The Universe and Nature
The Cosmos and our world
Until a few centuries ago our knowledge of the Cosmos was limited to the perception of the starry sky by our eyes. Then, with the invention and construction of the first telescopes, human perceptual faculties expanded and scientific astronomy began to take its first steps. But only since a few decades the technological advances of observation instruments have allowed astronomy and astrophysics to have a sufficiently adequate knowledge of the complexity of the Cosmos and its enormous dimensions: a knowledge that, in different aspects, challenges our own mental resources. One of the aspects that most strike our imagination is that in the Universe there are billions of billions of stars (many of which can be observed with the instruments available to humanity), and certainly as many planets, that is, worlds that are not directly observable, but whose existence is confirmed by the interpretation of data obtained from other observations. The existence of other worlds was already known to humanity, based on direct observations of the other planets in the solar system and their satellites, including our Moon. For a long time the human psyche has also been able to produce all sorts of fantasies about the hypothetical inhabitants of these other worlds, whose number was however very limited.
The knowledge of the existence of a huge quantity of planets, many of which could present environmental requirements quite similar to those of our world in one of its evolutionary phases, makes the anthropocentric conception of the universal importance of humanity utterly obsolete. In fact, today we would be much more surprised to learn – if we could be sure of it – that we humans are the only beings in this universe capable of producing a form of knowledge, than to know that other civilizations, more or less advanced from a technological and scientific point of view, have developed on other worlds. Leaving to our imagination the freedom to indulge in the forms, resources and behaviors of the aliens living in these distant worlds, the fact remains that even the human psyche is completely downsized, as far as we know, since we have no certainty that its range of action may extend beyond our planet. Even the image of a creative divinity, as has often been proposed by the human psyche, can at best be conceived as a symbolic reference to our solar system, in which planet Earth seems to be the only world on which life has developed: nothing more than a drop in the Cosmos' boundless ocean.
The only reason why we think we can continue to function as we function, basing on mental patterns and psychic programs inherited from the past, is given by the isolation of the worlds, or at least by the inaccessibility of other worlds – where other forms of life may have developed – to the inhabitants of planet Earth. In fact, while we can be sure that no human – directly or through instruments produced by humanity – has ever gone to visit worlds outside the solar system, we cannot rule out that some alien life form has not been able to observe the development of humanity, and possibly also to influence us. The fact of not having clear evidence and unequivocal documentation on the presence of alien observers is not enough to make us rule out this possibility beyond any doubt: they could, in fact, have a technology that can make them invisible to our instruments. We should also not forget the many well-documented cases – even at the level of military and governmental organizations – of sightings of unidentified aerial objects (UFOs), on which many enigmas have not yet been solved. Even cases of unexplained healings, or mediumistic and paranormal phenomena, could be attributed to alien interventions capable of exerting an influence on the normal natural dynamics of our world, and even on the human psyche.
Until recently, the confrontation between different cultures – each of which could present its own original vision regarding the meaning of human life – occurred in the context of humanity, as travel and explorations brought cultures even very different from each other into contact. In our day, the western cultural model, based on scientific and technological progress and – from an economic and production point of view – on work and consumerism, has prevailed practically all over the world, and the vestiges of pre-existing alternative cultures – where they still resist – manifest themselves more than anything else as residues of psychic tunings more or less emptied of meaning and destined, over time, to fade. Those small human groups that still survive, scattered here and there in some forest, adopting ancestral cultural programs very different from ours, are considered by the dominant culture almost as an ethnological resources, possibly to be protected – in the same way we protect a museum exhibit – in order for us to be able to better study them. Thus, for the future, a real new confrontation with alternative cultures can only take place either through the decline and disintegration of our current culture – with the consequent separation of more or less isolated human groups, each of which destined to experiment with new cultural programs born from the psyche – or through a contact with an alien culture, coming from another world.
