Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Evolution of Consciousness


Don said...


In this thread, I would like to explore the evolution of consciousness, using Barfield’s ideas in the context of the latest scientific discoveries regarding consciousness. My main focus is in questioning the idea that scientific findings *require* a materialistic view.

I’m not interested in using quantum physics or parapsychological research or any other scientific findings to *prove* that materialism is wrong. I’d prefer to stay agnostic on the nature of “reality” (what Barfield referred to, I think, as “the unrepresented”). This agnostic view was beautifully put forth in these statements by Werner Heisenberg: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”, and “Natural science, does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves.”

I think there are a few particularly relevant areas in modern science that will help to shed light on the evolution of consciousness.

THE MIND-BODY RELATIONSHIP: First – the relationship of the mind and the body. There are, I think, many new discoveries about the mind and the body which have remarkable implications for understanding the nature of consciousness. There is the whole area of neuroplasticity studies, studies of the placebo effect, the field of psychoneuroimmunology, neurofeedback, the study of lucid dreams, mindfulness meditation, and the ever-increasing research on the relationship between the (head) brain and the rest of the body, including the endocrine, autonomic and neuropeptide systems as well as the heart brain and stomach brain (enteric nervous system).

THE MIND-WORLD RELATIONSHIP: Second – the implications of the simple facts we all learned in grade school about how sensation and perception work. Back in the early 1980s, while doing graduate work in computer music (before synthesizers made it so much easier), I learned a complex computer language which required specifying virtually every aspect of the waveform which would eventually be “translated” into “sound”. It was rather mind-bending to understand the whole process of how bytes were translated into electrical impulses which were translated into “sound waves’ which were translated into electro-chemical impulses in the brain which were translated (somehow, nobody knows how) into “sound” (assuming that’s the way it “really” works!). Barfield’s exploration of the rainbow and the tree in the opening of Saving the Appearances is still, to me, one of the most masterful explorations of the question, “How does the mind relate to the ‘objective’ world of ‘matter’?”

THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS OVER BILLIONS OF YEARS: Third – there has been, in just the last 15 to 20 years, a remarkable increase in the ability of neuroscientists to track the development of cognition, affect and volition over the course of evolution. I haven’t been able to find many places where this knowledge is integrated, but there are a few, such as Merlin Donald’s “A Mind So Rare”. In his chapter, “The Consciousness Club”, (written about 10 years ago) he summed up what scientists to date had understood about the way that consciousness unfolded over the course of the last 4 billion years. (continued in next post....)

Don said...

(continuing from previous post)
THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN EACH MOMENT: Finally, there has been what to me is a truly remarkable development in neuroscience which I think has not gotten the attention it deserves. There are studies detailing the unfolding of a moment of consciousness – tracking just what occurs over the course of a few hundredths of a second. The late neuroscientist Francisco Varela, and nuclear physicist Jeremy Hayward, have both written very interesting articles pointing out that
(a) the conclusions of modern neuroscience in regard to how consciousness unfolds in each moment are perfectly congruent with the observations of Buddhist meditators over the last 2500 years;
(b) the unfolding of consciousness in each moment, from “simple” sensation to subconscious interpretation [figuration] to fully conscious experience, is parallel to how consciousness unfolds in developing life forms over billions of years of evolution; and
(c) consciousness and the “world” [the “world” of experience, which is the only world we truly ‘know’] evolve together.

Varela also writes of this in his book “The Embodied Mind”, and Hayward writes eloquently of this in “Perceiving Ordinary Magic” and “Letters to Vanessa”.

Even the avowed materialist Alan Hobson, a neuroscientist whose specialty is dreams (an essentially meaningless activity of the brain, he says), has written that “Consciousness is graded across evolutionary time, over the course of development, and even continuously from moment to moment.”

So over the coming months, I’d like to invite us to explore together how these areas of scientific discovery shed light on the evolution of consciousness, questioning as we go, the idea that scientific inquiry requires a materialistic view.

