Ever since the hominid brain evolved sufficiently to provide modern humans with a degree of cognitive talent that still surpasses any other known species, the blossoming of conscious awareness slowly provided Homo sapiens with the ability to not only be aware that they exist, but to utilize this new ability deliberately and with purpose. It seems likely that some form of this ability may have been present in several other early hominid species, but only began to coalesce into a functional process during the Aurignacian epoch, where the full development of the higher functions were made possible by a significant increase in the complexity of the cerebral cortex. While very little solid evidence of any truly functional self awareness has been found prior to that time, I think even the most empirically-minded paleontologist would concede the likelihood, that the process of human evolution provided the capacity for our enhanced cognitive skills long before we were able to take full advantage of them or to demonstrate them.
Cognitive self awareness is, so far as we know, an exclusively human attribute that allows us to know we exist as a unique, individual person. It is my contention that it is made possible by virtue of an elaborate synthesis of both temporal and ineffable elements. While this idea represents a challenge to our 21st century scientific community, it is not completely intractable. As with most phenomena with multiple layers of both coherent and ambiguous components, the connections between disparate elements are often only possible to discern with determined effort and an open-minded approach as to how these aspects might come together.
The ability for complex thinking and to remember what we think, when combined with an expanding comprehension of the world generally in which the thinking occurred, led to an increasingly sophisticated thought process which may initially have flourished because it enhanced our ability to survive as a species, but ultimately imparted a great deal more than a survival advantage. Once the potential for self awareness was in place, it slowly began to manifest in demonstrative ways as we have seen in the early cave paintings by our primitive ancestors. The journey from those ancient beginnings to the modern day variety of human consciousness shows a remarkable range and variety of progress and aptitude, which was directly influenced by the development of self awareness.
Imagine the early Homo sapiens as they gradually began to make use of their newly acquired “functional consciousness,” awakening to the world of objects like never before. Modern humans were finally able to associate temporal objects with symbolic representations of those objects, as evidenced in the ancient cave paintings discovered in Ardeche, France in the caves of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, now believed to have been placed there some 35,000 years ago by the Aurignacian culture. These were not mental giants compared to 21st century Homo sapiens. They were not very sophisticated at all by today’s standards, but they were quantitatively more sophisticated cognitively than the Neanderthals, and were better able to compete for limited resources, enabling them to outlast their predecessors by thousands of years.
No matter what concepts or images or ideas may have occurred to the early humans, there was no way to overtly confirm the existence of a thought until there was a way to express a thought. It was no accident that the first demonstrations of consciousness were images—primitive symbols painted on cave walls—as visualization within the brain originally had no other way to be expressed than the memory of what the objects looked like in the world. Whatever level and degree of brain activity led to the development of language, visualizing the objects and events of the ancient consciousness became the symbol of those same entities, just as the sounds uttered by the early humans expanded their abilities to express them and to pass these symbols on to future generations.
It is also not surprising that the early attempts at producing formal symbols to represent the world resulted in pictographic languages such as cuneiform by the Sumerians and hieroglyphics by the Egyptians, all of which were precursors of ancient alphabets. Spoken language, once it took hold, became the voice of thought.
…more to come
There are many different versions these days of theories which address what it means to be a human being, and in all fairness to the authors of these many versions, since many other species on our planet share certain characteristics with humans, and since we cannot claim that any of our talents and capacities make us superior to any other species in any comprehensive way, attempting to frame our human nature in a species-specific category that clearly defines us in a unique way seems to be the only approach that offers any hope of explaining how it is that we occupy our current position in the global community of living creatures on Earth. Without knowing what it is exactly that gives us our unique character in the pantheon of earthbound species, how can we feel confident about our prospects for the future? Since we are the only earthbound species with grammatical languages, advanced sciences, abundant and diverse cultures which produce all sorts of positive results and disastrous consequences, there must be something about us that sets us apart from the rest.