Nature in our world
The term Nature – like many other terms used by humans – can have various meanings: I will use it here to describe the processes and events related to the development of organic life on our planet, until the appearance of mankind. We could say, just to set a deadline, up to about 100,000 years ago, given that it can be reasonably assumed that, before that time, even the existence of our ancestors was subject to the same natural laws that rule the lives of others anthropomorphic primates. Obviously, we can ask ourselves if natural processes analogous to those that took place on our planet have also occurred on other worlds, and with what results, but this is a question destined to remain, at least for now, without an answer. The Universe, as we know it, remains subject to physical laws that we can also define as natural, but that tell us nothing about the evolution of any possible living organisms on the myriads of worlds that are part of it. The only thing that we can consider plausible is that conditions similar to those present on Earth when the first living forms originated should help the development of life also on other planets, but we cannot exclude that even from different environmental conditions, more complex structures – in terms of organized information – based on the chemistry of carbon or that of silicon could gradually derive, capable of self-replication.
In considering Nature in our world, I do not intend to refer to an intelligent being who directs – behind the scenes – the behavior of living organisms, nor to an organization that programs the way these organisms function: although every intelligent person cannot but recognize that these programs exist and are well efficient (just think of the genetic code), there are not enough elements to identify any programmers, who can only be imagined as alien entities with respect to our physical dimension. It is true, however, that computer science teaches us that every well-functioning program is created by an intelligence capable of programming: therefore, in the absence of information on the entities that can program natural organisms, we will limit ourselves to considering the functioning programs of living organisms as something intrinsic to the evolutionary process by which life is ruled. Our evaluation of Nature will therefore be limited to the description of some events observable in environments not yet contaminated by any forms of human culture.
If we delimit one of these environments, such as a forest, a savannah or a coral reef, we can first observe how the living organisms belonging to each individual species are born, grow and die, replacing over time those that have already concluded their life cycle. Many organisms die from various causes during the growth phase, often shortly after birth. One of the reasons they die is that other species feed on them. In practice, in the environment observed by us – what is called an ecosystem – the interactions that determine the balance between the various species are significant (or at least so they seem to us human observers), but the destiny of the single individual is irrelevant. A widespread form of reproduction provides that hundreds of newborns can be born from the eggs of a single mother organism, of which only a few units are destined to reach the reproductive age. In natural balance, the role of some species is to feed on individuals belonging to other species, after they have been found dead or after killing them. Almost always the killed organisms are weak and vulnerable, and this is especially true for those which, recently born, depend on the care and protection of their parents or their group, or on the random circumstances of the environment in which they find themselves.
But this elimination of the weakest is also found within a species: adult males of some species of mammals – such as lions or bears – can kill a female's cubs, procreated by other males, to get that the female goes back into heat and is willing to mate with them. Among the nestlings of some species of birds, the most overbearing receives more food and reinforces itself until it kills its brothers, so as to obtain the parents' exclusive care. Such natural behaviors are, as we use to say, innate, and correspond to programs which, transferred in one way or another into an individual, determine its behavior. The animal organism, therefore, acts, but is unable to consciously evaluate what it does. We could therefore come to the conclusion that animal organisms function as well organized and programmed automata, within a system that, as a whole, offers a highly differentiated and creatively exuberant show.
We can observe, however, that at a certain level of the evolution of increasingly complex organisms, Nature inserts two new elements, pleasure and pain, which require the presence of an organizational center within the nervous system to which to refer. While automatic behavioral dynamics are able to operate through the functioning of the nervous system, without having to be any form of participation and collaboration by a conscious entity, pleasure and pain are effective only if there is something capable to experience them. It is therefore necessary that a nucleus of the neural system be able to experience pleasure and pain, and feel the need to intentionally direct the behavior – through the control of the nervous system – in order to avoid pain and obtain pleasure: this evaluation, prediction and intentional control activity determines psychic dynamics such as desire or fear. The experimentation and memorization of the mental dynamics that cause pleasure and pain as a response to stimuli from the external environment or from the same body of an organism determined the development of the first rudimentary forms of consciousness, still far from the Ego's self-awareness, as we can experience it in our human form, but already connected to psychic tensions capable of dominating and controlling the whole organism.
