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The spirit of the universe

The spirit of the universe

Reading | Ontology

Steve Taylor, PhD | 2021-11-28

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The gap between panpsychism and idealism is bridged if one infers that fundamental consciousness, instead of being a property of elementary material particles, pervades the fabric of space itself, from where it is then canalized into living beings. In this essay, Prof. Taylor limits himself to presenting his philosophy of panspiritism, as opposed to providing an argument for it. We believe this presentation appeals to enough intuition to justify its standalone publication.

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that materialism – our culture’s standard view of reality – is inadequate as a way of explaining the world and human experience. As well as being fundamentally nihilistic, materialism can’t offer viable explanations of phenomena such as human consciousness, the effect of the mind on the body, altruism, near-death experiences, psi phenomena and even evolution.1 As a result, a number of “post-materialist’ philosophical approaches have been put forward as alternative explanations of the world, including varieties of idealism, panpsychism, and dual-aspect monism.

In this article, I would like to propose another nonmaterialist perspective, which I call panspiritism. It is an approach that—in different variants—has a long and rich philosophical history. Here I will set out some of the most salient features of the approach, then suggest how a contemporary panspiritist perspective conceives of the emergence of mind, the relationship of mind to matter, and the relationship between the mind and the brain.

 

An overview of panspiritism

Panpsychism suggests that the most basic particles of matter have some form of inner being, and some form of experience, even if this is so basic that it is impossible for us to conceive of it. Panpsychism may literally mean that “mind is everywhere,” but usually this just means that mind exists in all material particles. However, panspiritism suggests that there is a fundamental quality, which is inherent in all space as well as in all material things. This quality—which could be called fundamental consciousness (or spirit)—is all-pervading. (For me, the terms fundamental consciousness and spirit are equivalent.) It is everywhere and in everything, a subtle and dynamic nonmaterial principle or quality, which existed prior to the universe and gave rise to it. It enfolds and immerses the whole universe (and possibly other universes), pervading all space-time and matter and continually flowing into the inner being of life forms.

In contrast to panpsychism, panspiritism does not hold that all material particles have an intrinsic nature of matter. Panspiritism suggests that although consciousness is in all things, all things do not necessarily have their own individuated consciousness. Although fundamental consciousness pervades everything, all things are not conscious. Only structures that have the necessary complexity and organizational form to canalize fundamental consciousness into themselves have consciousness as their intrinsic nature. There is a similarity here with cosmopsychism, which assumes one essential form of consciousness: cosmic consciousness. As in idealism, the individual consciousness of macrosubjects such as human beings somehow derives from cosmic consciousness. Panspiritism suggests that this derivation occurs through organized groups of cells (in the form of brains in human beings), which act as a receiver and transmitter of fundamental consciousness.

According to panspiritism, the entire universe is animate and conscious, since all things are—and all space is—pervaded with fundamental consciousness or spirit. But there is a difference in the way that rocks and rivers are animate and the way that an insect or even an amoeba is animate. Rocks and rivers don’t have their own psyche and so aren’t individually conscious or animate. Fundamental consciousness pervades them, but they aren’t conscious in themselves. Material forms are externally animated with fundamental consciousness; the bodies of life forms are also animated with fundamental consciousness, but life forms are also internally animated with some degree of individual consciousness. Interior consciousness doesn’t go all the way down, as panpsychism suggests. It only goes as far down as the first simple life forms.

Briefly summarized, we could say that my variant of panspiritism highlights three ways in which living beings are related to fundamental consciousness: pervasion, immersion, and subjective sentience (or internal animation). Nonliving things are pervaded with and immersed in fundamental consciousness. Living things are also pervaded with and immersed in fundamental consciousness—but in addition, they are internally animated by fundamental consciousness, through the process of canalization (which will be discussed in more detail shortly), providing them with subjective sentience. And, since living beings exist in different levels of complexity, fundamental consciousness internally animates them to different degrees of subjective sentience.

Why is it necessary to see matter as pervaded with spirit? Couldn’t we simply see matter and spirit as wholly distinct, in dualistic terms? However, panspiritism is a philosophy of oneness (although at the same time it is not wholly monist). It is the all-pervading nature of fundamental consciousness that brings all phenomenal things into oneness—not simply the oneness of living beings who share the same essential internal consciousness, but also the oneness of all nonmaterial things, which are one because they are products of, and are pervaded with, fundamental consciousness. Certain interactions of the mind and the body (such as the influence of mental intentions over the form and functioning of the body, as illustrated by the placebo effect or healing under hypnosis) would be inexplicable without an intimate interconnection between the mental and physical.2 A sense of unity—or at least intimate connection— between one’s own being and the material world is also one of the core elements of mystical experiences. Significantly, mystical experiences also sometimes feature reports of a radiance or energy, which pervades all space and objects, bringing them into oneness.

One might also wonder: how can matter have a different ontological status to fundamental consciousness and yet be pervaded with it? How can matter be both of the same nature as spirit and different to it? However, it is important to remember that matter consists primarily of space. Nuclei are around 100,000 times smaller than the atoms that contain them. All space is pervaded with fundamental consciousness, so the space within matter (strictly speaking, the space within atoms) is pervaded with fundamental consciousness too.

We should also remember that, in the natural world, it is common for one phenomenon to generate another, in such a way that the generated phenomenon has its own ontological status but is also of the same nature as the generative phenomenon. The relationship of material particles to fundamental consciousness may be analogous to children created by parents, or plants that emerge from seeds, where a distinct phenomenon emerges from a preexisting one, but retains the essential nature of the latter.

 

Panspiritist perspectives

Of course, what I am here describing as panspiritism is by no means a novel perspective. In fact, the idea that the essence of reality is a nonmaterial, spiritual quality seems to be one of the oldest and most common cross-cultural concepts in the history of the world.

In addition to their animistic beliefs in spirits that could inhabit and influence phenomena, many indigenous groups developed concepts of a fundamental spiritual principle, which has some similarity with panspiritism. For example, many native American groups developed concepts of a “great spirit” or “great mystery.” The Tlingit of the Pacific North-West refereed to this spiritual principle as yok, the Hopi Indians called it maasauu, the Pawnee called it tirawa, the Dakota called in taku wakan, the Lakota called it wakan-tanka, while the Haudenosaunee called it orenda, the eastern Algonquians called it manitou, and so on. Elsewhere in the world, the Ainu of Japan—an indigenous tribal people of Hokkaido in Northern Japan—developed a similar concept of ramut, while in parts of New Guinea there was a similar concept of imunu. The similarity of these concepts with each other and with the panspiritist concept of a fundamental spiritual force is striking (and demands further investigation than I am able to devote to it here3).

Panspiritist ideas have clearly been a feature of certain Eastern philosophical traditions too. Many spiritual traditions feature concepts of an all-pervading spiritual force, such as the brahman of the Upanishads, the Tao of Taoism, the dharmakaya of Buddhism, Plotinus’s concept of “The One” and the Kabbalistic concept of en sof. These concepts differ in some senses, but all refer to a fundamental and universal spiritual principle, similar to what I refer to as fundamental consciousness.

The Indian philosophical tradition that allies most closely with panspiritism is Bhedabheda Vedanta. This approach can be seen as an attempt to integrate the monist and dualist traditions of Indian philosophy. The term Bhedabheda literally means “difference and non-difference,” suggesting that material forms are both identical and distinct to brahman. Like Kashmiri Shaivism, Bhedabheda Vedanta describes the phenomenal world as a real manifestation (or parinama) of a fundamental spiritual principle (brahman). But Bhedabheda goes further than Kashmiri Shaivism, by suggesting that material forms are not identical with absolute consciousness, but have their own distinct identity (while at the same time existing in brahman). In Bhedabheda Vedanta, various metaphors are used to illustrate the relationship between fundamental consciousness and material forms, including a wave and the ocean, a fire and the sparks that arise from it, the sun and its rays, and a father and his son. Individual subjects and material forms are of the same nature as brahman, but have their own distinct form and identity. This is an identical perspective to panspiritism, which sees material things are distinct from fundamental consciousness, at the same time as being pervaded with it and grounded in it.

(Note that there are some panspiritist trends within the western philosophical tradition too—for example, the Stoics, Plotinus, the Italian sixteenth-century philosophers Bruno and Patrizi, and later figures such as Spinoza and Johann Gottfried Herder. Unfortunately, I do not have space to discuss this here. See my book Spiritual Science for a fuller discussion.)

 

The emergence of matter

In panspiritism, there are two distinct developmental stages: the emergence of matter and the emergence of mind.

I suggest that fundamental consciousness has a dynamic quality that enabled it to generate the physical universe. There is a similarity here with some forms of “source idealism” (or “product idealism”), which see the world as an emanation of absolute consciousness. Some forms of panpsychism imply that consciousness came into existence with the universe, as one of the properties of subatomic particles (alongside others such as mass and charge) or as the intrinsic nature of matter. But panspiritism suggests that fundamental consciousness is more fundamental than the universe, in the sense that the universe came into being as an emanation of it.

In Kashmiri Shaivism, the universe came into being through the primordial vibration of siva. Kashmiri Shaivism claims that siva has a dynamic impulse to express—in Wallis’ words—“the totality of its self-knowledge in action.”4 Plotinus is also very clear that the One is the source of the world, as a dynamic force which is—in Plotinus’ own words—the “productive power [dynamis] of all things.”5

I admit that the process by which fundamental consciousness generates matter is obscure. One could term this the “generation problem” in parallel with the “combination problem” of panpsychism. Panpsychism faces the challenge of explaining how the subjectivity of single material particles combine to produce the more intense consciousness of larger beings. Likewise, idealism faces the problem of explaining how absolute consciousness manifests itself in discrete living organisms. Chalmers terms this the “fragmentation problem” of how universal mind divides into individual minds.6 Kastrup refers to the condition of dissociative identity disorder, in which consciousness fragments into different personalities.7 However, it is not clear to me whether this is a mere analogy, or whether it is meant to describe the actual process by which individual consciousness arises from universal consciousness.

According to panspiritism, once the universe was generated, the creative and dynamic quality of spirit continued to operate in material structures. After arising from fundamental consciousness, material particles grouped together into more complex material structures, and eventually into structures that were complex enough to enable the “canalization” of fundamental consciousness into themselves, so that these structures became animate and sentient. From that point on, the creative and dynamic nature of fundamental consciousness was an important factor in evolution, impelling life forms to develop greater complexity over time. This allowed those life forms to canalize consciousness more intensely, and so to develop a more intense and expansive internal consciousness. Living beings became more sentient and autonomous, while still immersed in and pervaded with fundamental consciousness.

 

The emergence of mind

The “canalization” process mentioned above is main principle of panspiritism’s account of the emergence of mind. In these terms, the human mind is essentially an influx (or canalization) of fundamental consciousness. The brain receives fundamental consciousness and canalizes it into our individual being, so that we become individually conscious.

This view is similar to the transmission model of consciousness put forward by William James, who compared the brain to a “prism or a refracting lens,” which transmits a white light or invisible radiance.8 (James also used the metaphor of air passing through the pipes of an organ.) Forman has described this process more specifically, speaking in terms of a “canalization” of consciousness. As he has put it, “Consciousness is more like a field than a localized point, a field which transcends the body and yet somehow interacts with it … Brain cells may receive, guide, arbitrate, or canalize an awareness which is somehow transcendental to them. The brain may be more like a receiver or transformer for the field of awareness than its generator.”9 Panspiritism holds essentially the same view.

It is important to point out that the process of canalization of fundamental consciousness doesn’t just occur via the brain. The brain is the most complex cellular structure in the body, and so is the main receiver of consciousness. However, all of the cells in our body receive and transmit fundamental consciousness. Indeed, one the of the basic functions of all cells is to canalize fundamental consciousness. This is why we can sense consciousness flowing throughout our inner being, as life-energy, or chi.

It is also important to note that canalization isn’t just a human phenomenon. The process occurs in all life forms. In fact, canalization is one of the distinguishing features between non-living and living structures. Physical structures became internally conscious and sentient when they have developed sufficient complexity to canalize fundamental consciousness into themselves. When matter is arranged in complex and intricate ways—such as in cells and organisms—it facilitates the canalization of fundamental consciousness. Even an amoeba has its own very rudimentary kind of psyche and is therefore individually alive.

This relates to the different degrees of consciousness in life forms. As living beings become more complex—as their cells increase in number and become more intricately organized in groups—they become capable of receiving more consciousness. The raw essence of fundamental consciousness is canalized more powerfully through them, so that they become more alive, with more autonomy, more freedom, and more intense awareness of reality. This is why human beings, with our incredibly complex and intricate brains, are one of the most conscious beings (perhaps alongside dolphins and whales) in existence. However, the simplest forms of matter, which do not have cells, are not capable of canalizing consciousness, and so they are not individually conscious or alive. Simple forms of matter do not have an interior and are not capable of experience or sensation. These qualities only emerge at the cellular level and above.

