January has flown by at the speed of light it seems, and I have only today been able to find an opportunity to sit quietly at my desk and contemplate this posting–the first of the new year. It has been a tumultuous time for us all here in America over the past several months, and it has, no doubt, also been equally so for many others around the world. As Americans, we tend to look upon the events in our own native land as primarily our own, when it might be more precise describe them as world events, since we are inextricably linked to the rest of the world by virtue of our standing as a major force in the world. We may wish to turn our focus inward on our own country as a means of coming to terms with the circumstances of the world-at-large, but ultimately, we are, at some point, going to have to face up to the reality of eventually becoming a global community of human beings. I am not inclined to engage in political debates about the wisdom, virtues, or liabilities of becoming a global community of humans, and the purpose of this blog is far removed from such debates, but it is clear that as a sentient, cognitive, emotional, often irrational, historically contentious and radically philosophical and diverse community of humans, we are gradually going to have to acknowledge that our focus on the external world, on the world outside of our own personal subjective experience, will very likely require a much greater emphasis on understanding our internal world, if we are ever going to solve the problems facing us everywhere else.
The image above shows a most unique and thoughtful gift I received this year at our annual family Christmas gathering. Since we have such a large extended family group, for years now we have put everyone’s name in a hat and conducted a Pollyanna method for gift-giving, and our tradition has grown into an enormous barrel of fun as we not only scramble to find our recipient in a house full of celebrating members, but then we increase the torment by going around one-by-one and describing our gift to the gathered multitudes. As you might imagine, there are frequently choruses of “o-o-o-o-o-s” and “a-a-a-ah-h-h-s” as particularly fancy or interesting gifts are displayed, and occasionally, when a gift is clearly a mismatch with or some commentary on the receiver, chaos and laughter generally follow. My received gift of the writer’s quill and ink with a beautifully embossed journal met with a resounding cheer of approval from those present, and the acknowledgement that it would be particularly appropriate as a gift for ME, while not surprising to anyone, was a source of great delight for me as the grateful recipient. As someone who is historically sentimental and overtly emotional, I found myself oddly at a loss for words. The gift, in my heart and mind, clearly was much more one of gratitude for the acknowledgement as a writer, and I muddled through the description phase in a fairly unspectacular manner, only managing afterwards to give a heartfelt expression of thanks to my dear nephew for the sentiment the gift held for me.
After the holidays had settled down a bit, I once again turned to this gift and thought to write some message on the inner leaf as a first use of the quill. It seemed appropriate to me to invoke the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes in view of the acknowledgement that all things contain elements of opposing energies, and in spite of our best efforts, each urgency in life has a time for it to flourish and a time when it wanes, but perhaps none more-so than when writing with a quill. I had some experience with similar ink pens in grammar school, which had the same metal point through which the ink would reach the paper, but the quill presents a unique challenge as the writer must gauge when to pause and when to dip the end into the ink bottle, and finding a method of presenting one’s thoughts in a reasonably consistent flow on the page takes patience and focus. I spent some time practicing on scraps of paper and experimented with my technique for some time, but eventually I concluded that it comes down to achieving a basic understanding of the dynamics of the process and then throwing caution to the wind in order to make any progress at all. What follows is an excerpt from my first entry in the journal. It’s a reasonably consistent flow in the thoughts expressed and a somewhat less consistent display of mastery with the quill:
“Indeed, of all the things that make us human, perhaps none is more important or prominent or significant than brain physiology. So many of our capacities are enabled by the brain, so much of our experience of the world is made possible by cognition–by the firing of neurons and the transfer of ions across barriers from one axon to the next dendrite over the synapses, which send the electrical impulses racing along the neural networks between brain regions.”
While recording these thoughts in the journal, it occurred to me that there was a time in our world when the quill was the one of the most common writing utensils in use for writers of every sort, and it became quickly apparent to me that my mind, having become accustomed to a much quicker pace and a much wider variety of methods for recording its machinations, was clearly unhappy with the slow, steady, and almost draconian pace which the quill forces on the writer. My tendency to change my mind several times in the course of a paragraph or even in a sentence or within a phrase, caused me much consternation when I realized that implementing these changes would require that I either cross something out or inevitably to rewrite entire sections. We have been spoiled by our modern editing tools and alternative methods of recording our thoughts, in ways that allow for changes to occur with very little fanfare.
