On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Economics

I’m posting a revised version of a long essay I wrote a decade ago. It draws on thinkers including Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, William Irwin Thompson, Francisco Varela, Alfred North Whitehead, and Alf Hornborg in search of a more integral approach to economics. I had not yet encountered the social ecology of Murray Bookchin when I wrote this essay, so my approach has shifted in emphasis even more strongly toward decentralization and localism, though as readers will see these values were already at the heart of my argument.

You’ll notice that in the first footnote, I left un-revised the world population as I recorded it when I originally composed this essay back in late 2009  (it was ~6.8 billion on Nov. 21st, 2009 according to the US Census Bureau). Today (February 2019), there are already a billion more people in existence (~7.8 billion total). It took all of human history until the year 1800–that is, hundreds of thousands if not millions of years–for the first billion people to inhabit the Earth. It took only a decade to produce a billion more people.

The table of contents, preface, and introduction are included below. You can find the whole essay as a PDF here: Towards an Integral Economics PDF (2019)


Table of Contents

Preface

Introduction: What is Life?

  1. The Irruption of Time
  2. Ancient Biology
  3. Modern Biology
  4. Teleology as Regulative
  5. Autopoiesis: Teleology as Constitutive
  6. Concrescence and Bodily Perception
  7. Concrescence and Autopoiesis
  8. Mechanized Life and Spatialized Time
  9. Integral Thought and Market Cosmology
  10. Integral Enaction of a Gaian Polity

Conclusion: On the Soul and Spirit of Life

Works Cited

 

Preface

The relative success of the human endeavor, measured in terms of population1 and technological mastery, has been won at the cost of widespread suffering for much of the rest of the community of life on Earth. Life is not just a quantitative affair, but is everywhere striving to deepen the qualitative intensity of its existence. Industrial civilization has emerged amidst this vital striving, violently shifting the biosphere into the terminal phase of the Cenozoic era by initiating the first mass extinction event in 65 million years.2 In the deep geological past, saurian giants and cycads flourished where long stretches of highway now carry automobiles fueled by their fossilized remains. Should our species continue to ignore the psycho-spiritual wounds responsible for instituting and maintaining our ritualized techno-industrial sacrifice of future generations, we will soon find ourselves joining the dinosaurs.

This essay is my attempt to reveal the metaphysical causes and energetic effects of industrial capitalism such that its inhumane and ecologically ignorant foundations are brought fully into consciousness. Consciousness is our most creative human capacity, but in its fragmented and anxiety-ridden deficient mental mode, it has become the agent of the most powerful strategy of thermodynamic gradient dissipation the planet has ever known. Should human consciousness fail to awaken in time to forestall the inevitable conclusion of the industrial process, not only will capitalist profits continue to be squeezed out of the alienated labor of workers and commoditization continue to homogenize cultural expression, but Earth will become a toxic wasteland eaten alive from the inside out by the mechanical transformation of extropy3 into the fetishized value of money and use-and-dispose consumables.

The emergence of life on earth around 4 billion years ago can be understood as an expression of the same natural tendency to dissipate free energy that is driving the extractive economy of industrialism. The complex activities of living creatures on Earth’s surface work to bring the extreme temperature gradient between sunlight and space toward equilibrium by radiating back more heat than would an inert planet, as per the 2nd law of thermodynamics (p. 46, Margulis, 2002). The industrial organism has brought this process of gradient reduction to new heights by technologically freeing exergy trapped in places no other form of life could reach (like hydrocarbons and radioactive elements).4 But as has been learned from the many identity crises to come before on this planet (i.e., five prior mass extinctions) more of the same leads eventually to extinction because conditions are always evolving: humanity must mutate or perish. Our industrial presence to the biosphere represents a deficient and so unsustainable relationship between mind and life, culture and nature, humanity and Earth.

Unless the as yet unrealized spirit of integration lying dormant in human consciousness can blossom, our species will continue to instinctually play by the entropic rules of thermodynamics5 by devouring the remaining resources of the Earth. Like the ever-optimistic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I am hopeful that we will learn to

“give [our lives] to [being and to knowing], rather than to [possession],” because though “human vision is still diffuse in its operation, mixed up with industrial activity and war…it will not be long now before the noösphere finds its eyes” (p. 280, 1955).

Only with the full emergence of the noösphere can humanity become integral with the Earth, achieving what Jean Gebser has referred to as a transparent aperspectival a-waring of human and universe together in a space-time-free presentiation of origin (p. 312, 1985).

Human societies are not inherently exploitative and selfish, nor is the rest of the biosphere a pitiless struggle for existence guided only by the invisible hand of natural selection. We have not always been capitalists. As Alf Hornborg has argued,

“…there are undoubtedly social metaphors that transfer meanings from relations in the human world to relations with the nonhuman one, committing societies to specific trains of thought” (p. 197, 2001).

I will argue in this essay that our integral potential has been ideologically distorted by the dualistic ontology and fetishized mythology intrinsic to the industrial mode of consciousness. Powerful forces of cultural habit have deceived us into tirelessly slaving and ruthlessly competing for the alienating and spiritually empty ends of techno-industrial accumulation. This ideological distortion of our natural capacity for empathic relationality is the psycho-social precursor that primed modern scientific consciousness for its reductionistic study of living systems and their evolution, and which consequently led to the mechanistic study of the “rational animal,” the human consumer, as scientific metaphors migrated back into economic theory.

The mechanization of biology is typical of the deficient mental mode of consciousness. So long as our understanding of life remains deficient, our planetary civilization will continue to ignore humanity’s integral relationship with the Earth, and probably destroy itself within a century. In the chapters to follow, I argue that modern science’s mechanical theory of life is inseparable from the economic ideology of modern capitalism. The hegemonic industrial parade noisily marching our planet’s living population to the edge of extinction is given ideological steam by the mechanistic theory of life. My purpose in writing this book is to break through the biological bulwarks guarding the economic status quo and to plant the seeds of an alternative, living biology. I hope these seeds will aid humanity in our Great Work of becoming integral with the Earth, a partner in Gaia’s dance through the heavens.

 

Introduction: What is Life?

Life, for Sri Aurobindo, is the mutual commerce connecting matter and mind in the manifest universe, an

“intermediate energizing of conscious being [that] liberates into sensitive action and reaction a form of the creative force of existence which was working subconsciently or inconsciently, absorbed in its own substance; it supports and liberates into action the apprehensive consciousness of existence called mind and gives it a dynamic instrumentation so that it can work not only on its own forms but on forms of life and matter” (p. 186-187, The Life Divine).