The only problem with this premise is that it almost doesn’t matter what it is EXACTLY that makes us human, any more than it matters how it is exactly that we were able to evolve into our current version of Homo sapiens. The fact is that we clearly did evolve over millions of years to became the current version of modern humans, that we currently possess an amazing array of talents and capacities, and currently occupy a formidably unique niche on this planet. What’s more important at this point, it seems to me, is not so much figuring out what it is that makes us PHYSICALLY human, but rather, what it is about being a human that gives such a unique meaning to our existence. To the best of our knowledge, we are the only species that is consciously and meaningfully aware of the way it FEELS to be us. The long path of evolution has produced a remarkable capacity within us to not only be awake, alert, and consciously aware of our existence, but also to convert all of the accompanying sensory data, memories, and cognitive capacities in the brain, into a conduit for a keenly personal and subjectively profound awareness that we refer to as human consciousness.
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, I read a quote from philosopher Roger Scruton, which struck at the very heart of this idea:
“There is a widespread habit of declaring emergent realities to be ‘nothing but’ the things in which we perceive them. The human person is ‘nothing but’ the human animal…sexual love is ‘nothing but’ the urge to procreation…the ‘Mona Lisa’ is ‘nothing but’ a spread of pigments on a canvas…it is just as absurd to say that the world is nothing but the order of nature, as physics describes it, as to say that the ‘Mona Lisa’ is nothing but a smear of pigments.”
–From English philosopher Roger Scruton’s “The Soul of the World,” (Princeton, 2014)
In a WSJ review of a new book by David Sloan Wilson entitled, “Does Altruism Exist,” evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, David Barash, points out that:
“We (humans) are unique among animals in our consciousness, of our own selves and of the social groups in which we are immersed. (In support of the idea that altruism is beneficial to human beings) There is no other species that not only punishes selfish ‘defectors’ but is also readily convinced of the desirability of acting, often selflessly, for the benefit of the group.” (He then rightly points to the conclusion…) “When it comes to human beings, purely biological insights, although valuable, don’t tell the whole story.”
A recent discovery in South Africa of “bones of a ‘human-like’ species” caused quite a sensation in paleo-anthropology circles, not so much because it revealed any direct link to a human ancestor, but rather, because the fossils indicated that they likely belonged to “an early offshoot of humankind,” and that the arrangement of bones and bodies raised “questions about the origins of ritual burial and self awareness.” Directing a team of 60 scientists, paleoanthropologist Lee R. Berger announced the discovery of “Homo naledi.” The WSJ article written by Robert Lee Hotz reported that “Naledi means ‘star’ in Sesotho, a local South African language.”
We seem to have an intense interest in all things that are “human-like” and if you are interested in learning more about this fascinating discovery, I recommend you look for a copy of the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Magazine which has a fascinating look at what was found and the scientists involved in recovering these artifacts. I’ll be talking more about this and other recent scientific investigations in the coming months.
Throughout human history, many great thinkers, writers, philosophers, and scientists have all contributed various ideas to the collective library of thought on the nature of humanity, as well as what distinguishes us from other species, and many have attempted to define what it means to be human using a variety of approaches. Many of the early philosophers focused on our humanity from the point of view that human beings represented the highest form of life, and because of our singular abilities and specialized talents, they seemed to feel that this warranted conferring upon us an elevated stature above all other species. While there are a number of ways humans seem to have the advantage presently, we have come to understand a little better in the 21st century that whatever advantage any species may have over another, that all forms of life are inextricably linked to all other forms, and that we need to use our advantages to make sure we can maintain our own lives and the habitability of our planet, if our future generations of children and grandchildren are to have a chance to prosper and thrive in the centuries to come.
We are uniquely positioned at this point in human history to witness an expansion of our technological and scientific advances which will contribute in important ways to our survival as a species, and in my view, we have an opportunity at this point to use all of our discoveries and advances to ensure that we continue to preserve and protect our own future, by including as many different ideas and avenues of research as we can. What it is that MAKES us human, in a very important way, is our ability to be fully and subjectively conscious and aware of the way it FEELS to be human.
In my next few postings, I’ll be reporting on many of the recent findings in the efforts to develop a “science of consciousness,” as well as the recent offerings in the new ideas presented in books and films that deal directly with our unique subjective human consciousness.
