Monday, September 12, 2005

The Unconscious Universe

Dr. K. Rohiniprasad

The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible.
Albert Einstein

Cognition and consciousness are most essential to human beings. We are nothing if not conscious. When we are momentarily unaware of our surroundings we are 'lost'. When we lose consciousness permanently, we are 'brain dead'. All our feelings, mystical and otherwise, arise out of consciousness. At its most mundane level, consciousness endows us with self-awareness. Through our five senses we feel pain, pleasure, anger, surprise and a host of other sensations. Emotion is supposed to be the language of a person's mental state that is related to the internal (or physical) and external (or social) sensory feeling. Primitive forms of perception arose with the beginning of life itself. It is the awareness of the surroundings that has enabled every species to survive the vagaries of nature through the millennia. Even microscopic life-forms recoil from unfavourable situations. Some form of consciousness is found among the flora also. Trees not only mount an active chemical defence against insects, but they also warn their neighbours of the attack by releasing some chemicals into the air that produce a protective response in the other trees nearby. Evidently survival of life seems to imply consciousness in one form or the other.

Humans have, of course, the most advanced form of consciousness. Apart from sensory inputs that provide awareness of the prevailing situation, they can also think of the past and future. They can imagine hypothetical situations and plan for contingencies. Scientists today talk of quantum mechanical effects that defy our common sense and logic. They can conceive hyper-dimensional space and other concepts that baffle ordinary minds. Consciousness makes humans intellectually superior in the hierarchy of life. And yet, the animal world is not that far behind. Chimpanzees and dolphins are capable of recognizing themselves when facing a mirror. Crows are known to drop nuts on roadways to be crushed by passing vehicles. They wait until the traffic lights turn red to swoop down and carry off their booty. Other animals also exhibit awareness much higher than expected.

But what about the rest of the universe? We hardly have sufficient data. Earth is the only planet where intelligent life is known to exist. Experiments like SETI notwithstanding, so far not a single instance of intelligent life has been discovered elsewhere in the universe. Scientists, however, confidently predict that life is bound to evolve on other planets too. Terrestrial and space telescopes have already spotted more than 150 extrasolar planets so far. While it is too early to predict whether they can support life or not, similar cosmic situations seem to produce similar results and it is very likely that some of these planets do bear intelligent life.

Consciousness and cognition, which are so fundamental to life, seem to be curiously absent in the rest of the universe. Our anthropocentric attitude conceives god as Supreme Being, knowing everything there is to know and running things in general. After all, who can have a better perception than god? These concepts find their origins in the evolution of the human race. In the distant past, as early humans stared getting exposed to conditions that challenged their very existence, they began to evolve along a path that took them away from their ape-like cousins. Bipedal walk and tool-making abilities brought about an unprecedented improvement in their brains and mental capabilities. Humans travelled extensively on foot and started living under a variety of geographic and climatic conditions that continuously sharpened their intellect. Other primates never ventured out of their arboreal existence.

One of the important contributions to the success of humans as a species seems to be the ability to recognize patterns. They observed the cyclic changes in weather and their effects on nature. They saw the rising and setting of the sun, moon and stars and could predict the behaviour of animals, both predators and prey. This faculty vastly improved their chances of survival against odds. They also became conscious of this superior mental faculty of theirs and valued their powers of anticipation and imagination.

Perception of their surroundings and pattern of events sometimes baffled them too. They knew of the anger of beasts during a hunt but could not comprehend the 'anger' of nature that would manifest in the form of violent storms or forest fires. This kindled their imagination and they suspected the hand of unseen gods of rain and fire. To them, the forces behind these calamities were as real as the calamities themselves. Soon there arose a new priestly class in the form of witch-doctors, shamans and medicine-men who would initiate rituals to ward off evils and to propitiate and appease the angry gods. This also had the advantage of uniting the tribe in 'communicating' with the gods in the form of a collective wish. The earliest form of worship was not a prayer but a collective demand.

It is not surprising that the earliest gods like Varuna, Agni and Mitra (Sun) were all personifications of natural forces. As men began to observe nature and understand its workings, these early gods gradually faded away and were replaced by another set. But the fear of the unknown continued to persist and gods are evoked even today whenever one is confronted by inexplicable phenomena. Even the most ardent believer would not leave it to the gods to take care of boiling milk. The other reason for belief in superior powers is mankind's long experience between cause and effect. Nothing comes into being on its own. If we see things around us, they are 'creations' and we are all 'creatures'. Obviously there must have been a Creator. Human consciousness thus emerged as being capable of seeing the 'hand of god' behind the pattern of events. Not to recognize it amounted to beastliness.

If even humble humans attain intellectual superiority on the basis of enlightened consciousness, one can only think of god as having the greatest conceivable level of perception. But if we set aside, at the risk of provoking violent reaction from the believers, our pet notions, the cosmic events that come under our observation appear as a continuously unfolding drama that defies our imagination.