The knowing mind is always supported by embodied experience. Any scientific stories told to explain the cosmos must have some relation to our personal and inter-personal experience of living and dying as earthlings. Philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have struggled to adequately articulate a clear concept of life, which ambiguously straddles the apparent boundary between matter and spirit. The conscious human being is always already in life, thrown between matter and mind, and so cannot entirely breach the eternal realm of unchanging ideas, nor totally fathom the depths of material flux and impermanence—at least this side of death. But Aurobindo is not wrong when he writes that “the natural opposition we make between death and life, and between matter and spirit, is an error of our mentality” (p. 176, ibid.). He urges us to become aware of a more integral life, which

“is nothing else than the Force that builds and maintains and destroys the forms in the world…that manifests itself in the form of earth as much as in the plant that grows upon the earth and the animals that support their existence by devouring the life-force of the plants or of each other” (177, ibid.).

Death is a part of life’s dynamic wholeness, a life present

“everywhere, secret or manifest, organized or elemental, involved or evolved, but universal, all-pervading, imperishable; only its forms and organizings differ” (p. 179, ibid.).

But how are we to conceive of life’s wholeness or integrality? An overly reductive definition distorts life’s cosmic import, painting too tragic and meaningless a picture of existence, while an overly triumphant definition obscures life’s fragile beauty, ignoring the fact of death given by the birth of every living creature.

My exploration of the issues surrounding the pursuit of an organic ontology will require a thorough critique of mechanistic biology, whose aim is the reverse of my own: to define life such that it is reducible to a “mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process” (p. 320, Dennett).6 This definition will be shown to be entirely inadequate. It makes of our human experience an aberration, severing all connection whatsoever between human consciousness and the evolutionary adventure that generated it. If we are going to attempt a scientific account of life, it must recursively include the knowing mind of the living scientist in its explanations.

My critique of mechanistic biology and industrial capitalism and reconstruction of an alternative conception of life on planet Earth draws upon the process-relational ontology of Alfred North Whitehead and the phenomenological biology of Francisco J. Varela. Varela’s account of life in terms of autopoiesis will be compared with Whitehead’s analysis of the process of concrescence in the hopes that the affinity of their ideas becomes clear. It will be argued that Varela’s science demands a new metaphysical scheme not available within the confines of mechanistic materialism. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, I suggest, is up to the task.

The approach of these two thinkers is an expression of what cultural phenomenologist Jean Gebser has called the “irruption of time consciousness” (p. 380). The time element, repressed by the deficient mental structure’s exclusively spatial orientation, burst into consciousness in various ways during the past few centuries, including Hegel and Marx’s dialectical theory of history, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Einstein’s relativity theory. But the mental structure, convinced it has reached the pinnacle of our species’ evolution, has not relinquished its hold on our consciousness. Now in its deficient phase, mental consciousness retards the emergence of the integral by continuing to falsely spatialize time, thereby reducing its qualitative creative intensity to a measurable quantity. The ideology of modern capitalism is an expression of the deficient mental structure’s repression of the time element, of creative becoming. Instead of recognizing the importance of the dialectic of history and the ongoing and entangled processes of natural and social transformation, capitalist economic theory insists that the present arrangement represents the “end of history” (as Francis Fukuyama has claimed): no revolutions in or improvements to social relations or in human-earth relations are necessary. Capitalist economists thus search for invariant laws supposed to apply universally to all human societies in all historical epochs. In contrast, an ecologized Marxist economic theory, building on the dialectical acuity of Hegel’s historical method, is better prepared to integrate the time element into its understanding of human society and the wider economy of Earth within which our economy is embedded. As the eco-Marxists Foster, Clark, and York describe it, Marx’s approach invites us to

“highlight the dramatic changes in social structures and patterns that have occurred throughout human history and [argues] that what appear to be invariant laws to observers in any particular period, may in fact be transient tendencies unique to that historical era, emerging from the dialectical interaction of an ensemble of social and natural processes” (The Ecological Rift, p. 27).

In addition to the repression of time, Eco-Marxists also critique the techno-optimistic “human exemptionalism” that leads to fantasies about a future “dematerialization” of economic production such that

“the capitalist economy can then walk on air (or create a ‘weightless society’), thereby continuing its relentless expansion—but with a rapidly diminishing effect on the environment” (The Ecological Rift, p. 34, 43).

Such fantasies ignore both the zero-sum thermodynamic reality of the Earth system (thereby “[going] against the basic laws of physics” [ibid., 43]) and the inequality of human society (thereby going against the democratic principles of life, liberty, and happiness).

Gebser also points to the need to heal the rift, both ideological and metabolical, between humanity and the Earth. In the chapters to follow, I offer the beginnings of a more integral biology whose account of the biosphere includes human society as one of its expressions. “The supersession of dualism in biology begins to occur,” according to Gebser, “at the moment when the ‘time’ factor is taken into consideration” (The Ever-Present Origin, p. 384). The time element can only be authentically grasped by an integral consciousness. Gebser’s account of the evolution of consciousness and in particular the irruption of time in the mutation from deficient mental to integral consciousness thus provides the context for much of the discussion to follow.

 

Footnotes

1 ~6,798,504,820 on Nov. 21st, 2009 according to the US Census Bureau. High population is hardly an adequate measure of success, just a reflection of unsustainable rates of resource consumption. And even if population were the true gauge of success, surely insects and bacteria would be the real winners in this world.

2 The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.org) estimates that 21 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of all known amphibians, 12 percent of all known birds, 28 percent of reptiles, 37 percent of freshwater fishes, 70 percent of plants, 35 percent of invertebrates assessed so far are under serious threat of extinction.

3 i.e., energy available to do work.

4 Lynn Margulis goes so far as to argue that “[Technological evolution], whether [expressed in the] human, bower bird, or nitrogen-fixing bacterium, becomes the extension of the second law to open systems” (p. 47, 2002). She means to imply that the proliferation of entropy producing techno-industrial products and their social ramifications is the result of natural law. I will argue in this paper that she is correct only if consciousness fails to become integrally transparent to itself, liberating humanity from the tamasic impulse toward increasing entropy production.

5 Ilya Prigogine defines thermodynamics as “the study of the macroscopic properties of a system and their relations without regard to the underlying dynamics” (p. 205, 1996).

6 For Dennett, an algorithm is any set of conditions tending to produce a certain outcome. He sees Darwin’s conditions (random variation under natural selection) as completely explanatory of the present state of the biosphere. Dennett argues that a “cascade of mere purposeless, mechanical causes” is entirely responsible for the “gradual emergence of meaning” (p. 412).

Neuroscientist Christoph Koch comes out as a panpsychist?

Now that I’m just about finished with my comprehensive exam, let’s see what interesting things are happening around the blogosphere… WOW! According to Michael Zimmerman, Christoph Koch has come out as a panpsychist in his new book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Koch generates an information-theoretic account of consciousness, which he labels Φ, suggesting that all organized systems, from sub-atomic particles to humans, and perhaps to computer networks like the Internet, experience the world internally in some way.