* * * * * * * *

“In the same way that we look out on the world, and view perceived objects as if they existed inherently in objective space, so too do we view things like electrons and sound waves as if they existed independently of our conceptions of them. Perceived objects exist in relation to our perceptions of them, and conceived objects exist in relation to the conceptual schemata within which they are understood. We reify an object by removing it from its context, by ignoring the subjective influences of perception and conception.”
Alan Wallace, “Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up”

Don said...

Can anyone find the “idols” in this passage (from p. 125, “Mapping the Mind”, by Rita Carter)

“The brain does not ‘see’, ‘hear’ or ‘feel’ the outside world. It constructs it in response to stimuli. The stimuli usually come from outside – light waves, for example, bounce off objects and then hit the light-sensitive neurons in the eye. These stimulate the brain to create an image that accords with the information it is receiving.

Sometimes, however, the brain either misreads the incoming information (creating an illusion) or generates its own stimuli, which it then interprets as coming from outside. When this happens there may be no way – other than by deduction – for someone to work out whether what they are sensing is really in the outside world or only in their own mind.”

One of the things I do part-time is disability evaluations, focusing on psychopathology. Often I am called upon to determine whether someone is experiencing an “actual” hallucination or whether they are simply hearing their own thoughts. Since I often interview people who fit in the category of “borderline retarded” it can be challenging at times to understand from their description just what they are referring to. I’m mentioning this here because Carter goes on to explain why hallucinations, experiences of ghosts, or ecstatic visions are obviously no more than brain produced phenomena.

This is especially intriguing to me because she makes the comment, several times in the book, that the brain is often incapable of distinguishing between brain-produced images and “real” objects in the external world. If this is the case, and she acknowledges that all of our experience is nothing more than brain produced images, why assume that a tree (or a person, a rock, a planet, etc) has any more objective “reality” than the various brain-produced hallucinatory images to which she does not attribute “objective reality”.

Most interesting (a hint here about where the idols are in the passage quoted above) – since all we know of the “brain” is an image in our minds, why not have the same doubt about the objective reality of the “brain”?

Don said...


on the other thread (Consciousness) Kasper expressed a concern that when we bring in neuroscience, we need to be careful not to see brain as "causing" mental activity, but rather the brain as the instrument of the mind. I am in deep sympathy with this concern. After reading Kasper's letter, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to you Barfieldians if I ground this discussion in the opening chapters (up to page 35) of "Saving the Appearances." So let's consider, for a moment, the question of the relationship of the mind and brain with what Barfield says about seeing a tree in Chapter 1.

More specifically, let's look at the sentence "I see a tree", beginning with Barfield's presentation of it, then going on to discuss what is occurring in the brain along with the seeing of the tree.

So how do scientists analyze this seeing process? They certainly agree with Barfield (though rarely realize the implications)that we do not know the stimulus which (apparently) gives rise the experience, “tree”. So they might say that light is reflected off – “something” – is reflected back to our eyes in the form of “photons”, stimulates the retina, then the cells known as rods and cones, then is – somehow- converted to something electro-chemical, traveling along the optic nerve, being interpreted first in the optic lobe (in the back of the head) and in an almost unfathomably complex process is compared to vast stretches of past experience and – somehow – emerges as the experience “tree”.

Well, there’s several huge problems with this conventional interpretation. More and more scientists are coming to agree with mathematician/philosopher David Chalmers that there is a “hard problem of consciousness” – namely, how does this physical process give rise to conscious experience. But for those of you who know your Barfield well, you can probably spot the flaw in Chalmers’ reasoning.

How do we know of photons, retinas, rods, cones, optic nerves, optic lobes, the thalamus, limbic system, frontal lobes, and brains in general – aren’t they all appearances to mind, or as Barfield puts it, representations?

It seems that almost every contemporary philosopher and scientist is blind to the reality that we are “participating” in these phenomena, and we have absolutely not one whit of knowledge of them apart from our awareness of them (how could it possibly be otherwise?).

