Is the sea conscious of her shores? Does she feel that, stung with sunlight, clouds are born from her womb?
Does she now that her waves travel a long way, but always break and end up as light foam ?
Seas, waves, clouds, foam form a whole, of which the spirit of man sometimes becomes aware. But is man also aware that his own consciousness is at the same time like foam and like a cloud? Consciousness depends entirely on the evaporation and distillation of the ocean’s amplitude, before spreading out in beneficial or destructive rains, and its foam is the proof of the final fold of its inner waves.
Clouds, waves, foam are good metaphors of consciousness confronted with what is infinitely larger than itself, the ocean, the earth and the sky.
Consciousness only feels « consciousness » at the borders, at the interfaces.
The roll of the wave feels the sand under the blade, and at the end it comes to lick the heat of the sun, offered by the slow sand, which it penetrates by the bubbling foam.
The immemorial meeting of sea, land and sky is done on the beach or the rock. It is a three-phase place, where water, sand and bubble briefly unite. Mythical place! From here emerged long ago forms of marine life that had decided to try the land adventure! Metaphor still of our soul, charged with sleepy consciousness, and waking up abruptly in contact with the hard (the rock, or the shore) so that the impalpable (the air and the bubbles) emerges…
Man too is a sea shore. Man too is multi-phase. He represents the meeting point of several worlds, that of life (bios), that of the word (logos) and that of the spirit (noos). The metaphor of these three phases can be explained as follows. The immense sea, the deep sea, is Life. The tumultuous wave that faces the rock, or flows languidly on the shore, is the Logos, the word striking the world, splashing it with foam. As for the cloud bathing in its vapors, it proves that molecules previously buried in the darkness of the sea chasms were allowed to ‘ascend to heaven’, sucked up by heat of which they had no idea, before realizing that they were indeed ascending to inconceivable altitudes and crossing infinite horizons for a long, seemingly endless journey. These molecules chosen for the great journey most of them will go to irrigate the mountains and the plains, and some of them will moisten thirsty gullets and will inhabit for a time bodies made of water first, and of some other molecules too, and will come to feed human brains… Metaphors! Where are you taking us?
To a new metaphor, that of panspermia.
The brain, I wrote in a previous post, is a kind of antenna. But we could also use a more floral image, that of the pistil, for example.
The pistil, from the Latin pistillum, pestle, is the female organ of flower reproduction. It stands up like a small antenna waiting for flying pollen.
The brain-pistil is in multiple communication with the world, and it receives clouds of pollen at all times, invisible or visible, unconscious or, on the contrary, destined to impose itself on the consciousness. The brain is bathed in this ocean of pollen waves, which can be described as panspermic. There are sperm of life and sperm of consciousness. There are sperm of knowledge and sperm of revelation. All pistils are not equal. Some prefer to be content with transmitting life, others do better and fertilize new oospheres. i
Let us move here, through the miracle of metaphor, from the oosphere to the noosphere.
The panspermia whose « world » is saturated continually reaches our numb brains, and titillates our pistils. Many things result from this global titillation. Not all flowers are given the joy of true, pure, limitless enjoyment.
For those among the human flowers that lend themselves and open themselves entirely to these « visitations », the panspermic waves come to fertilize in their interior the birth of new noospheric embryos..
iThe oosphere is the name given to the female gamete in plants and algae. It is the homologue of the ovum in animals.
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.
And where is the entrance to the Underworld? Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said, « Gehenna has three entrances: one in the desert, another in the sea, and the third in Jerusalem. » iii
Gehenna takes its name from Gaihinom, meaning a valley as deep as the Valley of Hinom. But Gehenna has many other names as well: Tomb, Perdition, Abyss, Desolation, Mire, Mire of Death, Land of Below. iv
This last expression is similar to the one used by the Nations: the « Underworld ».
« We speak in Latin of the underworld (inferi) because it is below (infra). Just as in the order of bodies, according to the law of gravity, the lowest are all the heaviest, so in the order of spirits, the lowest are all the saddest. » v
Everyone agrees that the Underworld is a sad place. But is it a geographical place, like being located « under Zion »?
Augustine, for his part, asserts that the Underworld is a spiritual place, not a place « under the earth ».
And he adds that this « spiritual place » is in Heavens.
In Heavens ? But which one?
Augustine indeed distinguishes three different Heavens.vi
First Heaven: The corporeal world, which extends over the waters and the earth.
Second Heaven: Everything that is seen by the spirit, and resembles bodies, like the vision of animals that Peter in ecstasy saw coming down to him (Acts, X, 10-12).
