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.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, William Faulkner addressed important elements surrounding the “poet’s, the writer’s duty:”
“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will someday stand here where I am standing.
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.
It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
–excerpts from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech at Stockholm’s City Hall on December 10, 1950.
Reviewing the world events of the past few weeks, one might be forgiven, at least at first glance, for being gravely concerned about the future of humanity. The tragic inhumanity perpetrated by rage and radical ideology we’ve witnessed recently, strikes at the very core values of every variety of human society, and we genuinely seem to have only a limited number of choices, when it comes time to choose, of how to respond.
No rational or humanistic society wants to see an escalation of hostilities in any region of the world, but neither can we shrink from the awful duty required to prevent the successful imposition by the forces of rage and radical ideology from their goals of destruction and their murderous intent. It seems that nothing less than a commensurately violent response to the violence being inflicted can hope to deter or eliminate the dangers posed by these forces.
Faulkner’s words were uttered shortly after the conclusion of World War II, but they could easily apply to our current circumstances. If we are to overcome these obstacles and forge a viable alternative to these destructive forces ultimately, we must seek to raise the level of the conversation to include a more universal spiritual perspective.
Russell Kirk, in his book, “The Conservative Mind,” argued that conservatism as a philosophy is based on six canons, condensed here:
1. A divine intent as well as personal conscience rules society, “forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead.”
2. Traditional life, as distinguished from “the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism … of most radical systems,” is filled with variety and mystery.
3. Civilized society requires orders and hierarchy—“if a people destroy natural distinctions among men, presently Bonaparte fills the vacuum.”
4. “Property and freedom are inseparably connected.”
5. “Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite,” knowing that he is governed more by emotion than reason.
6. “Society must alter … but Providence is the proper instrument for change.”
–condensed from Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953), p. 61.
While I personally do not agree completely with each of these points, number five struck me as prescient as an indication of how the consideration of our very human nature constitutes a necessary component to include when reflecting on today’s circumstances. Considering that Kirk was writing these words in 1953, at a time when many thinkers of the day possessed a much less secular worldview, if we translate them without imposing a specific religious connotation, we can see a spiritual component that can inform our “personal conscience,” when attempting to determine how to respond to the “eternal chain of right and duty.”
When we witness the tragic results of recent world events–when we see and share the subsequent emotional and spiritual turmoil–it points to an important confluence of our spiritual nature with our physiological and emotional responses. The American philosopher, William James, (1842-1910) wrote about how our consciousness can directly affect our physiology:
“Even Darwin did not exhaustively enumerate all the bodily affections characteristic of any one of the standard emotions. More and more, as physiology advances, we begin to discern how almost infinitely numerous and subtle they must be. Research…has shown that not only the heart, but the entire circulatory system, forms a sort of sounding-board, which every change of our consciousness, however slight, may make reverberate. Hardly a sensation comes to us without sending waves of alternate constriction and dilatation down the arteries of our arms. The blood-vessels of the abdomen act reciprocally with those of the more outward parts.”
–excerpt from “What is an Emotion?, by William James (1884) First published in Mind, 9, 188-205
While he was considered to be a pragmatist who was more concerned about the practical application of his theories than the abstract concepts which he addressed in his writing, here James hits upon the powerful link between our possession of the penetrating subjective awareness provided by our very human form of consciousness, and the visceral experience of our emotional states and their effect on even the most subtle human physiological responses. We cannot separate ourselves easily from our evolutionary inheritance as a member of the genus Homo, who eventually became a cognitive creature, since we are still very much a product of that evolution. Many of our psychological inclinations and biological imperatives conflict with our more rational and cognitive capacities, and in ways that can pose the kinds of challenges we face in the 21st century.
Our current state of affairs as an American society, and indeed the state of affairs in the many diverse societies and nations of the world who share these challenges, present us not only with an opportunity to demonstrate our values, but also to bring together the many nations of the world in a common goal to answer the challenges posed by those who would perpetrate violence in the pursuit of a radical fundamentalist ideology.
The spirit of our American way of life, characterized by the ideals upon which our nation was originally founded, is not always evident in our actions in the world at large, nor in the rhetoric of our political and religious leaders, but in his book, Russell Kirk detailed the ideals which we have continually strived to attain, and which, if realized, could make all the difference in facing the challenges of our day:
“Kirk argued that Americans possessed those things that made a conservative counterrevolution possible: “the best written constitution in the world, the safest division of powers, the widest diffusion of property, the strongest sense of common interest, the most prosperous economy, an elevated intellectual and moral tradition, and a spirit of self-reliance unequalled in modern times.”
–excerpts from his article on the Heritage Foundation website entitled, “The Conservative Mind of Russell Kirk,” by Lee Edwards, Ph.D.
