At what point in evolution did consciousness emerge? Does the special form of consciousness that humans enjoy represent a singular, unique leap, or is it only one step in a long evolutionary series? Must we admit that other animals, plants, and, why not, minerals themselves have specific forms of consciousness that could, if we were able to observe them effectively, allow us to better understand the nature of our own consciousness, its particular advantages, and its as yet unrevealed potentialities?
One thing is sure : today, the neurosciences are still unable to explain consciousness itself, its nature and its essence.
There is also the question of reason (which unfolds quite differently in everyday life, and in other fields, such as philosophy, or mathematics). Human reason seems capable of constructing specifically « human » worlds, based on its own imagined rules. But, very surprisingly, reason seems capable of formulating fundamental laws of nature based on completely abstract reasoning. There lies a mystery, in this strange adequacy of formal reason with the very structures of nature, as testified from its successes ranging from microphysics to cosmology.
We must also consider that there is the mystery of revelation, and of visions apparently reserved for prophets, mystics or poets, but whose very universal potentiality cannot be put easily under a bushel.
The multitude ignores it or does not care, especially in the present period, but it is an undeniable fact that the prophecies of Moses, Buddha, Jesus or Muhammad have proved capable of penetrating the consciousness of countless generations. They continue to animate, long after the disappearance of the living men who originally bore them, the consciousness of immense masses and singular personalities. The mystics have left burning traces of their visions in their testimonies, which are not without analogy with those of the shamans, who have practiced the art of ecstasy and communion with higher powers for tens of thousands of years, and in all regions of the globe.
Consciousness, reason, revelation represent three very specific modes of interaction of the human brain with the world : a neurobiological mode, a mental mode and a spiritual mode. In these three cases, the mystery is that there are effective correspondences, to varying degrees, between the human brain and, respectively, the entire cosmos, the hidden laws that seem to govern it, and the yonderworld, or some other meta-worlds, that hide even further away from what one can experience in everyday life.
The very existence of reason, and above all its effectiveness in relation to the understanding nature, raises innumerable questions, which the greatest philosophers have failed to resolve (e.g. Kant’s admission of failure of understanding the ultimate essence of pure reason).
Why is it that perfectly « abstract » mathematics, developed for its formal beauty alone or for the rigorous exploration of the internal logic of certain systems of axioms, is also capable, in a completely unexpected way, of elegantly and powerfully solving complex problems of quantum physics or cosmology?
The modern worldvision seems to be universally materialistic, agnostic, atheist. But in reality, the penetrating power of the great world religions is constantly asserting itself. How could we understand the state of the world without taking into account the influence of monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), Buddhism or Hinduism?
Perhaps more surprisingly, within the camp of the most rigorous rationality, many scientists of the highest rank (Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Pauli, Eddington,…) have resorted to various forms of mysticism to try to answer the ultimate questions that the (ultimately insufficient) results of their very scientific approach always ended up confronting them.
From the parallels between consciousness, reason and revelation, we can draw by induction that the human brain is somehow capable of correlating with the universe, in various modalities.
The subtle intertwining of DNA and protein molecules apparently explains the development of life on earth, but it is very difficult to imagine why this intertwining, pushed to a certain level of complexity, leads to a phenomenon that transcends biological life alone, namely the irruption of consciousness at the heart of neurobiology. Consciousness represents, in relation to life, a leap at least as great as that of life in relation to organic chemistry alone.
But this mystery only prepares the way for an even deeper question, the one that the human brain embodies when it is able, by its own forces alone, to invent (or « discover »?) mental models that prove to be able to « explain » some of the most complex structures in the universe.
Finally, the phenomenon of «vision» is certainly not the least mysterious in truth, if we accept, for the sake of our reasoning, to consider what so many witnesses have been telling us for so many millennia: namely the « revelation » of a possible communication between men and a « spiritual » yonderworld.
It is possible to deduce from these observations some hypotheses on the deep structure of the human brain. Consciousness, reason and vision cannot be explained by a mechanistic/materialist neurobiology alone.
The human brain is obviously capable of correlating (effectively) with the « world »i, and this through multiple modalities, including neurological, mental, spiritual ones … There are undoubtedly other modes of brain-world correlation of which we are not necessarily aware, – starting precisely with the powers of the unconscious (whether individual or collective), or those of dreaming or premonition.
In any case, the important thing is that these multiple forms of correlation imply a set of more or less integrated links between the brain and the « world ». We can deduce from this that the brain cannot be reduced to a solipsistic organ, splendidly isolated, reigning as absolute master in the midst of Cartesian certainties, such as « I think therefore I am ».
The brain is naturally in flux, in tension, in permanent interaction with multiple aspects of an eminently complex, rich, and ultimately elusive reality.
In our modern world where quasi-instantaneous electronic communication has become ubiquitous, it may be easier to propose here the metaphor of the « antenna ». The brain can indeed be seen as a kind of multi-band, multi-frequency antenna, able to receive and process sensory information (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell), but also to « discover » (as opposed to « invent ») other abstract mental spaces (such as those that mathematics abstractly gives us to « see »).