In human beings, once the “raw material” of fundamental consciousness has been canalized, the brain enables and organizes the various psychological functions and processes that constitute the mind, including memory, information processing, intention or will, concentration, abstract and logical cognition, and so on. In this way, the brain is the facilitator (but not the causal generator) of mind. The relationship of fundamental consciousness to mind is like the relationship between a raw food ingredient and a meal that is prepared from it. Fundamental consciousness constitutes the essence of mind, but it is not equivalent to mind. Mind is what happens when fundamental consciousness is filtered through neural networks.

Another significant point is that canalization is an ongoing process. Life forms continually receive and canalize fundamental consciousness, for every moment of their lives till death. For me as a human being, fundamental consciousness is continually flowing into me like a fountain (to use Plotinus’ metaphor) via my brain and through the cells of my body, generating my inner life. From this point of view, death can be seen as the point where the brain and body are no longer able to receive and canalize fundamental consciousness. Due to a process of decay, or an accident or injury, their organism can no longer perform the canalizing role.

 

Conclusion

Unfortunately, I don’t have space here to examine one of the most important aspects of panspiritism: its explanatory power. In addition to offering explanations of the nature of consciousness and the relationship between mind and matter, panspiritism has explanatory potential in areas such as altruism, the influence of the mind over the body, mystical experiences, psi experiences and evolution. (Again, see my book Spiritual Science for more details.)

Of course, panspiritism has some problematic issues, such as the “generation problem” of how matter arises out of fundamental consciousness, and what might be called the “canalization problem” of how cells canalize fundamental consciousness. However, I don’t think these issues are any more serious than the combination problem of panpsychism and the fragmentation problem of idealism or cosmopsychism. Although there are still many details left to fill in, I think that panspiritism has great promise as a metaphysical alterative to materialism.

 

References

  1. Kastrup, (2019). The Idea of the World: A Multi-Disciplinary Argument for the Mental Nature of Reality. Ropley: Iff Books; Taylor. S. (2018). Spiritual Science: Why Science Needs Spirituality to Make Sense of the World. London: Watkins.
  2. Kelly, E. F., Kelly, E. W., Crabtree, A., Gauld, A., Grosso, M. and Greyson, B. (2007). Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  3. For a fuller discussion, see Taylor, S. (2005). The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History and the Dawning of a New Era. Ropley: O Books
  4. Wallis, (2013). Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition. San Rafael, CA: Mattamayura Press, p.55.
  5. in Marshall, P. (2019). The Shape of the Soul. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, p. 256.
  6. Chalmers, D. (2020). “Idealism and the Mind-Body Problem.” In The Routledge Handbook to Panpsychism, edited by W. Seager, 353–73. London: Routledge. http://consc.net/ papers/idealism.pdf
  7. Kastrup, B. (2019). The Idea of the World: A Multi-Disciplinary Argument for the Mental Nature of Reality. Ropley: Iff Books
  8. James, W. (1898/1992). “On Human Immortality”, In William James: Writings 1878 – 1899, edited by E. M. Gerald, 1100–27. New York: The Library of America.
  9. Forman, R. (1998). “What Does Mysticism Have to Teach Us About Consciousness?” Journal of Consciousness Studies 5, 85–201, p. 185.

Iain McGilchrist: “Consciousness is the stuff of the cosmos”

Iain McGilchrist: “Consciousness is the stuff of the cosmos”

Reading | Ontology

Dr. Iain McGilchrist | 2021-11-21

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Renowned psychiatrist Dr. Iain McGilchrist laid out his idealist metaphysical views unambiguously in the closing presentation of the ‘Science of Consciousness’ conference, 2021. His clarity, lucidity and almost hypnotically compelling style provided a spellbinding end to the conference. It left us craving for more; so much so that we decided to start our publication of the conference’s videos with it. Below you will find both the video and a transcript of Dr. McGilchrist’s talk. The video, however, contains a Q&A session not transcribed in the text, so it’s worth watching to the end. Enjoy!

In a very short presentation there is no possibility of arguing for a position on consciousness: so I will simply state my conclusions, argued for at length in my new book The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World.  Consciousness is irreducible, primordial and omnipresent: not a thing, but a creative process. Matter is a theoretical abstraction that no one has seen.  The term clearly has meaning, however: it refers to the qualities of certain elements within consciousness which offer relative resistance and relative permanence as a necessary part of that creative process.

I cannot avoid referring en passant to the hemisphere hypothesis expounded in The Master and his Emissary, and greatly developed in The Matter with Things.  Again there is no possible way I can give an account of the argument here.  What one needs to know is that the two hemispheres have evolved so as to attend to the world, and therefore bring into being the only world we can know, in two largely opposing ways: the left hemisphere paying narrowly targeted attention to a detail that we need to manipulate; the right hemisphere paying broad, open, sustained, vigilant, uncommitted attention to the rest of the world while we focus on our desired detail.  This means that each hemisphere brings into being a world that has different qualities. These could be characterised in the simplest possible terms something like this.  In the case of the left hemisphere, a world of things that are familiar, certain, fixed, isolated, explicit, abstracted from context, disembodied, general in nature, quantifiable, known by their parts, and inanimate.  In the case of the right hemisphere, a world of Gestalten, forms and processes that are never reducible to the already known or certain, never accounted for by dissolution into parts, but always understood as wholes that both incorporate and are incorporated into other wholes, unique, always changing and flowing, interconnected, implicit, understood only in context, embodied and animate.  The left hemisphere is a world of atomistic elements; the right hemisphere one of relationships. Most importantly the world of the right hemisphere is the world that presences to us, that of the left hemisphere a re-presentation: the left hemisphere a map, the right hemisphere the world of experience that is mapped.

In this talk I have chosen to make some very simple reflections on one aspect of consciousness: its relational nature. Indeed I hold that everything is relational, and that what we call things, the relata, are secondary to relationship. Consciousness is always ‘of’ something: what is the nature then of that something that is both in part constitutive of, and in part constituted by, that relationship?

In the last century or so, there has been a tendency, at least in popular discourse, to pull reality in opposing directions. Some scientists, whether they put it this way or not when they are asked to reflect, still carry on as if there just exists a Reality Out There, the nature of which is independent of any consciousness of it: naïve realism. These are usually biologists; you won’t find many physicists who would think like that. In reality, we participate in the knowing: there is no ‘view from nowhere’. As John Archibald Wheeler put it: ‘this is a participatory universe’.  Of crucial importance is that this fact does not in any way prevent science legitimately speaking of truths – far from it. We desperately need what science can tell us, and postmodern attempts to undermine it should be vigorously resisted. Two important truths, then: science cannot tell us everything; but what science can tell us is pure gold. Any attempt to suppress science (I distinguish science sharply from technology), for whatever reason, is dangerous and wrong.

Meanwhile, on the other hand, there are philosophers of the humanities who think that there is no such thing as reality, since it’s all Made Up Miraculously By Ourselves: naïve idealism. Such people, by the way, never behave as though there was no reality. Nor of course, by its own logic, can they claim any truth for their position.

These viewpoints are closer than they look. One party fears that if what we call reality were in any sense contaminated by our own involvement in bringing it about it would no longer be worthy of being called real. The other fears that, since we manifestly do play a part in its coming about, it’s already the case that it can’t be called real. But just because we participate in reality doesn’t mean we invent it out of nowhere, or solipsistically project it on some inner mental screen; much less does it mean that the very idea of reality is thereby invalidated.

I take it that there is something that is not just the contents of my mind – that, for example, you exist. There is an infinitely vast, complex, multifaceted, whatever-it-is-that-exists-apart-from-ourselves. The only world that any of us can know, then, is what comes into being in the never-ending encounter between us and this whatever-it-is. What is more, both parties evolve and are changed through the encounter: it is how we and it become more fully what we are. The process is both reciprocal and creative. Think of it as like a true and close relationship between two conscious beings: neither is of course ‘made up’ by the other, but both are to some extent, perhaps to a great extent, ‘made’ what they are through their relationship.

The relationship comes before the relata – the ‘things’ that are supposed to be related. What we mean by the word ‘and’ is not just additive, but creative.

There is no one absolute truth about the world that results from this process, but there are certainly truths: some things we believe will be truer than others. The nature of the attention we bring to bear is of critical importance here. A maximally open, patient, and attentive response to whatever-it-is is better at disclosing or discerning reality than a response that is peremptory, insensitive, or – above all – shrouded in dogma.

Importantly, what we experience is not just an image of a world ‘outside’, some sort of projection on the walls of a Cartesian theatre inside our heads, and watched by an intracerebral homunculus on an intracerebral sofa. Such a viewpoint could be predicted to arise from the left hemisphere’s attempt to deal with a reality it does not understand, and for which everything is a representation. True, we can deceive ourselves by mistaking our own projections for reality – and we often do; but that does not entail that we are always victims of self-deception. When we are properly attentive, what we experience is the ‘real deal’, though it be only a tiny part of all that is. To appreciate that, you need the right hemisphere – and preferably, of course, both hemispheres – to be in play. It is true that we can see the world only partially, but we still each see the world directly. It is not a re-presentation, but a real presence: there isn’t a wall between us and the world. Our experience is of whatever-it-is and not another thing, even if we can’t get away from the fact that it is we who experience it.

Yet, I say, we take part in its creation. How can that be?

An analogy may help get closer to what I mean. There is such a ‘thing’ as Mozart’s G minor quintet. It is in a way quite specific. It certainly is not a fantasy, and it cannot be made up by me any way I want. However, it doesn’t exist in the closed score on my bookshelf (the potential alone is there). It doesn’t exist in Mozart’s mind, either, because he’s dead, and the moment when he died made no difference whatever to the existence or the nature of the quintet. And there isn’t a single ideal quintet that we are always imperfectly imitating in our encounters with it. It keeps coming into being, it keeps becoming, each time a mind, with all its history and preconceptions, encounters it, or when many minds do so together. Each time it will be real. And each time it will also be different, although it will be recognisably the ‘same’ piece of music. It is certainly not a matter of ‘anything goes’. Not every rendition will be equally good, or equally true to the spirit of the quintet. And saying so should not be a problem: in life we don’t find it difficult to discriminate between better or worse performances, and, crucially, we expect at least a degree of consensus on the matter among those who know enough to recognise a good performance when they hear one.

However, no-one would expect me to say precisely how I know that it is a ‘true’ performance of the work, let alone to prove to them that it is. At best I could point to certain aspects of the performance, and hope my fellow-listener picks up. And that’s not just because of the particular nature of music. No-one expects me to say how I know that my understanding of Hamlet is more or less true, either. As a critic of Hamlet I state what I see: people either ‘click’ with what I say – get an insight from it – or don’t. They either feel that I (and now they) know more about Hamlet, or they don’t. This is not to give a single crumb of comfort to the ‘my view is as good as yours’ types. There are, very clearly, better and worse interpretations. I could get it indisputably wrong, for example, by claiming it is really an account of peasant life in Azerbaijan in the tenth century, or, less dramatically, but nonetheless clearly, by claiming that it is primarily a critique of James I’s foreign policy. There are in fact an almost limitless number of ways in which I am free to get it wrong.

Philosophy may at times aspire to be, but cannot ever be, coercive: it cannot compel to a point of view. It can only allow an insight to dawn. Plato described the process as a spark that crosses the gap: ‘suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another’.[1]  The experience of understanding involves a shift from what seems initially chaotic or formless, to a coherent stable form or picture, a Gestalt – or from an existing Gestalt to a new and better one, that seems richer than the one it replaces.

The flow of the universe is always creative, though it has order, and is not random or chaotic; the world is always a matter of responsiveness, though it is equally not a free-for-all. It is a process of creative collaboration, of co-creation.

In that spirit, I now want to modify my image of the quintet, which corresponds to some, but not all, aspects of reality. What if the music is not Mozart, but something more like some sublime jazz, or an Indian raga or Portuguese fado? Something we improvise – within bounds. Whatever it is will emerge from a balance of freedom and constraint. It won’t exist until it is being performed: no-one can know exactly what it will be like. But it will not be random: it will emerge from the players’ continuous interaction, and from the music’s own ‘history’ as it unfolds; what comes next will be anticipated by what has gone before. It will also be moulded by the imagination, skill and training we bring, our past experience of playing (together and apart), the conventions of certain traditions, and shared expectations, quite apart from the fundamental laws of acoustics. Our co-creation of the music does not occur ex nihilo, and is not just a projection of ourselves. Yet we, and you, partake of its making, even if we are only listeners.