Third Heaven: « What the intellectual soul contemplates once it is so separated, distant, cut off from the carnal senses, and so purified that it can see and hear, in an ineffable way, what is in heaven and the very substance of God, as well as the Word of God by whom all things were made, and this in the charity of the Holy Spirit. In this hypothesis, it is not unreasonable to think that it was also in this sojourn that the Apostle was delighted (II Cor., 12:2-4), and that perhaps this is the paradise superior to all the others and, if I may say so, the paradise of paradises. » vii
How can one explain the difference between the second Heaven and the third one ?
One may get an idea of the difference by analyzing two visions of Peter as opposed to Paul’s own famous revelation:
« He felt hungry and wanted to eat something. But while they were preparing food for him, he fell into ecstasy. He saw the sky open and an object, like a large tablecloth tied at the four corners, descending towards the earth. And inside there were all the quadrupeds and reptiles and all the birds of the sky. Then a voice said to him, ‘Come, Peter, kill and eat.’ But Peter answered, ‘Oh no! Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is unclean or impure!’ Again, a second time, the voice spoke to him, ‘What God has cleansed, you do not defile.’ This was repeated three times, and immediately the object was taken up to heaven. (…) As Peter was still reflecting on his vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Here are men who are looking for you. Go therefore, come down and go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them.» viii
Following the advice, Peter goes to Cornelius’ home, who was a Roman centurion. There he finds a large number of people waiting for him. Then Peter said to them, « You know that it is absolutely forbidden for a Jew to fraternize with a stranger or to enter his house. But God has just shown me that no man is to be called unclean or impure.» ix
This first vision had a very real and concrete effect on Peter. It induced this eyebrowed and law-abiding Jew to somewhat overlook some prohibitions set by the Law, and to fraternize and share food with a group of non-Jews, assembled in their own home.
Peter then had a second vision, in more dramatic circumstances.
Peter had been arrested, put in prison, and about to be executed, on the order of King Herod.
« Suddenly the angel of the Lord came, and the dungeon was flooded with light. The angel struck Peter on the side and raised him up: « Get up! Quickly, » he said. And the chains fell from his hands. »x
Then, « Peter went out and followed him, not realizing that which was done by the angel was real, but he thought he was having a vision.» xi
This was not a vision indeed, but a real event, since Peter was really set free.
Still, there was an element of « vision » in this « reality » : the apparition of the angel and his role in the escape of Peter.
Peter had yet to acknowledge that role.
« Suddenly, the angel left him. Then Peter, returning to consciousness, said, « Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and has taken me out of the hands of Herod and out of all that the people of the Jews were waiting for.» xii
It was not the reality of his evasion from the prison of Herod that awakened the consciousness of Peter.
He became conscious only when the angel left him.
iAt least that is what Rech Lakich asserts in Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §16. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.264.
iiThe passage « Who has his fire in Zion and his furnace in Jerusalem » (Is. 31:9) shows us this. According to the school of R. Ishmael, His fire in Zion is Gehenna; His furnace in Jerusalem is the entrance to Gehenna. In Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §14. Translation by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.263.
iiiAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §14. Translated into French by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre, and my English translation. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.263.
Emmanuel Lévinas, in a short autobiographyi, briefly recounts his childhood in Lithuania and Ukraine, his arrival in Strasbourg in 1923, his university career culminating in a professorship at the Sorbonne in 1973. This « disparate inventory » is dominated, he stresses, « by the presentiment and memory of Nazi horror ».
He then evokes, without any transition, the work of Husserl, whose method, he explains, consists of « respecting the intentions that animate the psyche », and seeing how it appears.
Surprising angel leap. Coagulation of extremes. From one line to the other, an unexpected change of subject – the passage from « Nazi horror » to « phenomenology ». Levinas links the pain of History, the praise of intention and the putting into perspective of what he calls « the unsuspected horizons where the real lies ».
Calm style of thought, through a succession of powerful jolts.
Time abounds in intimate fractures, in a thousand vacillations, constantly « presented » and « represented ». In each of them, the consciousness can decide to display its own will, a desire for rupture, or a refusal.1
From this capacity for rupture, from this refusal of abstraction, from this reflex of negation, from this scathing feeling of imminence, Levinas deduces the existence of beings of consciousness, who tear themselves away from the totality, who do not associate themselves with it, do not encompass it.
From these consciousnesses, from the pluralism of subjectivities and the myriad of experiences – he infers the necessity of the « other », the necessity of the relation of the being with other beings, and with the Other.
From the same premises, however, a much more pessimistic lesson could be drawn.
The rupture with the present, the gaping of the imminent, the uprooting from nature, the refusal of the principle, the execution of the impersonal and the negation of the totality do not necessarily lead to the apotheosis of the relation, the revelation of the being in front of the being.
Why would the refusal of the Whole certainly open the way to the Other?