There’s almost no telling how love will unfold in our personal lives or as we move through the world-at-large. As we progress through our lives, we all seem to arrive at our own understanding of what it means to love someone. We learn first about love from our parents or primary caretakers whoever they end up being, and often it’s amazing to us as adults what sticks with us through all the changes and stages of growth we go through. In some circumstances, where our lives are most often in balance as we grow, we learn to appreciate the love we are given, and have a fair idea of how to demonstrate our love based on these experiences. For most of us, though, the balance is often tipped in one direction or the other, and it can take a long time to appreciate how other people might differ in their understanding of what it means to love another person.
I have often encountered circumstances in my life, where people have inspired me to feel a loving connection in one way or another, but who have a difficult time understanding how it could be that such a connection is even possible. I have often thought, that there should be some guidance in our educational system, particularly when children are approaching adolescence, to begin to appreciate the many different varieties of emotional connection that people feel, and to broaden the definitions of love across the whole spectrum of human interactions. It seems to me that, as a rule, we are far too rigid in our views of what reasonably might constitute a loving relationship between parents and children, amongst siblings, between extended family groups, and between the many different levels of friendship that we encounter as we age. Our best friend in grammar school can still be our best friend in our adult life, or they can vanish from our lives for any number of reasons, and every variety of circumstance can either contribute to the longevity of friendship or make it impossible to continue, just as every other sort of relationship can experience long periods of enriching and enduring affection, or be lost or mitigated by extenuating circumstances.
The amount of time in which a life takes place, which includes everything from a few moments to, at times, nearly a century of life, is one of the least important measures of a life. Each of us is given a certain amount of time to live our lives, and none of us knows in advance how long it will be before we must relinquish our lives. This is the very nature of life–uncertainty. In some ways, uncertainty DEFINES life. If we knew about everything that would happen in our lives in advance, and the exact moment when life would end, there would be no mystery, no wonder, no sense of anticipation, no expectation, no reason to try anything. Because life is unpredictable, it is worth getting up in the morning to see what will happen! Life is about potentiality. When we DON’T know what will happen, or how long we will have to do anything, it’s up to us to discover how our lives will unfold. It is always sad, as an observer of life, when we see a life that is, from our perspective, cut short, before it has had sufficient time to unfold in the normal way. But really, each life, no matter how long it is, is precious, and worth every effort to live each moment fully, for however long we have to live it.
I am not an expert at anything. I am not a scholar, or a magician, or a superstar quarterback. Even though I attended two universities for more than four years, I haven’t translated it into a successful career or a particularly abundant life. What I can say about my life, given that the measures we normally apply to accomplishment, in my case, are not especially impressive, is that my life EXPERIENCES have been extraordinary. Every memory I have is precious to me. I have been the father to six amazing children. I have served my country in the military, traveled to Europe for two years, and met many extraordinary people. I have experienced great joy, as well as terrible sadness.
I have experienced hunger, deprivation, loneliness, bitterness, rejection, loss, and just about every sort of unhappiness imaginable, but I have also been a witness to and a participant in spectacular experiences of loving; I have attended feasts, and eaten at fine restaurants; I have vacationed in beautiful natural settings; I have attended family reunions with some of the most fabulous people on the planet; I have been satisfied in many different ways, and cried tears of joy as I held precious newborn children in my arms. As I write this, I am expecting the arrival of my sixth grandchild!
I could go on, but you can see from just these few examples that no matter what we accomplish in our lives, when it comes right down to it, what we EXPERIENCE is what means the most to us; it’s what hurts us the most; it’s what drives us and what slays us; what we experience is more important than what we accomplish almost always, and all the skills and knowledge we acquire, as vital as these aspects are in helping us to function in and to understand our world, we must BE IN the world and experiencing our lives in order to make any good use of any of it. All of our choices in life, from the smallest to the most profoundly significant, alter the space/time continuum. One of the most vexing questions in philosophy is the issue of free will. If our minds are simply and only the result of neuronal functioning and the basic electro-chemical balance in our brains, then none of us can be held truly accountable for our actions, since we are at the mercy of brain chemistry and the endowment of adequate neuronal functioning.