We need to find a way to answer the difficult questions posed by our circumstances that embraces the spirit of these values, and recognizes that the goal of achieving world peace can only be accomplished if we look within ourselves and reconnect to the human spirit, which Faulkner described as being “…capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
“The working hypothesis of this book is that consciousness emerges from neuronal features of the brain. Understanding the material basis of consciousness is unlikely to require any exotic new physics, but rather a much deeper appreciation of how highly interconnected networks of a large number of heterogeneous neurons work. The abilities of coalitions of neurons to learn from interactions with the environment and from their own internal activities are routinely underestimated. Individual neurons themselves are complex entities with unique morphologies (form and structure) and thousands of inputs and outputs. Their interconnections, the synapses, are molecular machines that come equipped with learning algorithms that modify the strength and dynamics of synapses across many timescales. Humans have no real experience with such a vast organization. Hence, even biologists struggle to appreciate the properties and power of the nervous system.”
– Christof Koch from his book, “The Quest for Consciousness; A Neurobiological Approach”
“Given the centrality of subjective feelings to everyday life, it would require extraordinary factual evidence before concluding that qualia and feelings are illusory. Philosophical arguments, based on logical analysis coupled to introspection, are not powerful enough to deal with the real world with all of its subtleties in a decisive manner. The philosophical method is at its best when formulating questions, but does not have much of a track record at answering them. The provisional approach I take in this book is to consider first-person accounts as brute facts of life and seek to explain them.”
– Christof Koch from his book, “The Quest for Consciousness; A Neurobiological Approach”
In spite of my great admiration for Christof Koch, and for many of those like him, who approach the subject of human consciousness from a more materialistic view, for me personally, these explanations are ultimately unsatisfying in a big way. In pondering these materialist viewpoints in my own “quest for consciousness,” I keep coming back to the “brute facts of life,” in the unambiguous appearance of the very first indications of sentience in Homo sapiens – omnivorous (eating both animal and plant foods) mammalian primates – Anthropoids – who finally demonstrated evidence of the beginnings of modern consciousness.
Even with all of the “neuronal features of the brain” present in our earliest ancestors who had them; we still really weren’t fully “conscious” right away in the same sense that we are now. With all of our accumulated experience as a hominid species, and hundreds of thousands of years in possession of the basic components of our “modern” brains, it took both an expansion of the cerebral cortex generally and the frontal lobes in particular, as well as the most advantageous structure and proportion in the brains of modern humans, to finally be ABLE to demonstrate conscious awareness of the sort we are reading about in the quotes above. And even AFTER we acquired this capacity in the Upper Paleolithic period in the Aurignacian culture, we didn’t start right off developing mathematics and science. We painted cave walls with astonishing artwork, formulated primitive ideas, and began to teach our young what we learned, but it took almost another 30,000 years of human progress to come up with cuneiform, developed by the Sumerian culture during the third millennium BC, and establish the foundations for various other systems for communication and formal languages. In nearly every one of the various ancient cultural and regional human societies and various groupings in human history, once it was finally possible to record and express their subjective awareness of existing in the world, an acknowledgement of a non-physical component to the experience of being alive eventually appeared.
However, just HAVING the “neuronal features of the brain” didn’t automatically produce philosophy or physics. Like all forms of life throughout the history of the planet, we were evolving physically, intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually. The degree of what we may wish to describe as consciousness in many of our fellow primate and mammalian species, while clearly SIMILAR in certain cases to our own, points to an astonishing degree of variance in RESULTS ACHIEVED with only a relatively small degree of difference in physiology.
I keep getting this nagging “feeling” that brain physiology, as ESSENTIAL as it is, cannot be the cause of consciousness “EMERGING” from the brain. Evolution may have “SELECTED” a species-specific brain structure and subsequent functional prowess, but the results of that selection may not have simply and only produced an advantageous survival strategy, but rather, it may have been that by achieving a sufficient number of “neuronal features,” humans may finally have achieved a level of sophistication that provided a fuller degree and quality of ACCESS to an ever-present and ubiquitous “field or force” of consciousness–a fundamental feature of the nature of life in the universe. With all due respect to Christof Koch, in my view, it does not necessarily follow that consciousness EMERGED only as a result of our specific brain structures and functions.
An interesting corollary subject within the discussion surrounding our subjective experience of consciousness is the way in which all of our previous lifelong subjective experiences provide the foundation for our comprehension and apprehension of our current experience in this very moment. Naturally, without having any previous relevant life or learning experiences to draw upon for comparison, any subsequent experience would, by definition, be viewed as a “new experience.” While new experiences are inherent in any circumstance in which we have not been previously familiar in a specific way, as when we travel to a foreign country for the first time, or when we take our first trip on an airplane, even as the specifics of those circumstances provide a degree of subjective experience that could not have been part of our previous existence, there are other foundational experiences that we use to compare against those which are specifically new. Depending on the extent and variety of prior experiences, the assimilation of those which are “new,” may require a great deal more effort to come to terms with them.
