There was a time when physics, still high on the spirit of the Enlightenment, took seriously the idea that its measurements of the fundamental stuff composing the universe could explain just about everything worth knowing about. Granted, it didn’t have all the necessary measurements compiled just yet, but it assured everyone that it was just a matter of how much time it would take to do the necessary calculating and experimenting. Time passed, and just when they thought they were about to figure it all out, Einstein shook the faith by discovering that the physical laws once thought to have absolute frames of reference were actually relative. Not all was lost, but soon after, quantum mechanics laid to rest the notion that there could even be any fundamental “stuff” to begin with. It turned out the universe wasn’t made of anything but measurements [QQ]. As Alan Watts put it, “[The physical universe] was all form and no matter, or all a matter of form” [LHG]. This lead the renowned physicist Sir Author Eddington to remark, “We have found that where science has progressed the farthest, the mind has but regained from nature that which the mind has put into nature” [QQ 179]. In other words, the “objective observer” was a myth-the method one selects for measuring the world has a direct effect on the way the world then appears.
I tell this story because of the many striking parallels it seems to have with the most recent trends in the cognitive sciences. There was a time when these scientists of the mind, still under the spell of a subtle form of Cartesian dualism, believed representation was the fundamental function of the brain. They labored tirelessly for decades searching for a coherent and naturalizable story of representation, but it was to no avail. There is, of course, much debate about what “representation” actually means and how it should be used in reference to certain types of mental processes. Let us therefore be explicit about the meaning of this word “representation” for the purposes of this essay. Representation shall be used to refer to any description that rests on a Cartesian view of the mind. That is, any theory of the mind which posits a sort of inner “I-ness” that receives and interprets recreations of an outer “otherness,” such that that which is outside the skull must be transformed into some inner, mental language before it could be understood. The problem is that any representational approach to the mind this wrapped up in dualism cannot ever be fully naturalized. Just as physicists once believed there was a meaningful distinction between form and substance, cognitive scientists once believed there was a similar distinction between the mind and the world itself (indeed many still do). As Erwin Schrödinger has said, from this dualistic perspective “we do not belong to the material world that science constructs for us. We are not in it; we are outside. We are only spectators. The reason why we believe that we are in it, that we belong to the picture, is that our bodies belong to it” [QQ 83]. This essay will combine the approaches of theorists like Andy Clark, Daniel Dennett, John Haugeland and Brian Smith, who all seem to be forcing the field in a new direction, one even they themselves feel uneasy about. Like the quantum physicists who came before them, their data has lead them to a strange place indeed. I will begin this essay by fleshing out the collective conclusions of the above philosophers, using Dennett’s notion of minds as user-less bundles of tools and his affinity for evolutionary explanations to lay out the findings they are all so uncomfortable with. I will then attempt to pick up where they left off, using mythological imagery and Buddhist phenomenology to ground their surprising philosophical findings in our own direct experience.
In a discussion on Dennett’s ideas, Smith says, “We have a remarkable amount of agreement, such that in fact we may almost be ready to let go of that R-word, and actually make some progress” [PMR 101]. For Dennett, representation becomes a linguistic skill available only to human beings by virtue of their ability to speak and write in a public language [PMR 91]. It is, therefore, not something animals can use to get around the world. He goes on to suggest that “Our kind of consciousness is not anything we are born with, not part of our innate hardwiring, but in surprisingly large measure, an artifact of our immersion in human culture” [PMR 79]. Dennett’s word choice, referring to consciousness as “an artifact,” strikes me as especially significant. It would seem that Dennett is suggesting that the “user-illusion,” as he calls our type of consciousness, is a by-product of our language, especially when written.
Let’s take a step back.
What is consciousness, for Dennett? The short answer is we really shouldn’t phrase the question in quite that way. To ask what consciousness is immediately turns it into something ontologically separate from the body and the world. This is the pre-emptive registration that Smith wants us to avoid [TMR 225]. Dennett, similarly, is everywhere on the look out for this kind of Cartesian dualism. Consciousness, for him, can only be described behaviorally. Therefore, those organisms that act appropriately within their environment are said to be conscious.