My contention is that while we are clearly dependent on a nominally functional nervous system to interact in a meaningful way with other sentient beings, the delicate balance of brain chemistry and neuronal functionality only provides a platform from which we can launch our lives as cognitive creatures. There are other more subtle and more mysterious forces at work in our lives, some of which we may eventually comprehend and predict reliably, and others that are part of the divine life of the spirit within. The power to alter our lives at any time is within our grasp. We have the means to evaluate and discern which choice is best for us. We can choose to act in our own self-interest, or in consideration of what is in the best interests of others. Depending on our choices, a whole variety of alternate realities are possible.
The dynamics of each unique personal relationship has always been a subject of interest for me, especially since I began to explore the nature of human interactions as they relate to our very human spirit. As we make our way through our lives, we probably encounter hundreds of other individuals through our educational and social circles, but normally only a very select few become particularly significant to us in one way or another. We generally become aware of these connections when proximity permits sufficient opportunity to do so, but proximity alone can not account for the development of close, personal (and dare I say…spiritual) connections, particularly those which endure across great distance and long years. While there are many different foundations for our unique relationships, and much that is not necessarily self-evident regarding the psychology which supports them, the existence of a powerful personal and emotional affinity for another clearly infers a greater degree of connection not explicable by simple biology, psychology, chemistry or mere chance.
Our current social structure in the Western World has evolved significantly in the last hundred years or so, and we are beginning to understand and appreciate the value of our unique personal relationships as part of a broader and completely natural social adaptation, which has been part and parcel of our continued evolution as a species since upright humans first walked the earth.
As the story continues to unfold in Massachusetts, unique personal relationships suddenly become more important than ever……
“Dreams are but momentary stays against the relentless throbbing of my pulse in waking hours, a pause amidst the endless tide of my heart’s longings….the very essence of desire.” – JJHIII
I had a dream last night about the time I spent in Paris back in the mid-1970’s. It felt like I had traveled through time to stand in those same places once again, wandering the streets, inhaling the scents, embracing the sights, absorbing the sounds, and floating amidst the powerful memories of those moments. It seemed like an impossible dream had come true once again, and even though it has been many years since I last walked those streets, in the first few moments after I sat up in my bed upon waking in the middle of the night, it felt like it could have been yesterday.
The dream felt viscerally real and my response seemed almost prescient in those first few moments, sending me this afternoon to the archives in search of a passage I remembered recording in my personal journal:
October 25, 1976
“I am beginning to wonder now, as always, how this experience will affect the stream of events to come, and what new realizations will arrive within me when at some future time, I reflect upon them in silence. Paris is alive. It vibrates with life. It engulfs you with its intoxicating air. To walk the streets of Paris has felt alternately like a stroll through my fondest dreams, and in certain moments, like some kind of horrid nightmare. Swift though the moments seem, and as alone as I have felt in the nights by my window, this city breathes and pulsates with passionate feeling to the discerning eye. Time passes in Paris unseen, unheard, and unnoticed, almost as though it were never there from the beginning–lingering somewhere outside of perception, or as some distant memory.”
At age twenty-three, assigned as a soldier in what was then described as “Western Europe,” engaged in gathering military intelligence on our counterparts in Eastern Europe, my travels took me to a variety of technically non-military locations, and concerned matters far beyond anything I might have anticipated in my life prior to that assignment. The process of intelligence gathering seemed to be moving at a much swifter pace than anything else in my life, which hardly seemed to move at a snail’s pace when I look back on it. Without actually realizing it during that time frame, I raised my level of knowledge and experience to such an extent, that as I reflected on the dream in the early hours of a cool spring morning, I wondered what might have become of my life in another place or through another time.