These other spaces of meaning seem at first to belong only to the human sphere, but they also reveal themselves, unexpectedly, surprisingly and mysteriously, capable of helping us to « grasp » in a specific way structural aspects of the « world » and the « cosmos ». These aspects would have remained « hidden », if the mathematical structures that the brain is capable of generating had not come at the right time to allow it to « understand » them in some way, that is, to allow it to determine forms of effective adequacy between the brain’s intellection capacities and the intelligible potentialities of the « world ».
The newborn child slowly but surely develops a multi-sensory map of the world, through touch, taste and smell, sounds and lights, but he is first immersed in a small amniotic world, from which he emerges with some difficulty to be immediately plunged into another « world », the emotional, loving, warm world that his parents offer him at birth. This first (and double) experience, of immersion « in » a limited, inexplicable, constraining world (due to the narrowness of the uterus and the impossibility of deploying apparently cumbersome, useless, superfluous limbs), and of emergence, of passage « towards » another world, where millions of completely different stimuli suddenly reveal themselves, is a founding experience, which must remain forever engraved in the newly born brain.
It is a founding experience, but also a formative one. It secretly prepares us to face other mysteries to come, because the world reserves for us throughout life many other (metaphorical) experiences of « births » and « passages » of a symbolic or cognitive nature. This experience is so well engraved and « engrammed » into the brain that the prospect of death, in many spiritual traditions, seems to be itself only a new « birth », a new « passage ».
The metaphor of the brain-antenna was already proposed at the end of the 19th century by William James in a famous textii . It is a stricking image because it suggests the possibility of a complex continuum between the brain and the world (taken in its broadest possible sense). But it also lends itself to a powerful generalization, along the lines of Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, if one understands that each « antenna » can be put in communication with the billions of other brains currently living on this planet, and, why not, with the billions of billions of « brains » probably sailing in other galaxies, and other nebulae.
Until now, we have used the word « brain », without really trying to define what we mean by this word. The neurosciences have recently made significant progress in the analysis of this essential organ, but have undoubtedly failed to explain its very essence, i.e. the nature of « consciousness ». In today’s materialistic and scientific world, research trends aim at demonstrating (without notable success so far) that consciousness is merely a property emerging « naturally » from the « complexity » of neuronal entanglement, and resulting from some neuro-biological « auto-poiesis ». This explanation undoubtedly proposes elements necessary for understanding, but these are far from being sufficient.
They don’t really help to give an account of the most extraordinary things mankind has been able to generate (symbolized, to be short, by names such as Mozart and Vinci, Newton and Einstein, Plato and Pascal…).
The brain-antenna metaphor, on the other hand, far from focusing on the neurochemical soup and neuro-synaptic entanglement, aims to establish the existence of reproductive, organic and subtle links between brains of all kinds and of all conditions and the rest of the « world ».
The perspectives of reflection then change radically.
The « normal » brain of a human being should therefore be considered simply as a minimal platform from which extraordinary potentialities can develop, under certain conditions (epigenetic, social, circumstantial, …).
The immense world of mathematics, with its incredible insights and perspectives, can be described not just as the result of brilliant « inventions » by particularly gifted personalities, but rather as the subject of true « discoveries ».
So, too, can the even greater world of « visions », « revelations » and spiritual, mystical, poetic « intuitions » be described not as a world « invented » by unique personalities like Moses, Buddha or Jesus, but as a world « discovered », of which we only glimpse the infinite virtualities.
The brain can therefore be understood as an organ that constantly emerges beyond its initial limits (those posed by its neuro-biological materiality). It does not stop growing outside its own confines. It generates itself by opening itself to the world, and to all worlds. It is in constant interaction with the world as the senses give us to see it, but also with entire universes, woven of thoughts, intuitions, visions, revelations, of which only the « best among us » are capable of perceiving the emanations, the efflorescences, the correspondences…
Consciousness emerges in the newborn brain, not only because the neuro-synaptic equipment allows it, but also and especially because consciousness pre-exists in the world in myriad forms.
Consciousness pre-exists in the universe because the universe itself is endowed with a kind of consciousness. It is futile to try to explain the appearance of consciousness in the human brain only by a specially efficient molecular or synaptic arrangement.
It is easier to conceive that individual consciousness emerges because it draws its youthful power from the fountain of universal consciousness, which communicates with each of us through our « antennas ».
What has just been said about consciousness could be repeated about the emergence of reason in each one of us, but also about the gift of vision (apparently reserved to some « chosen few »).
i The « world » is all that the brain can effectively correlate with. It goes without saying that the limits of this definition of « world » also point to all those aspects of the « world » that remain decidedly impenetrable to the human brain, until further informed…
ii William James. Human Immortality. 1898. Ed. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge.