Saturday, 28 June 2008

A Different Light


The Universe seems to me to be a giant consciousness making machine. It throws up ever more complex organisations of matter and ever more complex and self aware ways of being. The Universe does this by evolution; the complex forms arise out of the less complex; they don't just appear.

One place where this is seen is in the most complex single thing known to humankind: the human brain. This wonderful instrument of being didn't just arrive fully formed but developed from less complex brains, and they in turn from less. It seems that God doesn't go back to the drawing board and redesign from scratch. God develops by adding things on, and changing what is already there ('redemption', we call it, in Christian jargon). This growth is seen in the structure of the brain itself which has "layers". At the core, in the physical centre, is a brain stem which is similar to the brain of a reptile and is responsible for those functions we share with animals of about similar complexity to a skink: breathing, digestion, basic defences, all that stuff. Laid on top and around is a brain of similar complexity to that of other mammals and responsible for those things we share with mammals, such as basic cognition, and the kind of love C.S. Lewis called Storge). On Top of that brain again, there is a complex structure which operates those features we share with other animals of simlar self awareness, and those which we humans alone seem to possess ( the ability to write sonnets or to despoil the planet, for example). The needs catered for at the deepest levels of our brains are those most required for survival as living beings. At the outer levels of our brains the needs catered for are those we need to develop to become a little lower than the angels and the body of Christ and be born of one spirit into one body.

Now this is a long prolegomena to telling you how I am this Saturday - the first day in a week when I have worn actual clothes and been outside into actual fresh air. It seems that as we are threatened we retreat deeper into the layers of our brain and deeper into our most basic and primal selves. My body has been offered quite an insult: an operation is the equivalent of being in a slow motion car wreck. Bits are sliced and stitched. Blood leaks out. Highly unnatural chemicals are pumped in. The body protests by going into shock. The brain hunkers down and waits for better times.

So, this week, I have not thought any powerful or complex thoughts. I have not been wonderfully self aware or self reflective. What I have been is very mammalian, reptilian even. I have been occupied by the basic processes of living - most particularly eating, drinking and peeing - because these have been difficult and painful, and because the brain knows that if it doesn't get these ones right it can forget all that fancy stuff.

What I have noticed though, is that I have been more deeply, less cognitively, more instinctively, less reflectively aware of God. Perhaps it's the great cloud of prayer I know I am surrounded with at this time when I have found it hard to pray and impossible to contemplate. Right now it's not the scholars who speak to my soul but the poets.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins

How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man

How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind

How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
how at my sheet goes the same crooked worm
-Dylan Thomas

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Kelvin- have been remembering you in prayer each day & will add to that prayer thanks for the loving medical staff, family & friends that have blessed you through this time.
Just think of all the sermon illustrations you can - no, don't, just get better.
Brian

Alden Smith said...

The universe certainly does produce consciousness. What is interesting is the way we humans define and value this consciousness. One test used contains both our definition and our values.

It is the test of self awareness. If you do a bold drawing on the face of a chimpanzee and it sees itself in a mirror, it notices the marks and may try to rub it out. We say that the chimp has self awareness and we value this. If you draw on the face of a beaver, it doesn't respond in the same way, so we humans say, ok the beaver is not self conscious and its life is one built around living out a life of instinctual behaviour. But beavers and other animals do some interesting things that are not tied up solely with instinctual survival - things like playing and having fun. Beavers and otters etc seem to get great fun out of mud sliding and frolicking in other ways. They don't pass the human self awareness test but are we in a position to judge the nature or quality of their consciousness?

It is interesting that religious systems have different ways of viewing animals. In Buddhism it is taught that all sentient beings have the potential for enlightenment which is an interesting concept. If taken seriously it begs a number of interesting questions. Do animals have souls? What happens to animals when they die? --- I guess all the existential questions for humans could also be asked on behalf of animals? Or maybe they have their own set of questions.