Our immersion in a culture of recorded music, in which we are passive and inert consumers, encourages us to think of music as a ‘thing’, separate from the hearer and the musicians who make it. Yet any performer who has had the experience of being taken up by the flow of either music or dance, of being ‘in the groove’, knows this is a dreadfully reductive account. To be in the groove, in the flow, is to feel oneself played by, as much as playing, the music. As Yeats says, ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’[2]

Again, just because I use music as an example, I am obviously not making a point specifically about music. Music happens to be a very clear case of how what we take to be a thing emerges from a complex of relationships, both those between notes and those between individual consciousnesses. But all our experience, not just in music but in life, both mental and physical, is of such a complex flow, a constantly unfolding, responsive dance of reciprocal gestures. It exists in process and in relationship; our taking part in that reciprocity does not leave us inhabiting a solipsistic fantasy, but, precisely, confirms that it is not a solipsistic fantasy. We interact with one another and the world at large in a myriad ways without being able to have more than limited control of the outcome. What comes to be does so through an interaction of a multiplicity of elements, some ours, some not.

Whatever-it-is-that-exists-apart-from-ourselves creates us, but we also take part in creating whatever-it-is. By this I do not only mean the common sense view that I have an impact on the world, as the world has an impact on me: that I leave my footprints. That would lead immediately to the reflection that I am very small in relation to the world, and so effectively my impact is so small that for all intents and purposes it can be ignored. There is, it might seem, an inexpressibly vast universe and an inexpressibly tiny individual consciousness.  Such a reflection seems to posit an objective position – the view outside of history or geography, time or space – a view from nowhere, in which all can be measured and compared. It implies a Measurer of all the measurers, measuring the other scales and putting each part in its place according to its overall worth. But though that cannot be, the alternative is not just a merely subjective position, either: this very polarity – subjective/objective – is misleading. In the fado, in the raga, in jazz, it is what it is because of me, and I am what I am because of it.

Similarly whatever-it-is is potential until the encounter: in each authentic encounter – one in which the individual truly apprehends and is apprehended by this Other – the Other becomes fulfilled. Each time this comes about in a unique fashion; but one that is not alien to the coming into being of that Other as a whole. And the actualisation, which at first seems to be a narrowing or collapse of potential, positively adds to the now enlarged field of the potential, which only discovers itself through (the repetition of) such actualisations.

Within my experience of the world, very much can be changed by my response to whatever-it-is – in a sense everything can be changed. Though that may seem to be ‘just for me’, how big or small is that? We cannot weigh consciousness against the universe. It is like trying to say precisely how much you love someone, if you really love them. It is not fixable in space or quantitative, but qualitative and experienced in the living flow of time. And if things turn out to be interconnected, not atomistic – and they are – each consciousness has its impact on the universe that cannot be quantified.[3]

Does this mean that there is no such thing as being wrong? Of course not. Though there can be no rules for jazz – indeed if it merely followed rules it would no longer be jazz – there are many things that just can’t be done; much as in the middle of a flamenco dance, whose form is not predetermined, one cannot suddenly start balancing on one’s heels, or stop and scratch one’s nose, or do the can-can, without the dance ceasing to be. Flamenco is more formalised than jazz, but even in jazz there is literally no end to the list of what one doesn’t do. However, there’s no recipe, no procedure or algorithm to follow, for getting it right, either. An algorithm is what the left hemisphere wants; the recognition that it’s got to be free of any algorithm, yet not at all random, is characteristic of the understanding of the right hemisphere. We can specify what is not jazz, but not what is. Our knowledge of anything unique is similarly apophatic.

Just as ‘and’ is not merely additive, ‘not’ is not merely negative. Both are creative. Indeed resistance – ‘not-ness’ – is an absolute necessity for creation.

That of which I have no inkling – whatever I just don’t ‘get’ or ‘see’ – does not exist for me. That manifestation of whatever-it-is is simply not available in my world. But this doesn’t mean that things come and go from everyone else’s reality dependent on my understanding of it. If I can’t see the moon, that doesn’t mean it stops being there for others. If we are all tuned in to the same whatever-it-is – and I believe it makes no sense to assert we are not – something very like what I can’t see is probably being seen by others, and ultimately that will affect me. It is perfectly possible to be deceived about, or to be in denial about, an aspect of whatever-it-is.

Truth, like reality, is an encounter. It is in the nature of an encounter that more than one element is involved. And what I find in whatever-it-is does not pre-exist my encounter with it. There must be a potential, true enough, but it is actualised only in my encounter with it. The encounter is genuinely creative. The whole universe is constantly creative – but not out of nowhere.

We are dealing here with a phenomenon or process whose shape can be intuited, but to which our everyday language is not well adapted. When the world is viewed as a flow, albeit a differentiated one, rather than as a succession of points or a world of things, these problematic formulations can be approached from a fresh point of view, wherein many of the difficulties get to be resolved. The world, I suggest, is a seamless, always self-creating, self-individuating, and simultaneously self-uniting, flow that is only truly knowable as it comes to be known. (I say ‘it’, for convenience; it is a question worth considering whether this is the appropriate pronoun.) ‘It’ is like a stream, with its whirlpools and eddies, that come into being for a time, and resolve; while they are there they are present to all observers, even measurable up to a point; and yet, while distinct, they are inseparable from the stream, not just in the sense that without the stream they do not exist, but in the sense that they are the stream. We are just such eddies in the stream. And creativity is always discovery of the self as well as of the other.[4] Once one sees this, the objectivising, time-denying, change-denying, diagrammatic mentality of modern Western thinking appears as I believe it is: a hindrance, not a help, on the path to truth.

The world we know, then, cannot be wholly mind-independent, and it cannot be wholly mind-dependent. Once again, this leaves no room for a philosophy of ‘anything goes’. What is required is an maximally open, attentive response to something real and other than ourselves, of which we have only inklings at first, but which comes more and more into being through our response to it – if we are truly responsive to it. We nurture it into being; or not. In this it has something of the structure of love.

 

[In a panel following his presentation, Dr. McGilchrist added an important clarification of his metaphysical view, which we transcribe below:]

I think that all that exists, exists in consciousness; that consciousness is the stuff of the cosmos. Matter is a phase of consciousness. It is not a separate thing, any more than ice is separate from water; it’s a phase of water; it’s neither less nor more than water; it’s not separate from water; it’s a kind of water. And matter is a kind of consciousness—for a time—that has certain quite marked properties that are different from the way we normally think of consciousness, just as water is transparent and flows and all the rest, and ice is hard and opaque and can split your head open. So they’re different but they’re part of the same ontology. Consciousness and matter must be distinguished—I argue strongly that they are distinguished, just as ice and water are—but there should be no need to set the one against the other.

 

Notes and references

[1] Plato, Epistles, VII, 341c (trans J Harward).

[2] Yeats, ‘Among schoolchildren’.

[3] Heschel AJ, ‘Halakhah and aggadah’, in Between God and Man, Free Press, 1997, 176: ‘In the eyes of him whose first category is the category of quantity, one man is less than two men, but in the eyes of God one life is worth as much as all of life’.

[4] Thus Harold Bloom (Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, Grand Central Publishing, 2003, 12) says of Shakespeare that he was ‘a consciousness shaped by all the consciousnesses that he imagined’ and ‘his consciousness can seem more the product of his art than its producer’. In a similar vein, Aaron Copland says that ‘the reason for the compulsion to renewed creativity, it seems to me, is that each added work brings with it an element of self-discovery. I must create in order to know myself …’ (Music and Imagination: Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Oxford University Press, 1952, 41).

Essentia Foundation recommends Dr. McGilchrist's newest book:

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Idealism may not be what you think

Idealism may not be what you think

Reading | Editorial

The editors | 2021-11-14

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It increasingly strikes us that the reason why many scientists and scholars reject idealism—the notion that reality is essentially mental—is based on simple misunderstandings of what idealism states or implies. In this brief editorial, we would like to discuss and correct some of these misunderstandings.

An often-repeated criticism of idealism is that the obvious existence of an external world of tables and chairs, independent of our thoughts, wishes or fantasies, contradicts idealism. But this is just not true. Idealists—even subjective idealists a la Berkeley, let alone objective or analytic idealists—acknowledge the existence of an external world independent of our personal mentation; they simply state that such external world, in and of itself, is also mental in essence, just as the inner life of another person is mental, even though not constituted of our mentation. The external world is not in your or our minds alone, but unfolds instead in a spatially-unbound field of subjectivity underlying all nature, in the same sense that quantum fields are thought to span the entire universe. In other words, the external world is what the ‘thoughts’ of nature’s mind-at-large look like when observed from our vantage point, given the peculiarities of how our perceptual and cognitive apparatus represents the world internally. But in and of itself, the external world is constituted of transpersonal thought-like processes outside and independent of your and our minds.

Idealists also do not reject the self-evident fact that nature behaves according to certain patterns and regularities that we’ve come to call the ‘laws of nature,’ which are what they are regardless of whether we like them or not. Rejecting this obvious fact wouldn’t be profound, but just silly. Indeed, idealists are, by and large, naturalists: they do not postulate a puppeteer moving the pieces of the physical world according to some deliberate plan; instead, for them nature unfolds spontaneously, doing what it does because it is what it is. To frame this in psychological language, the so-called ‘laws of nature’ are, for the idealist, akin to the mental archetypes—the ‘instincts’—of a mind-at-large. ‘Laws of nature’ and ‘natural archetypes’ are just two ways of saying the same thing, in that ‘archetypes’ refer to the inherent templates of expression of a mind.

Often an opposition is suggested between reductionists and idealists, as if these were contradictory positions. But that, too, is a misunderstanding. To be a reductionist does not necessarily entail the claim that the universe is fundamentally just a heap of disjoint parts—a pile of elementary subatomic particles—even though many reductionists rather naively adhere to the latter view (on a side note, a proper understanding of quantum field theory flat-out contradicts such a view). To be a reductionist simply entails striving to explain complex and varied things in terms of less complex and less varied other things. For instance, we can explain the human body in terms of simpler organ systems; organ systems in terms of simpler tissues; tissues in terms of cells; cells in terms of molecules, atoms, elementary subatomic particles and, finally, quantum fields. Whatever is left at the end of this chain of reduction—that is, this chain of recursive explanations or accounts—is what is called the ‘reduction base.’ Reductionists attempt to explain as many things as possible in terms of as few things as possible, ultimately striving for a reduction base containing a single element: one thing in terms of which one can explain or account for everything else. As such, idealists are extreme reductionists in that they strive to account for all of nature in terms of one single entity: one spatially unbound field of subjectivity. All observable things and phenomena are then reduced to—that is, explained in terms of—particular patterns of excitation of this one field.

Strangely, although thoughtful critics of idealism understand that the latter is a monism, not a dualism, they still inadvertently adopt a dualist assumption in their criticism. They argue that physical things and actions—such as alcohol, other psychoactive drugs, a neurosurgeon’s scalpel or electric stimulation probe, head trauma, etc.—have a clear causative effect on our minds. Therefore—they reason—it is untenable to maintain that mind is primary. Do you see how dualism is not-so-subtly presupposed in this line of thought? The criticism assumes a distinction between physical causes and mental effects, as if they were two distinct ontological categories. But idealism is a monism: for idealists, only the mental exists, what we colloquially call ‘physical’ things being just a particular type of mental phenomenon; namely, perception (as opposed to thought, emotion, fantasy, etc.).

Idealists don’t deny the existence of what we colloquially call ‘physical’ or ‘material’ things: there are such things as what we refer to as scalpels, probes, psychoactive substances, head trauma, etc.; idealists are not in the business of denying the obvious. However, for the idealist these ‘physical’ things are internal cognitive appearances of what is, essentially, transpersonal mental processes out there in the world. In other words, the surgeon’s scalpel cutting through one’s brain is what a transpersonal mental process looks like on the screen of perception. That the scalpel has a clear effect on one’s conscious inner life is simply due to the fact that such transpersonal mental process impinges on the personal mental states whose appearance is one’s brain. And that one type of mental process can impinge on and influence another is empirically trivial: our thoughts influence our emotions—and vice-versa—all the time, even though thoughts and emotions are qualitatively very different from one another. The effect that a surgeon’s scalpel or a bottle of beer have on our conscious inner life is, in a general sense, akin to the effect of a thought on an emotion. The scalpel and the beer are what certain transpersonal mental processes look like, which—if forced into cognitive contact with our own personal mentation—influence our cognition.

Idealists do not deny what we colloquially call the ‘physical’ world. What they do deny is the theoretical interpretation of the nature of that world as something fundamentally distinct from mentation. Idealists do not deny that something very severe will happen to your conscious inner life if you throw yourself under a truck. But they maintain that the causative relation at play here is one of (transpersonal) mentation on (personal) mentation, not of a completely abstract, non-mental thing on our very concrete mental inner life. The idealist position is conceptually more parsimonious than both the dualist and the physicalist ones, in that the latter two postulate the existence of non-mental stuff, even though all we are ever directly acquainted with is mental stuff.

In summary, thoughtful idealists are—by and large—naturalists, reductionists, strictly scientific in their approach to accounting for what is going on. They adhere to the principle of Occam’s Razor more consistently than physicalists. As such, idealism is not solipsism or New Age spirituality. It is important that critics of idealism understand this, so their criticisms can form part of a productive debate, as opposed to being straightforwardly dismissible straw-men. Easier as it may be to simply assume that all those educated idealists are just incredibly stupid people, unable to discern even the most obvious contradictions of their position, doing so is naive and maybe even facetious. Understanding the rather carefully articulated idealist perspective can help one open new horizons for their understanding of nature, without sacrificing reason or evidence; much on the contrary.

The Copernican Revolution of the human mind

The Copernican Revolution of the human mind

Reading | Systems thinking

Johannes Jörg | 2021-10-31

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Conceptual reasoning might seem as central to our understanding of self and world today as the Earth once seemed central in the pre-Copernican cosmos. But just as the Copernican Revolution repositioned the Earth in the orbit of a much larger system, an on-going revolution in our understanding of ourselves will dramatically expand the boundaries of our inner cosmos, argues designer Johannes Jörg. This essay emphasizes the importance of introspection to self-understanding. And although Essentia Foundation focuses on objective avenues to knowledge—empirical evidence, logical reasoning—we welcome Jörg’s argument as a useful counterbalance to our own biases.

Introduction

From an earthly perspective the Sun apparently revolves around the Earth. The matter was obvious and the geocentric model was the prevailing doctrine in the Western world for many centuries. During the Renaissance, however, scientific methods facilitated a profound shift in perspective. The Copernican revolution removed the Earth from the center of divine creation and placed it in the orbit of a heliocentric system. The change in perspective of the Copernican revolution brought about groundbreaking shifts to the human conception of the cosmos and of humanness itself. The Copernican revolution outlines a fundamental cultural transformation away from religious paradigms and towards scientific paradigms.

For centuries it was an obvious and unquestioned fact that the Earth is the center of the universe. And in a sense, this still holds true: intuitively, our own standpoint clearly and undoubtedly is the center of our perception of the universe. There is no getting around this experiential fact and stage of conceptual development in cosmology. And jet, today, any worldview that emphasizes any specific place in the universe as its center is generally considered outdated. It took hundreds of years of conceptual and cultural evolution to overcome immediate appearances [1].

It seems to me that Western culture in the beginning of the 21st century is facing a corresponding cultural situation regarding the inner cosmos as it once did regarding the outer cosmos. Looking inside the human intellect, one is faced with a similar, stubborn bias of perspective as when looking towards the stars five centuries ago. The perspectival nature of human cognition accounts for inevitable, systemic preconceptions in the development of conceptual models. It´s only natural that the bias of immediate appearance once more is hard to see through. And at the same time, it’s a tragedy of history that a well-known historical error once more is preventing the advance of human insight.

 

Distortion by perspective

The paradigm shift initiated by the Copernican revolution replaced the idea of a cosmos of divine creation by something else altogether. Today’s cosmos is free from divinity, has no center at all and is almost infinitely larger than anything that’s even possible to imagine. Accordingly, the paradigm shift of the inner cosmos would not only change the conceptual understanding of ourselves, it might also remove conceptual understanding from the center of human self-assessment altogether, opening up towards something almost infinitely larger. Consciousness, mind, mental conditions, cognition, emotions, feelings, dreams, memories, intuition, empathy, moral sense, aesthetic sensitivity, pain, orgasms, spiritual experience and creativity do not revolve around thinking.

The ineluctable perspective of human self-reflection leads to the same ineluctably wrong intuitions about mind, consciousness and self as once did the earthly perspective on the universe. The intellectual self-conception of human existence intuitively starts with thinking, simply because thinking is the vantage point of self-reflecting. That is what makes conceptual understanding as convincing and central to unexamined, immediate judgement as once did the geocentric model. The persuasiveness of this bias has famously been nailed by Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” and has dominated Western self-conceptions ever since. In reference to the larger inner cosmos Descartes’ statement sounds like Claudius Ptolemy´s statements in reference to the outer cosmos we know today. Building on a systems understanding of the human being, the central role of thinking for human self-conception is simply a hard-wired systemic bias. Thinking is merely the vantagepoint for reflecting the inner cosmos, just like the Earth is the center for reflecting the outer universe. Basically, “I think, therefore I am” is nothing more than a self-referential tautology. Thinking is only central to itself from its own perspective. Nevertheless, the self-reference of thought is a groundbreaking and necessary step in the cultural development of human self-conception. For the understanding of what it means to be human, however, it’s an immensely limited perspective.

When we look at the night sky, we only have one selective, dynamic perspective on the solar system, the milky way and the cosmic web, which hardly tells anything about the structure of the outer cosmos. In fact, historically, at some point the cosmos was conceived as a solid dome with embedded celestial bodies. Likewise, the self-reflective perspective is just one selective, dynamic perspective within the human system, hardly telling anything about the structure of the inner cosmos. With regard to the latter, Western civilization still lives in a pre-Copernican cosmos. Today’s notion of consciousness is probably immature to the same extent as the notion of the cosmos was in pre-Copernican times.

The general public’s conception of emotions, for example, is hardly more than what is experienced from the perspective of conscious cognition. But the appearances, of course, are thoroughly shaped by the perspectival view. Brain and behavioral data provide ample evidence that emotions are ubiquitous bodily phenomena in the processing of sensory stimuli, and that conscious awareness of emotions is only the tip of an iceberg that is completely submerged most of the time [2]. A scientific consensus on a definition of emotions across disciplines is not even remotely conceivable [3]. To date, each field of research pursues its own angle on emotions. Science is far from developing and agreeing on a systemic meta-understanding of the human system and its embodied cognition, in which mutually interrelated thoughts and emotions only constitute highly interdependent, integral parts of the bigger human system.

Emotions, feelings, consciousness, mind, mental conditions, cognition, dreams, memories, intuition, empathy, moral sense, aesthetic sensitivity, spiritual experiences, creativity, conscious and unconscious thoughts are not what they appear to be from the perspective of conscious cognition. They are all part of a vast and highly complex inner cosmos whose structures, orbits and relations are yet to be mapped out systematically.

 

Methodical limitations of perspectives

Even though conscious thinking might seem as unique and central to a human being today as the Earth once seemed central in the pre-Copernican cosmos, conscious thinking is merely a perspective on the human system, with no central role whatsoever. Ultimately, not even thinking orbits thinking. A smug self-exaltation of reasoning is an indication of a think-o-centric inner cosmology corresponding, in accuracy, to a geocentric outer cosmology. Thinking is only central to its own perspective. And this perspective is exactly what characterizes the scientific method and the predominant approach to knowledge and insight in Western culture. Science is a third-person method, matching quantitative concepts of experience with mathematical concepts. The first-person perspective is methodically and deliberately excluded from the scientific perspective [4]. This is what gives science the power of modeling the outer cosmos, while limiting its ability to model the inner cosmos. Science has a fixed and predetermined perspective on the inner cosmos; namely, the perspective of conceptual thinking.

The turning point of the Copernican revolution was to go beyond the perspective of immediate eyesight in exploring the outer cosmos, and to arrive at new knowledge through conceptual modeling instead. Similarly, in order to significantly advance one’s apprehension of the inner cosmos, one must go beyond the perspective of conceptual thinking. Insisting on scientific reasoning as the only valid method for exploring the inner cosmos is akin to sticking to eyesight alone, so to speak. The models for an appropriate description, and the observational technics for an undistorted study, of the inner cosmos are yet to be developed. Either a meta-conception of conceptual thinking would be necessary—which would put in perspective the very perspective of conception, thus enabling a comprehensive understanding of the scope of conceptual thinking [5]—or one would have to take an inner ‘first-person spaceship’ to move beyond conceptual thinking and gain genuine insight on the inner cosmos.

 

Recalibrating the inner cosmos

Introspective first-person methods of inquiry are intended to provide such inner spaceships. They aim to impart immediate experiences of changes in perspective on the inner cosmos. The trouble is that, even when these methods succeed and the perspective shifts for a while, it is hard to make sense of the corresponding experiences for reasons that are now obvious: a shift in perspective on the inner cosmos consists precisely in a non-reflective mode of self-experience. As such, the perspective of reasoning necessarily fails the essence of the experience and cannot take hold of it.

If, in the 16th century, an astronomer would have been taken to outer space to gain perspective on solar systems, galaxies and the structure of the cosmic web, there would have been no way to understand such an experience conceptually. Most certainly, our Renaissance space traveler would have had to dismiss the experience as illusory and unreal, so to maintain a stable and functional mind, to stay sane and fit for survival in the 16th century.

Quite the same thing happens today with psychonauts experiencing shifts in perspective on the inner cosmos, whether induced by meditative practices, psychoactive substances or spontaneous realizations. Contemporary conceptions of the self and the world are not fit to make sense of, and incorporate, such experiences in a coherent way. Even if introspective experiences are not dismissed and , instead, granted reality and significance, the ordinary intellect tends to not acknowledge the limitations of its explanatory conceptual framework and does not persist with puzzled contemplation. In order to remain stable and functional in its social environment, the intellect is more inclined to adopt ad hoc explanations and questionable beliefs, thereby preserving its established and deeply ingrained conceptual framework. To do its job and maintain the organism safe and functional, the intellect refuses to sacrifice its structure and risk a destabilization without urgent necessity. After all, a shift of worldview is a tenacious, elaborate and tedious intellectual process on the level of the individual. Collectively, such a shift is a multilayered, progressive cultural process that pushes against habit, power structures and emotional responses.

The proponents of the heliocentric model in antiquity did not have the mathematical apparatus and observational tools necessary to provide rigorous arguments and evidence for their model, which therefore could not catch on. Likewise, introspective insights may be feasible today for many, but a rigorous meta-conception of the inner cosmos and the introspective venture is pending and, therefore, cannot fully catch on in Western culture. In a culture guided by science and conceptual understanding, theory and practice must progress concurrently. Conceptual models advance targeted observations and the other way round [6]. The refinement of knowledge unfolds as a strenuous cultural process of iterative approximation. Without a concordant conceptual framework to operate on, the conceptual Western mind cannot introspect successfully. Although mathematical models and physical theories, in and of themselves, cannot take you to outer space, they can provide a reliable foundation to engineer safe and successful space travel. Analogously, although a meta-conception of the inner cosmos surely wouldn’t be enough to provide introspective insight, it would dramatically enhance the orientation and focus of introspection. Fully understanding the limitations of the conceptual perspective is the best prerequisite for a careful and targeted exploration.

Western culture has surely moved beyond the sovereignty of reason, proclaimed in the Age of Enlightenment. Few would seriously deny the great relevance of intuition, creativity or empathy today. Moreover, sages and spiritual teachers of all times and cultures have pointed at something of profound significance to being human, which is to be found beyond conceptual understanding. However, Western culture has not yet delineated clearly what that is, why it is, and how it relates to conceptual understanding.

 

Future prospects

Human self-conception has evolved in cataclysmic steps over the last centuries, and it is far from a place of ease, general satisfaction and overall agreement. It once was a big leap for humans to think of the Earth and themselves as marginal features of the universe they are part of. And again, it is a large venture for conscious reasoning to think of itself as marginal to the consciousness it is part of. The intellect is invited to be humbled in the same way piety was humbled by Copernicus. The revolution of the inner cosmos will unfold as the intellect steps down from its self-centered perspective and realigns with the larger, self-organizing human system it is created by. When the intellect puts itself in perspective, it allows for a richer, three-dimensional experience of the inner realm, whose structure then becomes palpable.

What mathematical modeling is for the outer cosmos, systems theory is for the modeling of complex living organisms. 400 years ago, nobody could foresee the impact of Galileo Galilei’s ideas about the scientific method. Today, complex systems understanding and methods of introspection are probably as immature as the scientific method was prior to Galilei. And maybe the Buddha comes across today like Aristarchus of Samos did in his time, proposing a comprehensive heliocentric model as early as 300 BC. But once the relational structure between thoughts and emotions, consciousness and the unconscious, conceptual understanding and the human system as a whole have been properly modeled, the dawning paradigm shift will fully unfold. When second-person empiricism, third-person explanatory models and first-person introspection mesh seamlessly and converge in a meta-perspective, the tipping point is reached to accelerate paradigm shifting to an exponential momentum.

