Monday, August 20, 2007

#16. Our Own Inner World


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One of the most fascinating findings uncovered for us by contemporary neurological studies is the fact that we each have our own inner world. That's what this posting is about.

As I mentioned in the previous post (#15. Pre-view and Re-view), it's something we experience all the time but rarely give any attention to.

It has to do with how we are related to the rest of the universe, to what I've called in that posting (#15) the anthropos-cosmos relationship, so it has a number of significant religious implications. It's worthy of our attention.

And of course it's challenging, as are so many of these ideas that deal with the convergence of science and religion.


It isn't easy, for example, to identify the most personal and private aspect of ourselves with the scientific jargon term "cognized environment." But from the point of view of brain and nervous system studies, we indeed are the external world "cognized" (internalized), "the world become conscious of itself."

This same concept is also the basis for understanding that each of us has our own inner world. You might like to look back at post #13 where I tried to spell out the concept of "cognized environment" in some detail.

In previous centuries our spiritual nature was expressed by terms such as interiority and subjectivity. Today, thanks to the modern evolutionary worldview, we can have an even better understanding of personal consciousness.

We know that there are three levels of complexity to the cosmic process-- matter, life and mind-- and that at the level of mind, via the workings of the most complex thing we know (the human brain), the world is doubled back on itself, resulting in personal self-awareness.

Understanding this reflexive process also helps us to understand that each of us has our own inner world. The details are a bit involved, but if we can hang in there, we can see that it really does make a lot of sense. It is, in fact, both awesome and delightful.

And it has profound implications for understanding the meaning of our existence. It's precisely in this fundamental understanding of the fact that each of us has our own inner world that the findings of contemporary science and the insights of ancient religions converge.


To begin with, the neurological account of consciousness represented by the phase "cognized environment" makes clear that we do not have direct access to the external world.

Rather, data coming in via the senses from the external world (the "operational environment," as Biogenetic Structuralism calls it), gets taken in and organized by the brain's activities in terms of what's already there in the organizational structures of the brain. And this "cognized environment" is what constantly gets modified by our life-experience.

Biogenetic Structuralists refer to this process as the Empirical Modification Cycle; I spelled it out a bit in post #14 (on Person as Process). The main idea is that, via physical ("anatomical") changes in the physical links and electrochemical activities in the brain, in-coming data from the operational environment (the external world) constantly modifies the already-there structural organization of the brain.

It sounds awfully complicated, but it's not an unfamiliar experience. We "live and learn," as we often say after an especially significant modification of our personal awareness. We just don't usually think about that kind of experience in terms of brain functioning.


With regard to understanding that we each have our own inner world, we need to keep in mind that, when we come into the world, something is "already there." The basic structural organization of our brain and nervous system is there right from the start; it's in-born.

To appreciate this perspective, we need to take the long view, precisely the view offered to us by evolutionary science. At the second level of evolutionary complexity, life results from the organization of atoms and molecules in the DNA of living cells; at the third level of complexity, mind-- gnosis (our personal consciousness)-- results from the organization of living nerve-cells in our brain's structural systems.

And the brain's neural structures are, of course, the result of our genes. As we grow through our nine-month gestation period, from a one-celled zygote to an embryo and fetus, the development of our brain and nervous system has its source (just as do physical characteristics like our body-build and hair color) in the genetic material we receive from our parents.

And it's this genetically-based organizational structure of the brain which is constantly being modified by our life-experiences.

Because our brain and nervous system comes from our DNA, we are born with an "already-there," genetically-based, neuro-gnostic brain structure. We are unique from the start.


Three enormously significant ideas-- awesome ideas, really-- come from this combined evolutionary, genetic and neurological perspective. Each has to do with one of the three levels of the cosmic process: matter, life and mind.

The first, with regard to physical matter, is that our personal in-born consciousness is the result of millions of years of cosmic evolution.

Not just the chemical elements in our bodies and their structural arrangements in our DNA, but also the subsequent structural arrangements in our brain and nervous system, have a long history.

Human beings emerge at the third level of the cosmic process, but in terms of the cosmic matter of which we are made, that process started a long time ago; it started with the Big Bang. Each of us personally has been "gathered," as Teilhard puts it, "from all time and the four corners of space."

Teilhard describes us as having been gathered "into a wondrous knot." I imagine the "knot" he had in mind was an immensely complicated and beautiful Celtic knot. It's a good image for the material complexity that is the basis of our personal consciousness which has been in the making for many billions of years.


The second "awesome thought" coming out of the combined evolutionary, genetic and neurological perspective has to do with life, the second level of complexity in the cosmic process. It is that the DNA of every human being is different.

While the general structure of human and chimpanzee DNA differs by less than two percent, and in fact all things on Earth have a great deal of their DNA in common, it is also the case that the specific structure of each human being's DNA differs from that of every other human being.

