Friday, July 24, 2015

You Are Unique, A Miracle -- Get Used To It

Today, I turn 71 years old -- my 71st yearly trip around the sun. On my birthday, I like to think about how I got here.

I know that for everyone there are some days when you just can't win. But when you feel insignificant in a world of 7 billion people (as of 2013) who live on a small planet that orbits an average star that is only one of a hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy that is only one of a hundred billion galaxies in the Universe -- consider this:

The odds against your existence are much much greater than the number of atoms in the Universe. In fact, probably greater than all the subatomic particles in the Universe.

How could that be? Well consider how unlikely it was that your mother met your father. And then consider the chances of their particular combination of sperm (out of the many millions your father produced) and egg (out of the hundreds your mother produced) that created you. Now take that same unlikely event back in time to your four grandparents, your eight great-grandparents, your sixteen great-great-grandparents etc. etc. to primal beings billions of years ago that started this chain of events.

Still don't believe me -- well, do the math:

Here is a link to a detailed explanation of the calculation: 

Dr. Ali Binazir -- on the above web page -- computed the numbers.
"The number of atoms in the known universe is estimated at 1080 " [ED: 10 followed by only :) 80 zeros.]
"The probability of you existing at all comes out to 1 in 102,685,000  — yes, that's a 10 followed by 2,685,000 zeroes!"  

Now I know we are often told told how insignificant we are. For example,  consider Carl Sagan's famous statement about the Earth as a tiny pale blue dot in space:
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. 
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. 

 "This is the "Pale Blue Dot" photograph of the Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on July 6, 1990. The Earth is the relatively bright speck of light about halfway across the uppermost sunbeam."  (
Quoted from:
The original NASA caption reads as follows:
"This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed 'Pale Blue Dot', is a part of the first ever 'portrait' of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. From Voyager's great distance Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element even in the narrow-angle camera. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Coincidentally, Earth lies right in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun."

 Carl Sagan's famous Blue Dot quote emphasizes the smallness and the delicateness of our existence -- which is also true.  Yet this does not take away from the miracle of your existence.

As we all know, people walking along the sidewalks of New York City look like ants when viewed from the top of the Empire State building, but that does not diminish or change their value as people. And when we are back down walking along the street, we see these people quite differently.

Where we live is fragile, isolated and alone in the Universe as far as we know. Which is all the more reason to value it, hold it dear, celebrate it - protect it. And all the more reason to realize that we are unique. 

The Blue Dot and its fragility, "underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." Carl Sagan added.

So take a break. Look at the sunset. Enjoy the moment. Build a better life for your children and grandchildren in the future. 

You and those who follow you are unusual and quite unlikely.
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.  [ED: Please note the word "immortal"]
William Faulkner
Nobel Prize Speech
Stockholm, Sweden
December 10, 1950 

Not only is each person unique but so is our species along with its wonderful curiosity. 
Just a few days ago the NASA New Horizons spacecraft did a flyby of the planet Pluto -- which completed a full exploration of all the major planets by human spacecraft -- a quest that began about 50 years ago. This marks a milestone in human achievement.
While Pluto has been technically downgraded to a dwarf planet, Pluto is extremely important because its discovery opened the door to an entirely different view of the solar system. The discovery of Pluto in 1930 led, 60 years later, to a major new understanding about our solar system. Pluto is the largest -- as far as we know -- and first known object of the Kuiper Belt. This large unexplored region, only discovered in 1990, contains perhaps 100,000 objects on the edge of our solar system. 

So as we learn more and more, we realize we have just begun to learn. And we also become more aware that we as a species are remarkable and unique because we can ask these questions, explore, and build devices that take us even further.

Until the New Horizons flyby, this view of Pluto and
its largest moon, Charon was all we had from the hi-tech Hubble space telescope. (

The New Horizons spacecraft shot this view of Pluto
- showing us a world we never imagined.

This is a photograph of Pluto's moon, Charon -- never seen before. (

This closeup of Pluto's surface will probably be studied for decades
and yield new ideas about our solar system and our life on Earth.

But wait there's more!

The voyage of the New Horizons spacecraft is far from over. It is now headed into the heart of the Kuiper Belt which may give us new information about this huge and virtually unknown region.

Images of the Kuiper Belt and caption from:

Friday, June 19, 2015

TV Crime Dramas: Morality Plays and Modern Myths

The number of crime, detective, serial killer shows on TV is mind boggling. In the last 60 years there have been about 650 different crime series on TV worldwide. Many ran for a number of years.  And it does not stop with television. There are also movies, video games, popular novels, documentaries, and true crime dramas. Even older stories and novels are being downloaded in huge numbers such as the original Sherlock Holmes stories. This phenomena is global from North America to Europe, South America, Asia, Australia etc., etc. So I have to ask: Just what is going on here?

