The eternal background of consciousness: An interview with Prof. Vyacheslav Moiseev
Reading | Ontology | 2021-10-10
When a special kind of ‘beingness’ organizes itself by taking on form, it presents itself to itself, from within, against its own background, thereby igniting consciousness into existence. This is the fascinating proposal of Prof. Moiseev, which, although related to Western dual-aspect monism, doesn’t quite fit into any of the categories of today’s Western philosophy of mind. Prof. Moiseev shows that there are many more reasonable degrees of freedom in thinking about the nature of reality than our usual suspects of physicalism, dualism and panpsychism. This interview is literally mind-opening in that way. Although Prof. Moiseev’s ontology may seem to contradict the primacy of consciousness endorsed and advocated by Essentia Foundation, we find his ideas intriguing, particularly his notions of relativism and evolution, as applied to consciousness. Although difficult to understand at first, Essentia Foundation’s Natalia Vorontsova teases his argument out slowly, throughout the interview, so it is well worth to read it to the end.
What is consciousness?
Consciousness is a special kind of stuff given from within itself. For consciousness to arise, a special consciousness’ stuff is needed, i.e., a certain substrate, a certain medium that has special properties. For me this is not a substance, not exactly what Aristotle called “being.” Instead, being is the subject, the carrier of consciousness, since when we speak of consciousness, we always presume that there’s someone who possesses that consciousness. As such, consciousness is then a predicate. In other words, it is some quality that must always be linked to the one who possesses it, for it closely relates to the capability of some object or some subject to possess certain qualities.
I believe that, first, there must be a special medium, a special substrate, for it is impossible to reproduce consciousness on ordinary physical atoms and molecules, that is, on ordinary ‘matter.’ To manifest consciousness, you need a special carrier, and I call it conventionally the life matter or the consciousness matter. One may call it the substance or the substrate; the point here is not the use of words, but the special nature of consciousness. Therefore, all attempts of materialism to portray consciousness as the activity of the neurons, or the activity of the living body in general, are failed attempts in my view.
In summary, we need a special kind of object that can possess this property. This object has its own matter, its own substrate, and its own form, if we use again Aristotle’s philosophy and understand “being” as this unity of matter and form. When this special matter and special form merge, they produce a special being, one aspect of which is then consciousness. This aspect is given from within itself or, as philosophers also say, it is self-beingness; it is given as a kind of inner self. Perhaps it would even be better to describe it as given from within itself; it is given to it by itself, in the aspect of self-beingness, resulting in consciousness igniting into existence.
Is consciousness pre-existent and ever-present in one form or another, or can it appear and disappear?
I think that in an ordinary living being consciousness can both arise and disappear, and in this respect, it is tied to its substrate, to its medium. If we look at this medium from the outside, it is a certain thing with a special organization, and with its own specificity. That thing can be destroyed, and it also can arise. When it arises, consciousness emerges with it, and when it disappears, consciousness subsequently ceases.
But from within itself, when it starts perceiving itself as itself, then it perceives itself as the whole of existence, as the whole ontological infinity. And in that sense, it has an innate tendency to absolutize itself, to regard itself as some absolute substance that pre-exists and permeates all existence. Because it is such, from within itself, it models all of existence against its own background. In other words, when it looks at everything from within, it is as if everything is presented on some screen, against one total background, and this total background is the very self. And no matter what it tries to do, no matter how it tries to localize itself—within, it still localizes itself against the background of itself. That is, it kind of separates into a local state, but still on this total background of itself. Therefore, no matter what it does, it cannot destroy itself from within. In that sense it is absolute. It is what is called in philosophy the ‘Absolute’ or ‘absolute being.’
But, unlike classical idealists, I pay more attention to the receptive position of consciousness, connected with its specificity of perception, when it perceives itself from within itself, since it is some entity that generates images and perceives those same images. In this respect, it is like a kind of video camera that creates images, but shows them to itself. It’s what Leibniz called a ‘monad.’
From the outside, on the other hand, it is a certain self-conscious cluster of a special substrate, and it can very well be destroyed.
In my view, it is this dichotomy of internal absoluteness and external relativity that gives rise to a philosophy of subjective idealism, such as, for example, Berkeley’s solipsism, which assumes that the whole world is the Self, it is my consciousness, and so on.
