"What raises us above other known sentient beings is our ability to be conscious of our own consciousness. But what does this mean, scientifically?" We are largely unaware of the traffic of 'thoughts' within our heads including those that guide most of our living actions. The primary actions that keep us alive, such as breathing, seeing, hearing, touching and even tasting, take place without our conscious participation or stopping to think about them.
It is interesting to note that most of our purposeful behavior happens without the aid of consciousness. We even solve most of our routine problems unconsciously. It is when a purpose or result can be achieved by alternative means that consciousness is called upon. In other words, at the routine level of existence, we do not employ consciousness except when we are altering our actions or thoughts from the routine, for a purpose.
Rudolf Steiner believed animal consciousness to be the experience of desires, hopes and fears without self-awareness and the ability to view the body and those emotions from the point of view of an inner observer. He thought plants too have a form of consciousness, perhaps resembling human sleep. The German philosopher Friedrich von Schelling (1775-1854) wrote: "Mind sleeps in stone, dreams in the plant, awakes in the animal and becomes conscious in man."
What is Consciousness?
Consciousness, according to western science, has its roots in the mind, which in turn is seated in the brain. The human brain, with its highly developed frontal cortex, is divided into three distinct parts and includes the cerebrum, cerebellum and the medulla oblongata or stem. The latter is a remnant of our reptilian ancestry with the ocean as its original habitat.
"Much of today's public anxiety about science is the apprehension that we may be overlooking the whole by an endless, obsessive preoccupation with the parts," says physician Lewis Thomas. The following view is an attempt to avoid the above pitfall.
"To learn is to eliminate," says neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux. From the embryonic stage itself, there is a furious amount of editing at work to fine-tune our brain content. It startled scientists to discover that our growing up and learning process is not of adding new material so much as editing existing ones. Nerve cells in the brain die without being replaced in our infancy (or in degenerative brain disease as adults), although they appear to remain fairly stable later through a lifetime of healthy individuals. The fact remains that the brain is the only organ that does not grow new cells to replace those that are lost.
Human consciousness is a cerebral ability with inputs from the approximately 50,000 million cells that constitute an adult body. There is a growing understanding of the intelligence in individual cells in living matter. The human body is incredibly complex and each of its cells is in constant communication not only with cells that perform similar functions but also with every other cell in the body. Our consciousness probably results from assimilating all this data and arriving at choices or solutions. Our present state of consciousness may be likened to the tip of the iceberg of potential human awareness, of itself and of the universe.
To arrive at consciousness, we have to enter the areas of the brain that contain memory, information and emotion. Human memories go back, to the primal soup and perhaps beyond, to the void before material creation. Scientists of various disciplines are involved in a worldwide research project that is trying to map all of the genes in the human DNA sequence. Another project, not so widely publicized, known as the Human Consciousness Project is already well under way to map the gamut of human consciousness including the unconscious. The latter project is also multidisciplinary and researchers around the world are piecing together what they call a spectrum of human consciousness. This includes: instinct, ego and spirit; pre-personal, personal and transpersonal; subconscious, self-conscious and super-conscious; thus, no state of consciousness is dismissed from its embrace. Undisputed evidence is already in hand that such a spectrum does exist.
The first concept associated with consciousness is 'awareness'. We are conscious when we are aware. This is immediately seen to be not quite true. We may be aware, for instance, without really being conscious of being aware. Awareness is, therefore, only a part of consciousness. Other known aspects of consciousness are free will, reasoning, visual imagery, recalling and making choices.
How Much Do We Know?
It is now widely accepted that all knowledge (heavily edited to include only that which is useful to human life), from the beginning of time, is available to each of us, an intelligence that is carried at the cellular, subatomic level. Highly evolved individuals who have touched the hem of the eternal and communed with the infinite through their higher consciousness, made that quantum leap but have been unable to transfer their understanding due to limitations imposed by language. Because language is incomplete and fragmentary, merely registering a stage in the average advance beyond the ape mentality. But all of us do have flashes of insight beyond meanings already stabilized in etymology and grammar.
What is Reality?
Our brain is domineering when it comes to coping with reality. We sometimes see things not as they really are, sometimes invent categories that do not exist and sometimes fail to see things that are really there. There are people who have never seen or heard of an aircraft and will not be able to imagine it and a real airplane overhead will be distorted in their minds, creating alternative realities.
To recognize that what we call reality is only a consensus reality (only what we have agreed to call reality) is to recognize that we can perceive only what we can conceive. Captain Cook's ship was invisible to the Tahitians because they could not conceive of such a vessel. Joseph Pearce explains this best: "Man's mind mirrors a universe that mirrors man's mind." On the other hand, if a seed of imagination is sowed, a germ of an idea can be planted contrary to existing evidence. The seed will grow and sooner or later produce data to confirm or deny the idea.
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