A picture of a crime scene from 1905 in France, 
showing the public's long time fascination with crime stories. (

While I would like to blame the media for pushing this steady diet of murder and mayhem on us -- that simply is not true. These stories are popular because this is what people want to see. Law & Order ran for twenty years because it was popular and the same can be said for CSI. Since the year 2000, Criminal Minds has been running continuously and the show was just renewed for another season.
 As of May 13, 2015, 777 episodes of the CSI franchise have aired.
"CSI's worldwide audience was estimated to be over 73.8 million viewers in 2009. In 2011, CSI is the most watched drama series in the world, again.”
I have already suggested part of the answer in another of my blogs on Patterns and MemoryIn this blog I state that as humans we are driven to look for patterns and to create order. So even in our leisure hours, we enjoy looking for patterns -- crime being one of the difficult puzzles to solve.

But there is much more going on in these dramas.


I believe these shows are morality plays that assure us good will triumph over evil.
Crime dramas are morality plays which feature struggles between good and evil, between heroes who stand for moral authority and villains who challenge that authority (Rafter, 2006). 
Gray Cavender and Sarah K. Deutsch 
CSI and moral authority: The police and science 
But even more than the eternal struggle between good and evil, we are told a story that civilization itself will triumph. These shows are designed to reassure us that civilized values prevail -- that civilized society works -- that civilized society will catch people who break the law and try to live outside the rules. These shows offer us a modern mythology.
According to one well-known formulation, culture consists of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (Geertz, 1973). The stories provide an interpretative framework through which we are encouraged to understand various aspects of culture (McCullagh, 2002)...Today, these stories are told on television. Television circulates the cultural images through which we understand aspects of our social world ranging from our own identities to our concepts of right and wrong (Wilson, 2000; Wittebols, 2004; Wykes and Gunter, 2005). 
Gray Cavender and Sarah K. Deutsch
CSI and moral authority: The police and science 

This 1945 comic book cover has many of the elements of a morality play. 
While being told that the comic contains "TRUE stories of COLD-BLOODED KILLERS!" 
we are also assured that "CRIME NEVER PAYS." (

For example, the basic plot of virtually every 'police procedural' drama, as the police investigative stories are called, is almost always the same. In the opening minutes we find that a serious crime has been committed. This means that the normal order of civilized society has been upset. Then in one hour we go from cataloging and recording  this mysterious crime -- which is almost always a murder -- to gathering evidence that could point to hundreds of people. This investigative process often involves the full force and resources of the police whose powerful tools and skills are then brought into play. Through a process of elimination investigators zero in on the most likely suspects, until finally, bingo we know which one it is and we have got our man. Then we cut to the chase, locate where the criminal might be, track him down and, more often than not, get him or her to blurt out their guilt -- relieved that they can unburden themselves of this awful deed. At the end, usually at  night after a hard day's work, the investigators can put their feet up, relax a bit, sip a drink, watch TV and eat a pizza because civilized order has been restored. All is right with the world.

In the broadest terms, these shows are about a threat to order and the reestablishment of order. The message is clear. Civilization must maintain order or our primitive savage instincts might get the upper hand.  The longest running crime show even had the word "order", i.e. the show Law & Order, as one of its main themes. These shows reassure us that civilization can handle these threats quite nicely -- especially given the powerful tools of science and forensics and the money that civilization has allocated for police and other authorities -- but of course, it does take work, vigilance and determination.

Photograph of an episode of Law & Order SVU being shot. (

Serial killers are a special case -- and have taken center stage in a number of crime dramas. Generally serial killers have no guilt, they have no remorse, and more often than not they are proud of the victims they have killed, even keeping trophies from each episode. These people are a particular threat to civilization because they not only break the rules, they don't care about the rules. These killers are like 'mad dogs' who must be locked up or "put down". Here the pattern-finding aspect of these shows goes through a bit of a change, as investigators must learn to think like serial killers in order to find them. And they will be found by following their own twisted logic.

In TV programs such as The F.B.I. of 1965, 
we are reassured that the authorities will do their work 
and keep the criminal forces in check. 
"Photo of Stephen Brooks as agent Jim Rhodes from 
the television program The F.B.I." (

I started thinking about writing this particular blog because of my concern about time. Time is a key element in any investigation. A reliable timeline of events leading up to the crime must be established. Yet we are reassured that with today's cell phone records, cell phone tower locations, receipts with time stamps, credit card purchases, GPS, and the ability to access an electronic paper trail of a person's spending, police can easily reconstruct the past with a high degree of accuracy. We are led to believe a criminal cannot hide his or her actions in the fog of the past. And we are also led to believe that more often than not, clever perpetrators, who think they have covered their tracks, have made or will make a small mistake which will expose them and reveal their guilt.

These shows make good drama -- as death, murder, evil people and action will get our attention. But the reality presented is generally false. I call it 'TV reality' because what you see on TV and also in court room scenes has almost no relation to the real world.


Most crimes that come to trial, for example, are circumstantial and have little or no direct evidence and little hi-tech scientific evidence. The size and resources of the police force are much smaller than generally depicted on TV. Virtually no criminal with a lawyer present will confess to a crime. Many crimes are not solved or they go undetected until it is too late to investigate them properly. A huge amount of evidence has never been entered into databases, meaning it cannot be searched or connected with other evidence or crimes. Reconstructing what happened in the past is particularly difficult. Video surveillance is often nonexistent or poor quality or useless -- such as not showing a person's face. And BTW it is almost impossible to get usable fingerprints off of a gun.
Forensic scientist Thomas Mauriello estimated that 40 percent of the scientific techniques depicted on CSI do not exist.  
Cole, Simon; Dioso, Rachel (13 May 2005). "Law and the Lab". The Wall Street Journal.