Direction and purpose were strange entities for me then; vague and fluctuating between the minutes in a day. Not once did I ever truly concern myself with what might become of me. My influence on the world-at-large, in my mind at least, was at best a matter of chance, and certainly not within my power to determine. Having entered the military at the age of 19, I went from being a mostly unremarkable young man of limited means and experience to suddenly being engaged in matters of national security, with my every move a matter of close scrutiny by myself and by those around me.
While my military activities required much of my attention in those days, occasionally my assignment would allow or open up opportunities for downtime, and I often would explore on my own, sometimes secretly, and occasionally, I would lapse back into my personal reveries, and flirt with the tides of my heart’s longings. It was during such moments that my awareness seemed to be expanding into a wider world than the one in which I found myself embroiled so often as a soldier. Looking back at my life as a young boy, I regard with much fondness my life before this expansion of awareness. I never really thought that my life would be anything more than that which occurred from day-to-day; moment-to-moment, year after year. It was, I thought, a secure environment; beyond the reach of any sort of violent change. It was a rude awakening indeed that found me thousands of miles away from all that I had known. All that was once my reality suddenly seemed a lark–a crystal-clear pond in paradise.
….more to come….
As an attentive consumer of various scientific publications available in the world today, particularly those concerning the science of mind and brain, while the information is often intriguing and illuminating in regards to how the physiology of the brain results in the extraordinary variety of symptoms, characteristics, and behavior of modern humans, what is often lacking, in my view, is the simple connection to humanity itself, which we might wish to describe as the “human factor.” No matter how ingenious these researchers are as they structure the studies to produce useful results, what we frequently end up with in the end is an explanation of a process, or a determination of how it is that our fantastically wondrous temporal mental assets manifest a particular result, either as an ability or some sort of pathology.
What genuinely supports and nourishes our miraculous brains is endlessly fascinating for those of us who contemplate its many intricate layers and functional prowess, but at the very heart of our humanity is something far greater and eminently more profound in nature, that neuroscience has, so far, only been able to reach peripherally at best. According to a variety of thinkers across the globe and throughout human history, there are layers of reality, that infer a depth and breadth to our existence, to which our temporal talents may not be particularly well-suited in our efforts to reveal them. Focusing on this apparent disparity between the understanding we seek and our temporal capacities may be what is currently preventing us from moving forward. It may hinder us from exploring new avenues and broadening our understanding, simply because we aren’t looking at our existence except through a narrow band of what is possible.
Over the coming months, I hope to present some of the ways in which, it seems to me, it is possible to detect consciousness in the world, through our own observations and through the lens of our particular world of consciousness. I do not pretend to have any powers beyond those of mortal men, and only offer my personal thoughts and observations and suggestions in the interest of broadening the dialog on the subject.
In this posting, I wanted to offer several examples from the ancient world of individuals and events which point to some attempts to express the greater depth and breadth of our existence:
From the earliest epoch of Egyptian civilization, whose 1st Dynasty dates back to 3100 B.C., the refinement of written and pictographic languages took place in an atmosphere heavy with a religious or spiritual symbolism, and while today we view this development through the prism of history, at the time, it was commonplace to address the world as being of two natures, with many unseen features figuring prominently in the everyday lives of the people. Scribes and artisans of every persuasion recorded not only the temporal triumphs and rituals of kings and pharaohs, but also the very personal thoughts and feelings of these figures.
Beginning in the year 1279 B.C., the third ruler of the 19th Dynasty, Ramesses II, son of Seti I, reigned as Pharaoh of the New Kingdom of Egypt. Of his four royal wives, Nefertari was his favorite, and he believed that she was destined to be with him for eternity. The Egyptians believed their souls could live forever if their bodies were preserved. The intact body of Ramesses II still resides today in the Egyptian museum in Cairo. In Nefertari’s tomb, the tribute he wrote and had inscribed on the walls to endure through “endless ages” reads as follows:
“Princess, rich in grace, lady perfection, sweet with love, mistress of the two lands, songstress of the beautiful countenance, greatest in the herum of the Lord of the Palace, all that you say will be done for you–everything beautiful according to your wish. All your words bring contentment to the face, wherefore men love to hear your voice.”