I didn’t know that animals laugh but apparently they do. Chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans, dogs and rats show laughter like vocalizations in response to some types of physical contact. Scientists of course say that without self awareness this behaviour is not true laughter ------ but it is interesting that in the case of the chimpanzee who passes our human test for self awareness laughter is behaviour that is exhibited!!

One interesting point you make is that when you were coping with the aftermath of you operation you were still “deeply and instinctively aware of god.” Is this a case for the awareness of god by animals?? And what about our chimpanzee that laughs and has self awareness, would Christians consider that Christ died on the cross for chimps as well??

VenDr said...

I think emergence has a lot to answer for in the production of all this complexity. At the most basic level: take one proton, one neutron and one electron. None of the components has the properties of hydrogen. Put them together, and the combination of unhydrogen like parts is suddenly hydrogen - acts like hydrogen, looks like .... well, not really....is hydrogen. Where did the hydrogen properties come from? They emerged from the combination: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The propensity of the universe to pull off this particular trick time and again is one of the things that describes (though not explains) this complexity, and the unfolding levels of being - being, life, awareness, self awareness and so on. Are the higher levels somehow contained in the lower? Is human consciousness somehow contained in the lower forms that came before us, and in the atoms which made those forms?

As for animal spirituality, who knows? But perhaps the geckos are instinctively but not cognitively aware of the almighty as they cling to the ceiling with their sticky little feet.

kathryn said...

Kelvin, It's so good to know that your brain is functioning well again after getting rid of all those nasty chemicals.
Your body might just take a bit longer.
I think it is wonderful that you sense the effects of all the prayers that have been said on your behalf. Bask in God's love and his caring for you.
I will continue to pray daily for you.
God Bless you,
Kathryn

Daniel said...

One can of course do the classic trick of taking hydrogen apart in the other direction - it's made up of atoms, but what are atoms made of? And what of the components of the components of the atoms, ad infinitum? The question then becomes not from where does the complexity and attributes arise, but from where does anything arise? It is obviously not nothing, for one is aware and conscious of a reality. So what does that then say about the origins of consciousness?

Alden: All sentient beings, animal and human, have potential for enlightenment because they are fundamentally no different. What happens at death is the same for all.

Alden Smith said...

Daniel you ask the most important question and it is the question that Kelvin is concerned with in his investigations and reading on “being” . This question goes right to the heart of the matter. Whether reality goes on for infinity in the direction of the sub atomic level or infinity in the direction of the macro level and whether there are three or a thousand dimensions of reality - the key question is this, is consciousness a function of this reality? is it a mechanism of the biochemical processes of the brain? what exactly is this “I” ? what is “being”? This is the fundamental question. Any other investigations are really just an analysis of the system we are in. An atom or a molecule has a “being” which is a function of the interactions of its various components. When the components are dispersed, the “being” vanishes. Is this what happens when we die? That’s the big question – is the “I” beyond a closed system of causality. The Buddhist would say that the “I” is beyond this system. I guess the Christians would say the same.

VenDr said...

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on
-Augustus De Morgan

The limts either up or down in or out will always be unknowable because the limits of what we can know are set by ....er... the limits of what we can know. For example: how big is the universe? Well, the only bit of it we can see is now and ever shall be the bit as big as the distance light can travel since the beginning of the universe until now. What's beyond that? More of the same or something else? A big brick wall? We can only guess. The infinite was, is now and ever shall be unknowable.
Now the relationship of consciousness and what is: perhaps Alden's two choices of being part of or outside of what is are not the only available ones.
I have been reading lately about quantum computing. A quantum computer will work by manipulating entangled particles. Trouble is, the state of entanglement can only last for a few nanoseconds: not long enough to make it do anything useful. So how do you preserve the entanglement for long enough? By observing it. When something is observed, according to Heisenberg, it is actually changed. In this case, it's state of being is preserved. So a little machine that measures the entanglement a few tens of thousands of times a second may be enough to preserve the state of entanglement long enough to manipulate it.
Observation actually affects what is. Odd huh? Perhaps consciousness is something that can only exist if there is something to be conscious of. Perhaps what is exists only if there is something to be conscious of it. Perhaps the universe and consciousness call each other into being.Perhaps this is why the universe needs to produce consciousness

Daniel said...