By then, first-person introspection will no longer be considered spiritual practice, but rather a systematically developed, rigorous methodology for targeted readjustments of the human system. As the systematic understanding of the outer cosmos ultimately allowed for space travel, so the systematic understanding of the inner cosmos will equally inspire civilization-level advances, allowing us to navigate the inner cosmos in unprecedented ways. But unlike the Copernican revolution, the understanding of the inner cosmos will not entail an off-center inner life; on the contrary: it will naturally assist an inner unraveling, realignment and homecoming. Once thinking stops pulling the celestial bodies of the inner cosmos into its orbit, the inner cosmos can naturally balance itself out. Just as defective self-conceptions upset the balance of the human mind and bring about unprecedented global turbulence, an adequate self-assessment of conceptual thinking will balance the human mind and dramatically increase confidence in the future.

When survival is at stake, human cognition will be highly motivated to adjust. The alignment of self-conceptions with the natural systems that sustain it may soon become the critical factor for Darwinian natural selection of human societies. Sooner or later, the commandment might be to adjust or go extinct. In the long run, that which is in service to the evolving human system is self-stabilizing and procreates, while that which is dysfunctional to the human system is self-extinguishing. Self-conceptions that fail to align with the natural systems that bring forth the self-conception in the first place, will silently go extinct. The truth will always prevail.

 

References

[1] The trials and tribulations of this painful cultural process are described in much detail and insight by Kuhn, T.S. (1985): The Copernican revolution: Planetary astronomy in the development of western thought. Harvard Univ. Pr, Cambridge, Mass.

[2] An in-depth overview on unconscious aspects of emotions is provided by Barrett, L.F.; Niedenthal, P.M.& Winkielman, P. (2005): Emotion and consciousness, [Nachdr.]. Guilford, New York.

[3] Mulligan, K. & Scherer, K.R. (2012): Toward a Working Definition of Emotion. Emotion Review. Folge4(4): 345–357. The authors have little hope that a transdisciplinary, common definition of emotion can ever be found, due to sacred traditions of the disciplines involved and the egos of the scholars working in these disciplines. They propose a partial working definition instead.

[4] Goff, P. (2019): Galileo’s error: Foundations for a new science of consciousness. Rider, London, Sydney, Auckland, Johannesburg. Goff elaborates that Galileo, the father of physical science never intended it to be a complete account of the world but rather took qualitative experience out of the domain of inquiry.

[5] Schooler, J. (2015): Bridging the Objective/Subjective Divide: Towards a Meta-Perspective of Science and Experience. In: Metzinger TK, Windt JM (eds) Open MINDed. MIND Group, Frankfurt am Main. The author suggests the notion of meta-perspective, that potentially offers a vantage by which seemingly opposing perspectives of first-person experience and third-person science can be reconciled as different vantages on some deeper structure.

[6] Kuhn, T.S. (1996): The structure of scientific revolutions, 3. ed. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill. shows that paradigm shifts not only change the interpretation of data but also change the observations that can be made.

The eternal background of consciousness: An interview with Prof. Vyacheslav Moiseev

The eternal background of consciousness: An interview with Prof. Vyacheslav Moiseev

Reading | Ontology | 2021-10-10

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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.

Sinking into life: the tragedy of our lost philosophy

Sinking into life: the tragedy of our lost philosophy

Reading | Editorial

The editors | 2021-09-26

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In an age when abstraction and conceptual games have come to dominate our philosophy, we must wonder whether we’ve lost something important, even crucial, in our way to relate to the world, one another and even ourselves.

If an adventurous but regular person peruses today’s most scholarly academic literature on foundational philosophical topics, such as metaphysics, they are bound to be taken aback but the utter failure of such literature to relate to life in even the most menial ways. Analytic metaphysics has, by and large, turned into an abstract game utterly disconnected from the vividness and pungency of life; a puzzle wherein each piece is an invented concept and there is no pre-determined picture that should emerge when they’re put together. Consequently, each player assembles the pieces in whatever way pleases their intuitions, prejudices or agendas best, and proclaims the emerging picture to be correct. Out of this curious gameplay, intricate, entirely abstract conceptual edifices emerge, cladded in inaccessible jargon; games so abstruse and jargon so inaccessible, in fact, that even the specialists responsible for judging their quality often have difficulty determining whether they contain important insights or are just linguistic smoke and mirrors. We know it, for we often find ourselves in just such a position.

Often enough, professional philosophers are fond of weaving endless strings of concepts and qualifiers as if the linguistic sophistication of such intellectual edifices could somehow compensate for their lack of real-life substance, meaning, proximity, vividness and significance. Neologisms are liberally sprinkled on top of such edifices, so to disguise their otherwise conspicuous lack of originality. Papers are then published and tenures achieved. But these are empty victories that change precisely nothing; they fail to shed any light on the mightily strange condition in which we all find ourselves merely by being alive. For abstract conceptual games are just that: abstract products of ethereal thought that fail to sink into life. And herein lies the problem: for it to be anything, philosophy must sink into life. Short of it, it’s just a game, as lightly experienced and ultimately meaningless as any game.

When philosophy is merely ‘done,’ as a factory worker does work, it becomes counterproductive, a distraction (as all games are), an illusion of progress that encumbers real progress. The signs that this is precisely what’s happening are omnipresent: every few years, philosophers come up with new ideas that unashamedly contradict their previous ones, publishing new papers and new books in the process, and ultimately holding no position with any serious conviction. “But how could they be criticized for their bravery in acknowledging that they had been wrong? How could we censure their courage to change their minds in the presence of new evidence or new ratiocinations?” you might ask.

The problem is the naiveté of the notion that such changes are steps forward in a road that ultimately leads to truth. If anything, abstract conceptual games are circular: they go round and round, only to return to the point of departure, for they deliberately ignore the natural cognitive faculties that give us a steady sense of direction. Philosophical positions are swapped like changes of clothes because they are held lightly; they lack the gravitas, the weight of ideas capable of sinking into life; ideas that resonate with the body, calibrate and modulate our lived experience at every moment of our lives, inform our feelings and guide our most important choices.

Analytic philosophy attempts to separate itself from our intrinsic subjectivity in the hope of rendering itself purely objective. This extraordinarily ingenuous and vain hope aside, the main effect of the attempt has been to disconnect philosophy from its very source: the felt complexity, nuance, vividness and pungency of lived experience, without which philosophy is literally dead. Consider Nietzsche’s words, from his The Joyful Wisdom (1882):

We philosophers … are no thinking frogs, no objectifying and registering devices with frozen innards—we must constantly give birth to our thoughts out of our pain and maternally endow them with all that we have of blood, heart, fire, pleasure, passion, agony, conscience, fate, and disaster. Life—to us, that means constantly transforming all that we are into light and flame, and also all that wounds us … Only great pain is the liberator of the spirit.

Professional philosophers in the 21st century are proud to be “thinking frogs,” for only then—they presume—can their output be objective and reliable. Ironically, it’s precisely this attitude that makes their output unreliable, for it disconnects them from the very cognitive faculties that could otherwise give them a steady sense of direction.

“But just what are these faculties?” we hear you ask. Are we calling for a reliance on vague intuitions, as opposed to rigorous logical reasoning and empirical evidence? Are we defending a return to the lack of conceptual clarity that plagued continental philosophy before the rise of the analytic school, in the early 20th century? Surely not. As the editors responsible for pursuing the stated goals of Essentia Foundation, we demand conceptual clarity, rigorous reasoning and empirical grounding from the work we publish and otherwise support. So what is missing?

The best way to state what we are calling for, while avoiding the trap of yet more abstract conceptual games, is to put it so: we are calling for analytic philosophy to be taken truly seriously by its own practitioners. Philosophical ideas should be put forward with the same earnestness and weight with which one makes a life-changing choice, or even a life-risking choice. “Would you stake your life, or that of a loved one, on the ideas you are putting forward?” That’s the question every analytic philosopher should ask themselves before publishing anything. Yes, this is a high demand indeed, but not at all unreasonable: doctors, airline pilots, traffic controllers and engineers, among many others, make these life-and-death choices every day. They don’t hold their positions lightly, even though they know there are inevitable risks involved. Their professions intrinsically carry the weight of the continuation—or not—of life. And so does philosophy, for as serious a matter as the continuation of life is life’s very meaning. It is the lived acknowledgment of the responsibility carried by philosophical work that invests it with the gravitas of life itself, and mobilizes all of the practitioner’s cognitive faculties. If one realizes this, it becomes unimportant to explicitly name those faculties; we all know them by direct acquaintance when our lives—or their meaning—are at stake.

True philosophy is the art and science of finding out how to live life meaningfully. What are we? What are we supposed to do and how to go about it? What is it all for? What is the foundation of our relationship with nature? These are the questions that give birth to philosophy as the most uniquely human activity, our distinctive contribution to the dance of nature. Professional philosophers who regard their work with any less earnestness do not deserve to be called ‘professionals’—or ‘philosophers,’ for that matter. They’re just players.

Essentia Foundation regards metaphysics with the greatest earnestness. For us, metaphysics is the blood of human life. We seek to be a supportive channel for work that sinks into the lives of our readers, enriching them in the process. This is our key value and our raison d’être. We are not here to play games.

The ethics of idealism

The ethics of idealism

Reading | Ethics

Asher Walden, PhD | 2021-09-19

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Research suggests that there is a neurological foundation to the experience of social connectivity, and that it is the same as the foundation of consciousness itself: synchronistic alignment appears not only within an individual brain in correlation with experience, but also between people taking part in joint tasks. This can form the basis for an objective ethics, argues Dr. Walden.

We are in the midst—arguably and hopefully—of two simultaneous paradigm shifts. The first is the result of an economic and demographic transition from a world of scarcity to one of plenty. I know that most people are accustomed to interpreting current affairs in terms of the climate crisis, continuing political instability and various other causes for despair. But there are a number of prominent voices asking us to lift our noses out of the daily news and attend to the big picture of human history. Consider: the incredible and persistent drop in violence of all kinds, world-wide, in the last several hundred years; the dramatic rise in literacy and even higher education, for boys and girls; the development of vaccines to all but eliminate early childhood mortality; and most importantly, the gradual fall in average fertility, such that the world population is projected to plateau, and then begin to fall, within another generation. I imagine that instead of building walls to keep immigrants out, rich nations will be paying foreigners to immigrate, just as a matter of economic necessity. Nationalism as we have come to know it will simply make no sense. What will be the prevailing moral and political ways of thinking in this new world?

The second paradigm shift is the movement within the natural sciences towards an Idealist metaphysical picture. I won’t rehearse the arguments or the evidence for that view here. I only want to raise this question: Assuming that we accept the truth of the mind-only doctrine, what are the specifically ethical implications? Many proponents of non-dual and Idealist philosophy—especially those who have come to the view through some kind of personal transformative experience—feel that it has profound normative impacts.1 There is a renewed and intense call for love, unity and community. But can we derive an ought from an is? Is there a necessary rational connection between metaphysical unity and social unity? If so, then the new metaphysics can truly serve as a bridge between the empirical sciences and the humanities.2 A universalist and humanistic spirituality may be possible.

Now, the philosophical tradition encompasses a number of competing theories about what morality is. Given that we all agree that things like murder and theft are unethical, why is it that we characterize them so? Is there some objective fact or quality about these actions that makes them bad? If the focus is on personality factors rather than behaviors, what is the ultimate difference between virtue and vice? Is it just a matter of what traits we—or other members of our culture—like or don’t like in others and ourselves? Or what benefits us pragmatically, or what benefits the species in an evolutionary context? And so on. Well, it turns out that analytic idealism suggests its own free-standing moral theory, one that stands alongside the traditional ones such as utilitarianism and Kantian deontology. In this essay, I would like to lay out in broad strokes what I believe that moral theory might look like.

The place to start is with reviewing what this new perspective says about what it is to be a self, what it means in relation to the social and natural worlds. The conventional view is that the self is an entity that has some kind of independent and robust existence, and consciousness is something that that self ‘has’ or does. The self is logically and ontologically prior, while consciousness is epiphenomenal. The emerging view essentially reverses that relation, with widespread consequences. It says that consciousness is the basic character or substance of the universe, while our awareness of ourselves as discrete selves is an heuristic projection of one specific cognitive apparatus, perhaps the default mode network. This is the cerebral network that seems to shut down in the midst of deep meditation and mystical experience, allowing a direct perception of broader dimensions of being consciousness, especially the depth dimension of love, insight and ultimate unity.

