Consciousness: Ultimate Mystery and semi-understandable form

To frame some of these thoughts–check out Robert Wright’s page on the MeaningofLife.

He interveiws a great number of thinkers—scientists, theologians among them–on questions of basic existence. Look for the link to the Parliament of World Religions on the question of God. There are some real characters, and some real holy ones that shine through (great Je wish rabbi at the end and a beautiful Sikh woman from Britain).

One topic that always comes up of course is consciousness. The sense of having sense. The sense of being aware, however you want to define that. Knowing that we know.

No matter what one’s views on the matter, it is really worth watching people holding very different, even opposing views, speak from within a conscious mind.

Though we don’t really acknowledge this very much, our modern Western world is essentially predicated on the notion that consciousness, interiority is a lie. We are comfortable, to a degree with notions like culture, emotion, attitudes. But we never see those as consciousness.

Wright interviews Daniel Dennett among others. It is amazing thing to watch someone with such a committed (faith?) view of the non-existence of his own mind speaking. He says that consciousness is simply the concatenation of molecules. He doesn’t even go so far as say Wright would, and say consciousness is an epiphenomenon. It is a sorta accident or blip or planned but delayed, result of material evolution.

But underneath all our talk about social forces, history, economics, on and on, basic questions remain. Is consciousness “real”, however we define real? Is it at least equally real to the world of matter? Or does it having a parallel real structure? Or just none at all.

And if there is a resonance between consciousness and materiality and we understand materiality to evolve, does consciousness therefore also evolve?

Can we reconstruct the ways, the forms in which consciousness settles like sediment, without ever necessarily knowing what consicusness is? What is IS in other words?

When we are disucssing integral thought those are the questions that need to be asked. The vast majority of human beings will not and do not hold to such tenets. And a disagreement with those fundamental principles isn’t correlated, I find, with intelligence per se. There are many brilliant people who don’t think there is consciousness. Nor holiness–as to the question of evolution–as evidence by the video. There still to me seems to be an impercetible quality to getting “it”, not just mentally–which others do–but deep in our hearts. It changes something within us–at least it has to me.

Integral follows in the tradition of Teilhard who spoke of a Law of Complexity and Consciousness. Teilhard gave what he called a “phenomenology”–defined as in Hegel’s work–a simple description/observation of events as they arise, in time, through history.

And what he discovered was that there was a trajectory in the evolution of creation and this evolutoin always showed a twin relationship: the greater the material complexity of matter, the greater its degree of interiority.

This is framed as the Left and Right quadrants in Wilber’s scheme. Which itself again is only a it-descriptor. Rather than worry about the map, just feel into the space prior to its rationalized pictorialization. Just feel/see the universe evolving within and without. Wilber’s genius, among others, was to add the notion that this interiority is always enmeshed in language, human culture just as our biology is always connected to environment, ecosystems. And to see what Teilhard called the noosphere–consciousness reaching a pattern of self-reflective thought in conjunction with the material human organism–as composed of stages itself.

But I can’t stress this point enough. Just notice the path Teilhard trod to get to that insight. Just actually do what he says, phenomenologically brakcet all other questions for a moment, and just see if his explanation makes any sense.

See if you don’t follow the history of the universe from the beginning that you don’t see a drive towards greater integration, differentation, and complexification/simplification from the get go. And if you just for a moment allow any sense of feeling/sentience to anything in this universe, don’t you see more and more of it the further along you get?

If for example you’re only willing to grant sentience to say higher order animals. Dogs/cats clearly do, chimps would seem to have even more though.

If you do not accept this point, and I have yet to see an argument (and I’ve read plenty) that shows that this method does not arrive at a coherent description of the facts, then there is no integral.

All of integral, as a relative philosophical system, hangs on this point. It takes an intellectual “leap”, if you like, to actually clear the mind enough to just listen to the argument, to let it sink in, and see if it deeply makes sense. But only if you have followed the procedure. And if it fails, then show another procedure that organizes the data more clearly. I don’t want slogans or universal abstract statements of opinion proferred as obvious fact.

At least live with the hoensty and the consequences of your intellectual decisions.

As only an example, from Frank Visser’s blog (Frank recall is in the perennial tradition):

Wilber then compares the perennial view with current, integral insight. In the perennial view, he says, mind, soul and spirit are seen as “higher” then the body. The feelings of a dog, for example, are seen as “higher” then the complex, human brain. This view he calles “totally screwed up”. In earlier writings, he called this perennial view “goofy”, and used the example of the feelings of a worm — but you get the idea.

As is well known by now, in the integral view mind, soul and spirit are not seen as meta-physical, but intra-physical, as Wilber tirelessly repeats in his recent writings. Looks all very modern and up to date — until you think it through.

Looks to me Wilber is comparing conscious apples and complex pears.First, the human brain is more complex then the brain of a dog. And the feelings of a human being is deeper, more conscious, then the feelings of a dog. Comparing the feelings of a dog to the complex human brain is comparing apples and pears.

First off, I think Frank has it backwards. It is the perennial tradition that is comparing conscious apples to complex pears. Or if you like both integral and perennialism–qua relative interpretive structures–are making claims vis a vis the pears and apples. The question then is: which comparison is better?

Frank continues:

But even then, the feelings of a dog, or a worm for that matter, are infinitely more mysterious then the most complex physical mechanism, human or artificial — because there’s an awareness involved no physical mechanism has ever displayed. So there seems to be depth involved.

The perennial view is that the conscious apples are always, as Frank says “more mysterious’” than the pears. But is mysterious the important element here? Leaving aside the flat assertion (minus support) that the feelings of dogs/worms are more mysterious—ever seen a photograph of the human brain and cells firing and had a feeling of awe and wonder?–my question is still what does that matter?

The issue as such is not really the dog’s feelings versus the complexity of a biological organism, the issue is why do they always emerge in history, in time-space, in relation? Forget what they “are” in the abstract, if that could ever be defined (and of course with consciousness it can’t, consciousness is the definer).

Maybe the mystery is why the two (matter and consciousness) are always so joined. Why they follow this “Law”. The worm’s physical organism is not as complex as the dog’s and the worm’s feelings are not as deep as the dog’s. That’s the issue. Integral works best in my mind when used in this phenomenological (broadly meant) sense.

Frank concludes his post:

Calling this [consciousness, left-hand] intra-physical instead of meta-physical, doesn’t explain anything. It’s a clever change of metaphor for something we don’t really understand. “Intra-physical” is not a concept science can handle, it is deeply metaphysical.

True, modernity knows more on the role the brain processes involved in consciousness then premoderns did. But modernity is clueless as to the essential nature of interiority (beyond mere descriptions). So why set up perennialism and modernity against each other?

It is true that calling consciousness intra-physical doesn’t explain what consciousness is. It only explains that consciousness (as revealed by the methodology explicated) co-arises with a corresponding degree of material complexity. It is not an argument about what consciousness is, nor what matter/energy is for that matter. Nor why they always co-arise–other than a fairly limited reference to Eros.

It is a system meant to push away from such dead-ends. To open up psychic space to participate in the Kosmos. Not these fixed notions like culture, these blocky references to truth, but actual contemplative engagement, exploration, and curiosity in this world.

Intra-physical is only a meta-physical notion when judged outside the context of the practice that undergirds it. Why do we need to know what consciousness is, before we can immerse ourselves in it? We don’t understand “it” because it is mysteriously empty of content as such. And this “truth” is only disclosed in meditation. [For the "truth" of this see the Parliament of World Religions video--how many define God as oneness, the only one, the Ultimate].

Integral as a relative philsophical system isn’t interested in defining consciousness per se–it points to meditative practice for that–it argues that by practicing a genealogy, which is to say a 3rd person observational view with some 1st person sympathetic resonance, we see evolution moving through form interior and exterior.

That is the self-reflective mind, given the right vantage point/perspective, can reconstruct (can “see” interiorly) general forms/levels that consciousness has passed through in history. Emphasis on in history. On earth. Together, in communion, in form.

What methodology does perennialism give for itself? It gives traditional meditation, which as I’m pointing out can not locate, can not see (is not in the right position, does not have the tools) to make a judgment on genealogy. Even one of spirit–in form, both interior and exterior.

Even though interpretation of interior realities is profoundly more difficult than scientific exterior experimentation, can we still reconstruct the interiors with any degree of accuracy. And not just as states of consciousness, but as structures actually develop in time, in history, in individuals and groups at certain points of their lives?

I’m not talking about gurus, foonotes and bad page numbers cited, bat wings, marketing, personality flaws, experimental discover your altitude/shadow blogs, ab/use of systems, generalizing orientations, writing style.

I’m talking about a specific intellectual methodology that claims to gives a perspective able to comprehend a deeper purpose/alignment/synthesis to creation. And this view reveals interiors to be real (real enough) and to see them as not simply interpretations (though they are that too) but interpretations embodied in an evolving universe, showing their own version of the same patterns at play in material evolution: greater differentation and integration.

I’m not advocating pro or con that position minus the actual climbing of the stairs to reach that platform.

As a relative view does it not work? Can it be proved that perspective is not real? That the practice invovled does not in fact put one in a position to see this argument?

Not even that another practice may not come along some day (or already has) and gain even more perspective on the issue. Just that this one is totally and utterly invalid. It never actually happened. I never actually understood this truth. I never really saw it open up in my mind’s eye. It is simply forever and in all ways wrong. It should be completely dismissed?

And show me the actual practice that will disclose to me how incorrect all of this has always and will always be.

Til then, I simply point out the practice and cry out for this perspective to be felt into. Then judge, not before.

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Published in: on August 30, 2006 at 5:09 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. CJ,

    I have several criticisms. I do appreciate the passion at which you attack your thesis. Let me start in. You write:

    our modern Western world is essentially predicated on the notion that consciousness, interiority is a lie.

    Don’t you think this is a statement impossible to qualify or support? I would rather think it more true that it is your entry here that is predicated on that statement being true. If it is false, where does that leave your thesis, or Wilber’s?

    Later on:

    Wilber’s genius, among others, was to add the notion that this interiority is always enmeshed in language…

    And poets haven’t demonstrated this since the beginning of recorded poetry? And if “language” is taken broadly, that all of the works of the great artists? And, for christ’s sake, a mother who gives her child the “evil eye”? And the rituals, which are the substratum beneath all human religion, haven’t demonstrated this as far back as we can tell? Come on, now. This is mere skimming the cream off the gallon of milk and calling it the cow.

    Let me add that there has, for several books, been an implication forwarded by Wilber that it is some big insight that there is perception beyond language. This is true, but elementary — as usual, he blows it out of proportion. What person who has learned a second, third, or fourth language isn’t aware of the self-evident truth that there are limits to language, and the there is awareness beyond those limits? It’s called wanting to be able to say something, but not being able to, or stuttering. Or, looking into someone’s eyes. Again, come on.

    Here’s some more:

    If you do not accept this point, and I have yet to see an argument (and I’ve read plenty) that shows that this method does not arrive at a coherent description of the facts, then there is no integral.

    Leaving aside your argument from authority, let me get this straight — you expect some argument for a philosophical system to arrive at a coherant description of the facts which leaves aside most questions, thorns, perspectives, energies, materials save for the one you seem to really dig (i.e., Teilhard’s “path”) — which (again, leaving EVERYTHING ELSE aside, by “bracketing”) will describe the history of the universe? That history of the universe being events as they arise, in time, through history? The history of consciousness as it is claimed to have evolved?

    And this is not a fantastically narrow demand, how?

    And are you implying that we should trust any account of the so-called history of the universe as a bonefide “description of the facts” that leaves most of reality aside? Why should I? How can we understand Apollo if we don’t understand Dionysus?

    If that is what integral is, then, no, it doesn’t exist in any meaningful way, because its narrowness disallows any real bearing on life. But as I have argued elsewhere, I don’t think that is what integral is. It is what Wilberian thought it, but not integral.

    You continue:

    I’m talking about a specific intellectual methodology that claims to gives a perspective able to comprehend a deeper purpose/alignment/synthesis to creation…. And show me the actual practice that will disclose to me how incorrect all of this has always and will always be.

    Well, it starts by living an engaged life and gets out into the world and talks to people. It continues by growing up. It moves on into more specifically intellectual zones by reading and reconciling the vast accounts of cultural achievement that make up the Humanities (and which should be at the core of any education). It continues by witnessing the birth of a person or other life, or the changing of the seasons, or by the overall cycle of life and death that intimately effects and ruptures us all. It further continues by writing and talking about all this with others, or making something creative such as a piece of art, and refining our skills in doing so along the way.

    The actual doing of which renders efforts such as Wilber and other bracketing theorists not necessarily right or wrong (for what, really, is fallible in any of this speculation?) but so self-servingly disproportiate to the journey of actual discovery of life itself that its own narrowness (again, self-defined by this incessant “bracketing”) renders it on the verge of meaningless sophistry.

    I’m coming to a close. You say:

    What methodology does perennialism give for itself? It gives traditional meditation, which as I’m pointing out can not locate, can not see (is not in the right position, does not have the tools) to make a judgment on genealogy. Even one of spirit–in form, both interior and exterior.

    Find me the perennialist who advocates meditation and meditation alone.

    And lastly:

    I’m not talking about gurus, foonotes and bad page numbers cited, bat wings, marketing, personality flaws, experimental discover your altitude/shadow blogs, ab/use of systems, generalizing orientations, writing style.

    I take it that you stipulate to these criticisms, which would at least be some kind of progress towards seeing the light of what Wilber’s work actually is.

    It seems to me that you attempt to serve the cause of Wilberism. Well, if I might bracket that, allow me to suggest that the cause of integral is best served by embracing, and not attempting to conquer, the Humanities and by inviting others to share in the mysteries evoked from the beginning of self-awareness in humans, in which there is nothing to evolve past, over, under, or around, but rather to be weighed in the process of loving, listening, and relating to other humans and to life itself, which is what God (defined by any cultural norm) actually is; i.e., the force of nature that brings people together in groups, then depersonalized into a “god”.

    It is not that Wilber is wrong; it is that his work (like that of Foucault) by its own self-defined and narrow nature, is astonishingly elementary to the implications of its conclusions (if he’ll ever actually make them). Or, in the words of Dorothy Parker, Wilber’s work and all like it run the gamut of emotions from A to B.

    So, next we move to C, then D, and, ooh, E, and then …

    harmonic,
    md

  2. CJ, i know that you already know this. but this is for the benefit of people reading this cool blog post who are not yet in the know.

    An Integral Theory of Consciousness

    in it Wilber trashes Dennett. well, sort of ;)

    “You do not have to transform to understand Dennett’s Consciousness Explained; you merely translate. But you must transform to actually understand Plotinus’ Enneads. You are already adequate to Dennett, because you both have already transformed to rationality, and thus the referents of Dennett’s sentences can be easily seen by you (whether or not you agree, you can at least see what he is referring to, because his referents exist in the rational worldspace, plain as day). But if you have not transformed to (or at least strongly glimpsed) the causal and nondual realms (transpersonal and postformal), you will not be able to see the referents of most of Plotinus’ sentences. They will make no sense to you. You will think Plotinus is `seeing things’ — and he is, and so could you and I, if we both transform to those postformal worldspaces, whereupon the referents of Plotinus’ sentences, referents that exist in the causal and nondual worldspaces, become plain as day. And that transformation is an absolutely unavoidable part of the paradigm (the injunction) of an integral approach to consciousness.”
    ~C


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