On the box, the manufacturers in France chose to quote Victor Hugo, who rightly points out that writing with a quill has “the lightness of the wind,” but may, if the writer has some degree of skill in the subject, end up presenting thoughts which act with “the power of lightning.” There have been authors and creative souls of every sort through the ages whose words did indeed act with the power of lightning, and who also recorded those words using the quill and ink. They have my unmitigated admiration for pursuing their thoughts in such a way, and with such patience and determination required just to set them down on paper, let alone empower them with the strength of lightning.
I have recently been at somewhat of a loss for words. There are many thoughts tumbling around in my brain, though, and I am hoping to present a great many more of them for my readers here in the months to come. I hope you will return often to review those I have already recorded, and add your own thoughts on any entries you feel speak with even a hint of that lightning.
With best wishes to everyone here at WordPress.com…….John H.
“Everything remembered is dear, touching, precious….at least the past is safe, though we didn’t know it at the time. We know it now, because we have survived.” –Susan Sontag, Partisan Review Winter 1967
“Daydreaming is good for you. It fosters creativity, happiness and mental health…Daydreaming, letting your wishes and instincts play out, is so important because the real you– your true, authentic, emotional, free and spontaneous self comes to life. When you express the true self you are less likely to feel anxious or depressed and more likely to feel creative and content…Memories, fantasies, intuitions and inner conflicts that need to be worked through find a place for expression in daydreams. When your deeper mind opens up, you feel better, see possibilities and uncover solutions. Daydreaming strengthens the identity, fosters awareness and helps you grow…”
–excerpts from article in Psychology Today, “Creativity, Happiness and Daydreaming,” posted May 27, 2012, by Carrie Barron M.D.
Reflecting recently on the idea of the wandering mind, it occurred to me that daydreams often take up a significant portion of my daily mental life, and as the quote from Dr. Barron points out, it can have benefits for those who employ it in moderation. Recently, though, it seems that engaging in wandering mentally has become what I prefer to do whenever the opportunity presents itself, and seems to affirm her conclusions, particularly the one about opening your deeper mind allowing you to “…feel better, see possibilities, and uncover solutions.”
During a recent episode of concentrated daydreaming, I decided to record my wandering thoughts, hoping to gain some perspective or intuition from the stream of daydreaming consciousness. The recording took place in solitude, in a warm bath, and in a spontaneous state of mind:
“There is a single candle burning in the corner. The water is warm and surrounds me on all sides. There is no light except for the candle, and yet, this is not completely true. There is another kind of light in the room, but it is not of the visible sort. It is, in some ways, a memory of light–in some ways the essence of light–and in other ways, a monument of light.
The memory of light, as it once shown, occurs often enough to evoke the feeling of the experience of the light, even as I might sit with eyes closed, allowing my wandering mind to illuminate the darkness without the benefit of an actual source of light being present. And yet I feel such comfort from the flame of the candle in the corner. It is a very small flame, but it speaks to something much greater–the sense of mystery and awe that I am even here to observe it in the first place.”
There have been a number of times in my life when I came close to extinguishing myself through accident or serendipity–never by intention–even though we often conduct our lives with other intentions of one sort or another, we occasionally place ourselves on the path of danger. I have been on the path of danger many times. Danger and I are old friends. As I contemplate the possibilities which may endanger me on the path ahead, perhaps the greatest danger is revealed upon reflection of the past:
“A long time ago, in centuries past, we existed on a plane that can no longer be reached. It is clearly in the past, but it also here and now in my wandering mind. We breathed the same air. Our hearts beat in rhythmic unison. I gazed deeply into your eyes; inhaled the scent which rose from your body; embraced the spirit inside you. At such moments, though bodies touch and hearts beat independently, we were one. My heart rose with each embrace. My spirit expanded until it encompassed yours; it has happened a hundred times a hundred times over centuries…and now…I know your spirit. I can see myself in you; our paths are illuminated by each other.
We have no patience. We cannot say what makes all of us as one. It must be experienced. In the ages past, when we first encountered the path, everything else disappeared. The whole physical world went dark except for the immediate area which surrounded us. As my eyes fell upon you, there was a powerful moment of astonishment and utter fascination. I couldn’t be sure if what I saw was the brilliance of the morning sun or a natural aura surrounding you. Like the fascination one feels staring into a fire in the darkness, I couldn’t turn my gaze away.”
