Today I came to an interesting chapter, Mind and consciousness, in "The Systems View of Life," a book I blogged about a few days ago.
One of the main conclusions is an unsurprising one: mind is the brain in action, not something transcendent.
Let us now summarize the recent advances in cognitive science discussed in this chapter. The main achievement, in our view, has been the gradual but consistent healing of the Cartesian split between mind and matter.
In the 1970's, a few cognitive scientists recognized that mind and consciousness are not "things" but cognitive processes, and they took the radical step of identifying these processes of cognition with the very process of life.
Thus cognition bcame associated with all levels of life. This means that mind and body are not separate entities, as Descartes believed, but are two complementary aspects of life -- its process and its structure.
...In this new science of cognition, mind and matter no longer appear to belong to two separate categories, but can be seen as representing two complementary aspects of the phenomenon of life -- process and structure.
I also resonated with the description of Antonio Damasio's theory of consciousness.
The book speaks about primary (or core) consciousness, and another level, reflective (or autobiographical) consciousness. The Wikipedia article calls these core and extended consciousness.
Regardless, the basic notion that human consciousness includes these different levels/processes makes a lot of sense to me.
It's crazy, as many people do, to elevate one level above the other. Both are part of being human. We are immersed in a largely non-conceptual here-and-now, and also in a largely conceptual there-and-then.
Obviously core consciousness and extended consciousness are linked. Everything I can remember or anticipate is based upon experiences I've had in a present moment. Everything I experience in a present moment is given meaning and significance by my memories and anticipations.
This is a very crude way of explaining Damasio's theory. But I think I've got the main elements more or less correct.
I like how it does away with the ridiculous this-or-that many spiritual teachings put forth. They denigrate conceptualization in favor of direct non-verbal experience. But as I noted semi-humorously in this post, our humanity requires both the primary and reflective levels of consciousness.
Recently the dog and I were crossing a small creek on our property. I heard a rustling sound, then saw a dark shape zooming off a few feet above the water, heading downstream. At that moment I was in my elevated state of non-dual awareness, which I like to call "enlightenment" but my wife persists in calling "spacing out."
Almost instantly, alas, my analytical, Western, dualistic, conceptual, abstract mind thought "Duck!" That destroyed the pure unfiltered awareness I had enjoyed a mere second before. However, it really was a duck. Regardless, this shows that my enlightenment has a few wrinkles to iron out before I can call myself Totally Nonconceptual Dude.
This, undoubtedly, also will be what my colleagues in the mental hospital call me when I am unable to utter coherent sentences. "Tall. Round. Sweet. Metal. Yum-Yum" "Nurse, I think the Totally Nonconceptual Dude is asking again for a Mike's Harder Margarita."
Today I engaged in my favorite (well, second favorite) physical activity, riding on my StreetStrider outdoor elliptical bike.
When I started off on a multiuse trail in Salem's Minto Brown Island Park, I instantly fell into a non-thinking frame of mind. My consciousness was almost totally in primary mode -- feeling my muscles, especially my core, propel the bike.
Arms and legs worked together. Bike and path flowed together. The world inside and outside my head were as one as, pretty much, they ever are.
After ten minutes or so, I realized that I'd started thinking more. I was in reflective mode. I was remembering stuff I'd done in the past and pondering things I needed to do in the future.
I wasn't out of touch with the physicality of riding the StreetStrider. Those feelings were just sharing my mental space with reflective thoughts.
So it went for my 45 minute ride. It was sort of like a figure/ground thing. Or a see-saw. As one mode of consciousness went up, the other went down. When I thought more about the there-and-then, I was less in touch with the here-and-now.
And vice versa.
It all felt perfectly natural. At times in my life I was wary of thinking too much, so I'd try to stop thoughts with a mantra, or by exerting some effort: Be here now, Brian!
Which came to seem forced to me. Now I'm comfortable with doing whatever I feel like doing. Think more, then think less. Perceive more, then perceive less. There aren't any rules here, no right or wrong, no strict dividing lines.
Primary and reflective consciousness build on each other, relate to each other, interact with each other. There's a proper time, and a proper balance, to engage in each.
I'd have nothing to think about without non-conceptual experiences. Those exeriences would be meaningless, by and large, without my reflective consciousness that allows me to place them within the context of my larger life.
I am in the here and now. I am in the there and then. Such is being human.