, “a broader definition was agreed to by 52 prominent researchers on intelligence:”
“Intelligence is a very general capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test‑taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do. Intelligence, so defined, can be measured, and intelligence tests measure it well.”
Reviewing the many related brain structures involved in cognitive functioning, researchers concluded that:
“…variations in these structures and functions may be “endophenotypes” for intelligence — that is, they might be intermediate physiological markers that contribute directly to intelligence. Therefore, genes involved in intelligence might be more closely linked to these variations in brain structure and function than to intelligence itself. In fact, in all studies to date, the genetic influences on these structures and functions were highly correlated with those on general intelligence.”
–excerpts from “The Neuroscience of Human Intelligence Differences,” by Ian J.Deary, Lars Penke and Wendy Johnson
There are a number of individuals today who are beginning to make associations between the technological advances of modern science and some of the ancient esoteric traditions like yoga, in an attempt to explain our subjective experience of consciousness:
“If hypothetical machinery inside neurons fails to explain qualia, (the ‘what-it’s-like’ quality of experience) must we then consider the molecules that make up the neuronal machinery, or the atoms inside the molecules, or the subatomic particles inside the atoms? Where is the difference that causes the qualia of subjective experience? A less problematic explanation is possible. German scientist, Gottfried Leibniz, postulated irreducible quanta of consciousness he termed ‘monads.’ Matter does not create consciousness. Instead, matter is animated by monads. It seems hardly a coincidence that Leibniz’ monads would perfectly fit between the moments of time that lead to Kaivalya, (Yoga term for enlightenment or nirvana.)
Ultimately, Kaivalya is an ineffable experience. But the claim of yoga is that it provides means to experience what is outside of the individualized mind. The experience of going through the center of consciousness and emerging, as it were, on the other side is very much one of turning inside out. In our ordinary consciousness we are turned outwards towards the world-image which we externalized around us.
In going through our consciousness the entire process is reversed, we experience an inversion…that which was without becomes within. In fact, when we succeed in going through our center of consciousness and emerge on the other side, we do not so much realize a new world around us as a new world within us. We seem to be on the surface of a sphere having all within ourselves and yet to be at each point of it simultaneously…the outstanding reality of our experience…is the amazing fact that nothing is outside us.”
–excerpts from article by DONALD J. DEGRACIA, Associate Professor of Physiology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, in EDGESCIENCE MAGAZINE #16 • NOVEMBER 2013
Recent research in artificial intelligence has begun to approach what might be described as a kind of tipping point, where the lines will likely begin to blur between what is clearly a type of machine intelligence, like the current offerings in robotics and self-driving cars, to something more akin to the kind of intelligence that talks back to you or responds in a more conversational manner like Apple’s “Siri,” and the Windows 10 offering of a personal assistant application called “Cortana.” Many of these innovations are built upon interest in the idea of eventually being able to develop the technologies surrounding A.I. to the point where they will function so much like the human brain, that communicating with them will be virtually indistinguishable from doing so with another live human person.
While this is an enormously appealing concept to our modern sensibilities, and currently fueling a huge amount of research in the industry, even supposing that it might be possible to produce a device or platform commensurate with the trillions of connections between neurons in the human brain, characterizing any resulting machine as either “intelligent” or “conscious,” requires us to re-examine what it means to be intelligent and conscious. Our current understanding of these terms, even as they apply to humans, is still not especially comprehensive or complete, and looking at the development of “human” or “biological” intelligence through the millennia, demonstrates a key component of the challenge in creating an artificial version that might qualify as equivalent.
Early humans and their fellow primates and mammals, along with all the various species endowed with sufficiently complex neural structures and central nervous systems, at some point, eventually possessed a brain or other neural configuration of adequate strength, size, and architecture, which allowed for the retention of memories, and for processing the sensory data gleaned through the available senses. These structures, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, at some point provided the necessary support for adaptive learning or for acquiring a sufficient degree of species-specific abilities, in order for the organism to make efficient use of that information, and to produce a range of results, commensurate with their species-specific capacities and habitation, which enhanced their survival in their respective environments.
Once our ancient ancestors reached a certain level of development, through the integration of incremental evolutionary changes, they achieved a nominal degree of enhanced cognitive talents, attaining a sufficient capacity for what we describe as “human intelligence,” which eventually led to the ability to reason and plan well enough to override emotional distractions, needs and desires, and to awaken to a penetrating level of subjective self-awareness. As any parent of a healthy child can tell you, intelligence does not appear immediately even in modern human children. In spite of advantageous circumstances and environments in which these amazing cognitive human creatures develop, it still requires a minimal degree of relevant experience in the world to accumulate a useful and functional knowledge base, to hone learning skills, and to be able to draw on a collection of memories, which enhance whatever cognitive, genetic, and other physiological resources they might bring to the process.