If it has both differentiated and integrated states of information, it feels like something to be such a system; it has an interior perspective. The complexity and dimensionality of their associated phenomenal experiences might differ vastly, but each one has its own crystal [interior] shape…Even simple matter has a modicum of Φ. Protons and neutrons consist of a triad of quarks that are never observed in isolation. They constitute an infinitesimal integrated system. (p. 131-132).

I studied Koch’s work back when he collaborated with the late Francis Crick, and needless to say, I thought their search for a neural cause of consciousness was doomed to failure. I am surprised and delighted that he was lead by his own scientific research to the conclusion that coming to terms with the explanatory gap requires re-imagining the metaphysical presuppositions of scientific materialism.

Koch even goes so far as to praise Teilhard de Chardin for his pathbreaking work toward such a new image of the cosmos:

Teilhard de Chardin is alluring because his basic insight is compatible with the observed tendency of biological diversity (measured by the amount of variation) and complexity to increase over the course of evolution and with the ideas about integrated information and consciousness I have outlined…The rise of sentient life within time’s wide circuit was inevitable. Teilhard de Chardin is correct in his view that islands within the universe–if not the whole cosmos–are evolving toward ever-greater complexity and self-knowledge. (p. 134, 165).

Reflections on Jorge Ferrer’s Participatory Turn in Transpersonal Theory

I’m taking a course this semester on contemporary transpersonal theory taught by Prof. Jorge Ferrer and Prof. Jacob Sherman. Ferrer’s key text is Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (2001), wherein he tries to initiate a paradigm shift in transpersonal psychology beyond the neo-perennialist assumptions of its founders (e.g., Ken Wilber, Stanislav Grof, Abraham Maslow). In 2008, Ferrer and Sherman co-edited The Participatory Turn, which is an attempt to historically and methodologically ground the participatory approach initiated in Revisioning by applying it in the discipline of religious studies.

Here is Ferrer talking to the Center for Spirituality and Health at the University of Florida in 2006:

In what follows, I’m drawing also from Ferrer’s recent essay in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology entitled “Participatory Spirituality and Transpersonal Theory: A Ten Year Retrospective” (2011).

Ferrer mentions what some evangelical Christian’s have begun calling the “scandal of pluralism”: the scandal being that the explosion of contemporary spiritualities raises the issue of how any one of them in particular could provide a fully accurate depiction of the ultimate nature of reality without implying that all of the others are off the mark. The perennialists get around this issue by suggesting each spirituality represents a different path up the same mountain. Their’s remains a universalist picture of religion, since one spiritual system can be measured relative to another based upon how high up the mountain it is. Despite the many faces of the mountain, and the diversity of paths winding up its slopes, there is only one peak: the perennialist judges each system according to the same altitudinal standard. Against the perennialist’s universalism, Ferrer, argues that the peak is a regulative principle used to guide cocreative inquiry into “the mystery,” rather than a ready-made position one can claim to have finally discovered for oneself. Ferrer therefore doesn’t reject universalism entirely, but adopts what he calls “a more relaxed spiritual universalism.” Pluralism leads inevitably into a performative contradiction, since the claim that all systems are relative is itself a universal claim. Ferrer suggests that the only way beyond the self-defeating contradiction of pluralism and the self-congratulatory exclusivity of universalism is to cultivate a form of spiritual judgement based upon pragmatic and transformational–not just ontological or metaphysical–criteria. I’ve so far proceeded with the working assumption that spiritual systems are primarily or exclusively concerned with metaphysics, with “providing an accurate depiction of the ultimate nature of reality.” This leaves out the practical, embodied, and indeed participatory dimensions of spirituality, those focused not just on the theoretical description of reality but also upon the moral transformation of that same reality. Part of what Ferrer is getting at, I think, is that we can overcome the tendency to privilege a particular tradition as paradigmatic and thereby untangle the the universalism-pluralism knot by engaging in a participatory form of inquiry open to the “dynamic and undetermined mystery or generative power of life, the cosmos, and/or the spirit.” Ferrer argues that “the mystery” is unlike the Kantian thing-in-itself, since his participatory approach “[refuses] to conceive of the mystery as having objectifiable pregiven attributes.” I become a bit confused here, since this seems to be a misreading of Kant, who would have agreed with this refusal in principle, even if in practice he offered some hints as to the nature of the supersensible (e.g., in the Critique of Judgment, he posits the idea of a purposeful organization of things as a regulative guide). Despite Ferrer’s professed resistance to characterizing the thing-in-itself in any way, he also goes on in the same essay to say: “I take the view that the mystery, the cosmos, and/or spirit unfolds from a primordial state of undifferentiated unity toward one of infinite differentiation-in-communion.” This perspective could be read as an inevitable result of Kant’s transcendental idealism as it was taken up and elaborated upon by thinkers like Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling. Schelling’s organic philosophy, wherein a living and creative cosmos is the ongoing revelation of an infinite spirit, seems especially similar to the view Ferrer expresses above. Rather than pretend we can or should say nothing about the ultimate nature of reality, I think it is possible to preserve its essential mysteriousness while also engaging in the metaphysical and moral work required to effectively describe and transform it.

Ferrer’s comments in the above videos about the “pride of mind” are important. I certainly agree with him that education in the United States and Western world generally is almost exclusively intellectual, neglecting the vital energies of the body, the empathic wisdom of the heart, and the inspiration of the spirit. Philosophy education in particular might benefit from an understanding of the poetic basis of mind, the way in which language and verbal consciousness are rooted in song, and as such, emerge out of the breathing (spirit-imbued) body. The mind need not be in control of the body from a position beyond it; rather, the mind can be understood to be the life that moves through the body, analogous to the way wind passes through an aeolian harp. Mind, then, is not isolable from the body, but neither is it locally produced by the body. It flows through. When its flow is blocked by bodily trauma (e.g., when one of the harp’s string’s is snapped), thinking also becomes disfigured.

Much has been made of the confrontation between Ferrer and Wilber (HERE and HERE, for example). I’m just beginning to read the relevant material, but so far it seems to me that the differences between the two are real but largely overplayed. Ferrer tends to lean more toward a kind of pluralistic openness to “the mystery,” while Wilber tends more toward inclusivist perennialism. I am uncomfortable with aspects of Wilber’s developmental scheme, since it makes it all too easy to dismiss critics as being simply less developed than oneself. However, I do think consciousness can only be understood as an evolutionary process, that something like the historical dialectic described by Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit is unfolding upon the earth. I am uncomfortable with such Western-centric schemes as they currently exist only because it seems there are multiple evolutions of multiple consciousnesses.

