Sunday, March 20, 2011

The "Present Moment" As a Mere "Consciousness of the Past"

In the first chapter of his insightful book, "The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self," philosopher Thomas Metzinger takes us from the leading edge of cognitive neuroscience, where the search is underway for the 'neural correlates' of consciousness (the specific areas of the brain that correlate to various mental phenomena and perceptions), to a discussion of the for-now seemingly ineffable question of just what consciousness is, and back to the question of epistemology that traces its roots back to Plato's famous "Cave," and beyond.

Quite correctly, he takes us through the argument that what we see as our 'reality out there' is an internal representation of the stimuli we receive from the outer environment. What we make of it, the mental construct of what "it" is, is a purely an internal matter.

Take colour. Metzinger points out that all the colours we see are just our own internal representation of the outside field of electromagnetic radiation that falls within the frequency range that our retina can detect and relay to the visual centers in our brain (the 'neural correlates' of vision). Yet the frequency range of electromagnetic energy we cannot see - gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet rays, infra-red waves, radio waves etc. - far exceed the limited band of frequencies we can detect as colours. But still the adage that "seeing is believing" continues to hold sway in our common understanding of our 'reality.'

Interestingly, Metzinger suggests our detection abilities may be evolving. Certainly, this has been put forward by Metzinger's predecessors who have studied the phenomena of consciousness. Both the pioneering psychologist Richard M. Bucke in his classic treatise, "Cosmic Consciousness," and the philosophical polymath, Gerald Heard, in "Pain, Sex and Time," both cite the inexplicability of  the 'blue' of the Aegean Sea never being mentioned in Homer's works, its  waters being referred to as wine coloured. Both give credence to the notion that our eyesight has continued to evolve in the bottom part of the visual spectrum.

Most interestingly, Metzingers states that the two facets of our subjective consciousness which are universally evident are (a) its "spatial internality" and (b) its "tempororal internality." The 'world' we see out there is not the world at all; it is not 'reality' but, rather, is our internal construction of the stimuli that our sense receptors - eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin - bring to our attention. We live in a 3-D world of our own making which is seamlessly cobbled together from the stream of stimuli created by our 'contact' with this colourless, odourless, tasteless and undivided, silent 'outer world' of electromagnetic phenomena. The more we ponder this reality, the more it begins to feel like the Buddhist notion of the Void from which all ideas and 'things' arise in a process of 'dependent origination' within our mind.
There is a famous Buddhist saying, "The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon." Meant to signify that the spiritual methodology one uses to attain enlightenment is not the state of enlightened consciousness and experience, the "finger pointing at the moon" analogy suggests an interesting counterpoint to Metzinger's observation that there are two very interesting aspects of our 'ordinary' consciousness: 'spatial internality' and 'temporal internality.'

The first of these concepts, spatial internality, is straightforward. What is seemingly 'out there' impinges on our senses, we form our 'internal image' of what is 'out there' and, then, our consciousness does a flip and it seems that all we see is indeed 'out there' and is a fairly accurate (if limited) representation of what is 'external' to us. However, 'temporal internality,' while equally convincing, seems to me to be an inherently inaccurate picture of what is 'external.'

"Conscious experience, as such," Metzinger observes, "is an internal affair. Whatever else may or may not be true about consciousness, once all the internal properties of your nervous system are set, all the properties of your conscious experience - its subjective content and the way it feels to you are fully determined. By "internal" I mean not only spatial but also temporal internality - whatever is taking place right now, at this very moment. As soon as certain properties of your brain are fixed, everything you are experiencing at this moment is also fixed."

It seems to me that the latter part of Metzinger's analysis dealing with "temporal internality" is evidently wrong, and just tends to reinforce the 'reductionist view' that consciousness is just a by-product of a highly evolved brain. Take the man (above) with his 'finger pointing at the moon.' He 'sees' his arm, his finger, perhaps some clouds, the moon, and the panopoly of stars behind the moon. According to Metzinger, this would be (from our pictured man's point of view) "what is taking place right now, at this very moment, when "everything (he) is experiencing at this moment is also fixed."

Yet, we know that what he is "seeing" is the light from the stars and that reflected by the moon illuminating the clouds, the finger, and the man's arm. And we know that this light is travelling at a uniform 300,000-odd kilometres per second. The light from the man's fingertip is reflected a split nano-second before the light illuminating his arm. The reflected light from the moon takes just over 2 seconds to travel the 700,000 or so kilometers that lies between the man's fingertip and the moon.

And the stars? Their light has been travelling for hundreds or thousands of years (or perhaps much more) to reach our man who sits quiescently pointing at the moon behind which they lie. (The closest stars - those in the Alpha Centauri star system - are 4.35 light years distant from the earth, while the nearest galaxy to the Milky Way - the Andromeda Galaxy, which is the only galaxy visible to the naked eye - lies 2.65 million light years beyond the man's outstretched fingertip.)

Indeed, it takes a nano-second or so for the light gathered in the man's eye to travel through his neural circuitry and register the images of "what is taking place right now" in the visual cortex. So, in a very real sense, whenever we 'look out, to the stars (particularly when we are looking at the far distant objects in the night sky) we are looking into the past. Sound waves are incredibly slower than light, so in actuality, what we hear is a 'dim echo' of our past. And while the sense of what we touch, together with our taste and the fragrances we smell, are more immediate, we still 'grope' in the darkness 'blindly,' so to speak.

In one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament, Paul observes that: "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." (I Corinthians 13:12) It is a prescient reminder that our consciousness is much more than what we see, perhaps much more than we think . . . or even can think.

And each time we gaze at the stars, it is a reminder that  we are all only cognizant of what has already passed, that we are in actuality blind to the present let alone the future, but that we are able to take (and are taking) actions the effects of which we will only come to know in time. Each time, this is a reminder that the laws of karma - the laws of cause and effect - are operative; and we do not, and cannot, know what those effects will be precisely, though we are good "guessers" or prognosticators. Therefore, we should treat our ever-changing present moment with the care and respect which are its due.

As the stoic, neo-platonist Roman Emperor. Marcus Aurelius, observed: "All we ever have to live and lose is this ever passing present moment."

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