Recently, I went for a walk–wandering around the neighborhood–and when I came back, I took a look around the house and was struck by a few particular moments of the extraordinary, waiting to be discovered in the ordinary. Every year around this time, all of nature usually comes alive simultaneously, and it is always a relief to once again observe the greenery coming back to life, but this year, nature seems to be bursting out all over the yard, and it almost seems to be trying to swallow the house whole. The image above was taken in a field near the house which I snapped while walking, and it felt relatively safe and ordinary as I paused to capture the scene.
Once I came along the sidewalk in front of the house, I was taken by surprise by what seemed like a jungle creeping up on the house, with our cat, Mittens apparently oblivious to the impending attack. On the right hand side, next to the yellow rose bush, what I had earlier dismissed as simply a small new tree, has suddenly taken root and shot up like a beanstalk. The ivy in the center of the image, which had always seemed like a nice decoration around the light pole at the end of the walkway, now appears to have engulphed the whole thing. Yes, there is a light post under all those leaves.
It won’t be long before the mailman will have to bring a machete with him to get to the mailbox!
The ivy is starting to take over the whole front of the house.
It’s even creeping up to grab anyone coming out the door.
It’s getting a bit ridiculous now.
But lo and behold! Sitting out on the back porch I notice that a maple seedling from the backyard tree has taken root in the space between the boards. In the most unexpected places, and against tremendous odds, nature has found a way to flourish! Even though it’s clearly doomed in the long run, I couldn’t help but stare in amazement at how persistent and unflinchingly the plants and trees and everything alive is growing all around me.
The natural world, of which we are an integral part, shows us even in these humble discoveries on an ordinary day, how it is that we can approach life as something extraordinary, which needs to be appreciated and which should provoke us with wonder and inspire awe. Imperceptibly, but relentlessly, every plant and tree persists under the most daunting circumstances. We cut it out, and it grows back. We rip it out by the roots, and the seedlings drop and the process begins again. Every year, with lethal intent, I decimate the ivy and chop it to bits, and no matter what I do, life finds a way.
Apparently unfazed by it all, our cat, Princess, seems blissfully unaware of the tumultuous orchestration of Mother Nature all around her, and found a quiet spot on an old carpet remnant to curl up for an afternoon nap. As the mammal with the big brain and a penetrating cognitive awareness, I find myself curiously undone by all of these ordinary wonders, and equally cognizant of the extraordinary aspects which serve as the foundation for all life and existence in our little corner of the world. Time to dig a little deeper…..
Paulo Coelho’s quote brings us to contemplate the very essence of what it means to be alive and what significance our lives may hold in the big picture. We cannot simply move through life oblivious to the deeper meaning that surely must exist at the foundation of our existence in the physical universe. The importance of our efforts in striving to discover what meaning there might be in our individual lives is really just a momentary “parenthesis in eternity,” but when we arrive at a place and time where we may actually begin to see how this meaning becomes real for us as individuals, it points to a much broader meaning which applies to all life and all existence.
Recent travels have inspired some serious contemplation of Coelho’s thoughts and while the natural landscape of Virginia is available to anyone with the means and the will to travel there, for me as an individual, this image holds a deeper meaning and has sparked many ideas that point to a broader meaning. I am hopeful in the months to come that I will be able to share more completely how this came about, as I am preparing to retire in a few weeks. So much has been quietly and patiently been waiting for me to arrive in a place and time where this will become real for me, and I am looking forward to dedicating much more time to this pursuit of discovery and sharing with all my readers here.
There is a deeper meaning to life that has been apparent to me for some time now, in spite of all the obstacles to spending time discovering it and sharing it with the world. As a father to six wonderful children, I have had a front row seat for life’s ups and downs, and have relished every moment of sharing this life with them, but when your own children start having children, the discoveries are increased exponentially. Holding two of my seven grandchildren in this image reveals a small window into how it is that being with any of them always fills my heart with a sense of a deeper meaning that is totally real. It’s not just biology and it’s not just because my granddaughters are wonderful. This is a precious moment.
All of the efforts over the past seven years to speak to the subjective experience of human consciousness have given my life a degree of meaning, and the paths I have pursued in the search for discoveries that hold meaning for me all point to the truth contained in the quote from Stan Grof, a psychiatrist who spent many years researching non-ordinary states of consciousness. With so much yet to be discovered, it is my hope that our continued dialog and sharing of ideas will bear fruit that helps others see this deeper meaning.