Statistically, the chance that any two persons might have exactly the same DNA structure has been calculated to be about one out of 1080. That number is larger than all the stars thought to exist in the universe.

So each of us is genetically unique. Right from the start, even as a one-celled organism-- even before we have a brain and nervous system out of which our consciousness emerges-- we are called forth by the cosmic process ("from all time and the four corners of space") as utterly unique beings. (Even identical twins cease being totally identical once the one-celled zygote from which they are forming begins to divide.)


The third "awesome thought" has to do with the level of mind. It's a specifically neurological concept.

We need to remember that, as I said above, data coming in via the senses from the external world (the "operational environment") is organized by the brain's activities in terms of what's already in the brain.

This means that not only do each of us start out as utterly unique, but that as we grow and develop, our in-born, genetically-based consciousness constantly gets modified by incoming data from the external world. Each life-experience, each thing we do, each choice we make, modifies who and what we are even more, so that as we live out our life we become even "more unique."

This is probably one place where "more unique" is a correct expression.

If, when we're born, our genetically-given uniqueness is such that there's only one chance in 1080 that anyone else might have DNA identical to ours, then by the time we're two or three years old, the innumerable modifications of our inborn uniqueness-- via the Empirical Modification Cycle-- would make the chances that anyone else would have the same personal consciousness as ours would be far less likely than one in 1080.

Mathematically, it's probably more like one chance in 1080 raised to the eightieth power; i.e., (1080)80!

The point is that our in-born uniqueness is so modified by our life experience that there never was, and never will be-- indeed, never can be-- anyone like the utterly unique individual that each of us is. No one else-- past, present or future-- has or will experience the world exactly the way each of us does.

No one else-- ever, in the whole history of the cosmos-- is "the world become conscious of itself" in exactly the same way.

It seems like a strange idea, when we first think about it, that each of us has (or is) our own inner world, and yet, as I mentioned earlier, it really is a familiar experience.

In everyday life, it usually gets expressed in negative terms. We often say, of people we find difficult to understand or be sympathetic to, "She lives in a different world than I do." Or we easily dismiss someone's thoughts with words like, "He lives in his own world."

But it's a profoundly positive aspect of our personal existence. And, as these evolutionary and neurological perspectives become better known, we can expect that they will have a strong impact on our religious understanding.


For example, with his early awareness of the significance of cosmic and biological evolution, Teilhard had an extremely positive appreciation of the fact that we each have our own inner world.

The Teilhard scholar, Georgetown University theology professor Thomas M. King, S.J., mentions it several times in his book Teilhard's Mass: Approaches to "The Mass on the World" (Paulist Press, 2005).

Fr. King calls it Teilhard's "individualism," and notes that it is an element of Teilhard's thought which often goes unrecognized even by those familiar with Teilhard's writings.

In Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest, 1914-1919 (Harper and Row, 1961), Teilhard says, "Every man forms a little world on his own."

Teilhard wrote two essays with the title "My Universe." In one he observes, "I've become so accustomed to living in 'my own universe'." And in his Letters to Two Friends, 1926-1952 (New American Library, 1968) he says, "Another man is, for each of us, another world."

Fr. King notes that sometimes Teilhard refers to persons by the philosophical term "monads" and quotes Teilhard's Writings in Time of War (Harper and Row, 1967) where he says, "Each monad, in turn, is to some degree the centre of the entire Cosmos."

In that same collection of Writings, Teilhard sums up his view in one sentence: "Each one of us has, in reality, his own universe; he is its centre and he is called upon to introduce harmony into it."


Science and religion converge powerfully in that last statement.

The scientific fact that each of us is at the center of our own world doesn't isolate us from the rest of the universe. Rather, it allows us to see that we have a profound relationship with the entire physical cosmos and thus that our personal existence has meaning and purpose within the cosmic evolutionary process.

We usually associate terms like meaning and purpose with religious or spiritual views more than with objective science, but that last statement of Teilhard's brings the two together in a way that simply wasn't possible before humanity awakened to contemporary evolutionary perspectives.

The "biogenetic" (evolutionary) perspective of modern science allows us to see the validity of the old religious idea of vocation.

Because we are at the center of our own inner world, we are thereby "called upon"-- by our very existence as part of the cosmic process-- to do something. We have a task. We have a purpose. Life isn't meaningless.

And when we see that our very existence is the result of fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution, and that the details of our everyday life have significance within that cosmic process, it slowly becomes clear that what we are "called upon" to contribute to the evolution of the universe is nothing less than ourselves.


"This stuff is a bit heavy for me," one of my cousins told me recently.

"Yes," I said. "Isn't it awesome!"

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.