Whether they realize it or not, humans participate in a consciousness that is greater than their own private, internal subjectivity. The ultimate substance of that subjectivity is in fact the world itself, and to the extent that we isolate ourselves from that greater world, we feel alienated, constrained, powerless and hopeless. Truly, the mystery is why we work so hard to maintain that illusion of isolation. The religious traditions have their distinctive ways of talking about that mistake: ignorance, the Veil of Maya, sin. What is clear is that it is both pervasive and strangely attractive. There are reasons why we cling to our error. But there are also good reasons why we seek to know the truth. Principally, the effort to rejoin or realign our own awareness with ‘that which is greater than ourselves’ is widely recognized as the main source of joy and fulfilment in our lives. This pleasure is the experiential side of what, from a practical side, is called morality. The concept of morality is best understood as the set of rules, behaviors and social practices which, individually and in tandem, serve to orient humans toward, and reunite us with, this greater consciousness.

This greater consciousness is not just a metaphysical or regulative ideal: it can be measured. In the growing area of social cognitive neuroscience, cooperative consciousness can be characterized by shared patterns of neural activity.3 Researchers have identified a number of ways of quantifying neural synchronization, which appears to be strongly correlated with phenomenal consciousness. Rather than identifying consciousness with any one neural circuit or part of the brain, it appears to be a function of the synchronic coordination of different parts, such that different kinds of information can be synthesized into a meaningful whole in real time. What makes this really interesting, is that phase alignment appears not only within an individual brain, but between people taking part in joint tasks. That is, when people are asked to perform an activity together, their neural oscillations align. This does not happen when they are merely performing the same task, or similar tasks in the same environment, or competing. Moreover, the higher the degree of cooperation required for the task, the higher the degree of synchronization. And the higher the degree of synchronization, the more the participants experience a felt-sense of connection, sympathy and being ‘in-tune’ with one another.

There is a whole series of pleasurable experiences and activities that share this characteristic as the central feature of what makes them enjoyable: music, dance and marching come to mind immediately, as well as group calisthenics or martial arts training. But any task in which people have to work together, in person and in real time, has this quality as well. The research suggests that there is a neurological foundation to this experience of social connectivity, and that it is the same as the foundation of consciousness itself. If the consciousness of an individual is measurable as the synchronization of different parts of the brain, then whose consciousness are we measuring, when we measure the synchronized oscillations between different brains?

This is all intriguing enough, just in conventional neuroscientific terms. Indeed, now is the time to recall that the technique to measure brainwaves (EEG) was pioneered by someone who was seeking to understand the phenomenon of ‘telepathy.’ Hans Berger believed that the brain sent out and received consciousness via electromagnetic frequencies, just like a radio or telegraph, and later discovered Alpha waves with his new technique. In a funny way, the simplest way to read this data is still quite materialist and reductionist. Only instead of reducing consciousness to brain activity, i.e., meat, we are now reducing consciousness to electromagnetic activity, i.e., light. Brains not only generate such oscillations, they also appear, at the very least, to be affected by the oscillations from other brains, if not the environment more generally. (The next logical step is to ask whether brains are really primarily receivers, capturing and channeling specific frequencies of consciousness-at-large in the universe.) Cooperative consciousness, then, is quantifiable, at least in principle. So what would it look like to treat consciousness itself as the intrinsic good around which morality revolves?

From a practical perspective, the essence of morality is cooperation. No one will disagree, I assume, that cooperation is a pervasive and significant part of human life. The extent to which we trust one another, even strangers, to handle our money and prepare our food, and not drive on the wrong side of the road, is quite astounding. The classical idea of the social contract is meant to explain the overall prospect of this cooperative living, both the costs and the benefits. It is meant to explain why we want to follow certain laws and norms or, at least, why we should do so, even when we would prefer not to. Generally, we are meant to imagine what it would be like if there were no such contract, and what it would be like to live as isolated individuals, truly self-reliant and independent. Then, we imagine what is necessary, what we are required to give up, in order to be able to live in some sort of society. And when the principles of the preconditions for cooperative living are made clear, what does it take to put those principles into action?

Not surprisingly, the principles are basically the rules and practices that we are already familiar with, and refer to, as morality or ethics. Precepts against killing, stealing, breaking contracts or bearing false witness, and so on, create an environment in which people are able to trust one another, or at least not fear one another, enough to get along with the business of a civilized existence. This involves the division of labor and trade, as well as, ultimately, the arts, education and democracy. Modern neuroscience has ways of measuring these benefits as well, by the way. In their work on Dignity Neuroscience, researchers at Brown University4 have argued that what humans need for their individual and collective well-being, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can be grouped into five classes: (1) agency, autonomy and self-determination; (2) freedom from want; (3) freedom from fear; (4) uniqueness; and (5) unconditionality, including protections for vulnerable populations. Each of these sets of needs shows up in distinct neural circuitry as both a characteristic of normal human function and a site of specific deficits or pathology in the cases where people are exposed to privation, abuse, discrimination, violent conflict, and so on.

Now, in the philosophical tradition, the social contract often has a conservative edge to it. There is a sense that the laws as they are are the correct ones, and that any change to the moral status quo could cause degeneration into chaos. It is also quite minimalistic. It does not really result in robust social cooperation, at least by itself. Its goal, apparently, is to create a situation in which such cooperation is possible, but its benefits seem to be practical. The social contract makes it easier to live longer, but does not really explain what it would mean to live better. In its traditional forms, it doesn’t explain, say, what the meaning of life is. The new view of consciousness provides a way to answer the metaethical question about why cooperation is not only an instrumental good, but the intrinsic good. And it has to do with reinterpreting the relation between the individual and the community.

What the findings in social cognitive neuroscience suggest is that there is no intrinsic difference between the way consciousness arises and appears within a single person, and among a group of people. And if consciousness itself is intrinsically good, as affirmed in the mystical tradition, then more consciousness (or bigger consciousness) is better. But from a practical perspective, consciousness can grow and develop in (at least) two different ways: at the level of the individual and at the interpersonal level. The personal development of consciousness is perhaps most familiar to people within the holistic/integral/spiritual-but-not-religious community. Psycho-spiritual practices such as mindfulness, nature-walks, the arts and music, and so on, all serve to integrate and expand one’s consciousness as we normally understand it. The integration of the self (in a broadly Jungian way) is a rare and difficult achievement, especially for those suffering from, e.g., trauma or depression. (Perhaps we never fully ‘achieve’ it, but continually move closer to it.) As well as being an intrinsic good on its own, this intra-personal integration of consciousness is a necessary precondition for social and cooperative consciousness, just like the social and economic preconditions for cooperation described by the social contract.

Finally, cooperative consciousness also requires one last practical piece: a common cause or task. The way in which people coordinate their consciousness is primarily through participating in a well-defined activity or purpose: think of playing music in a group or orchestra, or a church group building houses at Habitat for Humanity. On the largest scale, if humanity as a whole to is to share in a greater consciousness, it can only be by pursuing a goal or ideal that all humans can take up. Josiah Royce5 referred to this as “loyalty to the cause of loyalty itself.” John Dewey6 described this as a regulative ideal in his discussion of a Common Faith, a public commitment to the public good. In the present context, we can say that the minimal social contract justifies the laws and practices that are already in place, but that we have an additional obligation to see that the benefits of the society so formed are expanded to all people, including the poor, prisoners, the ill, the handicapped, refugees, and so on. In other words, our commitment to universal human rights and universal human dignity must be realized through the formation of a truly universal community, in which all people have both the spiritual and the economic opportunity to take part in ever-larger circles of shared consciousness.

We have already begun to develop the tools to establish which kinds of activities, and in what circumstances, give rise to the greatest degree of integral and shared consciousness. To summarize, we have a series of successive dimensions of human development that form an overall trajectory toward greater, more inclusive, more comprehensive consciousness within the human sphere, each of which has empirical neurological expressions: (1) the social and economic conditions that preserve and support human physical and emotional well-being can be specified through Dignity Neuroscience; (2) ongoing spiritual formation and integration are investigated through research into the neuroscience of prayer, meditation and increasingly-mainstream psychedelic therapies;7 (3) local, interpersonal avenues of cooperative activity are being explored in social cognitive neuroscience; (4) a normative culture of building the universal community though actively pursuing human welfare is defined and comprised by the other three areas. This interpretative, even theological, work is being actively pursued by philosophers, theologians, empirical researchers and practitioners from various fields (including the contributors to this website).

The insights of the new Idealism, in tandem with the rapidly expanding pool of data from the neurosciences, provides the basis for an ethical paradigm that is breath-takingly new, and yet also quite ancient. This model of ethics is not just a theory: it’s a research program, arguably the most important one of our lifetimes.

 

References

  1. See, e.g., James, William, (1982). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penguin Classics.
  2. Kripal, Jeffrey J. (2019). The Flip: Epiphanies of mind and the future of knowledge. New York: Bellevue. doi: 10.1093/nc/niaa010.
  3. Valencia, Ana Lucia and Tom Froese. (2020). “What binds us? Inter-brain neural synchronization and its implications for theories of human consciousness” in Neuroscience of Consciousness, 6( 1).
  4. White, Tara L. and Meghan A. Gonsalves. “Dignity Neuroscience: universal rights are rooted in human brain science” in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2021, 1. doi: 10.1111/nyas.14670.
  5. Royce, Josiah, John K. Roth ed. (1982) The Philosophy of Josiah Royce. Indianapolis: Hackett.
  6. Dewey, John. A Common Faith. (1966) New Haven: Yale University Press.
  7. Pollan, Michael. (2019) How to Change your Mind: What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence. New York: Penguin: 2019

The hierarchical structure of the universal mind

The hierarchical structure of the universal mind

Reading | Cosmology

Antonio Rial, MD, PhD | 2021-09-05

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Spanish science journalist and doctor Antonio Rial delights us with the perspectives acquired after decades studying and communicating science. He regards reality as the image of a hierarchical structure of mental processes, an evolving ecosystem of minds.

The vision of reality posited by Bernardo Kastrup is based on an analogy with multiple personality disorder, or dissociative identity disorder, which offers powerful scientific evidence that several nuclei of consciousness can coexist in one mind. His suggestive philosophical proposal allows us to plausibly imagine a universe formed exclusively by a consciousness that, for reasons unknown to us, dissociates into an infinity of seemingly independent nuclei.

Accepting this idea opens up the possibility to explain the mental structure of the universe by employing the analogy in reverse. We can hypothesize that reality is constituted of dissociated nuclei of consciousness—which we might call ‘nuclei of esthesia’—organized in a network. The term ‘esthesia,’ of Greek origin, means ‘sensitivity’ and refers to the subjectivity necessarily associated with any conscious phenomenon. According to this hypothesis, each nucleus of esthesia experientially perceives its own environment. Each human being is one such nucleus, but I dare to go further: a cell, an organ, tissues, insects and anteaters are also nuclei of esthesia.

A network is the most efficient organization for managing the growth and evolution of a system. This is how our brain works. And networks can be represented by graphs, which are mathematical objects formed by a set of nodes (vertices) that are connected by junctions (edges). We can model complex self-organized systems, conditioned by evolution, as graphs: brain activity, metabolic mechanisms and even the relationships between the components of entire ecosystems. We also find graphs in human creations such as the Internet, social networks, passenger and freight traffic. The interesting thing about a graph is that the interaction between its nodes determines emergent behavior. From this point of view, ‘reality’ would be but a gigantic graph-system of dissociated mental nodes that evolves to preserve itself.

Francesco Vazza, an astrophysicist, and Alberto Feletti, a neurosurgeon, published in 2020 an article in the journal Frontiers in Physics in which they put forward evidence that the brain and the universe are—at different scales—similar entities. The brain and the universe are constituted by nodes interconnected through filaments that self-organize according to similar principles of network dynamics. This way, it is not only what we call ‘life’ that adapts to survive; all of reality is subject to evolution. Evolution is the law that conditions the patterns of activity of networks of consciousness. The ultimate goal of every such network is adaptation for survival and, to this end, they cooperate. What we perceive as reality is an image of this process.

As in any graph system, the networks of esthesia have different hierarchical levels. Large waves of consciousness take precedence over local dynamics and condition the whole. Naturally, our tiny species and all the others that populate our modest planet are nothing more than residual, infinitesimal, fragmented and peripheral echoes of the larger-scale networks of consciousness. Nature tends to protect and isolate the systems that generate the most relevant information. Our brain, for example, is protected by a hard skull that safeguards its complicated organic machinery. This code of nature also operates in our behavior as a species. In ancient times, civilizations protected themselves from their enemies by erecting stone walls.