Post-Secular Spirituality

Michael over at Archive Fire recently linked to a published essay by a friend and former colleague at CIISAnnick Hedlund-de Witt. Annick researches the way changing world-views in America and Europe stand to influence–whether positively, negatively, or not at all–the push for a more sustainable approach to development around the world. She focuses specifically on spiritual imaginaries (my term) that have been dubbed “New Age” in an attempt to understand, from a sociological and developmental perspective, what impact they may have in our burgeoning planetary civilization’s attempt to respond to the various social and ecological (or perhaps socioecological and cosmopolitical) crises of our time. Her essay, linked above and here, is very thorough. I’m unabashedly sympathetic and supportive of her work.

I have argued extensively (here and here) that adequately responding to the socioecological crises of our time is not possible without spiritual transformation. When it comes to “spiritual matters,” I tend to think most easily along the lines articulated by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in The Universe Story (1994). Brian, a cosmologist, has called for the “re-invention of the human,” while his mentor, Berry, a religious scholar and geologian, invoked the alchemical mystery of metamorphosis by referring to our civilization’s present challenge as the Great Work.

But what on earth does “spirituality” even mean?  I tend to distance myself from the so-called New Age movement, since its popular manifestations seem to suggest that all the world needs now is “positive energy.” Usually this energy is touted as a deeply mystical “secret,” but nonetheless comes conveniently package and sold in DVD-sized boxes, each one inspected by Oprah (there is a pink “O” sticker on the cover to prove it). I think this sort of “spirituality” fits too easily into the same old capitalist mold all good “Young Hegelian” thinkers want to break free of.

Slavoj Žižek, who contrasts Young (to which he could be said to belong) with Old, or conservative Hegelians (think Ken Wilber) in his recent book Living in the End Times (2010), also has a number of interesting things to say about New Age eco-apocalypticism. On the one hand, he points out that Daniel Pinchbeck’s vision of a coming “deep spiritual shift”  (as recorded in his book on 2012) is structurally identical to a kind of communism, at least if “we scratch away its spiritualist coating” (Žižek, p. 350).

If we are graduating from nation-states to a noospheric state, we may find ourselves exploring the kind of nonhierarchical social organization–a ‘synchronic order’ based on trust and telepathy–that the Hopi and other aboriginal groups have used for millennia. If a global civilization can self-organize from our current chaos, it will be founded on cooperation rather than winner-takes-all competition, sufficiency rather than surfeit, communal solidarity rather than individual elitism, reasserting the sacred nature of all earthly life (Pinchbeck, p. 213).

On the other hand, Žižek also notes that the New Age imaginary is an all-to-easy, feel-good temptation that, especially in the context of the ecological crisis, neglects “the basic lesson of Darwinism: the utter contingency of nature” (p. 350). Earth is not a pristine and perfectly balanced harmony of organisms and environments (as imaginaries like Deep Ecology often suggest); it is a dynamically evolving, far-from-equilibrium system of complex relationships that scientific research is only beginning to unravel. When trying to comprehend the nature of our relationship to the natural world, Žižek suggests that we “[bear] in mind that ‘nature’ is a contingent multi-faceted mechanism in which catastrophes can lead to unexpectedly positive results” (p. 351). The oxygen crisis comes to mind as perhaps the best example, with the astroid collision that helped end the dinosaurs’ reign close behind.

Returning to the potential upside of New Age spirituality, Žižek goes on to question whether the typical “anemic-skeptical liberal stance” as regards spiritual matters is enough to “revitalize our post-political desiccation of democracy” (p. 352). Could it be that some sort of “return of the religious” is necessary to inject passion back into Leftist politics?

Žižek, right on cue, dialecticizes the dichotomy between secularism and religiosity :

…as Hegel already showed apropos the dialectic of Enlightenment and faith in his Phenomenology of Spirit, such counter-posing of formal Enlightenment values to fundamental-substantial beliefs is false, amounting to an untenable ideologico-existential position. What we should do, by contrast, is fully assume the identity of the two opposed moments–which is precisely what an apocalyptic ‘Christian materialism’ does do, in bringing together both the rejection of a divine Otherness and the element of unconditional commitment (p. 353).

What exactly Žižek means by a “Christian materialism” is not clear to me as of yet, but I think my work toward developing a “logic of incarnation” could also be described in this way.

What might it mean to call the human a “spiritual animal”? In light of some of my recent blogs on death, perhaps the human is spiritual because, unlike most other organisms, it is not simply “living”; rather, due to its knowledge of death, it also participates consciously in Life itself. We are spiritual precisely because, at least in the non-ordinary circumstances when we are made to pay attention to it, our sense of being alive–of livingseems to hover somewhere between life and death. Our present consciousness at first appears limited by the horizon of the sensory world; but just as we cognize this limit, we come immediately to recognize our spiritual participation in bringing it forth. As soon as we grasp our own bodily mortality, consciousness instinctually protests by either repressing the full trauma of the fact or transforming itself through a religious act (i.e., faith) into something spiritually immortal.

Enactivism, Integral Theory, and 21st Century Spirituality

The following is lifted from my old blog at Gaia.com, which has since shut down. Sorry of some hypertext doesn’t work!

I first want to thank everyone for participating in this symposium. The intersection of integral spirituality and enactive cognitive science is, for whatever reason, one of my passions, and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to engage others about these ways of thinking and living.

I’m going to begin this essay by breaking down the topics of enactivism and integralism (specifically Ken Wilber’s integralism) as they relate to one another. I’ll do so in two separate sections, the first on the biology of cognition and communication as described within the enactive paradigm, and the second on biology and enactivism as perceived and appropriated by Wilber. I hope to highlight a few areas of agreement, as well as disagreement, and to lay down what I think the most promising path of synthesis might be. If you are not too keen on abstract philosophical discourse, please bear with me, as these sections may qualify as exactly that (feel free to skip to part 3 if you must!).

The last section will be more concrete and, hopefully, poetically evocative. It will focus on what an embodied and integral spirituality might look like, contrasting it with the unfortunate developments in the contemporary New Age community. Popular but shallow spiritual salesmen (and women) have developed clever marketing campaigns geared toward convincing people that they can “create their own reality.” While this idea is not entirely false in some contexts, it is grossly misleading and requires quite a bit of unpacking before it begins to bear any resemblance to reality. With the help of some of Varela’s ideas, I hope to offer a vision of the potential of being human in the creative cosmos we all call home.

Circularity (Escher)

Part 1: Enactivism and the Biology of Cognition

1-A: Co-gnosis, or “Knowing-with”

If one had to distill the central tenet of enactivism, as developed by Humberto Maturana and the late Francisco Varela, it would be that “everything said is said by an observer” (Maturana, 1988, p. 27). An observer is any language-using being, specifically a human being. We human beings use language to describe the world we inhabit with others. Typically, we describe without explicitly referencing ourselves as observers. Enactivism (I’ll use this term even though it is Varela’s; Maturana, though not directly associated with it, would probably not be opposed to the label) suggests that self-referentiality is always implied, as to speak a language with others is to bring forth a world of shared significance whose relation to an independent reality outside the one we constitute with and for each other is irrelevant.