When we ask, “What is consciousness,” we are really asking about the self. We want to view consciousness as a distinct kind of thing because we want to view ourselves as individual, undetermined egos. For, if being conscious means merely to behave in a certain way (as part of a normative community), then my inner sense of “I-ness” is secondary-a kind of epiphenomenon-nothing more than a collection of meaningless private thoughts floating away from the “real” world, the world that you can pound with your fist, or at least shout out loud about without fear of seeming crazy to others. Meaning, so this story goes, comes from the community. What is true is what the community has agreed upon. But there is a further force at work, something unconscious constraining the kinds of agreements the community can reach. It is the evolutionary force, and it doesn’t care much about what we want be true. For the same reason Dennett wants to get rid of the homunculus in the skull, he wants to get rid of the self-directed society, that real sense of a collective “we” that freely decides what ought to be [TMR 289]. Dennett wants to continue using the evolutionary metaphor that works so well in biology to show us that people and societies do what they do because of similar pressures. It is here that he disagrees with Smith and Haugeland, as they want to keep that sense of a “we who decides” over and above the impersonal hand of evolution [TMR 263, 289].
So then, choosing Darwin as our guide, let us try and find the evolutionary purpose of the “user-illusion” in the humanity of present. To do so we must first understand the consciousnesses of our ancestry. Plants seem to take an intentional stance toward the Sun, tracking it across the sky in some cases, but it becomes meaningless to ask if they are actually having thoughts about it. Let’s try animals. Animal consciousness is focused on the direct environment in ways we might call conceptual. They can pay attention to, or have intentional states about, certain “targets” in the environment and the patterns they follow over time, both locally and, to a certain extent, distally. Humans, however, can have intentional states not only about the so-called targets themselves (as presented to any of the five senses), but also about the names of those targets as they exist within a language game. The naming of targets transforms them into objects, and we must be careful not to confuse objects with their primordial cousins. When Dennett is asked if animals can represent objects, he responds that they “can behave vis-à-vis [objects] in all sorts of really adroit ways” [TMR 108]. The point is the world does not appear to them as a collection of objects, but rather as a “direct recipe for action” [WBMWC 10].
The human ability to abstract objects from targets leads to what Dennett refers to as florid representation, and without it he feels we are somehow sub-human. In fact, many people alive today are yet to become florid [TMR 107]. Children provide the most obvious example, being “language virtuosos” [TMR 108], but not yet understanding the full implication of their abilities. The discovery that words are symbols for the real thing, and that they can be skillfully arranged to communicate meta-meanings, still awaits them. It is here, however, that the really interesting discovery is made, that words are not used, but instead compose our very being . Our “selves”-our sense of being a self-supporting, well-behaving, rational actor-rest so heavily on language that it is fair to say we are nobody without it.
Language: Verbal and Written
The notion that “I” communicate with those who are “other” than me is the crux of the language game, built into its very grammatical structure. But the kind of “other” met while speaking language, engaging in a direct face-to-face conversation, is quite different from the kind met while writing, when the “other” is at a distance and becomes more objectified. When speaking, people (at least when they truly understand each other) are in communion with one another. They exhibit what Martin Buber calls an “Ich-Du,” or “I-You” relationship to one another (more on this in a moment) [IT 73]. If we view this from an evolutionary perspective, a coherent story begins to emerge. All evidence suggests that the first forms of language were vocal. We can then infer that, prior to the invention of written language, human beings had a type of consciousness far different from the one most of us has today. Buber refers to this kind of archaic consciousness as “I-You,” which means that it doesn’t yet consider the “other” as an object that is encountered. Rather, it views the “other” as a part of itself, something to be reconciled and understood in a participatory way. Buber says those with this kind of consciousness “have not yet recognized themselves as an ‘I’” apart from an “other” [IT 73]. This would make sense, as the subject/object ontology inherent to the grammar of written systems was not yet available to the mind. One might object to this characterization on the grounds that the whole story of natural selection requires at least some sense of self-preservation. Why do animals even try to survive unless they have a sense of “I-ness”? Buber explains that in the case of animals, “What wants to propagate itself is not the ‘I’ but the body that does not yet know of any ‘I.’” Bodies are survival machines. They have no inner sense that “wants” to survive; surviving is just what they do. Evolution has a way of recapitulating itself at ever more complex scales. Organisms first appeared as an emergent property of the physical world, living on top of it as though their bodies were an autopoietic, self-transforming software program running on the hardware of the world. When organisms evolved into more complex animals like ourselves, another emergent property sprang forth, that called the “I,” or ego. The ego seems to float atop the biological brain in the same way that the organism floats atop the physical world. The ego’s relationship to the body is made clearer in the following example: “I” feel responsible for styling my hair, but “I” do not feel responsible for growing it.
