Consciousness

 
The belief that humankind, created in the image of god, is the center and purpose of the universe, has been smacked down over the last 500 years by three revolutions in human self-awareness. The first was the Copernican discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe. Prior to Copernicus publishing his theory in 1543, the medieval worldview imagined that all the heavenly bodies revolved around earth and humanity, while god pushed them in their orbits through the sky. Today, thanks to Hubble, we gaze in fascination at photos of galaxies in outer space. We are not the center of the universe.

The second blow came from Darwin. Tradition has it that he was so fearful of reaction to his theory of evolution that he postponed printing it. His conclusion was that we were not created by god 5000 years ago, but evolved from species that came before us. Not only were we not the center of the universe, as Copernicus had shown, but we were not the only player in the history of the planet. We came from life that preceded us.

The last blow, with which we are still contending, came from Freud, who showed that we are not even in control of our own mind. Freud exposed the unconscious, and in doing so raised the question of the motivation, meaning and purpose of human activity.

It is fascinating to consider that we understand the 13.7 billion year history of the universe, that every year we observe evolution in action as we create new vaccines to fight an ever-evolving influenza virus, but we have no certainty about the source and nature of human consciousness. There are probably 100 theories about human consciousness, but none are definitive.

They fall into two basic categories. On the one hand are those who assert that human consciousness arises because of some physical process, most often associated with the brain. There is no “mind”, no “I” or “You” that exists independently of human flesh and forms the sense that we are somebody. On the other hand are those theories that proclaim just the opposite, that there is a non-physical mind that is the seat of human consciousness. Science, of course, cannot and does not speculate about non-physical reality, and so is constantly in search of the fleshy source of consciousness.

The search for the fleshy source of consciousness arises in conjunction with many parallel issues, about which our knowledge is limited. Think of anesthesia, comas, sleep, all subjects of investigation and often filled with surprise. How conscious are we while in those states? And what of other animals? Does your pet exhibit consciousness? at what level? How about plants, and even rocks? The theory known as panpsychism posits consciousness at all levels of reality. The list of parallels goes on. What happens to consciousness during hypnosis? In a case of multiple personality disorder, whose consciousness are we speaking of? And more: split brains, differing brain waves, meditative states, just to name a few.

If history is any guide, what happened with cosmology and evolution will most likely happen also with consciousness. God’s hand moving the heavenly bodies around the earth was replaced by gravitational orbits. Humans created in the image of god were replaced by a certain series of species along the chain of evolution. And consciousness? Due not to a mind or a soul, but to a certain function of the brain?

The answer seems to be yes, a certain function of the brain. Two recent studies point in that direction. First, it has been discovered that in the mouse brain, three super large one celled neurons are connected with various parts of the brain, and one of them actually encompasses the whole brain. Originating in the claustrum, a part of the brain shown to be integral to consciousness, this single neuron is in contact with all brain activity simultaneously, and could be the center of consciousness. If humans have this neuron, which they probably do, further study could illuminate the connection between it and self- awareness.

A second study, reported in May of this year, has located a section of the brain where spiritual experience happens, and will be the subject of my next reflection. In general, since spiritual experience is a particular type of consciousness, the study provides further incentive to believe that consciousness is a physical function of the brain.

If it turns out to be the case that consciousness has a physical basis, this in no way denigrates it. All other functions of our body are described physiologically, and we think none the less of them. So, too, should be the case with consciousness. In fact, focusing on understanding the physical will help us clarify the various processes, and could very well lead us to higher levels of consciousness.

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