This holds true for all modes of language, whether colloquial or scientific. When molecular biologists investigate the structure of cellular organelles, they come to know what they see through their microscopes by agreeing upon appropriate linguistic abstractions and relations between abstractions. These abstractions designate the important features of reality as distinguished by those with the skills and training required to do so. Even when the science being practiced is physics, our descriptions amount to consensual agreements about the nature of the world under investigation (shaped also by our biological structure and organization, which are not arbitrary choices but historical necessities resulting from our evolutionary inheritance; more on this below). This may be hard for materialists to swallow, but one of the core suppositions of enactivism is that science, as a form of languaging, is indeed a social activity embedded in a particular historical situation bearing the marks of the prejudices that affect every other human sphere of life, whether political, religious, or otherwise.

“A physicist will say that we’re made of atoms,” says Varela. “Such statements, while true, are irrelevant… There is a reality of life and death, which affects us directly and is on a different level from the abstractions” (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/varela/varela_p4.html).

The reality of life and death that Varela here refers to is that of our embodied existence as conscious observers. There is a tendency in the sciences to assume that the knowledge brought forth by the scientific method amounts to an objective representation of reality as it exists independent of human subjectivity. Maturana and Varela want to replace this notion with that of “objectivity-in-parenthesis.” Their aim is to avoid the transcendental objectivism which results when the observer “…implicitly or explicitly assumes that existence takes place independently of what he or she does, that things exist independently of whether he or she knows them, and that he or she can know them, or can know of them, or can know about them, through perception or reason” (Maturana, 1988a, p. 28).

Remember, for enactivism, “everything said is said by an observer.” This is to remind us that all of our descriptions come from a particular perspective. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as pure objectivity. As philosopher Thomas Nagel put it, pure objectivity amounts to a “view from nowhere,” which, when taken literally, is contradictory. Conceptually, we can certainly imagine reality and ourselves outside our embedded perspectives; but such mental exercises remain a function of ouroperationally closed (more on this later) nervous systems. In other words, our imagined objectivity is still a product of our embodiment, and so remains an “as if” objectivity; or, as enactivism suggests, an “objectivity-in-parenthesis.”

To be clear, though, as Bruce pointed out last week, Varela and Maturana do not mean to replace objectivity with a form of solipsistic idealism, nor a form of complete social constructivism. On the contrary, they want to call our attention to empirical biological realities. We will now shift from what has primarily been a discussion of language into a discussion of the “bio-logic” underlying it.

1-B: Bio-logic

There is a bit of a scandal in the biological sciences. After nearly 400 years of what might be considered modern scientific investigation (and 3,000 years of natural philosophy), a widely agreed upon definition for the central object of study, life, has yet to be produced. There are plenty of qualities that have been ascribed to living systems, but (arguably) the only serious attempt to define it was Varela and Maturana’s theory of autopoiesis. Briefly, an autopoietic system is a unity easily distinguishable from its surrounding environment, containing components that continually produce and maintain both themselves and the unity. The term is a literal translation into Greek of “self-producing.”

There is a more technical definition of the term, but for the purposes of this paper, I won’t get into it. Click the hypertext above if you are interested. The reason the autopoiesis –or self-producing organization— of organisms is important for this discussion is the extent to which it helps us see how the nervous system brings forth both our individuality and our world. The term is meant to apply specifically to the organization of a cell, but it applies equally well (with a few caveats) to multicellular organisms, which biologist Leo Buss has appropriately called “somatic ecologies.” Why the term is appropriate may need some unpacking. From the point of view of autopoietic theory, the process of living is synonymous with cognition. So even a single bacterium flagellating up a sucrose gradient is bringing forth a world based on its own internal dynamics. When evolution gives rise to multicellulars, the worlds of each cell must somehow be coordinated such that “…potential conflicts between cells and the individual [are mediated], while the organism is simultaneously interacting effectively with the extrasomatic environment” (Buss 1987). Varela was fascinated by just how this mediation was pulled off. It drew him into immunology, where he attempted to improve upon the traditional understanding of the immune system as a kind of military defense against intruders by redefining it as a “self-referential, positive assertion of a coherent unity” (Varela, 1991, Autopoiesis and a Biology of Intentionality, pg. 9). But what interests us is his investigation into the “somatic ecology” of the nervous system, which along side the immune system allows a network of trillions of cells to function as a coherent whole.

Varela put it thus: “The fundamental logic of the nervous system is that of coupling movements with a stream of sensory modulations in a circular fashion” (Ibid.). Let’s break this down. The first thing to notice about this “neuro-logic” is that perception becomes an active process. We know the world by moving around within it. Bruce alluded to an experiment with kittens validating this in a comment under his essay. In this sense, the term “perception” is a bit of a misnomer, as it implies the passive reception through the senses of an already constituted reality. This brings us to the second important feature of Varela’s neuro-logic, which is that perception is a circular process generated by ongoing sensorimotor coupling. This is true both at the level of individual neurons (dendrites are sensors, axon terminals are motors) and at the level of the whole organism (eyes, ears, skin, etc. are sensors, muscles, tendons, etc. are motors).

This circularity is why enactivism posits the “operational closure” of the nervous system mentioned earlier. We know only the world the structure and organization of our nervous systems allow us to know. As Varela says, “The neuronal dynamics underlying a perceptuo-motor task are… a network affair, a highly cooperative two-way system, and not a sequential stage-to-stage information abstraction” (Ibid.). In other words, the typical linear notion of information picked up by the senses from a pregiven world, processed into perceptions, and then translated into appropriate motor responses is not just a simplification, but is actually wrong. What we perceive is based more on the ongoing operations already taking place in our nervous system prior to any perturbations by the environment. If we now reconsider the first point about active perception, we see that “all doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing” (Maturana & Varela, 1992, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, p. 27).

This concludes the section on enactivism, but we will revisit and further explore some of the concepts discussed above, as well as introduce a few other important features of the enactive paradigm (such as intersubjectivity and groundlessness) as we go along.

(Click here for a video of Evan Thompson, co-author of The Embodied Mind, on 1st personal consciousness, and a much younger Varela speaking about objectivity.)

Part 2- Wilber, Biology, Enactivism

I’ll assume that most of you are already familiar with Ken Wilber’s work. For our purposes, a general grasp of his AQAL model will suffice.