It was not until the advent of written language that humanity was able to stake its claim so high above the animal kingdom-to say, “I have a body” instead of “I am a body.” The body and the mind were thus torn apart as humanity began to take on a new kind of consciousness, one Buber calls the “Ich-Es,” or “I-It.” “The I that has emerged,” says Buber, “proclaims itself as the carrier of sensations and the environment as their object” [IT 74].
Of course, this happens in a “primitive” and not in an “epistemological” manner; yet once the sentence “I see the tree” has been pronounced in such a way that it no longer relates a relation between a human “I” and a tree “You” [as in “I-You” consciousness] but the perception of the tree object [It] by the human consciousness [I], it has erected the crucial barrier between subject and object… [IT 74].
This barrier was “primitive” and not yet “epistemological” because floridity had not yet fully developed. The kinds of philosophical meta-thinking, for example, that lead Descartes to the Cogito took a bit more evolution, but its seeds were sown when the first alphabets were systematized.
As we’ve seen, “Research into the origins of language is really research into the origins of consciousness,” as William Irwin Thompson has said [TFBTL 84]. But how can we to attempt to grasp such origins when it seems that “Man is man through language alone-but in order to invent language he must have been man already” [TFBTL 85]? Might the search for the origins of language bring us to the limits of our knowledge? It seems so, but for Thompson, “That shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being is the landscape of myth” [TFBTL 87]. Let us then shift our method of investigation from the philosophical to the mythological.
A “myth” is often considered synonymous with a lie, or a fanciful story made up for religious purposes bearing no relation to the actual state of affairs. But let us, for a moment, consider a new use for the myth-let us refer to it as an image or metaphor in terms of which we can attempt to understand our past. This kind of approach may seem a bit too gooey and mystical for modern academic philosophy to take seriously, but in the kind of post-modern philosophical territory that says your job is to figure out what all these scribbles mean using only the same scribbles, you are forced into using tools other than just your rational intellect. “If we try to do without poetry and esoteric mythology to describe precisely and scientifically how language evolved,” says Thompson, “we find that there is no causal explanation” [TFBTL 93]. If we use only our rational intellects-our words-we will never find a purpose or foundation for their use. Trying to do so is a bit like “shining a flashlight in search of darkness” [TFBTL 87].
Let us move on, then, to the question at hand. Where did language (with the rational mind riding on its coat tails) come from? Thompson again: “The scientist looks for a cause inside time; a mystic knows that causality is essentially a process that is outside time-space” [TFBTL 94]. What does it mean for causality to be “outside time-space”? Thompson provides an apt example using the mythical relationship between women and the moon. Numerous studies have shown that women who live in close proximity to one another tend to have menstrual periods at the same time [MSS 171]. Other studies have shown that woman who live near the equator tend to ovulate in synchrony with the full moon [UH 106]. So then, “It is reasonable for us to expect that [prehistoric] women living together in small hunting and gathering bands would all have their menstrual periods at the same time” in synchrony with the moon [TFBTL 96]. The primitive consciousness of early humanity, lacking our more linguistically developed minds, mistook this correlative relationship for a causative one. So, as it were, the moon caused women to menstruate and even to give birth. At this stage in the development of human consciousness, such a belief made very good sense. In fact, we might say it marked the beginning of our understanding of the regularities of nature. It was this kind of understanding, the kind that allowed our ancestors to link the cycles of their bodies to the phases of the moon [TFBTL 97], that, with the help of a more stable form of expression, would mature into our kind of thinking.
That more stable form of expression was written language, born along side the ancient walls built to divide the first human cities from nature. This division of culture from nature occurred in the individual, as well.
The rise of writing helps to break up the continuum of the sensorium and locates consciousness in the written word. What the written word is to the sensorium, the ego is to the entire consciousness” [TFBTL 196].
