SPIRITUALITY AND INTELLECTUAL HONESTY

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To begin with, a general image of our intellectual history emerges. Historically, the first thing that existed was clearly religion: belief systems that were shared by ever-larger groups of people, that took away people’s fear of death and considerably strengthened these groups’ cohesion. Those belief systems not only strengthened cohesion externally, but also internally, by stabilizing the individual’s self-esteem through the systematic denial of one’s own mortality and by effectively reinforcing existing hierarchies, for example in conflicts with other groups. Historically, these fideist-dogmatic models of reality developed from burial rites, ancestor cults and shamanism. The historically most recent developments were the ideal of intellectual honesty, enlightenment and self-critical rationalism. The ideal of intellectual honesty in this sense is something completely new, something that is only now beginning to be realized in a few places on our planet, in very few societies, and only in its very first manifestations. What made intellectual honesty possible, however, were the originally religious ideals of unconditional truthfulness and sincerity towards God. These ideals led to a turning inward, a reflexive turn on ourselves, towards the individual human being itself, led to the development of the ethical ideals of unconditional truthfulness and sincerity towards ourselves, the relentless openness, the unconditional commitment to the growth of knowledge. However, one central insight, which has always been at the very foundation of the spiritual stance, is that there is more than one form of knowledge, and more than one form of epistemic progress. Continue reading “SPIRITUALITY AND INTELLECTUAL HONESTY”

THE FALSE MIND-MATTER DICHOTOMY

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The notion of a dichotomy between mind and matter arises from language. In order to speak of the substrate of experience we must give it a name, such as “mind” or “consciousness,” thereby linguistically objectifying the subject. Then, we conflate language with what language attempts to describe, implicitly assuming that mind is an object just as matter allegedly is. We forget that there is no epistemic symmetry between the two.

Indeed, because the concept of mind-independent matter, as an explanatory abstraction, arises in mind, as an “excitation” of mind, to say that mind and matter constitute a dichotomy is akin to saying that ripples and water constitute a dichotomy. Dichotomies can exist only between different kinds of ripples – say, those that flow mostly to the right versus those that flow mostly to the left – not between ripples and the substrate where they ripple. Mind is the substrate of the explanatory abstraction we call matter, so when we speak of a mind-matter dichotomy we fall into a fundamental category mistake.

The notion that idealism and materialism are mirror images of each other arises from a failure to grasp this point. Lucid contemplation of these ontologies shows that idealism attempts to reduce an explanatory abstraction (physically objective matter) to that which articulates and hosts the abstraction in the first place (mind). This is prima facie eminently reasonable. Materialism, in turn, attempts to reduce mind to mind’s own explanatory abstractions, an obvious paradox that constitutes the crux of the “hard problem.”

There would be no “hard problem” if one did not conflate explanatory abstractions with concrete ontological primitives, if one did not attempt to paradoxically reduce mind to abstractions of mind. The “hard problem” is not something empirically observed but the salient result of internal contradictions in a logico-conceptual schema.

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The pervasive but unexamined assumption that mind and matter constitute a dichotomy is an error arising from language artefacts. Members of dichotomies must be epistemically symmetrical and, therefore, reside in the same level of abstraction. Physically objective matter – as an explanatory model – is an abstraction of mind. We do not know matter in the same way that we know mind, for matter is an inference and mind a given. This breaks the epistemic symmetry between the two and implies that materialism and idealism cannot be mirror images of each other.

Failure to recognize that different levels of epistemic confidence are intrinsic to different levels of explanatory abstraction lies at the root not only of the false mind-matter dichotomy, but also of attempts to make sense of the world through increasingly ungrounded explanatory abstractions. Lest we conflate science and philosophy with hollow language games, we must never lose sight of the difference between an abstract inference and a direct observation. Keeping this distinction in mind allows us to construct useful predictive models of nature’s behaviour – which ultimately is what science is meant to do – without restrictive and ultimately fallacious inferences about what nature is. This, in turn, liberates us from thought artefacts such as the “hard problem of consciousness” and opens up whole new avenues for making sense of self and world.

Kastrup, Bernardo., 2018. Conflating abstraction with empirical observation: The false mind-matter dichotomy.

