Blowout: The Blog

Frequent posts from Pumpjack Press authors and contributors about culture, books, capitalism and more, with the occasional poem or short story. Submissions welcome. 

Cutting to the chase: human consciousness in three books

From the vault

There's be an uptick of blog posts and references to “cosmic consciousness,” a state-of-being named by Richard Bucke in 1901. I read Bucke’s book Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind more than a decade ago after I stumbled upon it in a footnote of some other equally dusty and neglected book.

Bucke’s cosmic consciousness is a next-gen adaptation, a collective form of shared brain space, which posits eventually we’ll be able to perceive and understand the world through the ties that bind all living things together, be they atomic or energetic or magical. It’s an evolutionary leap in human consciousness, handily explaining the mystical basis of most religions—some humans, like Jesus and Buddha, Blake and, apparently, Bucke, already attained it, and the rest of us, inevitably (if past is prologue) will one day get there too. Just as we shed our scales, pumped out lungs and wobbled up onto land a gazillion years ago, so too will we cast off our embodied singularity and expand our horizons into the planes of cosmic consciousness, a state that others call radical connectivity.

But what's behind the Bucke fashion?

Throughout history, humans have tended to model our brains in ways that mimic the prevailing technology. Not so long ago, Gary Marcus, a professor at New York University, wrote an editorial piece summarizing this “poor track record," writing that “Descartes thought that the brain was a kind of hydraulic pump, propelling the spirits of the nervous system through the body. Freud compared the brain to a steam engine. The neuroscientist Karl Pribram likened it to a holographic storage device." Today, as he summarized, we commonly default to an analogy of a computer and its outgrowths. We are efficient data processors, we are elaborate interconnected apps, and we will become the cloud. 

My suspicion is that Bucke's cosmic consciousness may be ready for its 15 minutes of fame. It’s a model of the mind that fits nicely with the current internet era of “big data” and cloud storage, as writer Ben Sharp captured in the title of his post The iCloud of Human Consciousness. We share everything now, why not our brains? 

Indeed, the various permutations of the eternal debate between the materialist techonlogy-influenced mind model (which today is pretty much neuron-snapping machines responding obediently to biologic directives) and the opposite-of-that model (a Cartesian non-corporeal identity, our soul, responding to, well, God maybe or some sort of prime director) have been at the heart of the human narrative (along with a lot of associated and tragically violent strife) for centuries.

Bucke’s book was foundational to the development of the mini-theory of human consciousness set out in The Cowboy and the Vampire Collection, starting in Book 2 (Blood and Whiskey). Why cowboys and vampires? We’re not scientists or philosophers, so we explore ideas inside the reputational safety of genre fiction, poetry and graphic novels. We are, of course, not alone in this pursuit.

But it wasn’t just Bucke. Other thinkers influenced our cowboy and vampire theory (along with a near-death experience) which after being baked in our collective overheated brains, collided into the creation of "The Meta," a middle way between rigid scientific materialism and spiritually based temporary embodiment.

Here are two other books that were particularly influential in the creation of The Meta:

Julian Jaynes, 1976, The Origins of Human Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. You know those voices you hear sometimes in the dark and you think its God, or your mom, or maybe spirits from the past? Guess what, it’s just one side of your brain chatting with the other side. At least, that’s how it used to be in some distant pre-now time, before our brains evolved to their cool, current state of integrated-consciousness. Jaynes presents a compelling hypothesis that long ago our split brains (hmm, who doesn't wonder why we have two halves of a brain) had a hard-stop between them and one side was the dreamy, imaginative side and the other the logical hunting-and-gathering side. The one side dreamed up God and such, the other took its directions. Eventually, they got together, and boom, we leapt up the evolutionary scale to self-awareness.

Thomas Nagel, 2012, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. In its refutation of the hypothesis, indirectly, this book provides insight into the prevailing model of consciousness—mind is brain. A tough book to read, but there’s enough written around and about it that one can manage to penetrate the jargon to get to the main—and supremely important—message. Here it is: The acknowledge-only-what-you-can-measure premise of science can’t handle the reality of human consciousness. What is the stuff of consciousness? That’s still unclear, says Nagel, but whatever it is, the constraints of the contemporary scientific method and the model of evolutionary biology will never get us to an answer, if we assume, in advance, that it's biology-based. Read this book (or read what others write about it, it’s pretty dense) and broaden your own mind-stuff. Prediction? This will be considered a seminal book in 20 years, despite the derision it’s received across the scientific establishment.

And then check out The Meta, a place where the shared consciousnesses of the undead wait out the sunlight each day before returning to their individual bodies. Yes, you read that right.  

Contributed by Kathleen