Following this logic, we are part of a fragmented, interconnected and highly hierarchical mental macro-system that evolves and adapts to survive. Each human being is a small node of one of the vast networks of mentation that make up reality. Our brain is the organ that interprets and filters the fraction of reality to which we have access, a subsystem of three spatial dimensions plus time. Our perception is limited, incapable of capturing the whole of reality. The brain, like everything we perceive, is a representation of mental activity. The substrate of reality is mental activity itself, not the matter that represents it.

The brain is not evolutionarily designed to know reality, but for the survival of the mental ecosystem of which we are a part. Our species perceives a concrete image of each mental nucleus—such as a plant, a frog, a virus or a protein—but these images are mere representations that help us to interact within our survival program. Except in certain circumstances—drug use, meditation, near-death experiences—our brain cannot access the networks of consciousness that we do not need in order to survive. What Homo sapiens perceives as inanimate stars and galaxies are the images of mental processes that are established at higher hierarchical levels. We do not appreciate them as living systems because our species does not need to interpret them that way to survive. Similarly, if we point a finger at Niagara Falls, the cells in our finger will not capture the wonder that we do perceive as humans. What we interpret as ‘dermal cells’ only experience what they need for their survival and that of their hierarchical order.

As Homo sapiens develops instruments of observation, we can appreciate more systems of evolution. With the senses naturally available to us, our species is not able to appreciate, for instance, the evolution and adaptation of our genes. But the development of instruments has allowed science to broaden the spectrum of observation and discover new rules and laws that, in the smallest and the largest, indicate unequivocally that everything is made up of evolutionary nodes and ecosystems related to, and dependent upon, each other. We can imagine that when instruments are developed that allow us to access the quantum universe—the next level of information—we are likely to appreciate more clearly that evolution also affects what we now define as ‘non-living.’ Planets, stars and galaxies will be revealed as evolving systems and as parts of yet other systems on larger scales, which—with this new instrumentation—we will observe as ‘living.’

One of the characteristics of human beings is that we are endowed with meta-consciousness, the ability to reflect. As far as we know, lower systems and nuclei of consciousness—which our brain interprets as organs, tissues, cells, DNA strands, ribosomes or mitocondria—do not need the capacity for reflection to plan their responses. Meta-conscious human intervention thus disrupts the natural ebb and flow of lower-level mental ecosystems. This is the reason why a car, a computer, a bottle, a shoe or a building seem to lack the telltale characteristics of conscious dynamics. The plastic tree we decorate at Christmas is not part of the natural ecosystem of a forest even if we plant it in a forest. The objects that Homo sapiens manufactures lose their ability to behave as nodes of esthesia. However, nature does allow us to interfere with and modify natural conscious systems. We can hack neural networks and alter the mental processes in their various hierarchies, but we cannot create an artificial mental system. We can modify the genetic information of a cell, but we cannot create an artificial cell.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that it is unlikely that human mental patterns are alien and isolated from the system in which all of nature operates. From this point of view, we can infer—at least partially—the intrinsic dynamics of reality as a whole by observing the evolution of economic, social and cultural systems, or even by analyzing the design of the data, logistics and communications networks that human beings develop. Following this logic, death does not exist in a mental system. Homo sapiens already knows that the software of a computer does not disappear when we buy a new computer. Although the Atari brand no longer manufactures its video-game consoles of the 1970s, today any child can again play the iconic video-game ‘Pong,’ very popular at that time. Software does not die, it simply moves to other networks to continue to function.

In our species, the continuous transformation of the nuclei of consciousness that we understand as ‘life’ presents itself in the form of cellular mitosis. It follows that the transition to the hierarchy of consciousness that we call ‘death’ should also be empirically detected as some kind of cellular or genetic modification. The question is: are there genes that are activated in the brain just before death and even postmortem? The short answer is yes. At the University of Illinois, Fabien Dachet and his collaborators have proven that genes linked to neuronal activity are rapidly degraded after death, but up to 12 hours after death the expression of 474 other genes linked to microglia and astroglia—other types of brain cells that are responsible, among other things, for repairing brain tissue damage—increases. Dachet explains that it is not surprising that these cells enlarge after death, but we can speculate that this process also constitutes the image of some mechanism of transformation from one hierarchy of consciousness to another.

Most of nature, on the scale we appreciate, does not need to evolve as a meta-conscious system. Our species has developed meta-consciousness as a product of particular evolutionary pressures and language. As a system, we needed to develop communication among ourselves to cooperate with strangers and survive in groups. The development of language allowed us to implement defense and attack strategies concerning other species in general and other hominids in particular. But meta-consciousness is a failure of the communication system insofar as it slows down the adaptive response. The immune system does not need meta-consciousness to defend our organism. Ants and bees do not need meta-consciousness to communicate and survive. Even our neurons do not employ meta-consciousness to coordinate a response in milliseconds. Peculiarly in our species, automatic responses do not predominate. Nonetheless, we can speculate that other hierarchies of mental systems may have developed meta-consciousness due to their own evolutionary pressures.

The universal mental system as a whole—that which we have historically called ‘God’—will only deal with us as a species insofar as we are a hindrance to the evolution of the mental ecosystems of which we are a part. To use an analogy: our immune system is in charge of destroying bacteria and viruses to maintain the ecosystem of our organism. Each of us is a ‘god’ concerning our liver or our heart, insofar as we can act on these organs to destroy or heal them, intervening in the evolution of their respective ecosystems. We are also ‘gods’ to the other species on our planet. We can destroy them or allow them to survive. And the latter is what interests us so that our ecosystem does not unravel. Respect for nature is part of our intelligent adaptation to avoid extinction.

Most religions defend two postulates that are compatible with understanding nature as interlinked mental ecosystems:

  1. The universe we appreciate through our senses is part of other hierarchically superior mental systems to which—except through faith—we cannot have direct access until we die.
  2. We must act with love to avoid breaking the stability of the mental ecosystem of which we are a part.

There is likely an infinity of ‘gods,’ of larger-than-human consciousness systems that we do not appreciate at the moment. Perhaps the development of quantum instruments will reveal these other ‘lives.’ But if there is a God or there are gods, none of them will care about Homo sapiens unless we disrupt and endanger their homeostasis. Similarly, we only care about the cells of our kidney or our intestine if these organs become diseased and disrupt the homeostasis of our organism. The God of the 21st century is a vast network of consciousness that neither plays dice nor gets bored thinking about us.

 

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Chalmers, David. (1996) The Conscious Mind: Towards a Fundamental Theory. Oxford University Press.

Clegg, Brian. (2019). Dark Matter And Dark Energy: The Hidden 95% of the Universe, Hotscience.

Dachet, F., Brown, J.B., Valyi-Nagy, T. et al. Selective time-dependent changes in activity and cell-specific gene expression in human postmortem brain. Sci Rep 11, 6078 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-85801-6

Djuric, P., Cedric, R. (2018). Cooperative and Graph Signal Processing. Academic Press.

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Howell, E. (2008). The Dissociative Mind in Psychoanalysis : Understanding and Working With Trauma, Routledge.

Kastrup, Bernardo. (2014). Why Materialism Is Baloney. Iff Books.

Kastrup, Bernardo. (2019). The Idea of the World: A multi–disciplinary argument for the mental nature of reality. Iff Books.

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Inducing the mental creation of experiential realities

Inducing the mental creation of experiential realities

Reading | Psychology | 2021-08-29

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Can people—even those ostensibly not hypnotizable—be coaxed into creating entire virtual realities that they then take for facts? Can the same techniques be used to alter our memories of the past? If so, is this significant for our understanding of what reality—the real reality—actually is? Psychologists Prof. Petrenko and Dr. Kucherenko share astonishing results produced by Russian clinical and experimental psychology, which answer these questions in the affirmative.

(Editors’ note: the authors use the word ‘unconscious’ in the Jungian sense: that of psychic realm that lacks higher-order mental functions, such as meta-cognition, but which may nonetheless still be experiential in essence.)

In our studies of altered states of cognition and the unconscious, hypnosis techniques were used to study the effect of emotions on categorization processes [5], the relationship between emotional states and color preferences [6], the ‘semantic blind spot’ phenomenon—that is, the neglect of entire semantic areas during conscious processing due to a hypnotic prohibition of seeing a certain object [7]—and meditation [8], in the laboratory of communicative psychology and psycho-semantics of the Faculty of Psychology, Moscow State University. Moreover, the dynamics of the patient’s personality transformation was studied during the treatment of patients for alcoholism [9]. Many years of research work resulted in the development of a range of suggestive psychological techniques (suggestion methods) that enable various types of work with the unconscious.

Our sensorimotor psychosynthesis technique is a method for immersing a person into a trance state and constructing images that define the patient’s emotional state while in trance and direct the patient’s imagination and behavior. The method includes elements of shamanic and meditative practices, M. Erikson’s non-directive hypnosis [10], neurolinguistic programming [11], and implies the formation of an integral intermodal image of a situation into which the patient is immersed with assistance from a suggester (a therapist, a researcher, or a coach).

The subject continually reports on the focus of their attention, as well as their visual, auditory and other sensory experiences, to the suggester. The subject’s replies to the suggester’s questions provide an opportunity to regulate the visual, auditory and kinesthetic components of the images formed by the suggestion, and the use of synesthesia enables the construction of multimodal images. The active dialogue between the suggester and the patient is the key feature of the sensorimotor psychosynthesis method that distinguishes this method from directive hypnosis, self-hypnosis and other monologue techniques. Each patient in an altered state of consciousness constructs their own reality, which corresponds to their desires and motives, and they exist in it. Therefore, the dialog with the patient is necessary for understanding their state, whereas classical hypnosis usually involves a monologue of suggestion by the therapist. The suggester uses the feedback provided by a dialog to direct the patient’s imagination according to the actual research or therapeutic task. The patient can be immersed into an imaginary situation, such as a spaceflight, or recall events from the past, including early childhood, and even experience an unreal transformation into a powerful animal.

Immersion in a state of trance is of key importance, as the directed imaginative activity is performed during this state and both the patient and the therapist are in a trance. The trance state of the suggester can be defined as controlled trance that induces trance in the patient. The empathic processes of emotional contagion described by H. Bergson [12]—that is, the direct sensing of a living creature’s emotions by another living creature—takes place. These processes define the conceptual core of the sensorimotor psychosynthesis method. The suggester senses the patient’s psycho-emotional state and cooperates with the patient to construct predefined emotions in the latter.

Animals and humans are capable of identifying the state of other creatures from purely external manifestations and even sensing it directly, by identifying with the carriers of these states. S.S. Stepanov, an historian of psychology, describes an illustrative example observed by F. Galton, the founder of psychometry:

Sir Francis performed an original experiment once. Before his daily walk in the streets of London, he made himself believe that he was an abhorrent person hated by everyone in England. He focused on this statement for several minutes, this being equivalent to self-hypnosis, and went for a walk as usual. However, the situation only seemed typical. In fact, the following happened. Francis noticed that scornful and disgusted glances of passers-by followed his every step. Many turned away from him, and he was rudely cursed several times. A lumper in the port pushed the scientist with an elbow when passing by, so that Galton fell into a pool of mud. Even animals seemed to assume a hostile attitude. Galton was passing by a horse in harness, and the horse kicked him in the leg, so that the scientist fell down again. Galton tried to appeal to the onlookers’ sympathy but was amazed to hear the people take the animal’s side. Galton hurried home, lest his experiment with imagination lead to even worse consequences. This true story is described in many psychology textbooks, and it leads to two important conclusions. A human is defined by what he or she thinks of him or herself. It is not necessary to inform others of one’s self-esteem and state of mind. They will feel it anyway [15, p. 15].

Every human who ever interacted with animals has experienced the phenomenon described by Galton. Try to extend your hand to pat a dog at a moment when you fear being bitten: the dog will apparently feel your state and growl at you. Humans largely lose their innate capacity for empathic projection (even though it is still manifested in childhood), apparently due to individualization, and let their consciousness guide them when they try to understand others. However, some adults still possess this capacity, which enables them, for instance, to give a diagnosis instantaneously and recommend a certain treatment. Some possess this capacity from birth, whereas others acquire it after a near-death experience, the so-called shaman sickness, or some other strong physical impact (such as being struck by lightning).