MAYA AS CREATIVITY

The word maya is used in the non-dual traditions to describe consciousness’s ability to assume a form with which it seems to limit itself.  It is the power that a screen possesses to appear as a landscape and, as such, seem to veil itself with its own creativity.  From this perspective maya is often translated as ‘illusion,’ that is, the ability of infinite consciousness, the self-aware screen, to appear as something other than itself, which it now knows from the perspective of a separate subject within its own dream.  However, the illusion is only such from the limited and ultimately imaginary perspective of the separate subject of experience that seems to come into existence as a result of consciousness’s veiling power.

Maya, as illusion, is the activity of the mind through which infinite consciousness brings manifestation out of its own being into apparent existence.  It is its own cause.  However, from the point of view of consciousness, its ability to assume innumerable names and forms does not create the illusion of a world, but is rather seen and experienced as an ever-changing outpouring of itself within itself in order to realise, manifest and enjoy the endless flow of its own infinite potential in form.  Thus, the deeper meaning of the word maya is ‘creativity,’ the process by which consciousness manifests itself as an ever-changing flow of experience without ever ceasing to be and know itself alone.

In other words, the veiling of consciousness is only such from the perspective of the separate subject of experience.  From the perspective of a separate self, maya is an illusion; from the perspective of consciousness, it is an expression of its own inherent freedom and creativity, with which its never-changing reality appears in the form of ever-changing experience.

Thus, when the apparently separate self is divested of its self-assumed limitations and stands revealed as the true and only self of infinite awareness, maya ceases to be a veiling power and is experienced as a revealing power, and in correspondence with this change, objective experience, which once seemed to veil consciousness, now shines within it.

Consciousness knows itself in and as the totality of experience.  Even our darkest moods shine with the light of its knowing.  This ability of consciousness to be, know or become anything other than itself is the experience of love, which admits no separation, objectivity or otherness.  Thus, from the perspective of consciousness, creation is a manifestation of love.

Rupert Spira, The Nature of Consciousness: Essays on the Unity of Mind and Matter.

FOCUS, FIELD & ATTENTION IN SPIRA

To know form or manifestation, consciousness must focus its knowing or attention in a particular direction.  For a specific object – a thought, image, feeling, sensation or perception – to come into the field of experience, consciousness must contract within itself, focusing and thus limiting its knowing in the form of attention.  As such, attention brings form into existence out of the formless field of infinite consciousness.

This directing of its attention necessarily involves the exclusion, ignoring or forgetting of everything that is outside its focal field, just as your focusing on these words at present necessarily excludes numerous other experiences, which are, as a result, scattered at the periphery of your field of experience.  For instance, the tingling sensation at the tips of your fingers didn’t come into existence the moment you read these words.  It was there all along, but eclipsed by your interest in these words.

Rupert Spira, The Nature of Consciousness: Essays on the Unity of Mind and Matter.

BEING AWARE (INSTINCT/INTELLIGENCE IN SPIRA)

Open ‘Poem’ Bowl, 2009

Prior to any manifestation, awareness remains motionless and alone, knowing only its own eternal, infinite being.  Awareness does not know itself as an object in the way the mind seems to know objects, and thus awareness’s knowing of its own eternal, infinite being is said to be ‘empty’ or ‘void’.

However, that is only true from the point of view of the mind, which believes objects to be real things in their own right, made out of stuff called ‘matter’.  From such a point of view awareness is empty, void, not-a-thing or nothing.  From its own point of view – which is the only real point of view, and is itself not a ‘point’ of view – awareness is not nothing, nor is it something.  ‘Nothing’ and ‘something’ both belong to mind, for both derive their meaning from the assumption of independently existing ‘things’. Continue reading “BEING AWARE (INSTINCT/INTELLIGENCE IN SPIRA)”

AWARENESS

All that is know, or could ever be known, is experience. Struggle as we may with the implications of this statement, we cannot legitimately deny it. Being all that could ever be known, experience itself must be the test of reality. If we do not take experience as the test of reality, belief will be the only alternative. Experience and belief – or ‘the way of truth and the way of opinion’, as Parmenides expressed it in the fifth century BCE – are the only two possibilities.

Whether mind perceives a world outside of itself, as is believed under the prevailing materialist paradigm, or projects the world within itself, as is believed in the consciousness-only approach, everything that is known or experienced is known or experienced through the medium of mind. As such, the mind imposes its own limits on everything that it ever knows, and thus all knowledge and experience appear as a reflection of its own limitations. It is for this reason that scientists will never discover the reality of the universe until they are willing to explore the nature of their own minds.