An actual crime scene footprint. (

A friend of mine, who had been a judge for over 30 years, told me that he had to turn off the courtroom scenes in crime dramas as they had no basis in fact -- and misrepresented the courtroom process.
People who watch forensic and crime dramas on TV are more likely than non-viewers to have a distorted perception of America's criminal justice system, according to new research from Purdue University....Viewers of crime shows also misjudged the number of law enforcement officers and attorneys in the total work force. Lawyers and police officers each make up less than 1 percent of the work force, but those surveyed estimated it at more than 16 percent and 18 percent, respectively......The reality is that few crimes have hard, scientific evidence such as ballistics, gunshot residue or DNA evidence. 
Researchers rest their case:
TV consumption predicts opinions about criminal justice system

Here is a list of some of the things in TV crime dramas which are not true -- from an experienced prosecutor: 
For more background about this see these links: 

Yet the popularity of these crime dramas has created its own reality. Known as the 'CSI effect' jurors often need to be educated to the realities of crime and put away their assumptions that they have gleaned from TV programs.
There’s actually a phenomenon created by these shows called the CSI Effect. Jurors today want to see some kind of high-tech crime-fighting science, because they’ve seen it on TV: DNA off an eyelash left at the scene, or a magical fingerprint detecting camera. As a prosecutor, a large part of my job was bringing the jury’s expectations into line with reality, despite these TV shows. 
Allison Leotta


The modern ability to obtain DNA evidence has both helped bring about more convictions and also provided a greater likelihood that the person accused is the offender. DNA is so important that law enforcement officers talk about the pre-DNA era and the post-DNA era. And most types of crimes are significantly down in the United States over the last 20 years.

Crime statistics from the FBI, USA:

Sunday, May 24, 2015

How the Discredited Geocentric Cosmos Was a Critical Component of the Scientific Revolution

How Ptolemy's Geocentric Astronomy
Helped Build the Modern World

(all images are from

If you took the standard required western history course in college as I did, you learned that about 400 years ago astronomers Copernicus,  Galileo and Kepler along with Isaac Newton were key players in the scientific revolution that overturned the cumbersome system of geocentric astronomy. In this outdated system the Sun, moon and stars went around the stationary Earth. Instead these early scientists proved that the Earth and the planets went around the Sun. Known as the Copernican Revolution, it is considered the beginning of the scientific revolution, a new way of thinking which continues to this day and has created our modern world and our modern hi-tech marvels.

Well, that story is sort of true, but in hindsight it greatly simplifies the complex path that the scientific revolution took, the path that ultimately led to today's scientific and technological wonders. Specifically it leaves out the fact that the geometry of a geocentric universe and its foremost astronomer, Ptolemy, who perfected the geocentric system, were key players in this new scientific outlook. In fact the discredited geocentric theory was, oddly, essential for building our new scientific/technological world.


Over hundreds of years the early ancient Greeks put together a concept of the Solar System as a coherent system of concentric circles -- which was a major advance for Western thought. Later in the 4th century BCE, Plato and then Aristotle decided that the Earth was stationary and at the center of the universe, while the Sun, moon, planets and stars moved in perfect circles -- thought of as concentric spheres -- around the Earth. In the ancient Greek view of the cosmos, the orbits had to be perfect circles since all things in Heaven were considered 'perfect'. Each heavenly object moved with its own uniform motion.

However, "the geocentric model of Plato could not explain the retrograde motion of the planets. Around 140 A.D. Ptolemy proposed his refined geocentric model. In the Ptolemaic universe, a planet moves in a small circle called an epicycle, and the center of the epicycle moves along a larger circle around the Earth."

"A simple illustration showing the basic elements of Ptolemaic astronomy.
It shows a planet rotating on an epicycle which is itself rotating around
a deferent inside a crystalline sphere." Quoted from:

Claudius Ptolemy in his book the Almagest (published around 150 CE) laid out his refined geometry for the movement of the heavenly bodies, based on earlier Greek science and the work of the Greek astronomer Hipparchus. His revised system was quite accurate and this view of the universe lasted for almost 1500 years.

Ptolemaic Model Of The Solar System
From NASA's Cosmos: By selecting suitable radii and speeds of motion, Ptolemy could use this system of uniform motion around two [ED: perfect] circles to reproduce the apparent motions of the planets with remarkable accuracy. He succeeded so well that his model was still being used to predict the locations of the planets in the sky more than a thousand years after his death.
The problem people had with Ptolemy's cosmology was that it was complicated:The resultant system...seems unwieldy to modern astronomers; each planet required an epicycle revolving on a deferent, offset by an equant which was different for each planet.
Eventually the new heliocentric science advanced by Copernicus, observed by Galileo, perfected by Kepler and then explained by Newton was easier to calculate. It was accepted in part because it was a more elegant and simpler mathematical solution and once refined was more accurate than the predictions of Ptolemy's system.

So what is my argument with all of this you might ask?


Ptolemy's system had a large but hidden benefit. The perfect circles that were the key component of his system meant that man-made machines -- first clocks and later engines -- could be easily constructed with circular gears.

