Consciousness? What a wonder! Will we ever understand it?

There are many things in life that are wondrous mysteries; things that are beyond our ability to understand; things that fill me with awe:

 

The vastness of space with its trillions of galaxies;

 

The beginning of the universe;

 

The beginning of life on this planet;

 

The evolution of life to create this wondrous panoply of nature;

 

The beauty of human creativity – music, dance, art, writing, sport, poetry, sculpture, architecture…….;

 

The wonders of natural beauty – the rocks, waves, gorges, mountains, sunsets, sunrises, blue skies, clouds and lakes;

 

The pleasure of love, friendship and sharing.

 

I can spend my life marvelling up at a night sky, sharing a meal, watching a sunset or touring around the natural beauties of this planet.

 

I can do all this because of the greatest wonder of all – my consciousness.

 

In my head I have a rich blancmange of trillions of nerve cells that interconnect in ways more complex than any computer to create a network that provides me with consciousness.

 

That fills me with awe. How does it work?

 

This network has evolved from basic nets and ganglia to this enormously huge swelling that we call a brain. It is equipped with senses that provide us with vision, sound, touch, taste and scent so that we are able to perceive the world around us. It provides us with a means of coordinating these senses into a view of the world. It provides us with a sense of self and the ability to think.

 

That picture we have is far from complete. Our consciousness is imperfect. We only perceive a fraction of the energy, the spectrum, around us. What would the world look like if we could see in X-Ray, gamma, ultra-violet or infra-red? If we had the senses of other creatures – the homing sense of birds, the smell of dogs? Our world is a fraction of what is actually surrounding us.

 

With modern brain imagery we are able to see much better how this incredible structure we call a brain works. With our understanding of biochemistry we are able to comprehend a lot more of how the neurones operate on a cellular and subcellular level – the chemicals involved, ionic shifts and the way the network creates our consciousness.

 

Maybe one day soon we will be able to understand the magic of consciousness? We are only at the beginning of the age of science. As mere microbes on the surface of a tiny planet we’ve already done remarkably well. Give it a thousand years or so and I’m sure we’ll fathom out a lot more.

 

Human consciousness is one of the big marvels.

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10 thoughts on “Consciousness? What a wonder! Will we ever understand it?

  1. Yes, our consciousness is a marvel of evolution. I wonder just how unique are we in the animal kingdom. Must we assume that because we cannot communicate with any other animals that they cannot think – have no sense of self? I’m sure you’re right, Opher, in another thousand years our understanding of ourselves, the natural world, and the universe will be greatly enhanced.

      • I thought I replied but lossed my answer so hear goes again. Consciousness become more marked as we climb the tree of life but it appears to take a sudden leap in man who is self-conscious and hence self judgemental. We have developed a conscience which is sometimes at odds with our desires ; in a nut shell we are moral. The tiger kills with out mercy from necessity , it eats what it has to eat regardless of the consequences. Some higher mammals appear to be self aware from the mirror test but this is a long way from the meta consciousness of mankind. As far as we know the universe is amoral but we interpret it with a moral sense , we have no choice it is our nature.
        The Bible puts it neatly we ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We left the animal kingdom and set off on a new path.
        No one knows how or when this happened but we are the consequence.
        Some modern neuroscientists believe that free will and the self are illusions and we are not responsible for our actions. They have evidence that our brain makes decisions long before we are aware of them. One such believer is Sam Harris the famous atheist who makes me smile because he carries on just as if he has the free will he denies.
        Religion also rages over predestination and Calvinism believes everything is down to an act of God , but many protestants believe we have free will to accept or reject religious teaching.
        When does the human child become self-conscious? Who knows ? It seems to me that self-consciousness is tied up with free will.

      • Kertsen – I’m not so certain that consciousness is tied up with free will. Neither am I convinced that human consciousness is the pinnacle. I think we are likely to find that there are many different types of consciousness and some are likely to be just as sophisticated as our own – though different. I imagine that we will anthropomorphise and make value judgements on that. The Blue Whale has the biggest brain. I wonder what its consciousness is like?

      • Yes brain size is not an ultimate judge of intelligence although intelligence may not always be the best way to survive. The Neanderthal brain was bigger than homo sapiens but I suppose some of their genes have been carried down by us. It could be that intelligence may prove our downfall , certainly Martin Rees the astronomer questions whether we will survive this century without the breakdown of civilization.
        Julian Jaynes believed up until about 3000 years ago men and women had bicameral minds and modern consciousness did not developed until later. Richard Dawkins is unhappy with this conclusion but there has been some renewed interest in Julian Jaynes.
        Professor Rodger Penrose has suggested a quantum theory of consciousness and believes that computers as we know them will never be conscious. It seems to me that those who rave about artificial intelligence are hoodwinked into thinking that because computers can perform many tasks much better than humans they are on the brink of consciousness.

      • Kertsen – you make some interesting points. Brain size and IQ are both flawed ways of measuring intelligence. They will probably find neuronal density and interconnections are more important. Some people with tiny brains have recorded above average intelligence.
        Neanderthals may well have been more intelligent. Perhaps they lacked the aggression and mindless viciousness of humans? We do have some of their DNA but not a lot.
        Consciousness is an extremely nebulous thing. What is it? How does it come about? Will machines ever be conscious? There are lots of views.
        I personally do not think we’ll be about that much longer. We will engineer our own downfall. It is a question of how much else we take with us.

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