We have come to know of the birth and death of stars, some of them ending their lives with a whimper as white dwarfs, others exploding as novae, neutron stars, supernovae and black holes. Each of these cataclysmic events occurs somewhere 'out there' and no one was aware about them until recently. There is a gigantic black hole at the centre of our own galaxy and what is more, every galaxy in the universe seems to have one. The farthest objects in the universe appear to be quasars and pulsars, which seem to be new-born galaxies. We are now coming to realize that there is a vast amount of dark matter in the universe about which we know very little. Having noticed how Nature 'reveals her secrets' to us little by little, Einstein once said that Nature is subtle but not malicious! Fred Hoyle suspected that the universe must be unfolding according to some intelligent, cosmic plan.

Is consciousness a human attribute or something that necessarily arose during biological evolution? Today we know how our brain creates a whole range of thoughts and emotions whether we are awake or asleep. Ancient Egyptians did not think much of the brain. René Descartes (1596-1650) was the first to make a distinction of conscious thought from the flesh of the brain. It was his contemporary Thomas Willis who first proposed that mind was located in the brain with its various parts carrying out different cognitive functions. Modern scientists have identified centres for languages and speech, a visual cortex etc. Each part of our body has a clearly mapped out centre on the opposite side of the brain. It is now known that mental tasks involve complex and simultaneous interactions between the various neural networks that may be located in several parts of the brain. Stimulating various parts of the surface of the cortex artificially has been found to produce vivid feelings of taste, smell, recalling an image or musical passage etc. Once the foetus is born, millions of neurons are formed by the hour and they take up their positions in the brain area. Just before and after birth, several important and essential connections are formed between the neurons. As soon as the baby is born, it is ready to receive sensory inputs every moment. This helps in preparing the child achieve the most basic process of cognition.

Our feeling of self-awareness is so strong that we usually associate the feeling of ego or “Me-ness” with an indestructible soul of some sort. Our experience tells us that we cannot share physical pain and other sensations (including dreams) with others. We fondly hope (and are reassured by godmen with dubious authority) that this soul 'survives'. But consciousness is something that grows with time and age. And it ceases (wishful thinking about life-after-death notwithstanding) with our inevitable demise.

Could all our perception be simply biological and confined to the brain? Much work is being done for the last few years on understanding the workings of our brain. It takes a couple of years for infants to become self-aware and recognise themselves in mirrors. Our oldest memories are recorded in the amygdala and are forgotten as we grow up. But it is understood that old memories of highly emotional events can sometimes affect us subconsciously in adulthood. Most of the social attitudes like fear and revulsion for creepy, crawly things are acquired later, by observing the behaviour of elders. While most of this learning process ends in our childhood, scientists now say that the brain continues to learn new things and adapt itself constantly. For the visually challenged, the sensations from finger tips as they read Braille script and perform other tasks occupy the visual cortex area, which is deprived of inputs due to sight. Normal people, when blindfolded for a few days were found to have similar changes in their brain patterns but reverted to normalcy after the blindfold was removed. When required, the brain seems to recruit other areas not normally known for a particular mental activity. Other tests showed that the right and left prefrontal cortex areas correspond to negative and positive thoughts. All these contribute to our perception of reality.

But what is reality? As the American author John Horgan asks, why does the universe look the way it does rather than some other way? Did the universe really begin with a big bang? Will it keep expanding eternally or shrink back some time in the future to a singularity? Is the gravitational force relatively weak compared to the other three kinds of forces known to physicists (Coulomb, the weak and the strong) because it is being projected into another universe? If indeed, as Stephen Jay Gould says, evolution of life as we know it, is a lucky one-off event, is it surprising that we find it difficult, if not impossible, to perceive reality? We are probably not equipped to do so. We did not even know about microbes until primitive microscopes were invented in the late 16th century. Nor did we know about the cosmos until the telescope was invented. Today when the 'mystery' of the known universe bewilders us, we run to 'seers' rather than scientists for answers.

When and where did consciousness originate? Is there any form of perception that is not related to life-forms? Who has witnessed the birth and death of stars? Which mind has experienced the violent events that led to the creation of supernovas and black holes long before our earth came into being? Do we have to take the word of 'holy men' who tell us 'what it is all about' by depending upon their own subconscious and semi-conscious 'meditations'? Consciousness and perception are neural attributes that are peculiar to human and other living things. They do not appear to be in the 'scheme of things' as far as the universe is concerned. If we, as humans, worry about them, it is our problem. The universe doesn't seem 'to care'. If one considers the fact that our sun and the solar system have been in existence for only the last 4.6 billion years or so in a 13 billion year old universe, all our concerns about consciousness and perception appear to be irrelevant and petty. It is an Unconscious Universe out there.


Blogger dev said...

Your article helped me a lot with consolidating my own thoughts on consciousness. Thanks so much!

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