As a consequence of the random combinations of chromosomes in the human reproductive process, there is a sufficient degree of diversity in the general distribution of combinations available to the human genome, so that each human child has a relatively unique set of circumstances genetically. This diversity is necessary for the health of our species, and as a result, we observe a full range of endowment, which can result in bestowing our descendents with a general baseline capacity for the development of cognitive efficiency, or at the other end of the spectrum, a potential for an enhanced intellectual development, right from the start. A vast array of cultural and environmental variables can either promote or inhibit whatever potential is present, and throughout human history, we have observed how a viable or disadvantageous environment, as well as individual initiative or apathy, can alter the equation in either direction.
It seems likely, in view of these mitigating factors, that it is through a combination of innate cognitive talent, genetic endowment, and environmental conditions that we see contributions to the general flow of intelligence either making a significant appearance, or faltering and struggling to gain ground, in much the same way as it has been since the earliest neural structures appeared in whatever creatures are still existent today. In every case, whatever degree of potential existed within a particular species, it was either successfully developed and exploited for survival, or ended up being thwarted by circumstances from developing successfully enough to sustain a niche for a particular species, resulting in their extinction.
Our challenge in the 21st century is finding a way to determine which contributing factors for increasing intelligence can be safely selected by humans for the most productive incorporation into what we are currently describing as “artificial intelligence,” or “machine intelligence.” Unfortunately, no matter what we are ultimately able to do, in my view, we won’t be able to incorporate our humanity fully into machines, nor will we be able to artificially endow them with the experience of “being human.” In order for us to be aware of our experience of existing as a human being, while clearly requiring a variety of nominally functional, finely-tuned, and integrated biological systems, each of which are essential currently, because there is so much more to being a subjectively aware human person, there must be something that it is like to be human, which cannot be precisely replicated by any technological advancement or created through sheer engineering genius. The subjective experience of human consciousness utilizes our very human capacity for intelligence, as well as our access to a penetrating awareness provided by an astonishing array of electrochemical processes in our miraculous brains, but what we are accessing is not PRODUCED by the brain, but rather it is PERCEIVED by it.
It’s interesting to me how some scientists and thinkers in all the various fields of investigation into artificial intelligence believe that it is simply a matter of achieving a sufficient degree of complexity in the structures we devise for the processing of the voluminous data necessary to be equivalent to the human brain, constructing a sufficiently pliable, flexible, and interactive software, driven by the necessary algorithms, and we will eventually produce a sentient, intelligent, and conscious machine.
In his fascinating and expansive book entitled, “The Universe in a Nutshell,” Stephen Hawking posits that if “very complicated chemical molecules can operate in humans to make them intelligent,” it should follow that “equally complicated electronic circuits can also make computers act in an intelligent way.” He goes on to say that electronic circuits have the same problem as our chemical processes in the brain, which is to process data at a useful speed. He also rightly points out that computers currently have less computational power than “a humble earthworm,” and while they “have the advantage of speed…they show no sign of intelligence.” He also reminds us that even with our capacity for what we call intelligence, that “the human race does not have a very good record of intelligent behavior.”
The possession of a capacity for intelligence of any sort, artificial or otherwise, is clearly not a “stand-alone” feature that is sufficient to sustain any species in and of itself. As we have observed throughout the evolutionary history of the natural world, constructing and sustaining a successful organism requires the development of a range of compensatory and complimentary abilities and potentials, commensurate with the designs and functions of a particular species, in order to achieve a requisite degree of balance.
In the case of Homo sapiens, our particular brand of human intelligence, as we currently understand it, appears to be primarily the result of human evolution and progress throughout our history as upright, bipedal, and increasingly cognitive beings. As a result, our species is apparently uniquely well-suited for our evolutionary niche, and dominates currently among the other living organisms, mostly for this very reason. While we share much in common with our primate and mammalian family of creatures, and bearing in mind that we are equally indebted to all living things and to the Earth itself for our continued ability to sustain ourselves, intelligence appears to exist in remarkably adaptive and unique ways in each of the various evolutionary paths for each family of species that coexist with us today.
It would be arrogant to suggest that our variety of intelligence is in any way superior to that enjoyed by other organisms on our planet, except in the context of its usefulness to our specific nature as humans. Our own highly-adaptive nature is fairly well-suited generally to the requirements of our species, and while one might reasonably argue that our inclinations and intelligence are lacking in one way or another, for the most part, even considering our limitations, foibles, and perceived deficits, human intelligence has managed to keep pace with the unfolding of our continued evolution thus far, and providing that we persist in developing and adapting to our ever-changing circumstances, there is cause for optimism in my view.
What we tend to miss in most of our estimations of what sort of artificial intelligence might emerge from our efforts to produce it, is that no matter what results are forthcoming, it will very likely be profoundly different than our own ultimately, in spite of how specifically we aim to recreate the mental processes and physiological structures of our own exquisitely adaptive brains.