Monday, July 16, 2007

#13. Cognized Environment

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This is the second of three blog postings dealing with the Mystery of Person in light of the neurological perspectives of Biogenetic Structuralism.

In my previous post (#12) I noted that we have many different names to talk about the mystery of conscious awareness: words like mind, soul, spirit, person, psyche, self, inner self, consciousness, cognition, awareness, knowledge, understanding, gnosis and episteme.

This entry deals with a Biogenetic Structuralist term for the mystery of conscious awareness: "cognized environment."

I know that doesn't sound too promising. But-- like the phrase in post #12, "cognitive extension of prehension"-- it's quite helpful for our understanding of what it means to be a person.

As I described in that entry, the phrase "cognitive extension of prehension" offers significant insight into the fact that due to the cosmic evolutionary process, the matter of the Earth has become not only alive but self-aware. The main idea there was that, thanks to the structures and functions of the human brain, we are free to some extent of the affective or emotional ties our primate relatives have, via the brain's limbic system, to their immediate environment. And that this freedom--liberty, autonomy, independence-- as limited as it is, is precisely what was meant in earlier times by our spiritual nature.

The great value of seeing our human spirit from this neurological perspective is that it doesn't separate us from the rest of the living world, as religious dualism does; rather, it situates us within it. It marks "the End of Dualism," as I entitled entry #11, because it helps us to see that the human spirit is rooted in the Earth and the cosmic process.


The topic of this posting, the term "cognized environment," is similar, but it looks at personal consciousness from a different slant. While the "cognition extension of prehension" deals with the fact that, as a result of the cosmic evolutionary process, "the matter of the Earth has become alive and self-aware," this second term, "cognized environment," helps us to understand what it means to say "That's us! That is what we are."

It really is a very good way to describe the mystery of ourselves. It helps us see not only that we are the matter of the world become conscious, but also that, as the matter of the world become conscious, we are active participants in the dynamic cosmic process. In terms of the convergence of science and religion, this neurological viewpoint opens the door to a contemporary spirituality of everyday life as participation in the evolution of the universe.

That spirituality will be the topic of a future posting. In this present entry I hope to spell out some details of just what neuro-scientists mean by "cognized environment."


We're hardly comfortable thinking of plants and animals as the matter of the cosmos become self-transforming life-forms. So thinking of ourselves, not only as "the matter of the cosmos become alive" but also as self-aware, is even more challenging.

We know, however, from personal experience what we're talking about. And even though it's difficult to wrap our minds around this objective way of looking at ourselves, it is, as I've said repeatedly now, well-worth whatever time and energy we can give to it.


One part of that effort is to note that if we begin by asking "How can matter become conscious?" we have already slipped back into the pre-20th century perspective about matter. What we're really asking-- in that older context-- is: "How can something inert and passive and dead become alive and aware?"

Thanks to the modern evolutionary perspective, we know that that's not a good way to think about matter, life and mind. It's called "thinking from the bottom up," and we need to look at cosmic evolution from the opposite direction, "from the top down." When we do, it's obvious that life, not death, is what the world is all about.

And not just "life" in an abstract sense. It's human life that's at the center of the entire cosmic process. In Teilhard's words, quoted back in entry #11, "We are the Terrestrial head of [the] Universe... the fruit of millions of years of psycho-genesis."

We need only think for a moment of human society, of culture and civilization and of our personal relationships, to see the validity of what Teilhard calls this "neo-anthropocentric" view. When seen from the top down, the story of the universe as it shows itself on Earth is centered on human consciousness. Personal self-awareness is the very apex of cosmic evolution.

That's what the neurological jargon term "cognized environment" helps us to understand.


We need to keep in mind two things from the modern scientific worldview. One, from the evolutionary perspective, is that that universe isn't static but dynamic. The other, from neuro-physiology, is that the human brain and nervous system is the most complex thing we know of in the entire dynamic universe.

It's easy to see why Teilhard said our understanding of the world as dynamic rather than static is the most significant change in human consciousness since consciousness first appeared on Earth. In terms of neurological concepts, it means not only that our brain is the universe at its most complex stage of development but also that brain activity is nothing less than that "dynamic universe at its most complex stage of development" in action.

The obvious question then: "What's going on in the brain?"


You might like to look back at blog entry #10 (Overview of Biogenetic Structuralism) to check out the section on Chapter V which deals with their distinction between the "operational environment" and "cognized environment."

The term "operational environment" is neurologists' jargon for the external world outside ourselves; it's their way of talking about the physical universe as the environment (the world) in which we exist-- and within which, of course, our brain operates. In contrast, they use the term "cognized environment" to refer to the inner world which is continually being created by the activity of the brain's structures.

As the most complex thing in the dynamic universe, the brain's neural cells and networks are themselves not something static but, rather, a dynamic field of electro-chemical reactions. And neuro-gnosis (the research scientists' name for personal consciousness) is the result of that dynamic activity of the neuro-gnostic structures.

It helps to keep aware that we're talking about the third level of the cosmic process. Not just the realm of matter studied by physics, nor the realm of living things studied by biology, but the realm of that inner mystery for which we have so many names-- mind, soul, spirit, person, psyche, self, inner self, consciousness, cognition, awareness, knowledge, understanding, gnosis and episteme-- the realm of the human sciences.

The main idea in the neurological perspective is that, at this third level of cosmic evolution, each individual is born with a rudimentary gnosis-structure: a genetically-based (in-born) potential for awareness resulting from natural selection and the cosmic evolutionary process, and out of which our personal consciousness grows by corrections and modifications based on data coming in from the operational (i.e., external) environment.

In terms of evolution and natural selection, the brain's primary function is to construct an internal version of the external environment-- which it does in order to moderate input from and response to that external world.

It is an evolutionary survival mechanism; it allows us to recognize what's potentially hurtful or helpful in the operational environment. If incoming data produces a negative affect (i.e., if something in the external environment appears threatening or in some other way unattractive), the object can be avoided; and if the affective response is positive (the object appears to be potential food, protection or a mate, for example), the object may be approached.

The basic idea here is that any sense data that enters the brain is immediately compared with already-there previously-stored sense data. This provides an evolutionary advantage because the sense data is processed in terms of how it fits with previous information already stored in the brain and nervous system. From a biogenetic (evolutionary) perspective, neuro-gnosis (consciousness) is the "informational content" of the neurological structures, and the neuro-gnostic structures are the media of nerve cells and their networks in which this information is "coded" and by way of which it can be modified.

All this wouldn't sound so strange if it wasn't ourselves that we're talking about.

But the point of it all is that personal consciousness is the "environment, cognized."

And what a perspective it is!

Conscious awareness is the dynamic universe, at its most complex level of development, doubled back on itself and raised to a new, third, level of complexity. That's us. We're not just part of the world, we are the world, internalized. As a result of thousand of millions of years of evolution, we are the universe become conscious of itself.

The religious implications of this scientific view of ourselves are immense.

Ours is the first age in humanity's cultural development when we can understand ourselves this way. I'm not saying that it's likely that we'll soon add "cognized environment" to the names we have to express "the mystery we are." But there's no question that everything looks different from this neo-anthropocentric perspective, including the meaning of words like mind, soul, spirit, psyche, self.

One of the most interesting things is the realization that human activities-- our personal relationships and the products of our creative imagination and technical know-how-- are not just private activities; they are nothing less than the creative universe in action. They are the cosmic process doing its thing through us.

So much to explore!

1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.