Tag Archives: science

Spirit of Consciousness, Part 2

Ape Vs Human BrainIn Part 1 I talked about the development of the brain in animals and in humans, and noted that while differences between human brains and the brains of the great apes are clear, they’re not as drastic as one might expect given the huge leap in intelligence that human consciousness represents.  Research shows that the difference between our brains and the brains of the Great Apes have more to do with inner connectivity and higher efficiency in processing in human brains than ape brains are capable of.

For example a recently published paper on Albert Einstein’s brain showed that the corpus collosum, the pathway between the brain’s two hemispheres, was better developed than most.  The same was true of the frontal cortex and particularly the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the frontal cortex, which is an area most associated with uniquely human cognitive abilities like imagination, problem-solving, complex planning, and other aspects of human intelligence.  Einstein may have had an advantage over other humans in this regard, but the point is that the brains of our closest ape relatives don’t have some of this functionality at all, or if they do it is nowhere near as well developed as it is in human brains.  Our mental processing power is comparable to a computer running on integrated circuits rather than on vacuum tubes or mechanical mechanisms.

This unique quality of intelligence gives humans the ability to think about what we think about.  We can examine our own thoughts, we can follow chains of speculative ideas that we ourselves are creating entirely within our own minds.  We can examine the patterns of our thoughts and actions as if we were operating in two or more levels of consciousness simultaneously.  One level is reading these words, another is thinking about them or reacting to them, a third might be a barely perceived thread off in the corner somewhere figuring out how or where or even if such an idea fits in to the way you see things.

In this post I want to edge a little closer to the question of how this capacity gives 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.

A schema is a mental map that we have of the world.  It represents our conception of what the world is composed of, how the pieces fit together, what makes them go, and how they affect us personally.  The sense of what the world means to us is a product of our internal schemas.  Our minds begin constructing the schema in our earliest infancy, and as we mature the schema grows more and more complex as we incorporate knowledge.

As adults, this schema reflects the core of who we are as individual human beings.

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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.

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Cosmic Perception

FlammarionA few days ago I was driving with my 6-year old grandson and we could see the moon in the sky.  It was late afternoon, and the moon was somewhat behind the car.  When I made a turn the moon was still visible behind us, but now from the other side of the car.  My grandson, who is beginning to transition from Piaget’s pre-operational to concrete-operational thinking, and whose worldview is still embedded in the belief that his immediate perceptions accurately reflect reality, concluded that this perceptual phenomenon could only mean one thing: the moon must be following us.

If we had been living in a society that knew nothing of science, with nobody to tell him any differently about the behavior of moon and sun and stars, who’s to say what impressions he would have carried with him into adulthood about the way the universe operates.  Without adults around who have transcended pre-operational thinking, without people to explain things to him until he develops a more accurate worldview, would he grow into adulthood without ever maturing any further in his beliefs?  Very likely his adult view of the world would be every bit as simplistic as the viewpoint he had in childhood.

Now imagine humanity’s view of the universe 50,000 years ago, before we developed mathematics, before we had instruments like microscopes or telescopes or electronics for observing and measuring beyond what could be seen with our naked eyes, before we established any scientific methodology or principles for the rigorous study of natural phenomenon, before we had science journals to record the findings of other scientists and communicate those findings around the world to be replicated and verified and confirmed or rejected, in a time when all knowledge had as its starting point, as its most basic foundation, whatever our local priest/elder/witch-doctor/shaman told us about the gods and our place in the universe.

50,000 years ago? What am I saying, how about 500 years ago, when the Copernican Revolution was just getting underway?  How about now for much of the world?  It has taken hundreds of millenia for humanity to begin transcending that ancient view of the universe.  That worldview was all that was needed for hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies to thrive and prosper, but from the perspective we have now it seems childish.  From our modern vantage point it is easy to forget that for the 2 million years of our existence as upright apes with growing intelligence, humanity has spent at least 1,999,500 of those years seeing the universe the way my grandson does.

How must it have been to be on your way back from a hunt or a foraging trip or a raid on a neighboring tribe, carrying your spear in a treacherous world, and realize that the moon is following you home?

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