‘Self-Denial, The Cross and Consciousness’

Posted: August 25, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 16: 21-28

Is the search for an explanation of consciousness dependent upon self-denial and a taking up of the cross? Can we escape the limitations of being human or at least perhaps expand the boundaries of limitation? Is self-denial required to take up the one’s cross and is one’s cross the limits of understanding?

I was attending a service recently when the preacher suggested that imagination was the product of a cognitive process; that if we did not think about something it could not be imagined and while I thought this was reductionist of imagination it got me to thinking about the current debate about what consciousness is and how it relates to us as living human beings.

What consciousness is and where it emanates from has stymied great minds in societies across the globe since the dawn of speculation. In today’s world, it’s a realm tackled more and more by physicists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists than it is by theologians. I am reading Karen Kings book about the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and am fascinated by the Gnostics of that time. I rightly or wrongly think that the Gnostics were an example of an exploration of consciousness in that time in human history.  Self-denial as part of taking up one’s cross.

There are a few prevailing theories today about consciousness; one of which is that consciousness emanates from matter, in our case, by the firing of neurons inside the brain. But the question remains; what if this is a limited view?

A view more often chosen by traditional theologians is the theory of mind-body dualism. This is perhaps more often recognized in religion or spirituality. In this case consciousness is separate from matter. It is a part of another aspect of the individual, which in religious terms we might call the soul. It might also be claimed that this approach might be the Western approach to life that errs on the side of the left hemisphere obsession that Iain McGilchrist speaks about at the expense of the bigger picture or a more balanced approach, might take. A question here is; Is this dualism view too anthropocentric? Is this not self-denial enough?

I am going to suggest that another way to approach this question might be to see the option of what is called panpsychism as a way the theologians and scientists might debate together. Start with the bigger picture perhaps? The key connection in this approach is that the entire universe is inhabited by consciousness and a handful of scientists are starting to warm to this theory, but it’s still a matter of great debate. Truth be told, panpsychism sounds very much like what the Hindus and Buddhists call the Brahman, the tremendous universal Godhead of which we are all a part. In Buddhism for instance, consciousness is the only thing that exists. But what if this is the ‘More’ that Marcus Borg spoke of or the ‘Mystery’ that Gordon Kaufmann wrote about? It might also be the Serendipitous Creativity of Kaufmann. What I would rather call the more verb-like ‘Serendipitous Creating’, or maybe consciousness is the ‘perhaps’ that Caputo writes of and I would call the ‘Almost in my own bumbling exploration of an evolutionary life that is both noun and verb. This seems more like self-denial and taking up one’s cross to me.

Another approach to this question might be through the famous Zen koan, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This reminds us as Lloyd Geering has been reminding us for some time, that one must come to the realization that everything we experience is filtered through and interpreted by our mind. Without it, the universe doesn’t exist at all or at least, not without some sort of consciousness observing it. In some physics circles, the prevailing theory is some kind of proto-consciousness field. Some sort of original source of consciousness? I am currently wrestling with the possibility that a shift from theology to theopoetics might be a way of ‘de-westernizing’ this approach. If there is such a word? Some sort of way of entering or exploring the nature of consciousness. The question is I think; Is consciousness derived from an invisible field that inhabits our universe? Or not? Is this really picking up one’s cross?

I am no scientist but I read that in quantum mechanics, particles don’t have a definite shape or specific location, until they are observed or measured. Is this a form of proto-consciousness at play? According to the late scientist and philosopher, John Archibald Wheeler, it might. He’s famous for coining the term, “black hole.” In his view, every piece of matter contains a bit of consciousness, which it absorbs from this proto-consciousness field. He called his theory the “participatory anthropic principle,” which posits that a human observer is key to the process. Of this Wheeler said, “We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago.” In his view, much like the Buddhist one, nothing exists unless there is a consciousness to apprehend it.

Neuroscientist Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, is another supporter of panpsychism. Koch says that the only theory we have to date about consciousness is, it’s a level of awareness about one’s self and the world. Biological organisms are conscious because when they approach a new situation, they can change their behaviour in order to navigate it, in this view.

Dr. Koch is if he has not already, attempting to see if he can measure the level of consciousness an organism contains. He planned to run some animal experiments. In one, he planned to wire the brains of two mice together. Will information eventually flow between the two was his question? Will their consciousness at some point become one fused, integrated system? If these experiments are successful, he could plan to wire up the brains of two humans.

U.K. physicist Sir Roger Penrose is yet another supporter of panpsychism. Penrose in the 80’s proposed that consciousness is present at the quantum level and resides in the synapses of the brain. He is famous for linking consciousness with some of the goings on in quantum mechanics. He doesn’t go so far as to call himself a panpsychist. In his view, “The laws of physics produce complex systems, and these complex systems lead to consciousness, which then produces mathematics, which can then encode in a succinct and inspiring way the very underlying laws of physics that gave rise to it.”

Veteran physicist Gregory Matloff of the New York City College of Technology, says he has some preliminary evidence showing that, at the very least, panpsychism isn’t impossible. Dr. Matloff told NBC News, “It’s all very speculative, but it’s something we can check and either validate or falsify.”

Theoretical physicist Bernard Haisch, in 2006, suggested that consciousness is produced and transmitted through the quantum vacuum, or empty space. Any system that has sufficient complexity and creates a certain level of energy, could generate or broadcast consciousness.

Dr. Matloff got in touch with the unorthodox, German physicist and proposed an observational study, to test it. What they examined was Parenago’s Discontinuity. This is the observation that cooler stars, like our own sun, revolve around the center of the Milky Way faster than hotter ones. Some scientists attribute this to interactions with gas clouds. Matloff took a different view. He elaborated in a recently published piece, in the Journal of Consciousness Exploration and Research.

Unlike their hotter sisters, cooler stars may move faster due to “the emission of a uni-directional jet.” Such stars emit a jet early on in their creation. Matloff suggests that this could be an instance of the star consciously manipulating itself, in order to gain speed. This has to be taking up one’s cross, or at least for a struggling mind like mine.

Observational data shows a reliable pattern anywhere Parenago’s Discontinuity is witnessed. If it were a matter of interacting with gas clouds, as is the current theory, each cloud should have a different chemical makeup, and so cause the star to operate differently. So why do all of them act in exactly the same way? Dr. Matloff went on to posit that the presence of a proto-consciousness field could serve as a replacement for dark matter, but that is probably another sermon.

Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposes a slightly different take on panpsychism, called integrated information theory. Here, consciousness is a manifestation with a real, physical location, somewhere in the universe. We just haven’t found it yet. Perhaps this heavenly body radiates out consciousness as our sun radiates light and heat. Dr. Tononi has actually put forth a metric for measuring how much consciousness a thing has. The unit is called phi. This translates into how much control a being can enact over itself or objects around it.

The theory separates intelligence from consciousness, which some people assume are one in the same. Take AI or artificial intelligence, for example. It can already beat humans in all kinds of tasks. But it has no will of its own. A supercomputer which can enact change in the world outside of a programmer’s commands, would therefore be conscious. Many futurists from Ray Kurzweil to Elon Musk believe that day is coming, perhaps in the next decade or so, and that we should prepare. I think our text today might apply here too. Deny self and take up the cross. Amen.

Website – BigThink.com. Article by Phillip Berry

You might want to watch the video linked below to here Sir Roger Penrose speak of the above.

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