“The Buddhist would say that the “I” is beyond this system.”
Actually, defining “I” as consciousness (awareness), it is not beyond this system – it is the system. Our ignorance of this is the fundamental problem.

Returning to Kelvin's theme of perception - it is a little like standing at a large window, looking at the outside world. The glass is extremely clear, making it impossible to see the glass itself, and it is easy to miss it's presence entirely. So how does one go about discovering the glass? One stops looking outside so intensely and simply begins to watch, letting perception widen. It becomes apparent that part of what is seen is a reflection. The reflection seems intimately familiar, what is it? None other than self of course. As perception refines, the reflection is seen to be interacting with the world outside. How is that possible? The world outside must be a reflection too. So all one can see is reflections, but on what surface are they occurring? It is the glass, mind - luminous awareness, absolute clarity.


Our mistake is that we take the reflections for reality - the reflections of self become ego and the reflections of outside other. But both are transitory, changing moment to moment, the continuity an illusion of perception.

Alden Smith said...

Conundrum piled upon conundrum. You say “perhaps what is exists if there is something to be conscious of it” Which begs the question, if all sentient beings in the universe became extinct would the non sentient bits still exist? Or do the non sentient bits also have some sort of consciousness? Reminds me of that old question of ‘if a tree falls in a forest somewhere and no one hears the sound, was there any sound?’
If the universe and consciousness call each other into being as you say, then maybe the answer to it all is that we and the universe are one – one big piece of consciousness. What would this be theologically, pantheism? (are we god or is god outside in this system? - interesting question)–

VenDr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
VenDr said...

If a tree falls in the forest and squashes Schroedinger's cat etc etc is only a variant of the question 'what exists in that bit of the universe that is too far away for us to ever observe it?' What exists where there is nothing to know it is....unknowable.
Now all of this would be just word games if it wasn't for quantum physics, the uncertainty principle and the odd thing that mere observation does indeed seem to have some real (as opposed to speculative or philosophical) effect on what is. In fact there are people in laboratories all over the world beavering away, as we type, to make actual working technological bits and pieces using these odd physical properties (wiki page)
Now I could take another angle on this. What is a noise? It's the name we give to the particular subjective psychological experience which happens to us when our ears are stimulated by a certain type of wave with a fairly restricted range of frequencies. Does a tree falling cause the emission of shock waves? Hypothetically it might, but who could ever tell? Does it produce noise? Impossible unless there is a pair of ears and an attached brain to interpret the shock waves as "noise"
Now this is not silly word games, but another illustration that the universe in which we live is an emergent from the interaction between our biology and whatever it is that is there. We see the universe not as it is, but as we are.

Joann said...

Kelvin,

I look at your photos on Webshots sometimes, and tonight I saw a link to this blog. The photos are, not surprisingly, exceptional, but I was sorry to read about your current health problem.

I will keep you in my prayers. Having read your blog, it's obvious that God is sheltering you and blessing you in the midst of this illness. I know something about that, too, as a result of a couple of life-threatening illnesses.

I'll look forward to reading about how things go with you.

.. Joann

Susan said...

I have been reading your blog to monitor your progress and am very pleased to read you are healing slowly. It takes time. You are blessed to have the love and support of your family and community around you. It is amazing how the mind can survive despite what the body goes through. It does gives us an enlightenment and appreciation or empathy of what others may be going through. I just wanted to add my concern, caring and support to the many before me. I did not want to leave a mesage on webshots itself as mass hysteria seems to develop. I await your return with images that have an insight and signature uniquly yours. Rest and take time to heal.. warm hugs Susan