Hope to share much more in the days and weeks to come…..John H.
View from Blue Ridge Parkway in southwestern Virginia
There are few experiences for frequent highway travelers that can compare with the exceptional countryside road views available along the highways within the Blue Ridge Mountain range, which stretches from northern Georgia all the way up to Pennsylvania.
Recent camping trips have resulted in several wonderful opportunities for both sustained hours of contemplation, and for producing some remarkable images along the variety of roads and some lovely trails leading through the scenic areas surrounding the campgrounds in Virginia. As a consequence of being able to enjoy these opportunities, a number of avenues of exploration have opened for me, and in the coming weeks I hope to share postings which will include the fruits of those opportunities, both in the visual sense through photo essays, as well as in a spiritual and philosophical sense through the expression of my contemplative efforts and recorded thoughts from the numerous visits to the various natural landscapes in these areas.
Traversing the countryside in a motor vehicle is one of the best ways to get a broad appreciation of the scope of natural beauty and wide expanses available to visit, and frequently you can encounter alternative and unfamiliar points of interest which you can either stop and explore immediately, or perhaps make a note to schedule a visit at a later time. Sometimes, while on the way to a planned stop, pausing to take in a scenic overlook can provide a wonderful opportunity to be inspired and to appreciate the advantage of serendipity for sharing in nature’s bounty.
By far, some of the most beneficial and inspiring scenes are more often attainable by stepping out of the vehicle, and hiking along the trails and visiting the many visitor centers which can provide helpful information about the most interesting sites contained within the state and national park system. Trails can vary from leisurely and easy walks through tried and true paths for the casual visitor, all the way to some of the more challenging hikes through rugged terrain.
One of my more recent trips into nature’s gardens provided an especially fruitful time in contemplation, and included the chance to review a volume of philosophical writings by Descartes received as a gift from my brother at Christmas. Safely nestled in the bosom of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I encountered a passage that seemed to be describing the very path of my life:
“As soon as I was old enough to emerge from the control of my teachers, I entirely abandoned the study of letters. Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth travelling, visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situations which fortune offered me, and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it…”
“…For it seemed to me that much more truth could be found in the reasonings which a man makes concerning matters that concern him than in those which some scholar makes in his study about speculative matters. For the consequences of the former will soon punish the man if he judges wrongly, whereas the latter have no practical consequences and no importance for the scholar except that perhaps the further they are from common sense the more pride he will take in them, since he will have had to use so much more skill and ingenuity in trying to render them plausible. And it is always my most earnest desire to learn to distinguish the true from the false in order to see clearly into my own actions and proceed with confidence in this life.”
–from “Discourse On The Method,” by Rene Descartes, published in 1644
In the weeks to come, I will be enlarging and expanding on the clear association between communing with nature apart from most all familiar modern amenities, (with the exception of the devices for photography and recording my thoughts for posterity) with the emergence of important life lessons, philosophical writings, and a greater well-being as an individual struggling with the meaning and purpose of his remaining years on this earth.
In a recent communication with a dear friend, I reported a brief defense of this association in this way:
“You can almost hear your heart beating in the stillness of early morning in the forest. There is a reflection of life across the still lake waters at dawn. It is humbling and life-affirming to look out at beautiful mountain vistas. All of nature reflects all of life…”
“And don’t forget to unplug your earbuds or headphones and to walk without any sound except what nature provides, and look within. There is more wisdom available in one hour of stillness in Nature’s gardens, than you could ever hope to find…(elsewhere)”
…more to come…
As many of my regular readers may recall, back in 2012, my family and I suffered the personal loss of our dear brother, Michael, and at that time, our personal experiences surrounding that loss, and having to endure the profound sadness that accompanied those events, presented us with an unprecedented challenge of finding a path forward that did not include his presence among us. It seemed, in many ways, like an impossible task, and although each of us still struggles to some degree with the memories of the last days of his life, in the intervening five years since then, we have continued to support and love one another, and to honor his memory by celebrating as a family whenever possible.
Over the past few days, as the five year mark has approached, I have spent some time considering the broader view of the significance of life, including lessons from the past, as well as those of our own time, and I hope a brief look at the value of this moment from a different perspective, will be of some small comfort and solace to those who may presently be enduring a similar challenge in their own lives.