In this phase, although always determined by natural evolutionary forces, the first nucleus is formed of something that requires an inner experimentation by a sentient subject, albeit still very primitive. We are in fact far from any process of intelligent evaluation and conscious self-perception of its role by this subject, however the phase of differentiation with respect to mere natural automatisms has already begun, and the seeds of rudimentary forms of evaluation against the passive acquiescence of the sentient subject to the commands imposed by Nature are going to germinate. Natural organisms therefore function partly on the basis of automatic processes that do not require any form of consciousness, and partly on the basis of processes that need at least a rudimentar forms of consciousness, in addition to the transmission of learning programs – generally by imitation – of techniques to survive, to reproduce, to avoid dangers, etc., always founded on the pleasure-pain polarity. Natural creative processes have developed the neural systems by which these forms of learning and primitive conscious functioning can operate. The conflicting aspects of Nature are however always present, and the individual organism – more or less conscious – is always exposed to risks which it is unable to avoid, such as natural disasters or diseases caused by parasites, bacteria and viruses.
This is therefore the outline of Nature in our world, how we perceive it with our mind and how we find it in our body, which is part of this natural framework in all respects. The ever more in-depth knowledge of the details of the functioning of automatisms and natural processes – from the molecular level of the genetic code and proteins to the informatics level of neural networks –, which has made enormous progress in the last two centuries, has made us much more aware of the admirable complexity of Nature, and consequently we have become more inclined to identify ourselves, as conscious beings, with the natural process that has determined the birth, growth and functioning of our body. The variables of our individual destiny, which determine our resources, our strengths and weaknesses, can be attributed to the enormous differentiation that natural processes undergo due to the increase in the number of individual organisms of a species that live simultaneously: however, in the case of the human species, it is easy to observe how other processes not related to this natural framework, as we have outlined it, are present and active.
Nature and the human mind
Although the human body and the nervous system of which it is endowed reveal, in many respects, their natural origin, there are other aspects of our mental functioning that are not reflected in the world of Nature, as we have previously defined it. Humans have demonstrated the ability to aggregate into much larger groups than any other animal organism comparable with their size, and within these societies they have developed increasingly effective information exchange systems, creating the operational programs that are at the basis of each culture and determine its development. The human mind is capable of producing creative thinking, and demonstrates an ability to control bodily activities that has determined the transformation of the natural environment, the research and exploitation of resources, and the construction of increasingly complex technological artefacts. In their historical development, not all human cultures have equally participated in this process of dynamic development: many of them, which have remained in conditions of relative stasis for centuries, have been at least in part assimilated – in recent times – by scientifically and technologically more advanced dynamic cultures.
A particularly interesting aspect of the functioning of the human mind is represented by its ability to ask questions for which it tries to obtain adequate answers, that is, to satisfy its need for knowledge. These questions concern practically everything that we experience, including the same functioning of our mind: thus, thought systems are created, cognitive philosophies which – while not translating into the activities necessary for the production of artefacts – circulate within the cultural system through information programs, and can drive the collective functioning of a cultural system. Furthermore, many of the activities determined by the functioning of the human mind are aimed at obtaining results that are opposed to those same laws of Nature that rule the pre-human organic world, and to which all other living beings – excluding those on which humanity exerts its powers – are subject. All these aspects must be kept in mind when trying to attribute the entire range of mental activities of human beings solely to the natural evolution of the instrument through which such functioning is made possible: our brain.
Although our knowledge of the human brain's functioning is still unsatisfactory, there are at least two well observable aspects for which our brain differs from that of other higher mammals: first of all, our brains have particularly adapted to social collaboration; moreover, the level of complexity of the operating programs transmitted from generation to generation can increase considerably. The social collaboration of human beings is not that which is also found – within a group – among primates or in other species of mammals: although in the simplest primitive tribal societies the roles of the single members are more or less similar and interchangeable, with the historical development, a few thousand years ago, complex societies were formed, made up of many thousands of individuals, in which social roles were differentiated and regulated by norms, and each member played the role for which he felt most suitable or which, simply, he was allowed. This social development was made possible by the fact that cultural programs were enriched and became more complex as they – over time – were transmitted to young members of the society.