Ptolemy's system mapped out how mechanical models could be made of the solar system and these machines eventually led to the building of clocks. Yet even before the first astronomical clock was made, the idea of a mechanical universe based on Ptolemy's ideas was widely known.

Page from De sphaera mundi
The Sphere of the Cosmos (De sphaera mundi) is a medieval introduction to the basic elements of astronomy written by Johannes de Sacrobosco (John of Holywood) [ED: publication date] c. 1230. Based heavily on Ptolemy's Almagest, and drawing additional ideas from Islamic astronomy, it was one of the most influential works of pre-Copernican astronomy in Europe. Sacrobosco's De sphaera mundi was the most successful of several competing thirteenth-century textbooks on this topic. It was used in universities for hundreds of years. Sacrobosco spoke of the universe as the machina mundi, the machine of the world... This concept is similar to the clockwork universe analogy that became very popular centuries later, during the Enlightenment. [ED: my emphasis]
Around 1264 Campanus of Novara, an Italian astronomer, "wrote a Theorica Planetarum [which] ... included instructions on building a planetary equatorium as well as its geometrical description. The data on planets are drawn from the Almagest [by Ptolemy] and the Toledan Tables of the Arab astronomer Arzachel. Campanus gave precise instructions on using the tables, and made detailed calculations of the distances to the planets and their sizes."
The Theorica Planetarum has been called "the first detailed account of the Ptolemaic astronomical system... to be written in the Latin-speaking West."
Benjamin, Francis Seymour; Toomer, G. J. (1971). Campanus of Novara and medieval planetary theory: Theorica planetarum. 
Thus, the ancestors of Western clocks were early planetaria, and forerunners of what later became known as astronomical clocks.
Fraser, J.T. (1978). Time as Conflict: A Scientific and Humanistic Study.
In the middle ages starting in 1364 CE, many astronomical clocks were made throughout Europe. They were both timekeeping instruments and devices that showed the movement of the Sun, moon, planets and the zodiac.
See a list here:
Most of the first clocks were not so much chronometers as exhibitions of the pattern of the cosmos ... Clearly the origins of the mechanical clock lie in a complex realm of monumental planetariums...   
White, Lynn Jr. (1966). Medieval Technology and Social Change.
The first documented astrarium clock was completed in 1364 by Giovanni de' Dondi (1318–1388)... The original clock, consisting of 107 wheels and pinions, was lost..., but de' Dondi left detailed descriptions which have survived, enabling the reconstruction of the clock. It displays the mean time, sidereal, or star, time and the motions of the Sun, moon and the five then known planets Venus, Mars, Saturn, Mercury, and Jupiter. It was conceived according to a Ptolemaic conception of the solar system.[ED: my emphasis]

"The Prague astronomical clock [above] was installed in 1410...and is the oldest functioning Astronomical clock in the world." Quoted from:

The Prague clock was built more than 130 years before Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in 1543. The publication of Copernicus' book is considered by some to be the beginning of the modern age, yet was preceded by astronomical clocks starting in 1364 (see above) -- almost 180 years earlier.

Explanation of the information on the Prague astronomical clock.

The design of these mechanical clocks, a huge technological advance for the age, was largely based on Ptolemy's geometry. Clocks eventually became the symbol for the Newtonian age -- the age of the scientific revolution. They helped spawn the idea that God was the great watchmaker.
In the history of science, the clockwork universe compares the universe to a mechanical clock. It continues ticking along, as a perfect machine, with its gears governed by the laws of physics, making every aspect of the machine predictable.
René Descartes saw "the cosmos as a great time machine operating according to fixed laws, a watch created and wound up by the great watchmaker."

Gears in a pocket watch.

So the idea of a mechanical universe -- a central idea to this new scientific revolution -- was derived from the discredited geocentric astronomy. In addition the building of geared clockwork machines was also due to the geocentric model, showing the importance of this system to the manufacture of practical technological devices.
Clocks were the "key machine of the modern industrial age."
Strandh, Sigvard (1979). A History of the Machine.
This was the ultimate irony: The central image for the new scientific mechanical age was a watch which was created with the discredited geometry and physics that the scientific revolution had overturned.


Yet the story does not end here -- it continues today. In fact you probably use geocentric physics everyday. For example, much of the gearing in automatic transmissions in cars and other vehicles is based on a geocentric design. Let me explain.

What Ptolemy achieved with his circles within circles was an advanced design of gears and gearing -- gearing that worked well and was quite reliable -- as had been shown in the creation of clocks. The ability to create such gears was not only critical to the construction of clocks but later to the design of engines and machines such as the early Watt steam engine -- the mechanical device that kick started the industrial age and the Industrial Revolution.

About the Watt steam engine in 1785:
"The firm's [ED: Watt's company] fourth innovation [was] Sun and planet gearing...
As Boulton and Watt engines were prime movers in the Industrial Revolution, this very significant engine represents not just invention and entrepreneurship, but also wealth creation, mass consumerism, great changes in working life, a massive shift in the use of resources, and consequent damage to the natural environment."
While it was called a Sun and planet gear with the Sun in the middle, in fact the gearing was based on the geocentric geometry of Ptolemy with his understanding of perfect circles, epicycles and uniform motion.