But consciousness can evolve. Or rather, that carrier that bears consciousness, that subject and that substrate belonging to the carrier, can evolve, and become increasingly ontologically stronger. Just as in Leibniz’s philosophy, monads can develop and reach initially human, then superhuman states approaching the divine or the supreme monad. Similarly, here too, at a certain stage this subject can attain such ontological power—what we call cosmic consciousness—that it can create worlds and act as world consciousness for those worlds. But it still will not be the Absolute. It will be a very powerful ontological entity; what Plato called the Demiurge-creator of worlds, the builder of worlds. And when this Demiurge creates worlds, including the emergence of living beings inhabiting these worlds, then for these living beings this Demiurge-entity, its consciousness, is practically absolute; it is universal consciousness. But the Demiurge can become even more powerful ontologically, as it too keeps evolving, and there is no limit to this process. It can become so powerful that no one can destroy it, because first one would need to discover its boundaries. And if it is huge, if it is very powerful, its boundaries become increasingly harder to detect. And in terms of the status, its consciousness begins approaching the Absolute.
Is there really a separation between the outer and the inner world from the point of view of consciousness?
I assume that when consciousness separates from the environmental body, it does not lose its substrate and continues to be carried by it. The environmental body is our physical body, for it is molded from the same matter of which the environment is also composed. But consciousness is carried on its own special consciousness matter. It’s still that Leibniz monad, still the same entity, but existing in the reality of another world, where there can be other such entities separated from their environmental bodies. However, they are now open possibly to some other materiality, which could be governed by different laws and organizational principles than our incarnate world, as we know it.
How do you see the analogy in which consciousness appears as a pre-existent, eternal ocean on which the waves that rise and disappear represent the process of localization of consciousness? Or is this ocean the substrate of consciousness, and the ‘monads’ the waves?
This ocean is also a kind of global entity, which individual entities are part of. And this global entity can also have its own substrate and its own form. It interacts with local entities, but they all have their own consciousness, which is an expression, a property, an ability of all these entities. Consciousness is very often hypostasized and confused with the entity that has it.
Is this substrate that unknown philosophical ‘substance’ that resolves the question of the division between the material and the ideal?
We can think of the substrate as the pole of the materiality, or we can think of it as the entity itself possessing this materiality. And when we regard matter as a kind of philosophical clay, from which different objects are molded and on which different processes are running, then a form must be added to this matter for these objects to appear. Now we refer to matter not as an entity, but precisely as matter in this Aristotelian sense.
According to my theory, it would be better to use the concept of entity, and by matter to mean only the material pole of this entity. And then the entity is the matter plus the form, the structure that begins to organize matter. So, consciousness, in this sense, is an aspect of the entity.
Regarding the idea of the ‘divine spark,’ with which all human beings are supposedly endowed, how does this relate to your understanding of consciousness?
The divine spark can also be understood in various ways. One of the most common examples of Eastern philosophy is the concept of Atman, where Atman coincides with Brahman. It is the indestructible part of any consciousness. However, I believe that there is no such spark inherently present in any consciousness. To have that spark within you, you must evolve to a level where you can create it. It is not a pre-given, but a state that we can reach. At a very high level of evolution, we can achieve a kind of consciousness that possesses a quality of eternity and indestructibility. But then again, I am speaking in relative terms, since it could be considered infinite and indestructible from a human perspective.
The second understanding of the spark is this moment of the absoluteness of consciousness from within. It’s when consciousness looks at itself from within and sees itself essentially as God. From the outside, it’s an illusion. But from within, it contains an aspect of indestructibility for any consciousness, as I said earlier. So, if we understand this spark as an eternal background of consciousness for itself and from within itself, then it exists and indeed eternally accompanies any consciousness from within.
Does the Absolute exist?
There is a paradox associated with the concept of the Absolute, which has perpetually plagued different thinkers, and which finds expression in two equally valid positions:
- If there is a relative, then there must also be an absolute. For the relative is the conditional being of the absolute.
- If a relative exists, then there should not be an absolute. For why should there be a relative-imperfect when there is already an absolute-perfect?
I do not pretend to resolve this paradox. But I propose to tackle it by introducing two kinds of being. I conventionally call them background and on-background being, using the same ‘on-screen’ insight mentioned earlier. So, the relative and the absolute exist in different ways: the relative exists as on-background being—it is strong, convex, localized and conditional. The absolute exists as an all-pervading background, as it were, but elusive, which cannot be made into on-background being. You cannot, as it were, grab it and make it so obvious, as if visible against a different background, because to make it visible you must put something in the background. And this state cannot be placed against an even greater background because it is already the maximum background of everything. Therefore, I get out of the paradox in this way: the absolute on-background does not exist, but the background does exist.
And if we consider the Absolute or God in the context of Christianity?