If we take the rainbow-tree analysis, work it through slowly, carefully, with our imagination and not just coldly analyzing it, seeping ourselves in it until it is felt in our very bones, in the ground underneath our feet, in the trees as much as the rainbows, in what we take to be the brain stem, the visceral heart, the “gut” or enteric brain (the brain in the stomach) , etc., we can be assured that we will be well guarded against the mistake of taking the brain as a thing-in-itself and we won’t ask the hard question of how experience can arise from insentient matter, instead we will shake our heads in wonder and ask how is it possible anyone ever came up with the idea of dead matter.

Don said...

hi again, in the spirit of bringing in "Saving the Appearances", I thought I'd add this text, which gives one of the most striking examples of figuration I've ever come across.

Constructing the Visual World

Virgil had been functionally blind since the age of 6. All that remained of his sight was the capacity to “see light and dark, the direction from which light came, and the shadow of a hand moving in front of his eyes.” At the age of 50, he had an operation to remove the cataracts which had obscured his vision for over 40 years. The opthamologist who treated him had done many similar operations on people who lost their vision fairly late in life. In virtually every case, these people were able to see without difficulty immediately following the operation. But Virgil was different.

As he described it later to neurologist Oliver Sacks, at first
he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, ‘Well’? Then, and only then, he said, did he finally realize that this chaos of light and shadow was a face – and, indeed, the face of his surgeon.

For Virgil, every moment after his operation involved a painful struggle to literally “make” sense of the patches of light and color registered by his eyes. As Sacks explains it:

"When we open our eyes each morning, it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see. We are not given the world: we make our world through incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection. But when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for forty-five years – having had little more than an infant’s visual experience and this long forgotten – there were no visual memories to support a perception; there was no [visual] world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them."
(continued in next thread).....

Don said...

In order to bind together what were disparate sensations into familiar objects, Virgil had to spend hours consciously attending to the minute details of even the most common objects of his household,
looking at them from various angles, trying with his mind to “figure out” what they were.
He found walking “scary” and baffling. With steps, “all he could see was a confusion, a flat surface of parallel and crisscrossing lines; he could not see them (although he knew them) as solid objects going up or coming down in three-dimensional space.” His dog, as he moved, looked so different from different perspectives, he at times wondered if it was even the same dog:

Sometimes he would get confused by his own shadow (the whole concept of shadows, of objects blocking light, was puzzling to him) and would come to a stop, or trip, or try to step over it.

After years of blindness, Virgil was forced to use the more complex functions of the thinking mind in ways few of us ever do. In each moment, he was required to use conscious reasoning and attention in order to quite literally make “sense” of his sensations.

Kasper said...

Thanks for the interesting comments and story from Oliver Sacks. Your criticism of certain aspects of modern science makes a lot of sense to me. I don't have time to respond to all of it, so I'll just pick up a few threads.

"We will shake our heads in wonder and ask how is it possible anyone ever came up with the idea of dead matter."

I certainly agree with your analysis of Chalmers' 'problem', and I think part of Barfield's work has been an attempt to answer precisely this question: how did anyone ever come up with the idea of dead matter. Ultimately, I think, he conceived the ability to think in terms of dead matter as a difficult but necessary step in the evolution of consciousness, one which reached its zenith in late 19th and early 20th century positivism but still has its offshoots today. It is only after we empty the outside world of the unfree, 'given' spirit, that we can start to gain consciousness of that spirit living in ourselves and re-connect it, but now in an act of complete freedom, to the spiritual outside of ourselves.

Another point I was thinking about while reading your comments, is a certain difficulty I have often had to overcome when thinking about Barfield's work. Going over some of his examples in my mind, such as the tree and the rainbow, I have often been led to a somewhat solipsistic view of reality, namely that all perceivable reality is only a subjective construction of my own mind. But this does not seem to be Barfield's position at all.