The refusal of the Whole could rather imply a certain, absolute, assured solitude. The observation of Hegelian failure, the flight from totalizations, are not sufficient conditions for a new Exodus. Moreover, if there were a new Exodus, who would be its Moses, and to what Earth, with what people?
A Promised Land, where one could meet Angeli Novi, à la Klee? Or a wounded land, traversed in all directions by angels of Death, furious demons, incubi and succubi, — a land of Hell?
A disputed, bruised, bloodless land, where black clouds, funeral mounds, mass graves, and putrid smells spread out?
Which new prophet will tell us what the future Promised Lands still in the making will be?
For the addicts to phenomenology, the name of one of these putative prophets would be: Intention !…
Following this lesson, we should listen to the « intention » lurking in the depths, we should watch out for the « psyche » at work in ourselves. We must not stop being even more attentive to what could, coming unexpectedly, « appear » in the world, or in our consciousness, at any moment.
We must give consciousness this unique credit: to be able to sense in due time the imminence of disaster.
1« Le temps ne doit pas être vu comme »image » et approximation d’une éternité immobile, comme mode déficient de la plénitude ontologique. Il articule un mode d’existence où tout est toujours révocable, où rien n’est définitif, mais est à venir – où le présent même n’est pas une simple coïncidence avec soi, mais encore imminence. Ce qui est la situation de la conscience. Avoir conscience, c’est avoir du temps, c’est être en deçà de la nature, dans un certain sens ne pas être encore né. Un tel arrachement n’est pas un moindre être, mais la façon du sujet. Elle est pouvoir de rupture, refus de principes neutres et impersonnels, refus de la totalité hégélienne et de la politique, refus de rythmes ensorceleurs de l’art. » E. Lévinas. Difficile liberté, 1976, p.375
Claude Lévi-Strauss is a good representative of contemporary thought. He displays its salient characteristics: despair of thought, insignificance of being, erection of non-knowledge as the ultimate « knowledge », universal doubt (doubt of meaning and doubt of doubt itself), all this in a sardonic and cheerful tone. « Let humanity disappear and the earth disappear, nothing will be changed in the march of the cosmos. Hence a final paradox: we are not even sure that this knowledge that reveals our insignificance has any validity. We know that we are nothing or not much, and, knowing this, we no longer even know if this knowledge is one. To think of the universe as immeasurable to thought forces us to question thought itself. We don’t get out of it.”i
What will be the thought of the universe in a thousand or two thousand years from now, who can claim to know it today? And who can think in the languages of the day what will be thought here and there, in the universe, in eight hundred thousand years or in a hundred million centuries? These ages seem distant only because of a lack of imagination.
We are really tired of the old marquis who are tired of dreaming. Post-modern doubt is a paper origami. We yearn for fresh and lively intuitions, for other universes, for horizons with naked orients, for stars without north, and the worn-out metaphors of extra-galactic confines or exo-biological chimeras already bore us with their brash roundness and frank blandness.
To think far away, however, little is enough. We need to change the signs, to swap the senses, and to dream of hurricanes. Everything quickly becomes different then. The thoughts of the day seem like slow caterpillars, far from the butterfly that is sensed, and very unworthy of the pensive eagle, high in the cloud.
It is tempting to believe that thought is immeasurable to the universe, and, diagonally agonistic, line of fire, that it transcends it easily. The humblest thought goes further than the white dwarves stars, and it pierces the fabric of the world with a hole blacker than the whole dark matter.
Any thought that is a little audacious obliges us to question the universe itself, its meaning and its essence. Every thought then cries out: « We are getting out of it immediately », – and not: « we are not getting out of it ».
The whole universe is in itself « insignificant ». By contrast, thought “means”, it has “meaning”, and it gives “meaning”.
If the entire universe ever receives one day some meaning, that meaning will not come from cosmic background noise, the shape of nebulae, or the sanctification of the boson (the so-called « God’s particle »).
If a demiurge created the world, the cosmos has no meaning of its own. Its meaning is obviously to be found elsewhere than in it.
And if the world created itself, by some kind of automatism, how could it give itself its own meaning, suck its own blood? Does the baby child at the breast suck herself?
The cognitive and ontological pessimism of post-modernism is equivalent to its opposite, from the point of view of the free play of radical hypotheses. The pessimism of insignificance has no logical weight of its own.
The existence of human consciousness, the irrefutable manifestation of being, must be placed far above the imperfect dreams of putative multiverse.
Universe, multiverse, it doesn’t matter what they are or how many they are, because in reality « you can’t get out of it ».
Consciousness, in essence, its deepest mystery, is that the deeper you get into it, the more you « come out », — as from an eternal Egypt.
iClaude Lévi-Strauss, De près et de loin. Ed. O. Jacob, Paris, 1988