The Christian God is not necessarily the Absolute in the philosophical sense. All these are anthropomorphic constructions that create, as it were, an image of God in the image and likeness of man.
I am a proponent of the scientific method in studying all levels of reality, including the highest level of the Absolute, even though nowadays the scientific method is defined narrowly, in that it only cognizes environmental matter. In addition to the matter of our environment, I suggest the existence of an infinite number of other forms of matter: life matter, mind matter, spirit matter, consciousness matter and so forth. And then, the scientific method must be expanded in relation to environmental matter alone.
The problem is that, as soon as we step onto the platform of this environmental materialist science and grab the instruments of comprehension that it has created, we systematically go blind. This is especially evident in the struggle between holism and reductionism in biology and medicine. Currently, it is completely dominated by reductionism in very rigid forms. It decomposes all living things into parts, and these parts into even smaller parts, all the way down to individual atoms and molecules. With these individual atomic and molecular processes, it tries to explain all living things. As a result, we miss the phenomenon of life completely.
Hence, all these major crises and huge schisms in modern culture: science and religion are split; spirituality and the scientific method are also split. Either you have an unscientific spirituality that is expressed by religions, or spiritless science, which is expressed by this materialist science. This atheism, materialism and reductionism that dominate modern science are, in fact, the new religion. That’s why materialist science is mostly about believers. They do not accept new facts and new concepts that are radically outside the main paradigm.
Therefore, the main task is to integrate the culture, to overcome these splits and to create a parallel scientific community of like-minded people. We may differ in emphasis, but in essence we will be striving for some deeper truth, where there is a place for the phenomenon of life, consciousness and spirit. And again, it is not a new religion, but rather rational constructs that we can comprehend. It also presumes a new scientific method, related to all this. We also need a theory that includes the reality of consciousness, i.e., the acknowledgment that consciousness is a real phenomenon irreducible to some material-environmental constituents.
So, if we are united by spirituality and science, rationality and the scientific culture of dialogue, it’s enough to create a community.
How do you understand time and space? Are they objective categories independent of consciousness?
I distinguish between the concepts of geometric and philosophical space and time. The geometric one is a multitude of points, a void that is filled with something. In the philosophical sense, space is that which is maximally compatible at a given moment in time.
For example, you come into a store, where there’s only one cash desk open. A queue forms and shoppers start asking to open other cash desks. And when the second and third ones open, then the queue at each cash desk decreases, and people pass through and buy goods in less time. So, the number of cash desks represents the cumulative number of times that the service of selling goods can be performed at a given point in time.
In other words, there is a process of some kind, and that process passes through some frames that can be narrow or wide. It takes more time to pass through the narrow ones and vice-versa. These frames are essentially the degrees of freedom determining how much of the process can be realized in a single moment in time. That’s how we can understand space in the broadest philosophical or ontological sense. And therefore, the more space, the less time, and vice-versa. In this respect, the ideal is the complete absence of time, when the process can fully realize itself in one go. But that requires a very spacious ontology, being a result of evolution. Therefore, the degree of maturity of a world is expressed by how spacious it is in its carrying capacity; how much existence it can let through in a single moment in time.
For instance, selfishness in ethics can be considered a form of ontological narrowness; it is my happiness at the expense of someone else’s happiness, and vice-versa. We can compare this to having only one cash desk that serves existence, and then only through me. It is as if the whole world were narrowed down only to me, leaving me with the choice: it’s either me or the other.
But if the world became ontologically spacious, we would rejoice in the joy of each other, and we would help each other. Then there are two cash desks or perhaps even three, and the process goes much faster, more spacious and freer.
So, time and space are then objective and independent of consciousness. But at the same time, they are relative to the degree or the dynamics of evolution of consciousness?
Yes. For example, compare an ontology with one cash desk to one that works with tens of cash desks. Something that, in the one-cash-desk ontology, would belong to the future, for the mind running tens of cash desks would exist now; that mind would see the future as the present.
The past, the future and the present are all relative states related to the nature of the world of being, for every world has a certain number of ‘cash desks’ through which it counts its flow of events. And consciousness, as a world-like system, as a mini-world, is also synchronized with the world’s bandwidth. Since this consciousness exists in this world, it belongs to a certain cross-section of this world.
There is however a huge ontological potential in us, and consciousness can in principle go beyond the number of cash desks and specific cross-sections (although this would already entail transpersonal levels of consciousness). As that happens, it might turn out that the flow of time is organized differently.
In summary, consciousness has an amazing ontological power. The mind at large is an ontological builder, it is the creator of worlds, and achieving greater ontological power is a matter of our own evolution.