As far as we can observe within animal organisms – even the most advanced ones – the behavioral programs transmitted from one generation to another of a certain species do not vary over time, and possible adjustments caused by environmental changes are limited to the basic needs of survival and reproduction. Some innovative behaviors – for example in the courtship rituals of certain species of birds – can be transferred by imitation if they prove to be successful, but these are quite rare events that confirm the stability of the rules, which – obviously – are not immutable for eternity, but change very slowly. On the other hand, among humans, once a society has reached a certain critical mass and a sufficient level of complexity, the changes in the cultural programs transmitted to the brains of the new generations occur much quickly. Given that, as far as we know, the brain of today's living humans is no different from that of humans who lived, for instance, 3,000 years ago, nor are there substantial differences between the brains of two human beings, one belonging to a less developed culture, the other belonging to one of the current complex mass cultures, we can deduce that the differences between civilized humans and the world of Nature depend more on the evolution of cultural programs than on changes in the brain's anatomy and physiology.
It is true that the human brain has larger dimensions (in relation to body weight, given that the brain of an elephant is larger than that of a man) and is more complex, in the extent and number of neurons in the cortex, than that of other higher mammals, but these quantitative increases do not change the functioning of the neural networks that manage information. Furthermore, despite having the same brain size, human beings present substantial differences between them as regards the ability of intelligent creative processing, which is therefore determined by the complexity of neural networks. Since neural networks are formed through synaptic connections between neurons, the data, information and programs acquired by our brain, as well as our own memories, must be represented by more or less complex neural networks. Intelligent creative processing must therefore be determined by a stimulus coming from a control and evaluation center, tending to create new neural networks, capable of significantly organizing the pre-existing neural networks. Ultimately, from an operational point of view, the brain works like a sui generis computer, connected to a network made up of many other computers: it remains to be seen whether all this can still be interpreted exclusively in terms of Nature.
Neural networks and psychic experiences
Once we have understood that the brain processes information and determines the actions of our body through the functioning of neural networks, and that the primary input of the processed information is made up of signals and stimuli coming from the environment, and above all from the interactions with others brains with which we are interconnected, we can examine the two different possibilities with which the functioning of neural networks operates: unconscious automatism and conscious experience. Unconscious automatism implies a functioning whereby the output of a neural network does not reach consciousness, or produces a reaction which anticipates any conscious processing of response to a signal or stimulus. Most of our body's physiological processes are regulated by unconscious automatisms, and some reactions – sometimes called instinctive – to certain events are determined by unconscious automatisms. Although the reactions elaborated by the neural circuits that act unconsciously do not directly reach consciousness, they can often influence the operating circuits of other neural networks whose elaborations become, in whole or in part, conscious: some people are gifted with a sensitivity that allows the results of elaborations that usually remain unconscious to be indirectly perceived, although often in a confused and imprecise way.
For what concerns conscious experiences, we must at once specify how our consciousness never directly receives any information on the operating process that determines the functioning of a neural network, and the elaboration of a certain result: although human consciousness has been operating for thousands of years, it is only since short over half a century that scientists have begun to elaborate and verify theories on the functioning of biological neural networks, based on the information available on neurons and their systems for connecting and transmitting electrochemical signals. This means that for our conscious Ego the functioning of the neural networks remains in any case unconscious, and only the results elaborated by these circuits can become conscious. What makes our conscious experiences particularly deceitful and unreliable, is given by the fact that what is perceived by consciousness takes the form of a psychic experience that – so to speak – imposes its reality on the conscious Ego, without the Ego could have any chance of verifying how that psychic experience was worked out.
What the conscious Ego perceives, in terms of sensations, desires, thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions, etc., always presents itself in the form of psychic experiences, even if produced by a computer system that works on the basis of inputs and outputs of an electrochemical nature: a system developed by many thousands of years of evolution, about the functioning of which – above all with regard to the aims to which the system tends – the conscious Ego still has few meaningless information. Something similar also happens with regard to the functioning of the computers designed and built by humans: the programs (also designed by humans) they run always provide an interface that adapts to the needs of the human operator – in terms of acoustic or visual perception and possible actions – although the processor works exclusively on the basis of information bits made up of binary electrical signals.
(to be continued)