As Bruce has already pointed out last week, Wilber embraces Varela et al.’s attempt to move beyond the gross reductionism of the representational paradigm in cognitive science, which sees the mind as essentially identical to a sophisticated computer. As Wilber says, “From the field that claims to be the final authority on such matters, what we learn about consciousness and lived experience is this: basically, it doesn’t exist” (Wilber, 1995, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 564). Part of Varela’s project is to find a place for conscious experience in the scientific worldview. But Wilber’s support for enactivism as presented by Varela et al. is not without a few important reservations. While he applauds them for deconstructing and replacing the notion of a pregiven world found in the representational paradigm, he argues that they fail to fully appreciate the subjective dimensions of organisms. To be more specific, I refer you to the diagram below:

Wilber’s drawing

We see above in what is labeled figure 3 that each quadrant has both an interior and an exterior aspect, each with its own appropriate epistemological methodology. Varela is credited with rightly correcting the traditional Darwinian idea that something called “Nature” is responsible for singlehandedly sculpting the evolution of species, selecting which traits live on and which don’t. This idea, while not entirely wrong, fails to appreciate the degree to which organisms participate in their own evolution based on their autopoiesis, or self-organizing properties. Varela’s is a biology that emphasizes the autonomy of the organism, whereas most evolutionary biology sees the organism as the victim of a pregiven environment. In other words, organism and environment (or Nature, in Darwin’s terms) co-determine one another. Wilber further explains: “… autopoietic theories remind us that the objective organism is not merely a strand in a Web, but also a relatively autonomous agent enacting its environment, an environment that is not a pregiven Web but is rather brought forth in part by the autopoietic regime of the organism itself” (http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/kosmos/excerptC/intro-1.cfm). Wilber suggests, though, that Varela “…escapes the crude mirror of nature paradigm (monological and pregiven), but only by attacking the pregiven part, not the monological part: the paradigm shifts from the monological mirror of a sensorimotor world to the monological enactment of a sensorimotor world” (Ibid., p. 714).

Wilber is here arguing that Varela’s approach remains focused only on the upper right, objective quadrant. Autopoietic organization represents the inside of the exterior of organisms, but according to Wilber, fails to fully appreciate the subjective, phenomenological experience of organisms.

I don’t disagree with Wilber’s analysis here, as I think Varela’s work could certainly benefit from a more in depth exploration of subjective development. Nonetheless, I think Varela is very much aware of the lifeworld of organisms, which is evidenced by his exploration of Buddhist meditation in The Embodied Mind, as well this statement which directly acknowledges the role of agency in organisms: “[an organism] isn’t related to its environment ‘objectively,’ that is, independently of the system’s location, heading, attitudes and history. Instead, it relates to it in relation to the perspective established by the constantly emerging properties of the agent itself and in terms of the role such running redefinition plays in the system’s entire coherence” (Varela, 1991, Autopoiesis and a Biology of Intentionality, pg. 11). Granted, this description is still a third person account of a lived reality, which can only be directly accessed with “I” language. “The habits of intimate touching of prehensive unification tend to be reduced to the mechanics of structural coupling and exterior-cognitive enactment,” as Wilber says (http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/kosmos/excerptC/notes-1.cfm).

Wilber accuses enactivism of being “heavily grounded in a biologistic bias” (Wilber, 1995, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 712). To the extent that Varela et al. were aiming to remain scientific, this is true. But I wonder if Wilber has fully appreciated the scientific realities brought forth by a thorough investigation of the biological world…? As Julian discussed in one of his blogs earlier this year, Wilber seems to look to theorists associated with the intelligent design movement when asked about what an integral biology might look like. In one of his books, he makes the following specious argument: “It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg–a half-wing will not do. A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing–you can’t run and you can’t fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal–also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings” (Wilber, 2000, A Brief History of Everything, p.20). If you showed this passage to a biologist, after they finished laughing, they’d explain that wings most certainly could evolve gradually.

It’s not that I don’t share Wilber’s distaste for the neo-Darwinist paradigm in evolutionary biology. I just think he would be more respected in scientific circles if he did not make outrageous claims without any supporting evidence whatsoever. There are plenty of other approaches to understanding evolution in a non-reductionist way that are entirely scientific and don’t require any such exaggeration, among them Varela’s co-determining theory, which Wilber seems to know well but so often neglects to mention when asked about evolutionary biology. If anything like intelligent design is true, science would become impossible, as positing a demiurge as the designer of nature makes any human attempt to know reality akin to a cartoon character suddenly realizing they are an artist’s drawing. It ain’t gunna happen.

To sum up this section, we can say that Varela’s ideas would definitely benefit from a greater appreciation for the depth and developmental scope of subjective experience, as Wilber has rightly argued. But Wilber, on the other hand, could equally benefit from a more realistic engagement with the findings of objective biological science. Varela is no longer with us, and so we will never know how he may have appropriated Wilber’s criticisms; but hopefully Wilber will reevaluate his seeming support for intelligent design by fully embracing the truths brought forth by an empirical, systems-oriented approach to biological evolution.

Part 3- Embodied Spirituality

I’d like to begin this section with a few words from Varela himself. This video was shot just before his death in 2001 as part of a documentary entitled “Monte Grande” released in 2005.

It pretty well speaks for itself, reiterating several points I hope were adequately made in the first two sections of this essay about the co-emergence of subject and object. What struck me as significant, though, was what Varela said towards the end about abiding in the questions that strike us as especially mysterious, rather than rushing to pass judgment for or against them. Maybe it is just a reflection of my and Varela’s Buddhist frame of reference, but it has always seemed to me that being spiritual essentially means being unattached. This doesn’t mean we should not love deeply those we share our lives with, quite the contrary. Letting go of our attachments allows us to relate to others more genuinely than when we have specific ends in mind. What non-attachment suggests is that we be constantly on the lookout for the various manifestations of certainty that tend to crop up in our thoughts about the world. Almost always, an unyielding conviction about this, that, or the other is the result of some kind of repression or psychological wound we have yet to fully face and allow to heal.

In The Embodied Mind, Varela repeatedly emphasizes the groundless nature of existence. Even that most universal of spiritual values, love, so often eludes all our attempts to possess or comprehend it. Whether it is our own personal experience of being conscious, or our sense of the world around us, a penetrating investigation reveals no firm foundation upon which to rest our tirelessly seeking minds. The path seems endless, not necessarily because it is long and filled with difficult challenges, but because it is constantly swallowing itself like an Ouroburos.

Holding this image in mind, what are we to make of the many New Age belief systems offering “secrets” (for a fee) that supposedly give us anything we desire? I see in these systems only clever advertising and predation upon those with weak minds. There is not even the hint of anything genuinely spiritual, in the sense that spirituality means letting go of our own wants and desires to focus instead upon compassion and loving kindness. Seeking great spiritual insights from something like the “law of attraction” tarnishes the meaning of the word “insight.” To genuinely see into our condition, we have to forgo the “Cartesian anxiety” that compels us to chase after various forms of security and stability, be they a grandiose sense of self, a youthful appearance, a six-figure salary, or transcendental knowledge of and control over reality itself. When we turn our attention inward, we discover that the self we think we are, with all its desires and wishes and ideas, is rather fragile and impermanent.