Life itself contains the essence of light. We sometimes refer to difficult days as “dark days,” and celebrate joyful people as “lighting up a room,” whenever they enter it. When we lose the trail of thought or come to a point on our path where we lose track of our direction, we say the trail has “gone dark,” and conversely, when we see a path forward, we may say that our path is now “illuminated.”
When I was a very young grammar school student I was fascinated by the ancient world, far beyond what any of my fellow classmates seemed to be, and I delved into it mentally with a passionate intensity within my own inner world, and it seemed to me that no one even noticed my absence in the room as I wandered through the thoughts of what it must have been like to live in ancient times. There was no frame of reference for me or for the others either, but somehow I persisted and continued to indulge my daydreams. I wasn’t able to express the content or the character of those machinations. It was probably about the age of twelve when I realized that I obviously was contemplating experiences that could not be the result of what was manifesting in my everyday real world. I never lost this dual awareness as I grew, and even as a young man in the modern military in Germany, I couldn’t help but spend any available moment staring out the window, lost in the inner world of my daydreams.
“While in between tasks, (during a recent study) researchers noticed that a set of brain structures in their participants started to become more active. These same structures turned off as soon as the participants began to engage in the cognitive tasks that were the original focus of the research.
Eventually, scientists were able to pinpoint this set of specific brain structures which we now know as the brain’s “default network.” This network links parts of the frontal cortex, the limbic system, and several other cortical areas involved in sensory experiences. While active, the default network turns itself on and generates its own stimulation. The technical term for such a product of the default network is “stimulus independent thought,” a thought about something other than events that originate from the outside environment. In common speech, stimulus independent thoughts make up fantasies and daydream, the stuff of mind wandering.
Apart from entertaining us when we’re bored…the preponderance of evidence suggests that the default network is there to help us explore our inner experiences (Buckner et al., 2008). Specifically, we engage our default network when we’re thinking about our past experiences, imagining an event that might take place in the future, trying to understand what other people are thinking, and assisting us in making moral decisions.”
–excerpts from article posted on Psychology Today website, “Why and How You Daydream,” Jan 08, 2013 by Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.
In the evening, as the days grow longer, and the daylight lingers, I sense a change beyond my control. I don’t know at all how I might survive it. Clinging to the grasp I have, I try to express myself in positive terms. I am uncertain about the future. What I do know, is that there is something more for me, my world–it is headed for the unknown, the incongruous, the ambiguous–the complete and utter boundlessness that the realm of possibility presents. I can stare blankly ahead, I can retreat, look away, drop into obscurity, but no matter where I go, my destiny will find me. When it does come, with luck, I will be able to pursue it. When my star rises, and the wheels begin to turn in that direction, perhaps there is a chance, after all these years of contemplation and writing, I may be approaching the culmination of the sum of all my daydreams.
“Never in the world were any two opinions alike, any more than any two hairs or grains of sand. Their most universal quality is diversity.” –Montaigne, Essays, 1580
In a letter-writing conversation with a thoughtful friend some years ago, the topic turned to how to engage others more deeply without abandoning our own sense of self or compromising our ability to function as an individual spirit in the world. My friend wrote, “…deep engagement without reluctance, in my opinion does turn the world upside down, and the only way to engage at that deep level, unless you are still in the womb, is to let go of your own consciousness. But there is a conflict because what we seem to hope for is deep engagement not with our primal undifferentiated selves, but with our developed selves; but the developed self by nature is separate, has evolved to live independently of the host, the mother.”
In response, I turned to the writings of C.G.Jung, and his ideas about the process of individuation, which, according to a notation in Wikipedia, “…is the process in which the individual self develops out of an undifferentiated unconscious – seen as a developmental psychic process during which innate elements of personality, the components of the immature psyche, and the experiences of the person’s life become integrated over time into a well-functioning whole.” Jung believed that “…the essentially ‘internal’ process of individuation does not go on in some inner space cut off from the world. Rather, it can only be realized within the larger context of life as it is lived.” Our developed selves, brought about by individuation are, in my opinion, perhaps more accurately described as being founded upon our primal undifferentiated selves, rather than as something separate from it, but it seems pretty clear that it is our developed selves which inspire conflict when it does occur. Conflict seems to me to be more of a cultural problem than one of the host being separate from the mother.
In a letter he wrote a few months before his death, Jung stated:
“It is quite possible that we look at the world from the wrong side and that we might find the right answer by changing our point of view and looking at it from the other side, that is, not from the outside, but from inside.”