The word ‘reality’ is derived from the Latin res, meaning ‘thing’, betraying our world culture’s belief that reality consist of things made of matter. However, nobody has ever experienced or could experience anything outside awareness, so the idea of an independently existing substance, namely matter, that exists outside awareness is simply a belief to which the vast majority of humanity subscribes. It is the fundamental assumption upon which all psychological suffering and its expression in conflicts between individuals, communities and nations are predicated. If we refer directly to experience – and experience alone must be the test of reality – all that is or could ever be known exists within, is known by and is made of awareness alone.

Any intellectually rigorous and honest model of experience must start with awareness, and indeed never stray from it. To start anywhere else is to start with an assumption. Our world culture is founded upon such an assumption: that matter precedes and gives rise to awareness. This is in direct contradiction to experience itself, from whose perspective awareness is the primary and indeed only ingredient in experience, and must therefore be the origin and context of any model of reality.

It is commonly believed that awareness is a property of the body, and as a result we feel that it is ‘I, this body’ that knows or is aware of the world. That is, we believe and feel that the knowing with which we are aware of our experience is located in and shares the limits and destiny of the body. This is the fundamental assumption of self and other, mind and matter, subject and object that underpins almost all our thoughts and feelings, and is subsequently expressed in our activities and relationships.

Being aware or awareness itself is not a property of a person, self or body. All that is known of a body is a flow of continuously changing sensations and perceptions. All sensation and perceptions appear in the mind, and the only substance present in the mind is awareness or consciousness itself. Thus, the body is an appearance in mind, and the ultimate reality of mind, and therefore the body, is awareness.

It is thought that mistakenly identifies awareness with the limits and destiny of the body and thus believes that awareness is intermittent. However, in awareness’s own experience of itself – and awareness is the only ‘one’ that is in a position to know anything about itself – it is eternal, or ever-present.

Awareness vibrates within itself and assumes the form of the finite mind. The finite mind is therefore not an entity in its own right; it is the activity of awareness. There are no real objects, entities or selves, each with its own separate identity, appearing in awareness, just as there are no real characters in a movie. There is only awareness and its activity, just as there is only the movie screen and its modulation.

Awareness assumes the form of the finite mind in order to simultaneously create and know the world, but it doesn’t need to assume the form of mind in order to know itself. Awareness is made of pure knowing or being aware, and therefore knows itself simply by being itself. Awareness doesn’t need to reflect its knowing off an object in order to know itself, just as the sun doesn’t need to reflect its light off the moon in order to illuminate itself.

Rupert Spira, The Nature of Consciousness: Essays on the Unity of Mind and Matter.

IN MY OWN WORDS: HENRI BERGSON’S CREATIVE EVOLUTION

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Iain McGilchrist recommended Bergson’s Creative Evolution as a way to understand the reality and importance of time, or, as Bergson himself would have it, duration.  I found the book hugely inspiring and, so as to really understand (and remember) the extent and complexity of Bergson’s thinking, I decided to summarise the book in my own words, as best as I could.  I’m still digesting the full scope of what Bergson thinks and so what follows is not my opinion about his ideas, but as always, I would love nothing more than to engage in discussion.  You can read the whole book itself here.
Adam John Miller, March 2019

Introduction

Our faculty of intellect has evolved from our faculty of action, intended to best fit the body to its environment and to represent the relationships of external things amongst themselves.  Action is impossible without fixity and stability and so the intellect feels at home amongst the inanimate.  The immobile is all it knows.  If the intellect is created by life then how is it possible for it to wholly embrace life, of which it is but an aspect?  Not one of the aspects of our thought: unity or multiplicity, mechanical causality or intelligent finality, applies exactly to the things of life.

“Who can say where individuality begins and ends, whether the living being is one or many, whether it is the cells which associate themselves into the organism or the organism which dissociates itself into cells?”

