The Spirit of Consciousness, Part 1

aniołki rafaela santiI want to expand on something I brought up in an older post. From Salvation Part 2:

I have been associating self-aware human consciousness with the Biblical use of the term human “spirit” in my posts, and I want to point out that this connection has a Biblical basis.  It is seen in the comparison of two verses, one in the Creation story in Genesis, the other in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon’s meditation on the mortality of man.

Genesis 2:7, on the creation of Adam:

Then God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

Ecclesiastes 12:7, from Solomon:

…and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Breath of life” does not mean the movement of air through the lungs.  Other animals do that and they didn’t get any ‘breath of life’.  Solomon connects the two: the Biblical term “breath of life” as used in Genesis is the same thing Solomon calls “spirit” in Ecclesiastes.  And both refer to the only thing that separates humans from the other animals, namely intelligence and self-aware consciousness.

The evolutionary significance of our capacity for conscious awareness cannot be overstated.  3+ billion years of biological evolution produced many different life forms.  Some fast, some tough, some strong, some with sharp claws and teeth, some gigantic, some that swim, some that fly, etc. etc. But no matter how extraordinary their physical attributes, even the most powerful among them have been limited to specific niches in the web of life.

None of those species took over the entire planet, adapted themselves to thrive in every remote corner of it, and subjected every other species to its will.  No physical attribute allowed humanity to do that. Self-aware consciousness and the leap in intelligence that came with it represents more than just another life form: we represent a whole new category of life, in some ways as “distant” from the other animals as those animals are from plants.

Thinkers in the early part of the 20th century, notably Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, conceived of reality as consisting of three hierarchical tiers, where each tier is composed of everything below it.  He called them the physiosphere, consisting of all the physical elements of the universe; the biosphere, composed of all life; and the noosphere: life that is consciously aware of itself and aware of what it thinks about, i.e. “self-reflective consciousness” or “conscious self-awareness”, terms that I tend to use interchangeably.  This transcendent  consciousness, transcendent from that of all other life forms, is something unique to humanity, and as far as we know, unique in all the eons of evolution that preceded us.  If any other animal in earth’s long history ever developed this level of consciousness and its corresponding intelligence, we have not found any convincing evidence of it.

Grasshopper Nervous SystemA primary difference between plant life and animal life is the presence of a nervous system in animals. In higher animals the nervous system includes a brain that can process and store information, allowing animals to learn things, remember things, form bonds with other animals, etc. In humans these brains have developed to the point that another layer has developed, one that gives us the capability to live the kind of inner life that other animals cannot.

What do I mean by that. If you have a pet, a dog or a cat, have you noticed how when nothing else is going on they can curl up in their favorite spot and lie there contentedly all day long?  I couldn’t do that day in and day out, I’d go nuts, but for animals it comes naturally. They’re not bored. They’re not anxious or depressed or sad, they’re not pining for you to come home. They may get excited when you get home, but they’re not counting the minutes and hours until you do.  They’re completely “in the moment”, and if there is no stimuli around to react to, they are perfectly content to enjoy an entirely stress-free doze-filled day that will only be interrupted by occasional urges to visit the water dish, the food dish, the doggie door or the litter box.  Or in my dog’s case, the kitchen garbage bin and any shoes that may have been carelessly left out.

dog-brainWhat is going on in those brains of theirs that allows them to be so relaxed and peaceful through all those hours?  The answer actually involves what is not going on in their brains. What is not going on in their brains is planning, problem solving, going over yesterday’s conversations or events, anticipating anything about the future, or thinking and stressing about all their problems. They not doing any of that. Not because they’re little furry Buddhas or four-legged zen masters, they’re not doing any of that stuff because they can’t. They don’t have the cerebral hardware necessary for such complex mental processes.  Their brains are just not capable of it.

Traditionally the frontal cortex of the brain is considered to be the human brain’s defining feature, what sets us apart from all other species.  However recent research indicates that it may be more complex than that.  Around six million years ago there was a species of ape whose population somehow became divided into groups who lost contact with one another.  One group of that species’ descendents eventually became modern chimpanzees and bonobos, another group eventually became modern humans.  Chimps along with the other higher apes (orangutans, gorillas) do in fact have well-formed frontal cortexes.  They don’t have as many ‘folds’ in the brain, or their proportional sizes are a bit different, but they are still so far from the human capacity to rapidly learn that some researchers are looking deeper to see what the real differences are.

Colored region is the frontal cortex

Colored region is the frontal cortex

We’ve speculated on many visible, physical brain features over the years, but modern research is starting to look in less obvious but more likely directions, such as more advanced communication pathways between various key regions of the brain.  Such connections are not as immediately apparent as simple size and shape.

Whatever the physiological components turn out to be, humans have an extra layer of processing that does not appear to be possessed by other species, not even other apes.  It is not necessarily a physical layer, but rather it is more of a functional one, a matter of much higher efficiency in brains that are not extraordinarily large for the animal kingdom, but which operate at a much higher level of complexity.  Think of processing using integrated circuits rather than vacuum tubes.  That may be the kind of difference we’ll find as research continues in this direction.

Whatever the research learns about how its done, about how human neural networks grow and become active even in the womb, however that happens it is creating in humans a core of mental processing that rapidly takes on a life of its own.  It becomes something truly extraordinary: consciousness that is aware of itself.

—————

How does the unique level of human consciousness give us a doorway to Spirit?   For that I’ll need to return to Jean Piajet, whose work on childhood development included the concept of the schema as a functional product of the developing conscious mind.  I will do that in a followup post.

2 thoughts on “The Spirit of Consciousness, Part 1

  1. supersteveprice

    Dan

    Nice! It looks very classy and professional. Looking forward to the next installment.

    Do you plan to get into transpersonal psychology at some point? I wonder constantly about how our individual consciousness fits into a larger one and if any of the individual consciousness survives the death of the body.

    Steve Price Steve.Price1@me.com

    Reply
    1. notanist Post author

      Thanks, I do eventually want to work my way up to exploring transpersonal psych as well as other perspectives from psychology. There is a school of spiritual thought that envisions individual souls (e.g. everyone born on earth) as independent incarnations of larger, “parent” souls. This line of thinking views certain concepts not common to Christianity, such as reincarnation, not as “me” having had past lives, but rather the larger spiritual entity that I am a part of having had other lives in physical reality, at different times and in different situations.

      That goes way beyond Christian tradition however, so I’m not sure how far I want to pursue those speculations. Reincarnation is mentioned in passing in several places in the Bible, e.g. Matt 11:14-15 identifying John the Baptist as the reincarnation of Elijah, backed up by Luke 1:17 that speaks of John the Baptist as the “spirit and power of Elijah”. Also in Matthew 16:13-20 Jesus is asking his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” and the disciples list Elijah, “Jeremiah or one of the prophets” and even John the Baptist himself even though his life was concurrent with Jesus’ life.

      What strikes me is the completely normal way the question was asked and was answered, which indicates to me that the concept of reincarnation was simply a normal part of their worldview without otherwise playing much of a role in their religious life in that time and place in history.

      I take all this as a matter of personal curiousity and I’m not sure how far I want to go down that road. Its a bit outside my goal for this blog, which is to help Christians who believe in evolution to feel secure in this awesome Faith of ours that sadly sometimes condemns those who don’t take the first couple of chapters of Genesis literally.

      As to individual consciousness surviving death, for that there is a huge and growing body of NDE research that indicates that yes, our personalities do survive death, but where we find ourselves in relation to other souls (or any “parent” souls or whatever) is something I have no clue about.

      Reply

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