Realizing this can lead in one of two directions:

Either we avert our introspective gaze and distract ourselves with kitschy offers of instant enlightenment for 3 easy payments of $19.95, or we go deeper and realize that our lack of an essential self is an opportunity to engage reality on a level more rewarding than anything we could have dreamed of before.

I quote Varela at length:

“The more the fragile self-subject deploys itself, the more compassion deploys itself because that’s what it is. The more there is the opening into space to accommodate or to take care of the other, there is kind of an intrinsic decenteredness, and therefore the other appears closer. Solidarity, compassion, care, love –all of the different modes of being together– appear when the self is decentered. Now that, to me, is a great gift of the universe. Since we are not solid and private and centered, the more we get close to all our reality, the more we are who we are. That is, both you and I. Not just me, but the ‘us-ness’ in us. Which is another way of saying that my mind is not my mind. It is a mind that requires that interbeing. There is naturally that kind of concern and care and solidarity. But it is not just how nice I am, or how good a guy I am. It has nothing to do with this. It has to do with how real things are, in reality, that non-distinction between the intersubjective network of things” (http://www.dialogonleadership.org/varela-2000.html).

Varela is here suggesting that our true nature is to be compassionate, not because we are “nice guys,” but because our very identity as individuals arises out of our transactions with others. This, and not the possibility of magical powers, is what an integral and embodied spirituality offers.

To even believe for a moment that our thoughts will bring us whatever we want, we have to already be completely encased and blinded by a lonely solipsistic shell, not recognizing that every other person around us is also hoping and wishing for their own fantasies to be fulfilled. Who is going to end up on top in this struggle for personal happiness? There can only be so many lottery winners… Again, maybe it is just my Buddhist bias, but who can deny that life is suffering? We are made through an act of carnal love in the pursuit of fleeting bliss, grown in the womb at the behest of the crystalline death records of untold generations prior, and born as naked, delicately woven bodies, our intricate dynamics hardly noticed until something goes wrong. And when it does, we’re faced with that ultimate uncertainty– with the completely unknowable, unfathomable reunion with that from which we came.

But could it be any other way? Could our bodies be so capable of deep feeling and intimate contact without also being so prone to disease and decomposition? Life is suffering, but so is suffering bliss. It is our perpetual lack that moves us to love, that guides us into the future where unending forms of life will result from the creative spark that is our being-towards-death. We cannot overcome the circle of becoming, of continual rebirth, but we can embrace it, celebrating the opportunity we so easily forget we have.

I’ll close with one of my favorite Zen koans entitled, “Hyakujo’s Fox,” with a comment at the end by Zen master Mumon. Zen is great for cutting through spiritual excess and getting right to the point:

Once when Hyakujo delivered some Zen lectures an old man attended them, unseen by the monks. At the end of each talk when the monks left so did he. But one day he remained after the had gone, and Hyakujo asked him: `Who are you?’

The old man replied: `I am not a human being, but I was a human being when the Kashapa Buddha preached in this world. I was a Zen master and lived on this mountain. At that time one of my students asked me whether the enlightened man is subject to the law of causation. I answered him: “The enlightened man is not subject to the law of causation.” For this answer evidencing a clinging to absoluteness I became a fox for five hundred rebirths, and I am still a fox. Will you save me from this condition with your Zen words and let me get out of a fox’s body? Now may I ask you: Is the enlightened man subject to the law of causation?’

Hyakujo said: `The enlightened man is one with the law of causation.’

At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened. `I am emancipated,’ he said, paying homage with a deep bow. `I am no more a fox, but I have to leave my body in my dwelling place behind this mountain. Please perform my funeral as a monk.’ The he disappeared.

The next day Hyakujo gave an order through the chief monk to prepare to attend the funeral of a monk. `No one was sick in the infirmary,’ wondered the monks. `What does our teacher mean?’

After dinner Hyakujo led the monks out and around the mountain. In a cave, with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox and then performed the ceremony of cremation.

That evening Hyakujo gave a talk to the monks and told this story about the law of causation.

Obaku, upon hearing this story, asked Hyakujo: `I understand that a long time ago because a certain person gave a wrong Zen answer he became a fox for five hundred rebirths. Now I was to ask: If some modern master is asked many questions, and he always gives the right answer, what will become of him?’

Hyakujo said: `You come here near me and I will tell you.’

Obaku went near Hyakujo and slapped the teacher’s face with this hand, for he knew this was the answer his teacher intended to give him.

Hyakujo clapped his hands and laughed at the discernment. `I thought a Persian had a red beard,’ he said, `and now I know a Persian who has a red beard.’

Mumon’s comment: `The enlightened man is not subject.’ How can this answer make the monk a fox?

`The enlightened man is at one with the law of causation.’ How can this answer make the fox emancipated?

To understand clearly one has to have just one eye.

Controlled or not controlled?

The same dice shows two faces.

Not controlled or controlled,

Both are a grievous error.

Phenomenology and Science


Science (empirical observation coupled with logical deduction), as a way of thinking, has undoubtedly made more out of mankind than any other mode of thought in his historical arsenal. In both the material and mental spheres, man has used the knowledge and technology that he has gained from science to make many great practical advances. He has accumulated a wealth of useful ideas and inventions since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. However, science, and all the progress which accompanied it, has yet to provide a satisfying answer to any of reality’s most fundamental mysteries, one of which being the nature of consciousness. While allowing man to logically breakdown and then symbolically map the world so as to better understand it, the scientific approach provides little insight into the nature of the mind that gives rise to those symbols in the first place. This scientific oversight of the primacy of consciousness has affected many fields of study, including philosophy. Philosopher-mystic Alan Watts laments the results of this influence: “This is the current movement in philosophy: logical analysis says you mustn’t think about existence, it’s a meaningless concept. Therefore philosophy has become the discussion of trivia. No good philosopher lays awake nights worrying about the destiny of man and the nature of God and all that sort of thing. A philosopher today is a practical fellow who comes to the university with a briefcase at 9 and leaves at 5. He does philosophy during the day—which is discussing whether certain sentences have meaning and if so what” (Watts LHG). Watts adds that “he would come to work in a white coat if he thought he could get away with it,” mocking the typical academic philosopher’s desire to be considered scientific. Author Aldous Huxley had a similar view: “In a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions. There is always money for, there are always doctorates in, the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important problem: Who influenced whom to say what when? Even in this age of technology the verbal humanities are honored. The non-verbal humanities, the arts of being directly aware of the given facts of our existence, are almost completely ignored” (Huxley 76). In other words, because the characteristic philosopher deals only in logical abstractions (usually the same abstractions that are the basis of the metaphysics of the scientific method), he deals only with a third person view of reality. He finds this approach comfortable, though, because it is the view of the objective scientist safely cut off from the field of reality going on outside his mind, from the “given facts of [his] existence.” This detached perspective helps to maintain the illusion that some progress toward understanding ultimate truth is being made, as if truth were out there in the world and the scientist/philosopher need only to observe and record it. Of course, it may never have been the goal of science to provide us with such truth, but its undeniable usefulness seems to have distracted the greater part of humanity from that pursuit altogether. Put simply, the modern philosopher has lost his sense of wonder and become hypnotized by the easily acquired half-truths of science. He may still marvel at the outside world, but he has been made ignorant of the inside world, that of his own mind, and of consciousness, that indescribable sense of being which arises when the outside and inside unite and interact. Alan Watts agrees: “Consciousness is the background to all that we know” (Watts LHG). If we don’t first look deeply into our own direct perception, how can we derive any knowledge from a world we know only through its filters?