  Continue reading “IN MY OWN WORDS: HENRI BERGSON’S CREATIVE EVOLUTION”

ALL OR NOTHING

Matter or mind, reality has appeared to us as a perpetual becoming. It makes itself or it unmakes itself, but it is never something made. Such is the intuition that we have of mind when we draw aside the veil which is interposed between our consciousness and ourselves. This, also, is what our intellect and senses themselves would show us of matter, if they could obtain a direct and disinterested idea of it. But, preoccupied before everything with the necessities of action, the intellect, like the senses, is limited to taking, at intervals, views that are instantaneous and by that very fact immobile of the becoming of matter. Consciousness, being in its turn formed on the intellect, sees clearly of the inner life what is already made, and only feels confusedly the making. Thus, we pluck out of duration those moments that interest us, and that we have gathered along its course. These alone we retain. And we are right in so doing, while action only is in question. But when, in speculating on the nature of the real, we go on regarding it as our practical interest requires us to regard it, we become unable to perceive the true evolution, the radical becoming. Of becoming we perceive only states, of duration only instants, and even when we speak of duration and of becoming, it is of another thing that we are thinking. Such is the most striking of the two illusions we wish to examine. It consists in supposing that we can think the unstable by means of the stable, the moving by means of the immobile.

The other illusion is near akin to the first. It has the same origin, being also due to the fact that we import into speculation a procedure made for practice. All action aims at getting something that we feel the want of, or at creating something that does not yet exist. In this very special sense, it fills a void, and goes from the empty to the full, from an absence to a presence, from the unreal to the real. Now the unreality which is here in question is purely relative to the direction in which our attention is engaged, for we are immersed in realities and cannot pass out of them; only, if the present reality is not the one we are seeking, we speak of the absence of this sought-for reality wherever we find the presence of another. We thus express what we have as a function of what we want. This is quite legitimate in the sphere of action. But, whether we will or no, we keep to this way of speaking, and also of thinking, when we speculate on the nature of things independently of the interest they have for us. Thus arises the second of the two illusions. We propose to examine this first. It is due, like the other, to the static habits that our intellect contracts when it prepares our action on things. Just as we pass through the immobile to go to the moving, so we make use of the void in order to think the full. Continue reading “ALL OR NOTHING”

BERGSON ON LANGUAGE AND CONSCIOUSNESS IN EVOLUTION

Life is of the psychological order, and it is of the essence of the psychical to enfold a confused plurality of interpenetrating terms. In space, and in space only, is distinct multiplicity possible: a point is absolutely external to another point. But pure and empty unity, also, is met with only in space; it is that of a mathematical point. Abstract unity and abstract multiplicity are determinations of space or categories of the understanding, whichever we will, spatiality and intellectuality being molded on each other. But what is of psychical nature cannot entirely correspond with space, nor enter perfectly into the categories of the understanding.

Is my own person, at a given moment, one or manifold? If I declare it one, inner voices arise and protest—those of the sensations, feelings, ideas, among which my individuality is distributed. But, if I make it distinctly manifold, my consciousness rebels quite as strongly; it affirms that my sensations, my feelings, my thoughts are abstractions which I effect on myself, and that each of my states implies all the others. I am then (we must adopt the language of the understanding, since only the understanding has a language) a unity that is multiple and a multiplicity that is one; but unity and multiplicity are only views of my personality taken by an understanding that directs its categories at me; I enter neither into one nor into the other nor into both at once, although both, united, may give a fair imitation of the mutual interpenetration and continuity that I find at the base of my own self. Such is my inner life, and such also is life in general. While, in its contact with matter, life is comparable to an impulsion or an impetus, regarded in itself it is an immensity of potentiality, a mutual encroachment of thousands and thousands of tendencies which nevertheless are “thousands and thousands” only when once regarded as outside of each other, that is, when spatialized. Contact with matter is what determines this dissociation. Matter divides actually what was but potentially manifold; and, in this sense, individuation is in part the work of matter, in part the result of life’s own inclination. Continue reading “BERGSON ON LANGUAGE AND CONSCIOUSNESS IN EVOLUTION”

THE BLIND SPOT

In general terms, here’s how the scientific method works. First, we set aside aspects of human experience on which we can’t always agree, such as how things look or taste or feel. Second, using mathematics and logic, we construct abstract, formal models that we treat as stable objects of public consensus. Third, we intervene in the course of events by isolating and controlling things that we can perceive and manipulate. Fourth, we use these abstract models and concrete interventions to calculate future events. Fifth, we check these predicted events against our perceptions. An essential ingredient of this whole process is technology: machines – our equipment – that standardise these procedures, amplify our powers of perception, and allow us to control phenomena to our own ends.