Sun and planet gearing. "This particular [Watt steam] engine was installed in
Whitbread's brewery in 1785, 
and clocked up 102 years' work." Quoted from:

Early locomotive gearing due in part to the geocentric system of interrelated circles.

Today epicycle gears, also known as planetary gears, are used in a wide range of machines including automatic transmissions for automobiles and bicycle gearing.

About modern epicycle gears from Wikipedia:
Epicyclic gears get their name from their earliest application, which was the modeling of the movements of the planets in the heavens. Believing the planets, as everything in the heavens, to be perfect, they could only travel in perfect circles, but their motions as viewed from Earth could not be reconciled with circular motion. At around 500 BC, the Greeks invented the idea of epicycles, of circles traveling on the circular orbits.With this theory Claudius Ptolemy in the Almagest in 148 AD was able to predict planetary orbital paths.

 A modern epicycle gear train or planetary gear train.


One of the reasons Ptolemy's science has gotten such bad press and even been labeled bad astronomy was due to the trial of Galileo by the Catholic Church which prevented him from criticizing this geocentric system. This was seen later as a huge impediment to the advance of science, when the new ideas of Copernicus, Kepler and Newton won out. As a result the Ptolemaic system itself took part of the blame for standing in the way of scientific investigation. Yet it is important to note that the cosmology of Copernicus was initially not as accurate as that of Ptolemy and even more complicated -- although it did solve a number of nagging problems.
However, Copernicus, like Ptolemy, also used circular orbits and had to resort to epicycles and deferents to explain retrograde motions. In fact, Copernicus was forced to use more epicycles than Ptolemy, i.e. a more complicated system of circles on circles. Thus, Copernicus' model would have failed our modern criteria that a scientific model be as simple as possible.
Yet, as we know, history is written by the victors and in this case, the science of Newton et al was the victor, so the previous science was discredited.

Stephan Jay Gould in his book Time's Arrow And Time's Cycle pointed out that something of a similar nature occurred in the science of geology. It would seem that this attitude of denigrating and distorting past thinkers is also true in just about every branch of science.
Gould, Stephan Jay (1987). Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time.

Perhaps Albert Einstein understood the process of theorizing better than anyone and understood how one theory builds on another -- which does not mean that the earlier theory was in error, but rather that it was a necessary step in the process.
Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavour to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism...But he certainly believes that, as his knowledge increases, his picture of reality will become simpler and simpler and will explain a wider and wider range of his sensuous impressions.
Albert Einstein

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Development of Consciousness & the Origins of Religion

Once homo sapiens had evolved biologically, I believe modern humans acquired full consciousness perhaps 50,000 years ago. This is when there was an explosion of new more powerful tools, and an increased understanding of how to make tools.

Definition (Google):
The fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world.
The English word "conscious" originally derived from the Latin conscius (con- "together" and scio "to know"), but the Latin word did not have the same meaning as our word -- it meant "knowing with", in other words "having joint or common knowledge with another". There were, however, many occurrences in Latin writings of the phrase conscius sibi, which translates literally as "knowing with oneself", or in other words "sharing knowledge with oneself about something". This phrase had the figurative meaning of "knowing that one knows", as the modern English word "conscious" does.

In addition to making more powerful and effective hunting tools, humans now made certain tools that were specifically designed to assist in the making of these hunting tools, or to put it another way they made tools to make the tools. In a sense, they had stepped back and carefully considered the needs of the hunt. Then they crafted tools that would help them make these more sophisticated tools. And this, I believe, was a critical step; I call it meta-thinking because this meant their consciousness had now risen to a new level, a meta-level. (Meta is defined as: denoting something of a higher or second-order kind. Google dictionary)

LEFT: "About 45,000 years ago Cro Magnon developed blades and spear-throwers with a considerably greater range, velocity and penetration. Hunters could now kill large animals from a longer, much safer, distance."RIGHT: "Over this period our ancestors invented burins to help make tools from antlers, such as bone spears and harpoons that were often beautifully engraved and carved."Burin: a type of stone tool used for carving or engraving on wood or bone."  (

Beginning around the same time, there was also an explosion of sculptures and symbols.

"Löwenmensch - a lion-headed figurine found in Germany and dating to the Upper Paleolithic, about 40,000 BCE"

"The Venus of a fragmentary ivory figurine from the Upper Paleolithic. It was discovered in a cave at Brassempouy, France in 1892. About 25,000 years old, it is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a human face."

My guess is that consciousness was both something that developed in each individual and also in the tribe as a whole. This relates to the Latin meaning of consciousness as "having joint or common knowledge with another." It came about as a result of shared gestures, signs/symbols, song/ music/dance and language plus concepts and abstractions along with a sophisticated shared sense of time. This sense of time meant they understood the concept of 'when', i.e., when in the past,  when in the present and when in the future along with the ability to imagine 'what if?' which allowed them to plan. As I have written, I believe the key difference between humans and other animals is the ability to understand time in terms of 'when' and this ability is a central part of human consciousness.

