Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Evolution of Consciousness

Here's what intrigues me most about this life that we are living. That continual stream of consciousness, passing through the mind, forever observing, reflecting, discerning, pondering... We are more than just meat-covered skeletons moving about a rock that's hurtling through space, as someone recently stated on Facebook. There is something in us - and indeed in many higher-order animals - that rises above the mere mechanical-biological actions of merely surviving through feeding and breeding and the birth-life-death cycle.

Observe for a while a dog or a cat, look at its face, its eyes; you can make out a train of thought going through its consciousness. It looks slowly around, sizing up the situation, before returning to rest, or yap, or yawn, or wag its tail.

The human mind is a versatile tool, it can plan complex deeds, in coordination with many other human minds. Building cities and vehicles and phones and computers is extremely clever, but this is the product of human intelligence, based on an ever-expanding knowledge of empirical fact.

Our consciousness is harder to define and to display to others. How can others tell what I'm thinking? What thoughts are passing through my mind, how they are being processed? Certain humans - artists - the great poets, the great musicians in particular, have the gift to render the most subtle emotions in such a way as to resonate with the consciousnesses of their audience. Certain sequences of notes can conjure up moods; sometimes a memory response, sometimes an association - but the greatest music will transport you to places you have never been.

I do believe that great musicians - from Chopin to David Bowie - demonstrate a higher level of consciousness than most of us. Some musicianship is little more a mechanical craft skill - a competence to recreate sounds; but what distinguishes great musicians is their ability to shape listeners' emotions. And the same goes for great poets, whose chosen art form confines them to mere words. For me personally, Sir John Betjeman's poetry resonated most strongly, though I can appreciate why others might choose a different favourite poet.

Consciousness is about sensitivity. The more evolved the consciousness, the more sensitive. This does not mean weeping at every piece of sad news; rather, this sensitivity, the sensitivity of consciousness is about the observation of fine details, discernment of nuances - and the ability to communicate those feelings and thoughts to other humans; in words, in music, in pictures. It's not a mere intelligence or practice-makes-perfect thing. A sensitive, observant consciousness, picking up the subtlest signals, can express the way they impinge upon the awareness, play back the precise mood they create.

I mention music - the sensation of sound, how well we are adapted to responding to tones and musical interval. Just two notes, played one after another, can create a mood - of tension, of playfulness, sombre or joyful. Yet smell is not something with which we can create the equivalent of, say a 40-minute long olfactory concerto. Smell is, however, an incredibly powerful agent acting upon the consciousness, powerful in the way it can bring memories into being.

I recently had a strong memory of my family's room on a French seaside holiday nearly 50 years ago; the smell of beach towel, seawater-damp; the smell of suntan oil (in the days when the oil was meant to promote tanning rather than protect the skin from ultraviolet rays); the smell of the pine trees outside our window, the smell of French cooking from the kitchens below. And then - by a wonderful coincidence - I stumble upon this excellent article in Atlas Obscura about a scientist who is recording smells for posterity (centuries-old books, for example). As she says, science can break down smells into their constituent parts, but cannot - for now, at least, recreate them. Fascinating.

These experiences, or qualia, run through our conscious minds; in some minds, this is happening almost continually, in others, the reflections occur less frequently - dare I say in others - hardly at all?

I was watching an interview on the BBC with billionaire My Cashly, the owner of Sports Direct - not a sympatyczny człowiek. A man seemingly driven entirely by an insatiable desire for money - I could not see in those eyes any spark of spiritual curiosity or indeed any sense of humanity. [Click on that link, read the Wikipedia article, let it sink in for a while before continuing...]

How can one prove one's consciousness to others? Only, I would posit, through creative output; using original thought, analogies, concepts that have not been learnt and repeated, but are entirely fresh. This is not dependent on education (as evinced by the Gypsy poet Bronisława Weis, aka Papusza). Not all musicians, not all film makers, not all novelists can do this.

I wrote the other day about the physical evolution of humans and the effects of cooking and cutlery on the size of jawbone and the cranium. Lactose tolerance and blue eyes have been evolutionarily useful for northern Europeans. But what of the evolution of consciousness?

Here we move from science to belief. I strongly believe that as the universe unfolds, matter within it on a journey towards fulfilment, from zero to one, to total consciousness, the awareness of all. As higher-order life evolves, so with it evolves its consciousness - not at a constant or steady pace, but the tendency is there. More about this subject from my 2016 Lenten thoughts here.

This time last year:
Farewell to Ciocia Jadzia

This time two years ago:
By train from to Konstancin and Siekierki

This time three years ago:
Summer's end, Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
Ząbowska, Praga's newly-hip thoroughfare

This time eight years ago:
Catching the klimat

This time nine years ago:
Road to Łuków - a road trip into the sublime

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