Beyond the potent personal memory of the loss which occurred on this day in 2012, this commemoration also provides an opportunity to share what are, perhaps, the even more important aspects of our contemplation, which are, to remember our dear brother with love, and to celebrate the abundant love we all still share, as we constantly seek a new beginning; a way to look ahead to the future with hope.
In preparing to write this blog post, I came across a bible passage from Ecclesiastes, which speaks to the heart of the matter. It’s taken from Chapter one, verses four through eleven:
“One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down…All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full…There is no remembrance of the men of old; nor of those to come will there be any remembrance among those who come after them.” Ecclesiastes 1:4-11
The world in which these words were written was a very different world than the one we now know. When it was written, which scholars believe was probably about three centuries before Christ, Alexander the Great was moving through Asia and into Europe, and he eventually conquered most of the known world, before succumbing to a fever, at age 32.
By Charles Le Brun – , Public Domain, Alexander’s Arrival in Babylon
While we rightly mourned the loss of our beloved brother at the age of 61, who was known primarily to his extended family, friends, and coworkers, I couldn’t help but ponder, in contrast to the effect of our loss, how much impact the loss of Alexander must have had on the world at large, when one of the most famous human conquerors and world leaders of all human history passed away having barely entered his thirties.
What is now apparent to our modern sensibilities, with the benefit of an historical perspective, is that the precise world that Alexander knew, the empire he established and which endured over many centuries, has now also passed into history. Generations of human beings have been born, have perished, and have been followed by succeeding generations, and yet, the earth remains.
From age to age, the human race has continued, but each one of us, exists only briefly on this earth, like a shadow, quickly skimming across the surface of the planet, with the changing light of day.
Considering the lives of all the previous generations of our family, the world that WE all know, is a reflection of their tireless efforts to promote and preserve the values that we now possess as the inheritors of that legacy. Our family history is replete with examples of steadfast love and support, across all the generations that preceded ours. It has been an unshakable love, which created a robust tradition of faith and family values, all too often absent in the world these days.
But neither the earth, nor the world in which we exist upon it, remain unchanged. Each new generation builds upon the one before, and although we create our individual worlds as we grow, we introduce changes which are sometimes profound, and perhaps sometimes unnoticed, but undeniably, these differences contribute either to the destruction of what came before, or to the construction of the world that is yet to come.
It should give us pause to consider, especially now, as we contemplate the passing of the most recent previous generation of our family, that we must find a reason to be grateful, and to be encouraged, and perhaps, to be a bit more hopeful regarding the prospects that life holds for us, as we make our way into the future. In Ecclesiastes, we are reminded that humans often don’t remember long the people and the lessons of the past, but no matter how many generations come and go, our legacy of love will endure if we nurture it.
Our science tells us that even the earth will eventually succumb to the death of the sun at the center of our solar system, which nourishes our planet currently, but what it is that has been created here on earth, and indeed, throughout the entire universe itself, is the manifestation of the divine source of all things, and that, like the love we now inherit from previous generations, truly does abide forever.
I found myself traveling today along the rural back roads near my home, on my way back from visiting with my children, and I had the rare opportunity to enjoy a pleasant drive through brilliant sunshine and vibrant blue skies, surrounded by farmland and the exquisite greens of a late summer afternoon. My heart has been burdened lately with a host of concerns that have made settling down to write here on my blog a bit problematical, and today it finally seemed like the sun was poking through within me, just enough to gather a few words to share with all of you.
As I traversed the beautiful byways between where I was and where I was going, I decided to insert the soundtrack to the film, “Amadeus,” into the CD player, (yes…some of us still do that…) and the music brought me to a place that nearly always is provocative and contemplative simultaneously–the musical landscape created by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The traffic was light today, so driving down the road alone, taking in such spectacular visual delights as I listened, allowed my mind to wander a bit, and also to connect with the creative human spirit which was Mozart, opening my heart and mind to both the nature and the nurture possible in such circumstances.
The visit with my son included an opportunity to enjoy the play of light and the elements that make up the environment where he lives. Lounging in the old fashioned kitchen was the perfect prelude to the journey through the rural landscape, and before I headed out on the highway, I took a few minutes to capture several images of the magic light which always seems to illuminate the kitchens in our family.
As I turned out of the driveway, I slipped in the Mozart CD and was surprised by the power of the music to fill in the gaps of the silence within me; it seemed to accompany the passing sights perfectly, particularly two choral renditions, one from his opera, “Don Giovanni,” and the Requiem, K626. The performances were nearly hypnotic in their effect, and I thought it a bit synchronous for the music which was created so many years ago, (Mozart lived from 1756 to 1791) to be able to match perfectly this 21st century road trip.