For me, the connections I recognize as those which I strive to engage without reluctance and without turning the world upside down, transcend the developed self. The crucial point of the matter here seems to be our connection to the infinite. In his autobiography, Jung wrote:
“If we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change…In our relationships…the crucial question is whether an element of boundlessness is expressed in the relationship…Only consciousness of our narrow confinement in the self forms the link to the limitlessness of the unconscious…In knowing ourselves to be unique in our personal combination—that is, ultimately limited—we possess also the capacity for becoming conscious of the infinite.”
– excerpt from Jung’s autobiography, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” 1963, New York: Random House.
I have struggled to come to terms with the compelling inner sense of a connection to the infinite that has appeared regularly in my writings these many years. I often struggle also with attempting to articulate this inner urging and to describe it in ways that can be appreciated by my readers here. Of necessity as temporal beings, we often resort to temporal references in order to allude to that which cannot be described in temporal terms. The nature of life, temporal existence, the physical universe, and everything relevant to that existence cannot be described completely in terms belonging only to that physical existence. We have devised ways of referring to these other aspects of life and existence, particularly as they relate to our very human nature, and acknowledge them as existing in a domain far removed from the temporal–as far removed from the temporal plane as we are from the quantum world of the very small, and the farthest reaches of the physical universe. Although we are, in some important ways, defined by these two opposing aspects, the truth seems to reside between them.
Sometimes, we all need to step away from the table, to catch up on our sleep, or to clear our hearts and minds from all the clutter that can accumulate. Wellness requires periods of rest; mental health requires periods of sleep and occasional disconnects. No one goes on vacation all the time, just every once in a while. It is unlikely to find peace in even a deep connection unless we are able to find some peace in ourselves. This is the absolute goal in successful relationships, and I feel strongly that I DO have some peace within me now. I may have some additional work to do through contemplation and ruminating on my path that brought me to my present place in the world, and psychologically we should all be continuously working to engage our hearts and minds in the pursuit of progressing as a person, but the foundation I now possess has been hard-won and warrants consideration when I sometimes still feel that twinge of the memory of the pain that led to the peace of where I am now.
Each of us suffers subjectively in ways that cannot meaningfully be compared to the suffering of others. As a person who cannot seem to avoid empathizing with the suffering of others, I have endured my own suffering with a fairly unique perspective as a man. My mother told me that as a young boy, when one of the other children in the neighborhood would fall down or be crying for some reason, I would also cry. As I witnessed the birth of each of my children, I cried buckets of tears, and holding one of my grandchildren now or when I see any newborn child, my heart absolutely melts. Reading about the tragic circumstances that seem to appear regularly in the news these days frequently brings me to tears. I can’t say I know many other men who have this problem. These experiences clearly are of the “very human” variety, and it seems to me that our very human nature is more complex and mysterious than any of the science, psychology, or philosophy of mind currently can illuminate.
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
Nature is not matter only, she is also spirit. ~Carl Jung; CW 13; Paragraph 229.
Travel with me for a moment or two. Back…Back in time…even further back…to the dawn of the fullness of true self-awareness in our primitive ancestors.
What a moment it must have been when humans were able to finally know with certainty…”We are here–we exist.” Sentient human beings, at some point, were able to acknowledge, “I know that I am.” It seems likely that it was not possible to articulate this acknowledgement at first. The realization may have been simply a very rudimentary kind of “knowing.” It must have taken much longer to develop a means of expressing this fundamental acquisition. It is also likely that the earliest form of cognition was visual or composed mostly of mental images, and perhaps the initial apprehension of awareness consisted mostly of abstractions that had no practical means to be expressed except through gestures and actions which eventually drove the necessity of expressing them through the early forms of language.
Countless eons passed with no true appreciation of this fuller and more specific form of awareness or knowledge of existing as an individual, and as a larger social group or species. But when it finally appeared, it must have been astonishing to those who experienced it. Some initial form of it must have been percolating below the surface–protruding into the primitive mind. There was no formal oral language. Perhaps some rudimentary signalling or series of gestures appeared at first, which communicated urgent instinctual needs and desires. At some point, the first truly sentient humans became meaningfully self-aware. At that moment, I can only imagine how they must have opened their eyes one morning, and knew that something was completely different than the day before. It clearly must have been a gradual unfolding, not an instantaneous realization, but when it finally took hold, it began the journey toward self-realization until it eventually blossomed into modern consciousness. On that morning, the early Homo sapiens must have been awestruck, and may not have known what to do with it, or why it was there. Without language, it would be impossible to express the experience in a meaningful way. It may have been frightening in a way, even disturbing. Imagine yourself having an extraordinary experience or brand new sensation and NOT being able to ask yourself or another with words, “What is this strange sensation?” “What does it mean?”