“Spiritual life is one but it is vast and rich in expression. The human mind conceives it differently. If the human mind was uniform without different depths, heights and levels of subtlety; or if all men had the same mind, the same psyche, the same imagination, the same needs, in short, if all men were the same, then perhaps One God would do. But a man’s mind is not a fixed quantity and men and their powers and needs are different. So only some form of polytheism alone can do justice to this variety and richness.” – The Word As Revelation: Names of Gods, 1980.
About this same time, the Aryans of Europe were invading India and the foundations of Hinduism were being forged. The Hindu principle of repeated birth and death (samsara) although not recorded until much later in Sanskrit texts called, “Vedas,” is at the core of what is considered one of the oldest known religions. Many of the ideas expressed in these texts address questions regarding the spiritual nature of humanity, and do not require one to become fanatical or go to extremes to entertain the notions contained in the core doctrines. Modern scholars like C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell have included some of the material from these traditions in their work in psychology and mythology, and even without a particular interest in religious tracts, it makes for interesting reading. As far back as these traditions go, that they persist today is indicative of some quality or nature to the ideas that continue to resonate for modern people.
A recent exhibition I attended at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore entitled, “The First Emperor,” provided an enormously moving experience that hinted at an ancient corollary to the consciousness in the world. In 221 B.C., Qin Shihuangdi (pronounced chin-shee-wong-dee) unified the warring states of the various petty kingdoms, establishing the country of China, and himself as the first emperor. Over the almost thirty years of his reign, he conscripted hundreds of thousands of laborers to sculpt thousands of terra-cotta figures that were discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well. Standing before these exquisite works of ancient artistry, what I would describe as a flood of ancient memories and impressions of the extraordinary efforts which produced them, captured my imagination and held me enraptured for several hours. In previous visits to other such exhibits over the years, I cannot recall ever being so profoundly and completely affected as I was at this one. I walked away from the museum in a kind of euphoric daze, and couldn’t help but contemplate not only the consciousness of those conscripted artists, but of the emperor who felt the need to construct an army to protect him in the next life.
My explorations of the nature of consciousness, and the subsequent diversions along the way, have led me to make connections to others that led to even further diversions, and many times brought forth remarkable insights to the degree of interconnectedness to all life. We can easily recognize and celebrate our personal connections with other nearby sentient beings, but sometimes fail to see that even individuals who exist thousands of miles away, or who are, in any number of ways removed from us in time and distance, are also very much entangled with us all. There are many opportunities for remaining open to a wider view of the world without relinquishing the value and quality of an equally rigorous open-minded pursuit of science.
Throughout my many journeys of discovery, I have encountered studies in cognitive science and neuroscience which also fascinate and inspire, and often inform the various elements of my writing. I am intrigued beyond words at the richness of the content, and the depth of beauty and even the occasional appearance of humanity described in much of the scientific literature of the day, but none of these studies eliminate the ineffable, nor do they diminish the profound sense of something beyond the boundaries of what we know presently. There is so much more to discover….
painting by untitled blue on flickr – Acrylic on 4 Canvas: 125x90cm
On a recent errand to acquire a bottle of aspirin from the neighborhood drug store, (never actually having set foot in the place previously,) as I walked through the door, I was immediately seized by an overwhelming desire to check the sign out front again to make sure I entered the right building! What I assumed was a place to buy medicine and health care products now appeared to be a Wal-Mart. Looking around briefly, I was tempted to ask directions to the pharmacy. Refusing to be intimidated, I walked past the lawn chairs, gift wrapping, housewares, videos, toys, and food, eventually ending up in the part of the store where one could find over-the-counter medicine. After a minute or two of further searching, I ended up in the aisle containing aspirin.
Easily forty feet long, what looked like a row in an aspirin warehouse contained hundreds of boxes of analgesics, with innumerable varieties of additives designed for every contingency of illness, except perhaps for the anxiety produced by too many choices.
