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.
“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Nature.”
Every year, particularly for those living in regions which experience the full range of seasonal changes from Spring through Winter, Emerson reminds us to use an “attentive eye,” to see the beauty contained in every season. Each period of the year has its particular rewards: the renewal of all life in the Spring is an affirmation of life; the warmth and lush greenery of Summer is an experience of the fullness of life; the brilliant colors and easing of the summer heat provide both beauty and solace at its peak; and scenes of pristine snowfalls and brilliantly clear winter skies at night remind us that all life is finite in one sense, and limitless in another. Emerson also reminds us that beauty is not confined to the temporal world:
“Beauty is the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world. All privilege is that of beauty;for there are many beauties; as, of general nature, of the human face and form, of manners, of brain, or method, moral beauty, or beauty of the soul.” – from his essay, “Beauty,” (1860)
It was in the Autumn of 1956 when I first began to establish moments of conscious experience in memory, and had the first recollections of acknowledging my existence as an individual person. I can recall only brief moments of awareness for the most part, but they are potent and remarkably clear to a degree I find surprising these many years later. The image above was an attempt to recreate one such moment, in which I found myself staring at length at a patch of autumn leaves on the lawn of my childhood home. While similar scenes are easily reproduced each year as the leaves begin to accumulate wherever there are trees in seasonal transition, as Emerson suggests, every moment is unique in its own way, and will never be repeated precisely.
At this tender age, even though I had acquired a fair talent for both language and the association of words with objects and people, I wasn’t able to fully comprehend the implications of my experiences, nor was I fully competent cognitively. My brain was clearly functional in every way that the age would permit, and my ability to learn and respond to typical social interactions was well established, but the level of awareness was still in the process of unfolding to fullness, in spite of all that I was capable of doing with my brain. We tend to think of memory as something that only accumulates in the immediate experience of our lives, but as an emerging adult and after years of deliberate and steady contemplation of the significance of my life experiences, so many of the notions of familiarity with the content of those experiences are remarkably varied in their character that it seems possible their origins could be the result of a much wider range of sources and levels of consciousness. The theory of a “collective unconscious” from C. G. Jung suggests a framework for a collection of forms or “archetypes,” elementary constructs that already exist within us, which are filled in by conscious experience, and which resonate in the psyche in ways that we are just beginning to understand.
We know now that memory is not an isolated process that takes place in any localized region of the brain, but is rather a symphony of processes acting fluidly in harmonious cooperation to stimulate an astonishing array of neural pathways, which reassemble the components of our recollections. We also know that memory is not like a video recording of events reproduced in exacting detail, but rather more like reconstructing those elements as we perceived them when they occurred. In many cases, we remember more precisely how we felt at the time the memory was formed. The more significant the event or the greater importance our interpretation of the event holds, the more profound and detailed the memory may be. This fluid processing is directly linked to the structure of the brain, formed as the human embryo develops during a nearly miraculous process of cell migration governed by instructions from our inherited genome. As complex and intricately woven as these neural pathways end up, since memory is a combined form of energy and information, stored and recalled through electro-chemical impulses between neurons, the process necessarily depends on particular structural foundations in order to function properly and must, at least to some degree, reflect the nature of that structure.
With the publication of their essay, “The Extended Mind,” – – David Chalmers and Andy Clark began the conversation about just how far the process of mind may actually go. We tend to think of the mind as something inside our heads, or at least contained within or constructed by the brain, but as we investigate and contemplate these matters in the 21st century, we are beginning to see that our understanding generally may only be scratching the surface. There are clearly very specific and necessary neural substrates which support our ability to access consciousness, and if they become compromised by some sort of injury or illness, that access can be diminished accordingly. What is not so clear is the exact relationship between the source of consciousness and the temporal structures which support our access to it. Homo sapiens required hundreds of thousands of years to achieve a level of useful cognitive awareness before even the simplest demonstrations of possessing a mind could be made.
In this important essay, Clark and Chalmers make the case for categorizing some of our uses of modern technologies as not simply a means for producing gadgets for consumption, but as manifestations of our cognitive abilities–an actual “extension” of our human mind out into the world:
“Language appears to be a central means by which cognitive processes are extended into the world. Think of a group of people brainstorming around a table, or a philosopher who thinks best by writing, developing her ideas as she goes. It may be that language evolved, in part, to enable such extensions of our cognitive resources within actively coupled systems.”
“It is widely accepted that all sorts of processes beyond the borders of consciousness play a crucial role in cognitive processing: in the retrieval of memories, linguistic processes, and skill acquisition, for example. So the mere fact that external processes are external where consciousness is internal is no reason to deny that those processes are cognitive.”
Excerpts from “The Extended Mind” (with Dave Chalmers) ANALYSIS 58: 1: 1998 p.7-19
What I am proposing in my own work here, while advocating my own interpretations with enthusiasm, is not an especially radical departure from the mainstream views found elsewhere, but might be viewed by some as being a bit “outside-the-box,” in both its premise and development. My life experiences in my years on this planet encompass qualities and characteristics which suggest a range of possibilities which might explain the nature of the mind and consciousness in ways that mirror ideas like the extended mind. Many of the writings and ideas of history’s most notable philosophers and revolutionary thinkers and innovators have been met with great resistance initially, and only gained more widespread acceptance after much consideration and review by a more measured or deliberate approach.