As time progressed, the earliest individuals with this new capacity, may have begun to notice this same strange new awareness in others. Perhaps, a glance, a signal, which on a previous day would have naturally resulted in an instinctual response, at some point, saw a day when that instinctual response rose up, but was quieted, suddenly paused, or halted, or stifled. It must have been confusing, having a sense that what was happening had never happened before. Gradually, every experience which followed must have seemed, in an important way, like a new experience, unlike the others before it. The emotional response to such a radical alteration of their daily experience might have produced a degree of chaos initially, making them fearful to some degree. We can only imagine how the experience of self-awareness in each individual may have affected their interactions with others as they struggled to comprehend the ancient world. It may have been like waking up from a dream, suddenly realizing you’re awake. We all know that experience, when maybe we have a repetitious dream, one we’ve had many times, and it suddenly goes quiet. There’s a transitional moment or two when you awake and you’re startled, and you think to yourself, “My God…it was a dream,” or even, “What WAS that?…it felt so real.” For those ancient humans, it WAS real.
This capacity to be aware of being aware, might very well have been the driving force behind the development of a more complex and grammatical language, beyond the practical necessities of communicating the day-to-day urgencies of life during those early epochs. Think of all the questions that must have come up, with no words and no one to answer them but themselves. No one to look to, no guidance, no reference books, no wise elder who had already been aware for many years–nothing could have prepared them for the acquisition of such a radical alteration of their daily existence. Try to imagine what it might have been like to experience those first days and nights with full self-awareness, when it truly all came together and was realized by the individual having that experience! When we think back to our earliest childhood memories, they are like little glimpses–fleeting moments where aspects of our experiences suddenly made sense. It must have been very much like that for those early humans, perhaps having been asleep and upon waking, able now to wonder what it was all about. All those moments when they had brief flickering episodes of awareness, now could have a fuller sense of a context within which to better understand the nature of their everyday experiences.
Imagine how compelling it must have been to finally be aware of a subjective experience, and how that might have pressed those early humans to want to EXPRESS and share this feeling, with no possibility at first of doing so except with non-verbal communication. Think about what it must have been like for them to have the realization, for example, of how every clear morning they would see the sun rise above the horizon, and perhaps, before awareness, they would point to it and usually make a sound or a gesture, without realizing what it was, and now, with awareness, it felt necessary to associate that brilliant, blazing, yellow-orange ball in the sky with the gesture or by uttering a sound, as if to indicate, “There it is again, look at it!” Attempting to communicate the sentiment of the idea, not the idea itself, but the feeling which arose within them, may have been the very vehicle for associating what they saw with the gesture or sound that they uttered. At some point, others in those social groups started making the same gesture or sound when they saw the sun in the morning, and whenever any individual had that experience, they also would repeat the sound, and eventually, through repetition, that concept became accepted and associated with that sound.
After many years of primitive associative activity, and the spread of humanity throughout the different regions of the world, different developmental achievements from the various social groups were acquired, shared, and assimilated into the local cultures. The instinctive usefulness of fundamental tasks which enabled the early humans to survive, with this new awareness, could be enhanced and expanded through a more complex cultural and social development. With the eventual creation of language, the ability to teach what had been learned to ensure the survival of their children gave the early humans a unique advantage over every other species. When, at last, they descended into what would become known as the Caves of Chauvet and Lascaux, the pictures that they drew of the animals became symbols of the animals that they encountered in the world. It took many thousands of years more for the very first pictographic languages to appear, but the groundwork had been established, and the beginnings of self-awareness that gave rise to the NEED for self-expression, altered the landscape of humanity forever.
The first sparks of consciousness in humans, which likely appeared in our ancient ancestors hundreds of thousands of years before the appearance of Homo sapiens, eventually blossomed into fullness once the requisite components of human development reached the tipping point, probably during the Aurignacian epoch some 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, but was not immediately useful or practical in the way it is for modern humans in the 21st century. Many theorists today suggest that language was acquired and spread rapidly throughout the human population once it began to appear, and although a rudimentary form of subjective consciousness may not have required it in order to exist, it may very well have made its development essential in order for the fullness of the capacity to be self-aware to unfold.
–more to come–
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.”