My inner landscape also seemed to match the outer one as the excursion progressed, and I briefly felt completely one with all the elements of my experience, placing those concerns and delights into a temporary state of equilibrium. A recent conversation with a dear friend who encouraged me to continue with my work here, gave me just the push I needed to find a moment to bring it all together and share it with all of you.
The challenges are great for me at present, but I have been journaling and recording ideas for expanding my mission and my vision, even though none of it, so far, has made an appearance here. As I contemplated what I might write about this particular day, it occurred to me that having to endure situations like mine is one of the reasons God sent us Mozart. He was like a brilliant shooting star across the skies of life in the 1700’s, but his music and his genius have endured across the centuries to fill in the gaps of our inner silence, even today…
…more to come…
Since there is so much conversation going on these days about Artificial Intelligence and what we might expect in the coming years as scientists and researchers advance in constructing ever-more complex machines, I thought it might be a good time to consider not only what it means to be “intelligent,” but also what importance the term “artificial” carries with it when using the two terms together in a sentence. In recent years, cognitive scientists and AI researchers have made significant progress in producing machines which can perform specific tasks and demonstrate specialized capacities for accomplishing remarkable feats of machine intelligence, and in very specific ways, have outperformed humans in circumstances which previously were thought to be beyond such artificial constructs.
While all of the hoopla and publicity surrounding such events generally results in hyperbole and sensational headlines, there is a degree of fundamental achievement underneath it all that warrants our attention and could be described as commendable in the context of modern scientific research. Most media consumers and television viewers have encountered the commercials for IBM’s Watson, and have likely been exposed to reports of Watson’s abilities and accomplishments. There is much to admire in the work that resulted in the existence of such a system, and the benefits are fairly straightforward as presented by the advertisements, although it is also clear that they have been designed to feature what might be the most benign and easy-to-understand characteristics of a system which accomplishes its tasks using artificial intelligence. Much of the underlying science, potential risks, and limits of such research are rarely discussed in such ads.
In order to make some kind of sense of it all, and to think about what it is exactly that is being accomplished with artificial intelligence, what forces and processes are being employed, and how the results compare to other cognitive achievements, especially as it relates to human intelligence and human cognitive processes, we have to understand something about the most important differences between a system like Watson, and the cognitive processes and brain physiology of modern humans. While some stunning similarities exist between the basic architecture of neural networks in the brain and modern AI devices, not a single project currently being undertaken is anywhere near the goal of rising to an equivalent level of general capability or even just achieving a basic understanding what it takes to create a human mind. It’s not that it’s an impossible undertaking, nor is it impossible to imagine how human minds might eventually make great leaps in both constructing advanced systems and in making progress toward a greater level of understanding. After all, the human mind is pretty stunning all by itself!
What is most discouraging from my point of view is how much emphasis is being placed on the mechanics of intelligence–the structural underpinning of physical systems–instead of including a more holistic and comprehensive approach to increasing our understanding. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Yale University computer science professor, David Gelernter, (Review, March 19-20, 2017) posits that “…software can simulate feeling. A robot can tell you it’s depressed and act depressed, although it feels nothing.” Whether or not this approach might bring us closer to “machines that can think and feel,” successfully doing so seems like a long shot. If all we can do is “simulate” a human mind, is that really accomplishing anything?
Professor Gelernter goes to great lengths to describe the levels of a functional human mind, and gives us valuable insights into the way our own minds work, and he illuminates the way we shift between levels of awareness, as well as how we make such good use of our unique brand of intelligence. He then suggests that AI could create these same circumstances in a “computer mind,” and that it could “…in principle, build a simulated mind that reproduced all of the nuances of human thought, and (which) dealt with the world in a thoroughly human way, despite being unconscious.” He takes great pains to enumerate all the ways in which the “spectrum” of a human mind operates, and then concludes that “Once AI has decided to notice and accept this spectrum–this basic fact about the mind–we will be able to reproduce it in software.”
We cannot reduce what it means to feel to the astonishingly complex machinations of the human brain, any more than we can boil down the complexity of the human brain to the point where an artfully written piece of software can recreate anything even close to human feelings–what it actually feels like to be a living, breathing, cognitive human being. As Hamlet explains to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare’s intimation on the limitations of even human thought should give us pause to consider the limitations of producing it artificially.
—more to come—
“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.