Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ancient Greek and the interplay of consciousness and the subconscious

In 1977 I opened in Prague a seminar on Plato for young people who were deprived of higher education. We met once a week. In preparation for each session I chose a text of Plato which I read during the week in the original and then presented to my students in the seminar. This opened to me unprecedented insight into the interplay of my consciousness and my subconscious. For during the week the text ‘went in’ in Ancient Greek, in the seminar I reproduced it in the Czech language. In what ‘form’ did Plato’s thought reside in my subconscious? In Ancient Greek, Plato’s sentences were entering the narrow straits of my consciousness word by word, passing through it, and sinking into my subconscious, losing their verbal form; my understanding of what Plato was saying transcended verbal expression in my subconscious; this is why his thoughts, which ‘went in’ in Ancient Greek, could ‘get out’ in my Czech.

In 1978 I invited Oxford dons to my seminar; the first to visit us was Dr Kathleen Wilkes, in April 1979. She spoke without notes. I let her talk as long as I could follow the thread of her narrative. I stopped her each time at the point when I would have lost what she was saying if I let her go on. In this ‘timing’ of her talk I relied entirely on my subconscious, for my consciousness was absorbed by listening to her. Each time I reproduced in Czech what she had said in English. What had been entering the narrow straits of my consciousness and passing into my subconscious in her English was emerging from my subconscious into the narrow straits of my consciousness in my Czech.

We may become aware of the interplay between our consciousness and our subconscious whenever we listen to the radio and observe how the words enter our consciousness, pass through it, and sink into our subconscious. [Why radio? When we listen to a person speaking, we are absorbed by that person’s speaking and have no mental space for observing what is happening in our consciousness and our subconscious.] When we observe how narrow is the strait of consciousness in which the words we listen to are actually present to our consciousness, we begin to realize that our understanding of what we listen to is the result of the interplay of our consciousness with our subconscious, completed in the subconscious – we have ‘a feeling’ that we understand.

Asked to show that we understood what we had listened to, we must ‘look’ into our subconscious and put our understanding into words. As we undergo the process of expressing our understanding in words, we can observe again how the words emerge from our subconscious, pass through our consciousness, and word by word sink into your subconscious. Each sentence is pre-formed in the subconscious, acquires its form as it passes through our consciousness, and becomes a meaningful whole in our subconscious. Our understanding, and thus the subconscious involved in acquiring it, deepens as a result.

Aristotle’s concepts dunamis (potentiality) and energeia (actuality) may help us to conceptualize the interplay between our consciousness and our subconscious. Energeia signifies ‘being in action’, not just actuality, and as such is suited to describe what’s going on in our consciousness; dunamis signifies power and ability, not just potentiality, and as such is suited to describe our subconscious.

We can become aware of the interplay between our consciousness and our subconscious in what we think, say or listen to when it is being said, but not in what we perceive by our senses outside the sphere of thinking. The question therefore is, whether our subconscious is involved in ‘sensory’ perception of the world around us. To answer this question, we must consider the ways in which we ‘perceive’ the world with our eyes. I put ‘sensory’ and ‘perceive’ in quotation marks, for physics and neurophysiology inform us that we do not actually perceive the outside world with our eyes. Physics informs us about the world outside us, which comes to the fore in scientific experiments and can be registered by scientific instruments. It tells us that our eyes are affected neither by the objects we see around us nor by their images, but by the waves of ‘light’ scattered by those objects. – I put ‘light’ in quotation marks, for there is no light in the world outside us. – Neurophysiology tells us that the ‘light’ waves affect photoreceptors on the retina of our eyes, which in their turn affect optic nerves. These effects are then processed on the way to the brain. Again, just as there is no light in the outside world which is the domain of physics, so there is no light in the brain itself, which is the domain of neurophysiology. On the basis of the physiological processing of the optic information in the brain that something in us generates light in us and the world which we see in that light as being outside us.  In ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ on my website I have adopted for this ‘something in us’ the term human spiritual nature, HSN.