The real issue, though, is in the accumulation of subjective knowledge of our existence in the first place. As all human adults are aware, each of us arrives in the world as newborn babies, with only a very limited unconscious experience of life in the womb. Sensory data acquired during that time, while fairly universal in nature, depending on the health and lifestyle of the mother, have a clear but limited effect on our eventually conscious subjective experience. Our early life as an infant, also subject to the subtleties and specific conditions of the environment in which it takes place, are in large part unconscious for a number of years after birth. There are rare exceptions to the general flow of conscious memory accumulation, which generally begins in the third or fourth year of childhood, but for most of us, our early childhood memories most often transmit only a vague sense of those experiences, and are often characterized by episodic “bits and pieces” or “snippets” of conscious recollection.
Once a child achieves a rudimentary functional level of conscious subjective awareness, somewhere around five to seven years along, more lasting and significant memories begin to accumulate, and a broader range of foundational subjective experiences allow the young child to begin to interpret the world with a degree of perspective commensurate with whatever experiences were available during their early development. An experience of deprivation or limited nurturing during the early years can profoundly and adversely affect the development of the child, and providing a richer and more stimulating environment can produce a commensurate increase in the quality and character of their development, along with a substantially increased range of productive subjective experiences with which to interpret and understand the world around them.
In combination with our inherited genetic makeup and a host of other mitigating factors in our specific familial and human lineage, as well as whatever degree of cultural orientation or psychological conditioning that may take place, we often navigate through later childhood and adolescence as much unconsciously as consciously, eventually acquiring a more independently achieved view of the world, based many times on which opportunities are either present and utilized, withheld, or unavailable. While there are no guarantees of a specifically positive or negative outcome in spite of any and all of these mitigating factors, the contributions which they potentially represent can affect our ability to assimilate new experiences significantly.
[image credit: St. Jude Medical; North East Vision Magazine]
I recently reviewed a publication I received a while back from Scientific American entitled, “Mind and Brain,” written by Gerald D. Fischbach, who served as Chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School from 1990 – 2000. The complexity of the human brain as described by Prof. Fischbach is truly fascinating. The intricate workings of the brain’s many components–the synthesis of chemical and genetic functions, the coordination of the many physiological functions and systems, the neural networks that manifest intelligence and make awareness, perception, and differentiation possible–are indeed miraculous!
Fischbach reminds us:
“Mind is often equated with consciousness, a subjective sense of self-awareness…but there is no a priori reason to assign a particular locus to consciousness, or even to assume that such global awareness exists as a physiologically unified entity. Moreover, there is more to mind than consciousness, or the cerebral cortex. Affect depends on the functions of neurons in the same manner as does conscious thought.”
In my prior posting I mentioned the suggestion by Annie Besant that “the mind is only the struggling part of the soul, working in this brain for the purposes of the soul’s growth.” If, as Besant suggests, the soul or spirit is manifest as consciousness, brought into the world of matter through the mind, and made useful by the neurological functions of the brain, we can begin there to formulate a connection between the existence of consciousness and the existence of the human spirit.
From the earliest inklings of consciousness in our ancient ancestors, to the current levels of modern consciousness, the gradual expansion of our awareness and intelligence has delivered us to the most dynamic epoch in the history of human existence. Although we know that without a nominally functional brain, with at least the basic cognitive functions intact, we cannot “interface” with the world of experience, it is my belief that the source of our consciousness–the foundational element to which we are connecting–is not currently accessible to us as a comprehensible temporal phenomenon. Understanding consciousness may require a “quantum leap” of comprehension, and perhaps, a leap of the imagination as well.
The human mind is not simply the result of genetic tinkering over millions of years of adaptation, but may be the natural consequence of mental functioning which provides us with a framework for comprehending the world in which we think and therefore exist. That which we refer to as “mind” is also an abstraction used to allude to our conscious awareness, but it involves a great deal more than a nominally functional thought process. Without a brain there is no “awareness,” but even with a brain, there may not be a “mind.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a philosopher and Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and geologist wrote that “There is a persistent and clearly defined thrust of animal forms toward species with more sensitive and elaborate nervous systems. There is a continued heightening; a rising tide of consciousness; which visibly manifests itself on our planet in the course of the ages.”
The brain’s cognitive functions provide the foundation for the unfolding of conscious awareness, but utilizing brain functions as a means of achieving awareness does not make the brain the indisputable source of consciousness any more than utilizing a functional antenna makes IT the source of radio wave transmissions. The transmission must first be invented and initiated by the mind.
Could this simply be a matter of an ever-increasing complexity producing life forms with comparably better-equipped cognitive abilities, or could it be that with greater cognitive capacity, we are able to access increasingly higher levels of consciousness?
…..more to come…