Because consciousness created a meta-world, a virtual world within the mind of each member of the tribe -- but a world that was also shared as a common ground -- it took perhaps a hundred thousand years or more to build this man-made internal landscape and to learn how to navigate through it and to share common thoughts.

Exactly how this happened or developed is lost to us in prehistory. But the sudden birth of consciousness in the blind/deaf Helen Keller might give us some hints about the process the human race went through to develop its conscious thinking and that a sense of time was critical. In the following passage written by Helen, she describes her sudden breakthrough into consciousness.
My inner life, then, [ED: before consciousness] was...without past, present, or futureSince I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another.When I learned the meaning of "I" and "me" and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.  Helen Keller, The World I Live In, 1908
See my blog: Time & Consciousness

The development of consciousness gave humans a power that allowed them to imagine the future and the past, to plan, to coordinate, to 'time travel' in their mind's virtual time. We now had a virtual tool that made us the most powerful beings on the Earth.

See my blog: Virtual Human Meta-Time

I have been writing about the human experience of time now for three years in my blog: -- I believe the human ability to measure time, determine 'when' in time and to plan is the reason humans became the dominant species on the Earth. See my blog: Animal Senses Compared to the Human Sense of Time

And while we cannot know the process that humans went through to obtain consciousness, nevertheless, we do know for certain that consciousness did develop and that once it had a foothold, it  there was no turning back.

See my blog: The Human Revolution: Symbolic Culture

"Man is distinguished above all animals by his self-consciousness, by which he is a 'rational animal'."   
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

But the cost was also quite high. Before consciousness humans had been part of nature, now they were aware they were removed and separated from nature.

And while the power of consciousness, shared symbols and culture allowed a rapid development of shared knowledge and added skills that could be passed down from generation to generation, it also opened the door to imaginings that were too painful to withstand. Because with the ability to imagine the future, humans now had a concept of death. This meant that they could be certain they would die and also their family would die -- and that early death was an ever present threat.
Unlike animals, humans understand the inevitability of their own death and in fact can imagine a world in which we are no longer alive. To Death & Back, PBS

We know that in human history there was a distinct change about 100,000 years ago when humans began to be buried in a ceremonial fashion. Burial practices are particularly important to our modern understanding of the past because when people were buried with pottery, jewelry and other artifacts it signaled an awareness of death and that a collective consciousness had reached a high level of sophistication.
The first undisputed deliberate human burial is:"About 100,000 years ago at Qafzeh, Israel, the remains of as many as 15 individuals were found in a cave, along with 71 pieces of red ocher and ocher-stained stone tools. The ocher was found near the bones, suggesting it was used in a ritual."  NOTE: Red ocher comes from iron embedded in stone and is part of the lore and skills of old stone age cultures.


The focus of this article is not so much about consciousness but rather its consequences, as the price for acquiring consciousness was quite high. I believe the roots of religion are directly attributable to the emergence of consciousness -- as consciousness created a separation from nature and also an awareness of death.

People in just about every culture, both in the past and in the present, have held a set of religious beliefs. Anthropologists include religious beliefs as one of the common traits of all cultures and civilizations. So it would seem that religion, from the earliest times to the present, is a fundamental need of human beings. For more about this see:

Perhaps the best evidence for the connection between consciousness and religion comes from the story of Adam and Eve. This story is found in Genesis, a book of the Torah, the first of the first five books of the twenty-four books of the Tanakh, the canon of the Hebrew Bible (the first book of the Old Testament for Christians) -- which is considered a sacred text by Christians, Jews and Muslims, i.e., more than half the people on this Earth.
NOTE: When the 'tree of knowledge' is mentioned, the word 'knowledge' in Hebrew can also mean awareness. This also ties in with the notion of consciousness, since consciousness from the Latin means 'with knowledge' and after all what is knowledge but awareness. With this interpretation, then, eating the fruit from the 'tree of awareness' caused a separation from the original state of oneness with nature -- and created an awareness of death. For more about this please see:   ALSO NOTE: "The phrase in Hebrew ... translatable as 'good and evil', may be an example of the type of figure of speech known as merism. This literary device pairs opposite terms together, in order to create a general meaning; so that the phrase "good and evil" would simply imply "everything"."

Genesis 2
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden;
but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” [ED : My emphasis]
Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

Genesis 3
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”
So the Lord God sent him away from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.

In another ancient passage from sacred texts, Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, writes of his perception of the tree of knowledge.
NOTE: Although the Books of Enoch have been verified as being quite old, they are generally considered part of the Apocrypha. The text quoted here is from the Book of Watchers -- dated to about 300 BCE -- and considered part of the holy cannon by some Jews and Christians, but not by most others although "most Christian denominations and traditions may accept the Books of Enoch as having some historical or theological interest or significance..." For more about this see: 
From the Books of Enoch: And I came to the Garden of Righteousness, and from afar off trees more numerous than these trees and great -- two trees there, very great, beautiful, and glorious, and magnificent, and the tree of knowledge, whose holy fruit they eat and know great wisdom.
That tree is in height like the fir, and its leaves are like (those of) the Carob tree: and its fruit is like the clusters of the vine, very beautiful: and the fragrance of the tree penetrates afar. Then I said: ' How  beautiful is the tree, and how attractive is its look!' Then Raphael the holy angel, who was with me, answered me and said: 'This is the tree of wisdom, of which thy father old (in years) and thy aged mother, who were before thee, have eaten, and they learnt wisdom and their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked and they were driven out of the garden.'  Enoch's Journeys through the Earth and Sheol, Chapter XXXII,
In this text, it is clear that eating the fruit from the inviting, beautiful, fragrant tree of knowledge would give a person great wisdom -- but at a terrible cost.