HSN is as real and necessary as the scientific data provided by physics and neurophysiology. Unfortunately, physicists and neurophysiologists fail to see this fact; the ‘outside world’ of human experience intrudes into the way they think and talk about the findings of their sciences. Let me give two examples of such intrusion. Light is defined on Google as follows: ‘Light is a transverse, electromagnetic wave that can be seen by humans.’ In fact, electromagnetic waves cannot be seen by humans; HSN produces light on the basis of brain processes initiated by the effects of electromagnetic waves on the photoreceptors in our eyes.

For the second example I refer to R. Carpenter’s and Reddi’s Neurophysiology. The authors open their chapter on ‘The nature of sound’ with the words: ‘Sound is generated in a medium such as air whenever there is a sufficiently rapid movement of parts of its boundary – perhaps a moving loudspeaker cone, or the collapsing skin of a pricked balloon.’ (5th edition, Hodder Arnold 2012, p. 108). In fact, what is generated ‘by a moving loudspeaker cone or the collapsing skin of a pricked balloon’ is not sound, but ‘a local movement of molecules that tends to make the pressure differences propagate away from the original site of disturbance’. The authors write further on: ‘The sound impinges on the eardrum tympanic membrane’ (p. 112). In fact, it is not sound that impinges on the eardrum, but the waves propagated from ‘the original site of disturbance’.  There is no sound in the outside world of physics and there is no sound in the brain explored by neurophysiology. Sound is the product of our HSN.

These conceptual contaminations are not innocuous. Carpenter and Reddi write: ‘It is not easy to think clearly about our own sensory systems, as we all have this overpowering feeling of sitting inside our head as in a cinema, with all this sensory stuff being projected in front of us and providing us with “conscious sensation” … we naturally therefore imagine that the purpose of sensory systems must be to deliver as accurate a picture of the outside world as possible to this little man in the head … If the only purpose of sensory systems was to relay as exact an image as possible of the outside world to the little man in the head, there would be no need for “sensory processing” at all.’ (pp. 77-78) – If sounds were generated in the air, propagated through the air and impinging on the eardrum, they could go directly ‘to the little man in the head’.

Since we can experience the interplay of our conscious and subconscious activities in the realm of language, we can use this experience for our benefit, choosing activities that best suit and most effectively cultivate and invigorate our HSN. Ancient Greek gave rise to the poetry of Homer and was cultivated by his poetry; it enabled Aristotle to develop his thoughts and was in turn enriched by Aristotle’s thinking. Homer represents the beginning and Aristotle the culmination of the cultural development of the Greeks. In Homer the activity of thought is valued only as means to ends, Aristotle views thought contemplating thought as the best and most pleasurable activity. Homer marked a gigantic step towards Aristotle, for when the Ancient Greeks were listening to rhapsodes (professional reciters of poetry: rapsantes aoidên, ‘stitching up poetry’, Hesiod fr. 357) reciting Homer, they could live for hours in the poetic world of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Then came the writers of tragedies who presented on stage the lives of great men and women involved in tragic conflicts – Agamemnon and Clytemnestra (Aeschylus); Antigone, Creon, Oedipus, Tiresias, and Iocasta (Sophocles); Medea and Jason (Euripides) – and the writers of comedies, who made their audiences laugh not only at the leading poets, philosophers and politicians of the day, but even at their gods (Strepsiades asks Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds: ‘Who makes rain?’ Socrates answers: ‘The Clouds’ [capital C, for in Aristophanes’ comedy Clouds figure as Socrates’ deity]. Strepsiades remarks: ‘And I thought it was Zeus pissing through a sieve.’) Herodotus and Thucydides invited the Greeks to travel in thought into their past, and thus enrich and cultivate their reflection of and interaction with the present.  Philosophers of nature transcended the limited world of sensory perception and embraced nature in its totality in their thought. Then Socrates promoted the quest for self-knowledge as a key to a truly good life. And then came Plato; think of Aristotle contemplating all this when you reflect on the delight that he derived from ‘thought contemplating thought’.  – All this we can make our own by appropriating the Ancient Greek language.

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