My difficulty is caused, I think, by the fact that we are accustomed to think of minds as existing only in relaition to individual human beings (or even brains). Yet Barfield's view of reality as constructed by mind is only fruitful when it is complemented by a view of mind as having an objective reality apart from individual humans (he once called his philosophy 'objective idealism'). It is this second step which distinguishes his work from subjective idealism (and also, I think, from much of Buddhist philosophy), but it is one I find difficult to take on the basis of anything other than faith.

Don said...

Probably, to go into Buddhist philosophy would take us pretty far from the theme of this thread, but I think an exercise from the Buddhist meditation tradition could help with getting past solipsism, without requiring blind faith.

Look very closely at your present experience. If you observe closely, setting aside customary assumptions, you may observe that your experience can be fairly well summed up as consisting of various forms – forms of color, sound, shape, etc, as well as “forms” of thought, feeling, and bodily sensation – all within an open, unbounded space of awareness.

Before going on, you’ll want to stabilize your attention so you can clearly, with great precision, identify these different aspects of experience. * Once you find you are able to maintain this awareness for at least 10 to 20 seconds (it may take several minutes to do this, or it may take several months of practicing for 5 to 10 minutes at a time), you can go on to the next step.

Observing clearly and carefully, you’ll see that there is no identifiable “entity” which you can define as an absolute “self”. (be careful not to philosophize here and come to any conclusions about the nature of the “self” – stay as close as possible to simple observation of ongoing experience).

You may have just a momentary glimpse of this, perhaps for 2 or 3 seconds. But even though this seems very short, once you get a clear taste of it, you’ll realize there’s no basis in experience for solipsism. What our experience consists of is an unbounded awareness within which various forms arise and pass away.

At a later stage of practice, it starts to become clear that there is both an individual and universal aspect of this consciousness. This doesn’t have to be taken on faith, but unless it is seen directly in experience a mere intellectualization of it will only lead to endless argument and ultimately, confusion.

(it also will become clear as to why so many Western scholars have misinterpreted Buddhism as promoting some kind of denial of the self)

Don said...


Jan and I just posted a video related to this topic, questioning the world we take for granted. You can find it at youtube, searching for "Beyond the Matrix: The Only Way Out"

Kasper said...

Thanks for posting that video, which I found wonderful to watch. Your use of the pills-metaphor from the matrix was especially illuminating, and appropriate to some of the problems we face in the present day.

Don said...


Jan and I have just put up the first of what we hope to be a series of videos related to STA. You can find it at www.youtube.com/user/yogapsychology1. It's best viewed in high definition, and the sound will be best through headphones.

Please let me know what you think (good or bad!:>) We're just starting to work on "Beyond the Matrix: The Rainbow and the Tree" which, as you all no doubt have guessed, will be based on the first chapter. If you have any suggestions, I'd welcome them. At the moment, I haven't the vaguest idea of what music to put with it. I'll probably compose my own, but if you have any idea of classical pieces that might fit, I can probably do a pretty fair rendition using the Korg M3 and Logic Pro 9. thanks.

Don said...

Calling all poets and writers – can you help? I’m working on a sort of “fairy tale” to provide context for the videos Jan and I are creating about the evolution of consciousness. I’ve got something started but I’d love feedback if anybody has any ideas. I’ve just got a little bit which I’ve posted below:

Here goes:

ONCE UPON A TIME: long, long ago, human beings lived in a magical, enchanted world. They walked around not as if on a stage, alone, not sure of the part they played, or what their role was to be, but as if the world around them was a garment they wore. They felt a deep closeness, an intimacy with the birds and animals around them. The sky and the heavens above seemed almost to embrace them.

Slowly, ever so slowly, this feeling of magic, this sense of deep connection and intimacy, slipped away. Their religious leaders told them of gods who resided in regions far from earth, and eventually, they learned of one God who created the heavens and earth, a God who resided far far away, and who could only be contacted through rituals devised by the leaders. They were told if they acted in a certain way, if they thought a certain way, that they may have what their hearts desired. But their leaders also desired that the mass of human beings should be enslaved by fear, fear of angering this far-off God. They were told that if they did forbidden things, if they thought forbidden thoughts, they would be punished – and sometimes punished in the most brutal, sadistic way imaginable.