My interpretation is that eating the fruit of 'knowledge and awareness' had turned Adam and Eve's original innocent oneness with nature into a self-consciousness separation from nature -- being naked (what is more natural?) was now something they were ashamed of and gaining knowledge meant that they now knew they were mortal.
The object of the myth evidently was to explain the origin of death,C. Staniland Wake, Influence Of The Phallic Idea In The Religions Of Antiquity, 1870.
These simple allegories [ED: the fall of man in Genesis] ... are condensed explanations, stripped of minor details, of the great underlying laws of existence.Charles Fillmore, Mysteries of Genesis, 1936.
Thus man eats "of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." In these few words is summed up the fall of man from an Edenic a consciousness of matter and the desperate struggle of personality for existence.Charles Fillmore, Mysteries of John, 1946.
This story with many variations appears in a number of other cultures as detailed in the following chapter:
Heathen Fables Illustrative Of The Fall Of Man in the book: The Worship of the Serpent by John Bathurst Deane, 1833.
In most hunter-gatherer cultures:"There are invariably two temporal orders of existence, with an Early mythical or 'dreamtime' preceding the present. In the former, nature and culture are not yet fully separated. Out of this existence...crystallizes the distinction between humans and animals, even mortality itself, and virtually everything of cultural significance."  Introduction: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of HUNTERS AND GATHERERS
The above quotes point to the two principle themes in religion: the fear of death and a separation from nature and the cosmos. Religion offers a solution by providing a connection to nature, by helping humans find their “place in the universe” as Carl Jung once said, along with a promise of an afterlife and/or an understanding of death.


Based on what we know about contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, early religious beliefs in the Paleolithic or Mesolithic eras were nothing like modern day organized religion. It was not until Neolithic times that formal observances with priests, buildings and rituals would appear.

It seems safe to assume, from the study of modern hunters and gatherers, that religion originally took the form of shamanism. Virtually every modern hunter-gatherer people today, for example, engage in shamanism or did in the recent past. 
(The Cambridge Encyclopedia of HUNTERS AND GATHERERSIntroduction)

This early division, this first separation from nature, required that within the tribe's symbolic culture there had to be a way to connect, to understand, to communicate, to relate to the world of nature. And from this basic need, I believe religion, or what I prefer to call 'spiritual beliefs' at this state, was born. Because of the certainty of death and the desire to be in touch with nature, early humans needed to find a way maintain a relationship with the natural world that they believed was made of spirits. These beliefs meant that there was a "hovering closeness of the world of myth to the actual world" (Robert Bellah, quoted in the The Cambridge Encyclopedia of HUNTERS AND GATHERERSIntroduction).

In this early stage, shaman, who were part-time religious practitioners, were able to travel the gap between humans and nature and communicate with spirits and with the dead due to their ability to alter their consciousness. Shamanism was widespread and common among hunter-gatherers. They were not so much priests but people with special powers who could help people in the tribe -- especially those with concerns relating to spiritual matters. While shaman were revered, their cultures were generally egalitarian (contemporary ones are according to The Cambridge Encyclopedia of HUNTERS AND GATHERERS) and they did not have the same authority that priests would have in later forms of religion.

Definition: Shamanism:  Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS [ED: my emphasis] in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.

Shamanism is another major practice common to the great majority of hunting and gathering peoples. The word originates in eastern Siberia, from the Evenki/Tungus word saman meaning "one who is excited or raised."  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of HUNTERS AND GATHERERS, Introduction

I find it telling that a key element of shamanism at this beginning stage of religious belief is an 'altered state of consciousness', since I believe that the emergence of normal human consciousness is what caused the need for religious practices. An altered state of consciousness would bridge the gap and allow the shaman to have a relationship with the spirit world. The shaman could then try to heal, if you will, the rift with nature that normal consciousness had created.

A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing.Shamanism encompasses the premise that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds.---Shamans act as mediators in their culture. The shaman communicates with the spirits on behalf of the community, including the spirits of the deceased. The shaman communicates with both living and dead to alleviate unrest, unsettled issues, and to deliver gifts to the spirits.

The Sámi’s believed “that the living and the departed were regarded as two halves of the same family.” ...their belief was not just a religion, but a living dialog with their ancestors

Primitive religions are on the whole oriented to a single cosmos...The distance between man and mythical being, which was at best slight, disappears altogether in the moment of ritual when 'everywhen' [ED: a term coined by anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner] becomes now. All present are involved in the ritual action itself and have become one with the myth.Primitive religious action is identification, participation, acting out. Just as the primitive symbol system is myth par excellence, so primitive religious action is ritual par excellence. In the ritual the participants become identified with the mythical beings they represent.In primitive ritual the individual is put in harmony with the natural divine cosmos.Robert N. Bellah, Religious Evolution

Of course, it is hard to determine when the emergence of consciousness caused the break with nature that was irredeemable. The most likely scenario is that as consciousness slowly developed, hunter-gatherers were able to keep and continue a sense of oneness with nature. Their survival depended on their ability to read the flow, the signs of nature -- when fish ran, animals migrated, plants bloomed, and when certain stars such as the Pleiades appeared. Hunter-gatherers lived off the land as they found it; they lived spontaneously. They lived in harmony with nature.