We can say then, that the ego gains its strength from words, from the “I.” Using the Biblical myth of the Fall of Man as our metaphor, we can see now that the fruit hanging from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is the alphabet. When Adam ate of the fruit offered him by Eve, he gained knowledge of himself. With this knowledge came all the wonderful inventions we now hold in esteem as monuments to our great progress as a species. But this most promising of realizations carried with it a tragic flaw, for even with all the technological power it put in our hands, it left us powerless before the new reality of death. The identification of consciousness with the ego necessitates death, as to be born into this world as an “I” means the eventual death of that “I” is unavoidable.
“Writing, individuation, and civilization are all parts of one larger cultural phenomenology,” says Thompson [TFBTL 196]. And so it was that with the birth of written language came the birth of the ego and the birth of its civilization. But because the ego fears its own death so immensely, it reaps havoc upon all that is other to it in a desperate attempt to make a name for itself that will live forever. We see all around us today the result of this struggle, as the egos of humankind rush toward their own destruction in search of salvation. It is not the brutish and primitive among us that are causing this disaster, but the most advanced, the most civilized, and the most educated. It is the rational ego that wages war, pollutes the environment, and exploits its own kind. The call to transcend this identification with words has become urgent, and Dennett’s philosophical conclusion that the mind is a collection of user-less tools couldn’t have come at a time more desperate for the application of its implications than now.
The Implications of Minds as User-less Tool Kits
Andy Clark, in his essay on Dennett, explains how “language uniquely positions us to create a cascade of new mind-tools that literally transform us into more powerful (but extended) cognitive engines” [TMR 77]. This creates a situation “where you peel away layers of equipment as you would peel away the layers of an onion, ending up with nothing at all in the way of a central core” [TMR 78]. Without a central core, it seems that all notions of personal responsibility become untenable.
None of this forces us to give up on the morally and socially crucial notion of persons and of thinking agents. One potential reconstruction might begin with the phenomenological facts of first-person experience. A tool/user divide might then be motivated by facts about how things seem to an agent… [TMR 78]
The “phenomenological facts of first-person experience” may not be as easily understood as Clark here assumes. The user-illusion is called an illusion for a reason, and its deceptions are powerful indeed. For Dennett, human culture has created a “kind of cognitive organization-a new ‘virtual machine’-that allows us to weave a kind of ongoing narrative that artificially ‘fixes’ our cognitive contents” [TMR 79]. This fixation is artificial because, “underneath the personal-level narrative stream the more fundamental multiple processing streams” that actually make up our cognitive apparatus and allow it to function in the world have no stable locus of control. It is only our cultural upbringing that inculcates a sense of “I-ness,” and therefore, for Clark, “much of the burden is shifted from the notion of consciousness to the notion of personhood.” In other words, we no longer need to worry about finding the self in the mind because “having a self” really means being a person, and being a person means being part of a normative community. But many problems still remain. If being a person means using all kinds of tools to extend cognition, drawing boundaries around what counts as a person and what counts as a tool becomes tricky, if not impossible. If I miss my girlfriend’s call because my cell phone lost signal, am I then responsible for not answering?
Faced with these kinds of problems, Dennett is lead to conclude, “The notion of a person is a forensic notion… It’s not a metaphysical fact about the nature of persons intrinsically in themselves” [TMR 98].
It would seem, then, that the phenomenological experience of most people is in flat contradiction with the actual state of affairs. Most of us feel as though the stories we tell when asked really do represent a stable ego that is responsible and willful. We feel as though we really are separate from everyone else, even though our whole sense of “I-ness” comes directly from our relationship to the community, from that which is “other” than “I.” As Buber has said, the “I” is nothing without the “It.” Smith came to a similar conclusion, showing that subjects cannot exist without objects [TMR 225].
The call to transform our sense of ourselves seems loud and clear. The ego has been made ripe for this transformation by the stress of modern life. Raised by a society that implores it to do that which will only be acceptable if done voluntarily-to love because it must, share because it must, be responsible because it must-the ego is caught in a catch-22. The only remaining way out is awakening to what Buddhists refer to as one’s inherent Buddha Nature.