The Blind Spot arises when we start to believe that this method gives us access to unvarnished reality. But experience is present at every step. Scientific models must be pulled out from observations, often mediated by our complex scientific equipment. They are idealisations, not actual things in the world. Galileo’s model of a frictionless plane, for example; the Bohr model of the atom with a small, dense nucleus with electrons circling around it in quantised orbits like planets around a sun; evolutionary models of isolated populations – all of these exist in the scientist’s mind, not in nature. They are abstract mental representations, not mind-independent entities. Their power comes from the fact that they’re useful for helping to make testable predictions. But these, too, never take us outside experience, for they require specific kinds of perceptions performed by highly trained observers. 

For these reasons, scientific ‘objectivity’ can’t stand outside experience; in this context, ‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools. Science is essentially a highly refined form of human experience, based on our capacities to observe, act and communicate. 

So the belief that scientific models correspond to how things truly are doesn’t follow from the scientific method. Instead, it comes from an ancient impulse – one often found in monotheistic religions – to know the world as it is in itself, as God does. The contention that science reveals a perfectly objective ‘reality’ is more theological than scientific.

Recent philosophers of science who target such ‘naive realism’ argue that science doesn’t culminate in a single picture of a theory-independent world. Rather, various aspects of the world – from chemical interactions to the growth and development of organisms, brain dynamics and social interactions – can be more or less successfully described by partial models. These models are always bound to our observations and actions, and circumscribed in their application.

The fields of complex systems theory and network science add mathematical precision to these claims by focusing on wholes rather than the reduction to parts. Complex systems theory is the study of systems, such as the brain, living organisms or the Earth’s global climate, whose behaviour is difficult to model: how the system responds depends on its state and context. Such systems exhibit self-organisation, spontaneous pattern-formation and sensitive dependence on initial conditions (very small changes to the initial conditions can lead to widely different outcomes).

Network science analyses complex systems by modelling their elements as nodes, and the connections between them as links. It explains behaviour in terms of network topologies – the arrangements of nodes and connections – and global dynamics, rather than in terms of local interactions at the micro level.

Inspired by these perspectives, we propose an alternative vision that seeks to move beyond the Blind Spot. Our experience and what we call ‘reality’ are inextricable. Scientific knowledge is a self-correcting narrative made from the world and our experience of it evolving together. Science and its most challenging problems can be reframed once we appreciate this entanglement.

Let’s return to the problem we started with, the question of time and the existence of a First Cause. Many religions have addressed the notion of a First Cause in their mythic creation narratives. To explain where everything comes from and how it originates, they assume the existence of an absolute power or deity that transcends the confines of space and time. With few exceptions, God or gods create from without to give rise to what is within.

Unlike myth, however, science is constrained by its conceptual framework to function along a causal chain of events. The First Cause is a clear rupture of such causation – as Buddhist philosophers pointed out long ago in their arguments against the Hindu theistic position that there must be a first divine cause. How could there be a cause that was not itself an effect of some other cause? The idea of a First Cause, like the idea of a perfectly objective reality, is fundamentally theological.

These examples suggest that ‘time’ will always have a human dimension. The best we can aim for is to construct a scientific cosmological account that is consistent with what we can measure and know of the Universe from inside. The account can’t ever be a final or complete description of cosmic history. Rather, it must be an ongoing, self-correcting narrative. ‘Time’ is the backbone of this narrative; our lived experience of time is necessary to make the narrative meaningful. With this insight, it seems it’s the physicist’s time that is secondary; it’s merely a tool to describe the changes we’re able to observe and measure in the natural world. The time of the physicist, then, depends for its meaning on our lived experience of time.

We can now appreciate the deeper significance of our three scientific conundrums – the nature of matter, consciousness and time. They all point back to the Blind Spot and the need to reframe how we think about science. When we try to understand reality by focusing only on physical things outside of us, we lose sight of the experiences they point back to. The deepest puzzles can’t be solved in purely physical terms, because they all involve the unavoidable presence of experience in the equation. There’s no way to render ‘reality’ apart from experience, because the two are always intertwined.

To finally ‘see’ the Blind Spot is to wake up from a delusion of absolute knowledge. It’s also to embrace the hope that we can create a new scientific culture, in which we see ourselves both as an expression of nature and as a source of nature’s self-understanding. We need nothing less than a science nourished by this sensibility for humanity to flourish in the new millennium.

https://aeon.co/essays/the-blind-spot-of-science-is-the-neglect-of-lived-experience
Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser and Evan Thompson