We organized several ethno-psychological expeditions to Buryatia, Tuva and Chukotka, interviewed the local shamans and acquired valuable experience, which allows us to make the following statement: a human’s empathy barriers are shifted during the time of the shaman sickness essential for getting shaman status. A normal person apparently possesses some protective thresholds (similar to sensation thresholds in psychophysiology); otherwise, this person would constantly feel the suffering and emotions of many other people and even animals, and this would be a too-heavy load detrimental to evolutionary adaptation (several powerful shamans known to the authors died relatively young, this being indicative of the heavy load on an empath). These thresholds can probably be lowered after exposure to extreme psychophysiological conditions, and thus people become more sensitive to the emotions of others.

The term ‘trance,’ derived from the Latin verb ‘transire’ (to overstep boundaries), describes a number of diverse altered states of consciousness (ASCs), related to shifting the attention focus from perception and recognition of the external world to the subject’s own internal state. An appropriate typology of the diverse trance states has not yet been developed in psychological research. Trance states include immersion into fantasies; ASC associated with hypnotic suggestion; the creative ecstasy of a painter, poet, musician, or scientist; religious ecstasy perceived as a union with the divine; and the pathological states of consciousness caused by fever, poisoning or alcohol and drug use. Notwithstanding the diversity of trance states, they can apparently be classified with regard to at least two sets of features. The first one is the degree of dis-objectification of the image of the world, the removal of intentionality manifested as the transition from objective forms to internal psychological states. This is characterized by the absence of subject–object contraposition. The second one is the person’s capacity to transcend the boundaries of the individual ego and rise to transcendent levels of perception, the levels of divine or cosmic consciousness. This state is sometimes termed divine inspiration or ‘being in the flow.’ The dis-objectification of existence is called the ‘non-duality’ feeling or unity with the world in Buddhist literature. A range of major characteristics of ASCs can be identified and used to consider these states as an integral phenomenon [16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22].

Our sensorimotor synthesis technique aims for the integration of the activity of the sensory systems according to the structure and logic of the situation being modeled. For instance, the formation of an image of an illustrated magazine in the subject’s mind can be started from tactile sensations: the touch of the glossy paper, the weight of the magazine, the cool pages. The perceptive system that fills the image with components of the visual modality is activated afterwards. The smell of the printing ink and the sound from the shuffling of pages can be included in the image.

The sensorimotor psychosynthesis process does not require a ‘hypnotic inhibition of the brain’ and is not accompanied by a hypnotic sleep state. Therefore, the subject is in a more active state than a subject of classical hypnosis. In contrast to hypnosis, which exploits the hypnotizability of the individual, the sensorimotor psychosynthesis technique does not require this property. Effects similar to those of deep hypnosis can be attained even in poorly hypnotizable individuals. The method can be used in psychological practice and experimental work, in psycho-correction and in psychotherapy; it enables experimental modeling of human behavior in various real-life situations and the formation of susceptibility to hypnosis in poorly hypnotizable persons.

Use of the sensorimotor psychosynthesis technique in medical psychology enables the elimination of obsessions or unhealthy habits, including alcoholism and drug addiction, mobilization of the organism’s reserves during training for sports competitions, or improvement of the patient’s emotional state and immune system activation

V.V. Kucherenko, one of the authors of the present paper, works with patients suffering from a variety of diseases. He works in cooperation with physicians to create a favorable emotional state of the patient, so that the organism’s resistance to the disease increases.

Sports is another area of practical application for the sensorimotor psychosynthesis method. Kucherenko used to participate in coaching work for the Russian bobsledding team. The team members imagined moving through the track while in a trance state, and then reproduced this state during international competitions. This allowed for mobilization without the need for any doping, prevented mistakes during the competitions, and ensured good results.

Use of memories in crime investigations is another area in which the sensorimotor psychosynthesis can be used. The super-memory phenomenon associated with hypnosis has been reported in a number of publications. Memory activation in a potential witness of a crime allows for retrieval of information on specific details of past events. For instance, one of the investigations had the aim of identifying the license plate number and distinctive features of the criminals’ car. The detectives found a truck driver who could have seen that particular car on the road on the day when the crime was committed. Kucherenko gradually put this potential witness into deepening trance and asked him to remember everything related to his driving on that day. It was hard to see the license plate of the car in the twilight, and the driver was asked to ‘relive’ this moment several times, so that he would notice new details and see familiar details more distinctly every time. The license plate was seen at an optimal angle as the car was passing by, so the subject was asked to ‘take a still image’ and then ‘shuffle’ images slowly, a little forward and a little backward, and finally ‘hold’ the ‘photograph’ obtained in front of himself to see the license plate clearly. This information was successfully used to find the car and arrest the criminals.

V.V. Nurkova and D.A. Vasilenko studied the possibility of transforming the images of the past and demonstrated the efficiency of the sensorimotor psychosynthesis method for the correction of autobiographic memory [29]. The psychotherapy techniques developed by Kucherenko were used to immerse the patients into a trance and transform the past [30, 31]. This use of the sensorimotor psychosynthesis method provides a powerful means for manipulating a personality and for the transformation of memories. The practice of rewriting history may hardly stop at the level of an individual. Dystopias such as the all-searching eye of the Orwellian Big Brother will then seem as innocent as child’s play.

Nowadays, the development of psychological techniques is transforming psychology from a descriptive and explanatory science to one that is actively modifying its own objects; a science at the cutting edge of human evolution; a science that can secure the humanization of humankind or undermine our very existence. In addition to Kucherenko’s sensorimotor psychosynthesis method, the human personality can be substantially modified by Eriksonian hypnosis, various techniques of working with autobiographic memory and the collective unconscious, transpersonal psychology approaches that involve immersion into ASCs (S. Grof, A. Mindell, R. Frager, C. Wilbur, and others), and coaching sessions similar to those proposed by C. Rogers [34] and A.F. Alekseichik [35]. The minimization of risks is essential, and we assume that it can be ensured by the implementation of the techno-humanitarian balance principle proposed by A.P. Nazaretyan [36]: the development of technologies should be necessarily controlled or restricted (in the absence of a more suitable term) by newly emerging ethical and moral norms. In this case, one can hope that the sensorimotor psychosynthesis method will remain another powerful tool for positive modification of the human psyche.

 

*The complete version of this essay was published in the Herald of The Russian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 89, No. 1, 2019.

 

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On the self-validating nature of idealism

On the self-validating nature of idealism

Reading | Philosophy

Aditya Prasad | 2021-08-22

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In this short and powerful piece, engineer Aditya Prasad attempts to provide an informal argument for why idealism deserves more careful consideration. Briefly: while physicalism is impossible to confirm even in principle, idealism suffers from no such limitation. This intrinsic verifiability makes it a more fruitful avenue of investigation.

Arguments from radical skepticism demonstrate that physicalism cannot be validated to any degree whatsoever. For example, consider the hypothesis that this reality is a simulation designed to behave precisely as a genuine physical reality would. By its very construction, there exists no evidence that could distinguish this hypothesis from physicalism—and thus we cannot calculate the odds of either one being true. The same problem applies to the hypothesis that all of reality suddenly popped into being, fully formed, in this very moment—with only the appearance of a real past (including false memories). Even Occam’s Razor cannot help us here, depending as it does on evidence from a real past for its very justification—a plainly circular endeavor.

This problem of skepticism is well known. The commonly accepted solution is that, in lieu of evidence, we are free (indeed, compelled) to fall back to our own priors—that is, to choose whichever beliefs we find most compelling. And physicalism is frequently taken to be the most natural.1,2 This proposal, though widely accepted, suffers from a fatal (if hard to detect) circularity: for although evidence and reasoning are indeed insufficient to discern the nature of reality, to thereby conclude that it cannot be discerned assumes that evidence and reasoning are the only tools available to you. In other words, it presupposes a metaphysics like physicalism to arrive at a conclusion of physicalism.

If you are, indeed, an individual being at the mercy of a fundamentally external reality, then the tools at your disposal do prevent you from confirming your condition with any certainty whatsoever. Put more plainly: even if physicalism were true, any belief in it would still depend entirely on faith. But not all metaphysics suffer from this problem.

Consider the hypothesis that what you are is the very ground of reality, whose very nature is consciousness—taking the form of a peculiar dream called ‘my adventures in physical reality.’ In that case, you would not have to rely on external evidence—there being nothing external to you in the first place. Nothing could ultimately prevent you from awakening to yourself as the very source and substance of the whole show,3 in a very direct and non-inferential way.

It may be hard—indeed, impossible4—to imagine what such an ‘awakening’ could be like, but this is a minor obstacle in comparison to the in-principle impossibility that inescapably plagues physicalism. For this reason alone, idealism deserves more consideration: if the goal is to discover the truth, then it only makes sense to look in places where the truth can actually be confirmed. Of course, the hypothesis given above (a form of idealism) may not be the only confirmable metaphysics. So why should you pursue it over other possibilities?

One answer is that numerous people have told us that they have ‘woken up,’ but in the spirit of skepticism we ought not simply believe them. The remainder of this piece will provide an experiential exercise meant to help the reader gain some intuition for the idealist position. It may serve as a baby step in the direction of waking up. Please read it slowly and perform the exercises with as much sincerity and naïveté as you can muster.

Look around. While you cannot be sure what is actually happening, notice that something certainly seems to be happening. Take your time and confirm this. It is critical that you are left with no doubt about it. If you do doubt it, simply notice how doubt seems to be happening.

Now look carefully at that-which-seems-to-be-happening: this wondrous field of experience. If we were forced to answer what it is ‘made of,’ we would be hard-pressed to give a meaningful answer. Perhaps the closest we could come is to say that it’s made of the sheer fact of experience itself. Try and get a taste of this in all five sense fields as well as your mental field (of thoughts, emotions, etc.). Notice how this ‘sheer fact’ is luminescing itself to paint your experiential reality.

Now ask yourself: what’s causing it? Your mind desperately wants to answer in terms of physical reality, so now remind yourself of the peculiar (but rigorous) sense in which you have no reason to believe that such a thing even exists. Your mind will rebel, but keep at it.

It may be helpful to reflect on how this practice is simply the most radically honest thing you could possibly do. You are giving your complete attention to what is unmistakably here, while withdrawing it from what you only imagine to be there. If you want to discover the truth, after all, it is imperative that you avoid all forms of self-deception—no matter how tempting they may be.5

You are engulfed in something unspeakably delightful, practically begging you for an explanation or cause. At the same time, there is a precise sense in which you have no reason to believe that causality (as you know it) even applies—or even that you’ve ever experienced anything before this very moment.

If you really nail both halves precisely—the delight and the mystery—there will come a moment when you are suddenly struck dumb by astonishment. Reality will blaze forth as impossibly marvelous, and you will wonder how you ever missed it. Not the inert ‘reality’ that you’d been until then imagining, but the radically alive reality that is inescapably here. Your very definition of the word ‘real’ will be forever changed as a result.

It is as though you have discovered the solution to this old Tibetan riddle:

So close you can’t see it
So deep you can’t fathom it
So simple you can’t believe it
So good you can’t accept it

To which we might humbly add: so obvious you can’t communicate it—even to yourself.

Of course, no experience, no matter how profound, can prove to you the primacy of mind. But if you remain carefully with this discipline of radical honesty, there may come a day when reality unmistakably awakens to itself.


Notes

  1. Wittgenstein once asked why people used to think the Sun went ’round the Earth. His friend answered that it’s because it looks that way. Wittgenstein responds: well what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis? Similarly, why is physicalism considered the ‘most natural’ choice? It is because things look that way. Well, what would it look like if idealism were true?

  2. Although a physicist by profession, avowed physicalist Prof. Sean Carroll writes about this problem (and its solution) eloquently in The Big Picture:

    There is no way to distinguish between the scenarios by collecting new data. What we’re left with is our choice of prior credences. … [I]t’s okay to set our prior credence in radically skeptical scenarios at very low values, and attach higher prior credence to the straightforwardly realistic possibilities.

    But what could “straightforwardly realistic” possibly mean here? Having just proven that there’s no way to determine what is real, the word “realistic” cannot refer to anything other than a feeling. Despite this, Prof. Carroll invites others to adopt it as their religion:

    In particular, there is no supernatural world—no gods, no spirits, no transcendent meanings. […] Facebook will allow you to declare [this] as your religion.

  3. Note that we are not advocating solipsism, where your personal self is the entirety of reality. You are the source and substance—but so is everybody else.

  4. Anything you can imagine falls into the category of experience, and experiences are intrinsically fallible. This is what makes it so famously hard to not only communicate, but to even communicate the importance of.

  5. Compare this to approaches that begin by asking you to take materialism on faith, and then (unsurprisingly) end up with absurdities like ‘nothing seems to be happening.’ If you get lost enough in the maze of your own mind, you may end up believing such stories—and tragically miss out on the majesty of life.