Dennett’s philosophical conclusion that the human mind is made of nothing but a bundle of user-less tools is compelling enough to demand that its implications be extended to our direct experience of life. How, though, can we make such a convincing aspect of our experience transparent while still retaining a sense of moral responsibility? It is clear that the user-illusion once played a huge role in society, allowing it to hold individuals responsible for their actions. But once the truth of its very namesake has been discovered, its power becomes rather unconvincing. This is made evident by the characteristically irresponsible behavior of modern society, especially the youngest generations, who are always ready to blame circumstance for their mistakes without remorse. The authority of the community is no longer persuasive enough to convince the populace that its external rules ought to be obeyed. The sense of responsible agency projected onto the individual from without by the society is no longer acceptable. The only solution to this moral crisis is to turn inward for ethical guidance, leaving aside all forms of socially imposed morality. This may at first seem like support for total anarchy, as, if everyone acted out of their own inner selfishness, society would become more chaotic than it already is. But the whole point of awakening to an inner sense of morality is that the ego is transcended. Therefore, with the ego no longer the reigning identification of consciousness, selfishness disappears and one acts out of total benevolence and compassion for all “others.” Attaining such an awakened state is often easier said than done, of course. The real issue, then, is not merely to convince people that this kind of transformation is necessary. Certainly, everyone would probably agree that it sounds great on paper. The issue is how to actually evoke the transformation.
If the evolutionary story told thus far is accurate, we can assume that, in a sense, the transformation will eventually evoke itself. Consciousness has been transcending itself into ever-higher states since the beginning of time, so there’s no reason to believe it won’t do so again. Even so, this in no way takes responsibility away from the individuals that work to bring such a transformation about. How, though, is it to be done?
Buddhism offers a variety of paths, most of which are centered on a meditative practice. What exactly it means to meditate is a matter of much controversy, even within the Buddhist community. But the basic idea is to develop the habit of paying attention to one’s own mind until the sense of “I-ness” is seen for what it is. With enough practice, the “I” becomes a relative truth, a way of speaking. In other words, for all practical purposes of communication and day-to-day interaction, the mask of personhood does just fine. But to mistake this mask for one’s original face-to take seriously the notion that ‘I” am truly separate-is to live in ignorance of one’s actual nature. The very word, “person,” is derived from the Greek “persona,” which refers to the masks worn by stage actors.
It may be asked, though, if the notion of personhood and Buddhahood do not in actuality conflict, why is the inner transformation necessary at all? The goal of Buddhist practice is not merely the belief in this idea of selflessness; it is the direct experience of it. And this direct experience of the lack of self, something Buddhist’s refer to as satori (roughly translated as “enlightenment”), forever changes one’s interpretation of what it means to wear the mask of personhood. The change settles the inner conflict created by the identification with a personal ego, releasing one from the double-bind inherent to this struggle to be that which it is impossible to be. The person who feels themselves to be a skin-encapsulated ego is in search of a stable “I” that never seems to turn up. This leads to all kinds of internal psychosis and fragmentation. Worse, it leads to the projection of inner fear onto others in the form of hatred and hostility. The realization of one’s true state, that which lacks a self, allows the mask to be worn without conflict, as it no longer represents the do all and end all of one’s existence. Instead, one’s consciousness rests in the eternal “now” moment, free from objectification and arbitrary boundary enforcement. One approaches the world with total acceptance, facing other people not as separate entities or objects to be properly understood and mechanically dealt with, but as living presences one can’t help but be in creative and compassionate communion with. The awakened person, having this sense of their true identity, is far freer and far more capable of being truly responsible than is the naïve, ego-identified person.