Characterizing external processes and devices as extensions of the human mind, as controversial as this may seem to some, is an intriguing component of the search for a comprehensive understanding of the mind, and the arguments put forward by Clark and Chalmers are coherent and substantial in supporting their premise. It clearly requires a profoundly sophisticated cognitive structure to produce devices which qualify as extensions of those structures. The parallels between our own cognitive components and those which we have produced as cognitive creatures in the modern world are not so far fetched as some would suggest. There are arguably several potential fields of endeavor currently which may well produce what may appear as a genuine cognitive system, with some degree of similarity to our own. At the same time, we should not expect those devices to begin spontaneously producing other extensions of themselves, nor should we expect them to be on a par with the human mind by any comprehensive standard. My overriding sense is that no manufactured device could be expected to appreciate human experiences without actually having them. Not every human can fully appreciate the experience of another human in every case. As C. G. Jung wrote:
“The collective unconscious contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution, born anew in the brain structure of every individual. In their present form, religion, science, philosophy, and ethics are variants of archetypal ideas. It is the function of consciousness to not only assimilate the external world through the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us.” – from Jung’s “Symbols of Transformation.”
Image of the night sky above Paranal on 21 July 2007, taken by ESO astronomer Yuri Beletsky
We humans exist as sentient temporal beings in the physical universe, in a galaxy that is one of innumerable others, any number of which, should they have formed with the same optimal developmental and life-sustaining advantages currently enjoyed by those of us in this Milky Way galaxy, might also be harboring some variation of living sentient creatures. While there has been no definitive evidence discovered as yet of any such extraterrestrial civilization or society of intelligent beings, it seems completely within the realm of possibility that others may exist, who might have achieved a similar level of developmental cognition to support an adequate degree of intelligence, provided by some sort of fertile cognitive apparatus, leading them to also wonder about their own evolution, purpose, and future. Such beings might even be presently casting their gaze beyond their own galaxy, searching as we are for some evidence of the existence of intelligence outside of their own sphere in whatever distant region of the universe they may be.
The physical universe, from all we have been able to discern over the centuries as earthbound cognitive creatures, is governed by physical laws that are necessary in order for everything we see in the universe to exist in the first place. We should not then be surprised, especially as physical constructs in that same universe, that we exist physically and possess physical systems that sustain us within our bodies, as a result of those same laws. However, regardless of the character and nature of the laws governing physical existence, as necessary as they are, given that we could not exist temporally without them, in no way eliminates other potential layers of existence that may have contributed to and continue to give some degree of form and substance to our existence as we currently experience it on our planet.
The stationary state |531> of the hydrogen atom. This image shows an isosurface of the position probability density. The colors describe the complex phases of the wave function according to the standard color map. Created with QuantumGL © 2004 B.Thaller
With the help of modern physics and following the discoveries in the field of quantum theory, we have recently uncovered serious indications that our physical universe is composed of matter and energy that is not only essential and ubiquitous, but also invisible and mysterious. Since this matter neither emits nor absorbs light, we call it “dark matter,” and since the influence of the energy that supports it is clearly discernible, but curiously inexplicable, we call it “dark energy,” but what the names indicate more than anything is that we simply don’t know how to describe and do not fully comprehend the exact nature of the universe.
As a consequence of our evolutionary and biological inheritance, and as a result of our steady progress over millennia as cognitively self-aware creatures, we are able to debate the many implications of that progress, and also to speculate regarding what might account for our existence, beyond what might be explicable within the context of our current level of understanding. It’s completely reasonable to suppose that much of what we may eventually come to understand as the true nature of temporal existence will be explained by what we observe or determine through empirical means, even in the realm of “dark matter and energy,” in spite of how they are currently beyond our ability to perceive directly.
Is it possible that we exist not simply as a consequence of our cosmic and human evolution, but also by virtue of an underlying non-physical existence? Since we must acknowledge that much of our temporal reality remains outside of our comprehension currently, what would make any of us inclined to investigate, contemplate, and attempt to articulate the concept of a “transcendent reality,” when the physical universe itself still remains a mystery?
“For human beings transcendence is part of our experience of the world. In the course of… compassionate behavior…you encounter another transcendent reality.”
My own inclinations seem to have begun to form during my early childhood, beginning with my earliest recollections of existing in the physical world. The character of my very first memories, before I had been introduced to the rigors of formal religious training, and before being indoctrinated by “social norms” during the years of my formal education, I fully accepted the notion of a transcendent reality, although I could neither fully comprehend it nor express it as such at the time. In retrospect, what I was able to acknowledge and accept as “normal,” before I fully grasped what I was experiencing, was a temporal reality that included an awareness of some part of my existence that originated from beyond the limits of my senses, and I did not question the validity of my experiences in this regard until I was well into the formal religious and educational process–a process that diverted me from engaging those aspects of my awareness for many years afterwards.
http://www.psychoideology.com/Copyright © 2011 – All Rights Reserved
“There is a second phase that Jung called the transcendental function. This function has the capacity to unify the opposite tendencies of the personality.The goal of transcendence is the realization of all aspects of the personality as they were originally concealed in the one’s center, and the development of the potential unity. The transcendence is the means to realize the unity of the archetype of the Self.” – The Hero’s Journey on http://www.psychoideology.com/
Even as we acknowledge our current limitations regarding our comprehension of the temporal and the transcendent, our awareness of a transcendent reality, particularly as it relates to our existence in the first place, can be experienced subjectively in a state of “transcendent awareness.” As Carl Jung suggested by his idea of the “transcendent function,” consciousness is the catalyst for the manifestation of our understanding and perception–the juxtaposition of each component in the equation–leading to an awareness of the transcendent source of all things.