Finding a particular brand, if you knew which one you wanted, was only marginally easier than deciding on a brand if you didn’t know. Cost-conscious consumers would have it a little easier, only having to choose amongst the generic versions of every brand name, knocking the search down by half. At that point you need only narrow your selection to small, medium, or large bottle; liquid or gel-tabs; chewable or time-release capsules; coated or plain. If you read labels you may have to spend the night! Of course, this is possible since the store is open twenty-four hours a day. What led to this madness? How did we get diverted from the relative simplicity of life a hundred years ago, to the virtually limitless chaos of modern life?
Common sense, long ago revered as the most important form of everyday reasoning, seems to have all but vanished from modern life in the 21st century. So diverse are we that finding something in common with even most of us may be unreachable. Ask people what is meant by common sense, and you will inevitably get no consensus. In a very unscientific survey of a dozen diverse men and women in different departments of my own workplace produced twelve remarkably different responses. Here are the results of my short survey:
1. What ought to be obvious and sensible to a majority of individuals.
2. The innate ability to reason and find the easiest and most efficient way.
3. What you know instinctively to be the right way to do something.
4. Going along with the norms of society.
5. The ability to think without external guidelines.
6. Knowing right from wrong.
7. The golden rule. Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t do to yourself.
8. Popular opinion
9. The ability to handle life situations and react in a logical, thoughtful process.
10. Native intelligence.
12. The understanding of logic.
Unable to find agreement among my contemporaries, I sought out some definitions from established sources. Webster’s dictionary defined it as “sound practical judgment not based on reasoning or special knowledge.” Ralph Waldo Emerson described it as “Genius dressed in its working clothes,” and “the shortest line between two points.” In an essay for the first issue of the Atlantic Monthly in 1857, Oliver Wendell Holmes related a criticism of an old gentleman, responding to a statement Holmes had made, which the gentleman said made him sound, “like a transcendentalist,” and proclaimed that “for his part, common sense was good enough for him.” Holmes then replied, “Precisely so, my dear sir, common sense as you understand it.”
Perhaps the most famous pamphlet in American history was the one entitled, “Common Sense,” published in January of 1776 and written by Thomas Paine advocating a “Declaration for Independence,” by the American colonies. In it, Paine asserted that “the more formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason.” He summed up his view on common sense in this way:
“Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter.”
It was a very different world in which Mr. Paine announced his essential description of common sense, and who actually qualified as”wise and able men” is unknown. However, even a brief examination of life in the colonial era shows how the word “common” applied. Life in colonial America was difficult. Many people lost their lives while attempting to adapt to frontier conditions. Compared to our modern standards of scheduled working hours, vacations, and leisure time, the colonist’s lives were bleak and tedious. They worked from dawn to dusk and could not restrict their work to any set number of hours. The needs of simply existing required constant effort. The family unit was paramount, spending time with each other in a way that is virtually unknown today. Most people had so much in common, that “sensible” almost always translated into “self-evident.” These days, we appear to have so little in common that what could be called common before, not longer seems possible.
Recent quantum leaps in the availability of information technology have resulted in an overwhelming volume of possible avenues to explore, presenting an entirely new problem to challenge the survival skills of modern humans. With this landslide of technology, we seem find ourselves slowly being buried under the weight of every new development, and its accompanying library of information. Take a look at any computer or science magazine these days and you will notice a great deal of shouting going on about the latest technological leap. Wizardry that makes Merlin’s magic pale by comparison is now routine. Our mass media is replete with spectacular showcases of special effects and futuristic fanfares designed to dazzle and delight, and anything that does not contain these elements, regardless of its significance, seems to end up somewhere between invisible and absent.
State-of-the-art technologies in the real world, such as those responsible for the Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Shuttle, satellite communications, and the many breakthroughs of modern medical science have long term, permanent, and profound consequences for all of humanity. Already, in the short time it has taken to develop these bodies of knowledge, we have been faced with serious moral and ethical questions. As the pace accelerates, so too does the necessity to search deeper within ourselves for the wisdom to create appropriate responses to them. As we expand our horizons, we expand our understanding, and acquire the raw materials for enlightened social change. We will not be defined so much by the new technologies of the future as we will by our thoughtful and intelligent use of them. Before we plunge headlong into the new and spectacular, we need to be better prepared for the challenges they will present.