After thousands of years of being subject to this terrible story, just a few hundred years ago, a few daring individuals – at risk of torture and even death – challenged this story. In order to lessen the impact of what they had to say, these scientists suggested that they would explore the earth, and avoid direct challenging the idea of this God which the leaders had used to subjugate so many people.

In order to ensure that their study of “earthly things” was not subject to human bias (error), they decided to limit their studies to what they could measure. But again, slowly, very slowly over time, just as the religious leaders had come to believe in the concept of God they had created, the scientists came to believe that the measurements they were making, were real – in fact, more real than the world that they experienced. Matter, and energy, and fields of force, and subatomic particles – all invisible, untouchable, unimaginable – came to be seen as “real” and all that we experience of the world – the blue sky, the red earth, the flowers, rivers, streams and oceans – are no more than images created by our minds, having only, at best, a ‘secondary” reality.

“Wait a minute,” you might think – “are you saying you don’t believe in matter, energy, you don’t believe in God either?”

No, what we do, whether religious or scientific, is we encounter a mysterious world we try to understand, and we come up with concepts to help us come to grips with, to understand the world, and then we come to believe in these concepts and forget we have made them up ourselves. Just as our God is made in our image, so our ideas about matter and energy are no more than ideas; what is “out there’ apart from our ideas, our sense, our emotions, and perceptions, is unknown. Wherever we look, we meet ourselves, we meet our concepts, the images our mind creates out of our sensations?

Does this sound ridiculous, impossible? Let’s look: (and here’s where the first chapter of STA would come in – So I’d go through chapter 1 here – the rainbow and the tree. Then bring in something to illustrate “figuration” – though I probably won’t use that word. Talk about how there’s what we sense vs what we perceive – which is what the mind does with what we sense. I have a great story (I think I posted it earlier) about Virgil, a patient of Oliver Sachs who regained his vision after decades of blindness and found he could not recognize people, places or things.

Don said...

(continued from previous post)

Then I would probably go back to the beginning of the universe, with a little explanation of how the scientists developed such a disenchanted (i.e. mindless) view of things. And then retell the evolution of cosmos and life from a re-enchanted (final participation) perspective – how scientists are coming to understand that all matter has a “Mind” aspect – which some are even coming to see is primary, then bring out the latest understanding of how “mind” or “consciousness slowly emerges in one-celled organisms, insects, fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, primates and humans, telling it – hopefully – in the form of a fable rather than a dry, didactic telling. Then on to recovering our own sense of aliveness, bringing in the latest understanding of how “mind” pervades the body.

And finally, bring in the latest research on parapsychology, which arch debunker Richard Wiseman now admits demonstrates that by all conventional scientific standards, shows that telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis and remote viewing are real, verifiable, statistically measurable phenomena. And then suggest what the implications are regarding all of this.

Any suggestions?

Kasper said...

That sounds really interesting. Not sure whether I've read it before, but that's a wonderful way of putting it: "they walked around as if the world around them was a garment they wore". By the way, have you read Barfield's The Rose on the Ash-Heap? That seems rather similar to your idea, although in a somewhat different vein and with a different ending I guess.

Some things that struck me in your sketch were the introduction of gods only in a rather negative way, whereas in my mind original participation entails a direct experience of the gods; the only difference is that they became more and more removed in time. But this removal is not something I would only lament or blame leaders for, for it is also what opened the free way towards final participation. And I would see the scientific revolution as the culmination of this process of removal, not as a counter-force to it, even though you rightly stress that it eventually must lead to a new view of mind and perception.

These are just some thoughts I entertained while reading, but I'd be really interesting in how you proceed. As an aside - I did watch your second video as well, thought it was really nice, and the music seemed very fitting to me as well.

Don said...

Kaspar: can you write me? donsalmon7@gmail.com thanks.