Tim Ingold stated: "Hunter-gatherers do not, as a rule, approach their environment as an external world of nature that has to be 'grasped' intellectually ... indeed the separation of mind and nature has no place in their thought and practice." Willerslev extends the argument by noting...that the animist self identifies with the world, "feeling at once within and apart from it so that the two glide ceaselessly in and out of each other in a sealed circuit."

Adam tilling the ground after his expulsion from Eden, from The Story of Adam and Eve by Boucicaut Master circa 1400.

It seems likely that the break with nature came as farming and sedentary Neolithic thinking encroached on the earlier nomadic way of life. The Neolithic point of view required planning, control and a new sense of time which separated it from the earlier hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The arrival of the new stone age, the Neolithic, was the single most momentous shift in all of our history. It was the moment we stopped being hunter-gatherers roaming from place to place and became farmers tied to the land and to the seasons. Everything we consider part of the modern world...all of that has its roots in the Neolithic.It was also to profoundly alter our sense of ourselves as human beings, as part of the natural world...It would change the land, the things we ate. It would change our relationship with time.  Neil Oliver, Archaeologist, A History of Ancient Britain, BBC Two

Rather than being part of the environment, Neolithic people made their own environment on their farms. The areas beyond the fields and houses of the Neolithic villages began to be seen as wild and untamed. This division created "a wound of awareness" or the "pain of consciousness" [my phrases], a break with their earlier sense of belonging in which they were a part of nature -- which was perhaps a romanticized memory of a former Garden of Eden.

A new kind of religion in Neolithic cultures provided a way for that wound to heal -- but like a broken leg or arm, the point where the break occurred would mend, yet it would always be scarred.

It is sometimes said that animist worldviews are unitary, totalized, and seamless...Animist worldviews neither recognize nor use a series of dichotomies that we tend to take for granted and which are prevalent, if not dominant, in modernist worldviews. These dichotomies include (but are not limited to):Nature/SupernaturePhysical/MetaphysicalMatter/SpiritMaterial/Ethereal....It is my contention that these conceptual dualisms arose in conjunction with and as a consequence of the Neolithic transition. [ED: My emphasis] The process, I surmise, began with the newly built environment featuring the settlement and house. From this materiality flows ideas about inner/outer and private/public. In these seemingly innocent dualisms we find conceptual seeds that will eventually sprout into ideas about property, ownership, wealth, and distinction.  UNITARY ANIMIST WORLDVIEWS

During this [Neolithic] period it does seem that for the first time we began to think of ourselves as separate from the natural world which is sometimes in opposition to us and which we need to control. From now on it becomes important to appease the enormous communal effort was required to impress these invisible beings, an effort that shaped the beginnings of organized religion, and created the first divine beings or gods. Now magic and ritual are shared among thousands to invoke “Cosmic Maintenance.” The collaboration from the unknown worlds to ensure and improve survival in the known world becomes the new way to understand and think about solutions to problems of survival

In this stage of human culture, in this Neolithic age of sedentary farming, it appears that over time the powers of nature became personified as gods and spirits. It also seems likely that an upper caste of divine priests developed. These officials with high authority were a reflection of the more complex farming culture, new stone age technology and increasing specialization as well as the fact that now much larger communities shared the religion.

BTW I find it interesting that quite learned Biblical scholars, such as Isaac Newton, James Ussher, Johannes Kepler in the 17th century, made an effort to determine the age of the Earth based on the Bible. They made careful calculations using the information in Genesis and came to the conclusion that according to the Old Testament the world was created about 4000 BCE or around the start of the Neolithic Era -- just when many scholars believe religion as we now know it, such as Judaism, began.

With the arrival of city-states and empires, the gods became more stratified and hierarchical, reflecting the structure of the civilizations -- such as the religions and gods of Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

This Greek pottery depicts a dead hero being carried by the Greek god of Death, Thanatos, while being helped by Hypnos (Sleep) as Hermes looks on.

During the last 400 years with the emergence of science and technology, the inner world of humans has grown, civilization has expanded and our store of conscious scientific knowledge greatly increased. As a result the outer world of nature -- we even speak of it as 'outside' -- has become even more remote. People, in a sense, now live inside their virtual man-made worlds and often see the forces of nature as things to be subdued or controlled.

Yet from the beginning, there has always been a deep felt need to belong, to be a part of something larger, to feel a oneness with the cosmos, to find a “place in the universe” as Carl Jung said. Religion through its symbols and rituals satisfies that need -- and by connecting people to a spiritual divine world that is timeless and boundless, religion is comforting and for most people, essential.

In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying...
This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross...
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
TS Eliot, Ash Wednesday 

     Diagram of the conscious mind by Robert Fludd, died 1637.

Please Note: All pictures are from