The Emergence of Consciousness

I love reading philosophy. For years, I’ve yearned for people with whom I can discuss all the things I’ve read and the thoughts I’m constantly mulling over about this universe. I’m constantly on the way to wisdom — hence this blog and the ideas in it.

In the last year or so, this has even led to listening to philosophy podcasts. One I listened to a couple months back about consciousness left me miffed. I’ve been reading a lot about psychology, Buddhism, philosophy of mind, evolutionary theory, and nonlinear dynamics/complexity theory in the last few years, so I’ve got a lot of interest in these questions, not to mention my educational background in phenomenology. Consciousness is an interesting thing to ponder. It’s both the heart of and engine of all of our experience as well as one of the most profound mysteries of our mind.

Unfortunately, these philosophers didn’t see it with quite this open-minded wonder. They dismissed the idea of consciousness being an emergent process out of hand, preferring rather more staid ideas about the soul or panpsychism (the idea that consciousness exists in everything and can somehow aggregate). They even pish-poshed scientists who study these issues in depth. In some regard, this is precisely my experience with and what I would expect of types schooled in a more theological background in philosophy, like these men were.

The problem with emergent properties is that the term is vague, and it’s difficult to explain. I recently was reading about all the non-linear dynamics at play in a hurricane: the hot air, the moisture, the cycles of cooling air falling, and the churn of it rising again as it warms. This set of conditions (and I’m sure several more that I’ve overlooked in my brief and only marginally informed description) are a system with emergent properties.

Perhaps a better example is one that occurred to me as I walked home tonight. Have you ever heard that no two snowflakes are the same? I can’t speak to this assertion, and I would have to presume that such a theory is unverifiable — there’s no way to measure and compare every snowflake that falls, even in a minuscule flurry. However, it wouldn’t take many observations to note the wide variation in forms and that it’s extremely unlikely for any two snowflakes to be the same. However, the complexity of such a simple, small thing shows the power of nonlinear dynamics. A few variables can combine with strong sensitivity to small changes that can lead to an elaborate array of different results. These complex formations are emergent properties dependent on those variables.

5cc408ccff6d42255b78c48442541103

Now, if we can consider snowflakes as possessing emergent properties due to nonlinear processes at work, how could one even dismiss considering emergent properties as an explanation of the elaborate array of nonlinear processes at work in the human brain — various modules, neurotransmitters, and bioelectric currents, all coming together to create experiences that are more or less holistic experience (ignoring the aspects that are completely cut off from conscious awareness)? In fact, as a nonlinear system, these wholes that arise as some sort of sum of all these elaborate interactions must be emergent properties. The metaphysical discussion has to be tacked on top of that; it cannot simply replace the evidence based on ideological assertions or conceptual arguments. I’m reminded here of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. If consciousness is explored only in terms of concepts and arguments, it will be woefully misrepresented as pure reason in ways that have disconnected themselves from the observable data on the matter. This is simply no manner for philosophy to behave especially in this scientifically more advanced day and age than that of even 30 or 40 years ago.

This post is a bit of a step away from the standard discussions of this blog, but I hope it gives many new things to think about. If you have questions or want resources to look into these questions yourself, please contact me, and I’ll do my best to speak to these further or point you to better experts than myself.

Advertisements

Respir(it)ation

Air brushes in
Rasping gently through
Tight passages
Winding its way
Deep inside
Lungs fill
Oxygen crosses membranes
Blood absorbs
*Thump, tha-thump*
Heart beats
And the entire body
Is provided life
Breath, air, oxygen
Spirit

What was moments ago
Outside, separate, part of the World
Other, inanimate, simple gas
Has, in a breath,
Intimately entwined itself
Into the depths of the body —
Life, animation, blood and energy
Respir(it)ation
Me

file2341263158331

Blood flow returns
The waste, the exhaust
Exchange CO2 for O2
— Lungs never empty —
Inside for outside
Outside for inside
— The answer to life’s mystery:
A chiasm between inner and outer?
Between Self and World? —
Air pressed back out
As diaphragm asserts
Body becomes World
As remnants of
Respir(it)ation
Are secreted
This is the great secret
No separation
Where does one end
And the other begin?

This Moment–All Moments: Wonder

I’ve been reading too much recently to really write other than morning pages, but this (and a couple other entries to come) have been quite amazing and worthy of being shared.


I woke up in the middle of the night and was unable to go back to sleep. Oddly, I feel fine-ish. The fatigue is starting to creep in, but I have coffee at hand.

Man, it is easy to lose focus when tired. I’m realizing that now. Everything is pulling me away from writing this now. However, this is a moment to practice–as all moments are.

There is so much here–the entire universe–in this moment. Refrigeration systems click and whir behind me. The man across the table cuts into his pastry–the tines of the fork cut through and clink on the porcelain plate. Music jingles on the speaker above me. Others all sit at tables–looking at computers, reading newspapers, sipping coffee, or simply staring off into space. Baristas chatter about the day at the counter behind me. The front door opens with a brief whoosh of air, and another customer walks in. Cars zoom by in both direction out the window in front of me… I could go on.

Yet, it would be so easy for someone to say that this is boring here–that nothing is happening. What is boredom–looking for something else, something more interesting than now, here? What are we looking for? Can this fidgety desire be seen and questioned when it arises?

Really, all manner of things are happening in this moment. On a scientific level–molecules of gas are zipping around the room, gaining energy from the IR radiation–heat–streaming in through the glass door. Elsewhere in the room, air flutters and the gas loses that energy as cold air blows in from a vent in the ceiling–an AC unit working to keep the room cool despite that IR radiation streaming in–defiant for customers’ pleasure… At the same time, customers breathe in this gas, going through tubes, bronchioles, and the bloodstream. It is distributed throughout their bodies and fuels the chemical reactions that keep them alive. There’s a huge amount of complexity to this organic machine–churning though chemical reactions and physiological processes which take years for doctors to study and yet still holds many mysteries for the inquiring minds of science. Furthermore, this complex being is one that is billions of years in the making! Millions of years of evolution have brought rogue protein chains to this complex, self-aware animal writing these words today. Beyond that, there were billions of years involved in the formation of this planet, the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe. This moment is connected to all of history. It is an emanation of all–a manifestation of a complex web of karma, reaching all the way back to the Big Bang.

file0001190356464

Understandably, there may not be enough “going on” at the superficial level to hold our attention, but this moment is still a miracle, as all are.


May this inspire you to look at every moment with wonder.

Gassho!