Before the greatest ballerina gives her greatest performance, she hones her skills, relentlessly practices her routines, and labors endlessly to be the best she can be. Buying a bottle of aspirin, by comparison, should not require quite as much work. We must find a way to shift our concentration from consumerism and razzle-dazzle, to the urgency to prepare like the great ballerina, for the most important performance in history–our future survival as human beings.
Some years ago, I photographed Roy Rogers at a meet and greet in New Jersey. A friend of mine recently forwarded an email which reflected on some of the television characters from our childhood years, like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Sky King and Superman and Sgt. Friday, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers, and Captain Noah, and “all those people from children’s television in the 1950’s whose lives touched ours, and made them better.” Nostalgia for those years afflicts many of us “baby boomers,” who remember fondly those years when there were great television heroes during our childhood, who tried to teach us right from wrong, and “how to have and show respect for each other and the animals that share this earth.”
As a result of the invention of television, “we were able to grow up with these great people even if we never met them. In their own way they taught us patriotism and honor, we learned that lying and cheating were bad, and sex wasn’t as important as love. We learned how to suffer through disappointment and failure and work through it. Our lives were drug free.”
While these inferences strike a chord with just about everyone over fifty, there is a deeper issue which many of these nostalgic messages seem to miss. These reminders of life during what now seems like a time of innocence and uncomplicated choices, while they evoke a genuine charm and sense of delight, are actually a result of us remembering, not so much the charming particulars from our daily lives, but rather how the experience of those events and pleasures made us feel, and how they compare to our lives today.
The emphasis generally centers on our fondest memories, and neglects the accompanying difficulties and trials of those times. We lament the passing of simpler times and uncomplicated lifestyles, and yet those times contained many of the same charms and delights that exist in our lives today. We just have to look a little harder because our youthful perspectives have become obscured by maturity and balanced by adversity.
A good illustration of how life has changed over the years can be found by reviewing a recent column by Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, which expressed sadness about the loss of the neighborhood bookstores to the much more economical and less complicated practice of ordering books online at places like Amazon.com. In much the same frame of mind as many of us who cherish the experience of walking amongst the rows of freshly printed pages and browsing our favorite sections, inhaling the scent of new books and cappuccinos, and thumbing through our cherished, secret, and silent worlds, Mr. Fisher’s lament struck such a chord with me that I emailed him expressing my empathy and agreement.
Not even thirty years ago, I wrote to Darryl Sifford of the Philadelphia Inquirer about a column he wrote, which I typed on a manual typewriter and sent to him in an envelope with a stamp. A week later, he responded with a nice note which he also typed on a manual typewriter and mailed to me. I sent my email to Marc Fisher by clicking “send” on my “Hotmail homepage” with my “mouse” at 5:58 PM and received his response at 6:04 PM, just six minutes later!
I’m guessing that our children or grandchildren will be sending each other some kind of “Holographic Laser Visual Message,” remembering how quaint it used to be to type an email on a keyboard, and rather than calling older folks “older than dirt,” they may end up calling each other “older than silicon” or something.
Humanity has begun to evolve less through natural selection and more toward artificial selection as a result of the quantum leaps in new technologies, and as with most circumstances that result from radical changes, those who are able to adapt seem to fare better than those who either cannot or will not embrace the inevitable changes that adaptation demands.
However, what we cannot do is to lose sight of what lies at the core of our humanity. No matter what evolution may require of us as temporal beings in order to adapt and survive, within us and all around us, there is a unity of all living things which connects us to each other and the wider universe.
Jonas Salk, the great pioneer of the polio vaccine, once wrote that “Evolution is no longer a case of survival of the fittest, but rather one of survival of the wisest.” We are now entering one of the most important epochs for our species, and we must find a way to bring humanity together, without sacrificing the hard-won progress of our ancestors that brought us this far. There were many great aspects of our childhood that are no longer existent in the same way today, but the promise of the future, represented by our children and our grandchildren is even more important to consider as we evolve in the centuries to come.