There is, as Alan Wallace calls it, a “taboo of subjectivity” in our modern day scientific culture. It is this taboo that makes the quantum physicist so uncomfortable with the notion that the observer, the subject, has a role to play in how the observed, the object, appears. In the same way, the cognitive scientist’s “Cartesian anxiety” keeps him or her from realizing that the mind cannot be said to exist as something separate from the body and the world. Just as the physicist cannot ignore the data leading them to their conclusions about what the physical world is (or isn’t), the cognitive scientist cannot ignore their data about what the mind is (or isn’t). All attempts to build truly intelligent machines using a representational model have failed. Descartes conception of the mind as an internal, otherworldly entity that views the outside only as a representation has similarly failed, having been shown to be too supernatural to be taken seriously. We are thus forced to find a new way to understand how the organic mind works, one that doesn’t assume the ontological constructions of our language are built into the real make-up of the world. As members of a community of language speakers, we are prone to make comments like “I have a body.” But our metaphysical microscopes have shown us that such a statement, while not entirely false, is merely true enough. It is truer to say “I am a body.” Of course, if I am a body then I must be just as responsible for beating my heart and growing my bones as I am for tying my shoelaces and brushing my teeth. Trying to make sense of this kind of situation boils down to where we want to draw the arbitrary boundaries that separate what I do from what is done to me. The whole point of this essay, though, is that this “I” is itself an artificial boundary.
Take breathing, for instance. Now that you have been made aware of your breath, it seems that it is a voluntary process. However, just a moment ago, before I mentioned it, your lungs went about their business without you paying them the slightest bit of attention. Trying to figure out which way it really is, whether you breathe or are breathed, amounts to total nonsense. We simply cannot know because our language has here met its maker.
It is here that Buddhism comes to the rescue. Buddhism doesn’t propose to solve the problem by telling you what is going in these kinds of situations. Instead, it makes an attempt to show you by leading you toward the experience of satori. Satori solves the problem by showing that there never was one to begin with, as your ordinary sense of being an ego wrapped in a bag of skin is seen for what it is-a hallucination created by the language game of your society. Only once this realization has occurred can the socially defined “person” become a truly moral being, as only then can real altruism and compassion come about from within. For the person still chasing after an imaginary ego, morality becomes something external that must be obeyed for fear of punishment. For the awakened person, the world and everyone in it ceases to be “other,” instead becoming the one true self, the upper-case Self. “In the language of the sages, only the Buddha Nature, or Brahman, or Allah, or God, sees or hears or experiences anything at all” [MI 30]. All true morality stems from this understanding.
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 This leads neuroscientists to ask questions like, “What happens in our brains when we deliberately concentrate on something?” The answer given is that a “ballet of neurons” becomes active in the brain when objects are focused on. But this explains nothing. It amounts to saying: “I decide because my brain behaves in a certain way.” The neuroscientist has over-emphasized the figure and completely forgotten the ground. The brain is nothing without the body, and the body is nothing without the world. To say, “I decide what to see,” you must neglect the possibility that the world decides for you [CA].
 To track non-effective targets for a substantial period of time, animals would need the mnemonic aid of words. As a language-using human, I can talk/think/write about objects that are not present (i.e., represent them) because I use words to stabilize them [PMR 105].
 Why can’t a purely verbal language game have a subject/object ontology? -Because it isn’t stable enough to hold such an abstract ontological structure together. It takes the aid of the written word for consciousness to make such a jump.
 Evolution, in this sense, is not evolution driven by natural selection alone. It has access to more tools than that. It is only the “I-It” consciousness that projects the “survival of the fittest” metaphor onto nature, after all. This kind of evolution makes leaps to higher and more organized states all at once, as though it knew where it was going before it got there. The study of emergent behaviors in systems theory here becomes very relevant. This may also be how Good Tricks [PMR 113] come about.
 The earliest known forms of “writing” are scratches on bone fragments designed to model the phases of the moon (and the cycle of menstruation) [TFBTL 97].
 Alphabets and written languages go hand-in-hand, the purpose of the alphabet being to capture vocal utterances in symbolic jars called letters so they can be recorded and standardized by grammaticians.
 It is an illusion, after all.
 The modern obsession with movie stars and celebrities is a perfect example of the glorification of the ego. They are worshipped because they represent what is usually considered the pinnacle of egohood: fame and recognition.
 “The usual response of the cognitive scientist [because of the Cartesian anxiety] is to ignore the experiential aspect when she does science and ignore the scientific discovery when she leads her life” [TEM 239].
 Indeed, if “I am a body” is truer, then “I am the All” is truest. If the body reacts to its environment as though it were a “direct recipe for action,” then the body and the world are coupled. I (not the ego but the deeper Self) become equally as responsible for rising the Sun and blowing the wind as I am for growing my bones and brushing my teeth.
What do you think?