In light of this shortcoming of science, Phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty described the necessity of reevaluating the worth of a purely scientific view of reality: “The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to a rigorous scrutiny, and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world, of which science is the second-order expression”(Merleau-Ponty). So the basic metaphysical assumption made by science—that the subject/object distinction between the mind and the body, or between man and his world, is fundamental to reality itself—is being called into question. Before one can reliably describe the outside world, one must understand the nature of his direct experience in that world. Understanding this direct experience by relating it to the state of unity consciousness (typically referred to as mystical awareness) by bridging the gap between science and religion and incorporating the insights such integration provides into a coherent phenomenological theory of embodiment will be the objective of the remainder of this essay.

To begin drawing parallels between what Merleau-Ponty means by “direct experience” and what a mystic means by “unity consciousness,” I offer the following comparison. Here is Merleau-Ponty’s description of the origin of experience: “[It is] the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity,” and further, “that primordial being which is not yet the subject-being nor the object-being and which in every respect baffles reflection. From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break; it has neither the tight construction of the mechanism nor the transparency of a whole which precedes its parts” (Merleau-Ponty viii). Now, here is philsopher-mystic Ken Wilber describing the nature of Spirit, that which is apprehended during unity consciousness: “In its immanent aspect, Spirit is the Condition of all conditions, the Being of all beings, the Nature of all natures. As such, it neither evolves nor involves, grows or develops, ascends or descends. It is the simple suchness or isness—the perfect isness—of all that is, of each and every thing in manifestation. There is no contacting immanent Spirit, no way to reach It, no way to commune with It, for there is nothing It is not. Being completely and totally present at every single point of space and time, It is fully and completely present here and now, and thus we can no more attain immanent Spirit than we could, say, attain our feet” (Wilber xvi). Merleau-Ponty speaks of a state of being that has “not yet” spontaneously divided into a subject and an object. That is, this state has not developed into time and space; it exists in its undivided state. It is space-time itself, or, as Wilber termed it, Spirit. We see then that in these two descriptions of the creative force of the universe, two seemingly disparate thinkers have realized one and the same truth, that at the root of consciousness lay a direct experience of reality which transcends all categories and dualities. Wilber’s Spirit is Merleau-Ponty’s “direct experience” of reality mystically renamed.

To illustrate why any attempt to conceptualize this direct experience “baffles reflection,” a detailed account of the limits of language must be undertaken.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once asserted that because the goals of philosophy are not lofty but illusory, its problems are not difficult but nonsensical. What exactly he meant by this is of greater importance to humankind’s pursuit of truth than perhaps any other philosophical aphorism in its history. This is so precisely because the statement casts such a shadow on all types of philosophical knowledge regardless of the conclusions they may appear to draw.

The mind/body problem, then, when viewed in light of Wittgenstein’s doubts about philosophy’s goals, must be evaluated in a fundamentally new way. The majority of the popular philosophies thus far conceived by past great thinkers have failed to produce a convincing theory because they’ve failed to properly bring to the surface the language-based barriers standing in their way. Even Merleau-Ponty’s description of direct experience, as near as it comes to dissolving these barriers, remains creatively tied down by the grammatical structure of its language. He is forced to describe a state without a subject-object duality through the medium of a language which only makes sense when subjects can act or be acted upon by objects. So to understand what Marleau-Ponty means when he says your direct experience “gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity,” you have to take a step beyond the mere words and actually feel it for yourself.

The thus far insoluble problem of other minds provides a great example of what happens when words get in the way of reality as we directly experience it. Every proposed solution to the dilemma remains frustrating unverifiable. Behaviorists claim that only what can be outwardly observed need be considered real, thereby negating the necessity of mind altogether. This seems quite silly, though; such an assertion seems contradictory being that the theory itself requires a mind for its manifestation and subsequent application. To prove, though, that other minds exist would require that a solution be spelt out here on the page, that some logically coherent intellectual argument be voiced so that you might read it and somehow understand that it were true. But Wittgenstein would say that such an answer was impossible, as proving that other minds exist cannot be accomplished using any conventional linguistic means but rather that the question itself ought to be unasked before anything might be settled. It is impossible to know that other minds exist because knowing implies that you can provide logical reasons in support of your knowledge, and reasons can only be expressed using language, which at its roots remains a fundamentally contradictory medium of expression. Surely, though, it is quite possible to feel that other minds exist, to feel without words or reasons the truth inherent to your direct perception of the human condition of another. As Wittgenstein put it, “[See the] consciousness in another’s face. Look into someone else’s face, and see the consciousness in it, and a particular shade of consciousness. You see on it, in it, joy, indifference, interest, excitement, torpor, and so on. [It’s] the light in other people’s faces” (Wittgenstein 225). Intuitively, then, the problem of other minds is no problem at all, but a farce—an unnecessary intellectual abstraction of a reality that is easily grasped by anyone willing to admit that proof is the burden of language and not the burden of reality as we experience it. In reality, the proof is in the pudding: taste it and you’ll understand. There is no reason another person ought to have a mind, there is only the truth that they do, a truth arrived at through a purely intuitive and non-rationalized experience of reality.

Of course, this conclusion is not final, as it is contingent on the definition one assigns to such an abstract word as “mind.” Here is a sample of John Locke’s view concerning the nature of mind as self: “[It is] impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive” (Locke 335). It is indeed impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive, but notice the necessity of the premise “for any one.” This one is the “mind,” the “I,” the individual person, the illusory place holder given to each human entity by the grammatical structure inherent to his way of describing reality. So it is true then, at least “true enough” in Wittgenstein’s words, that one cannot perceive without knowing he perceives, as it is said “I perceive” such that the perceiving is in fact performed by me and therefore separate from me. But am “I” a real entity, a real perceiving substance, or merely a product of the functional conventions of language (i.e. Wittgenstein’s suggestion that the meaning of a word is derived from its use)? As Huang Po, a Zen Buddhist master, once remarked to a student, “Let me remind you, the perceived cannot perceive” (Blofeld 26). If I am aware of my own perception of myself, which is the real me: my perception or my perception of my perception, or my perception of my perception of my perception, and so on? This infinite regress appears to be unavoidable, however it arises only because of the dualistic nature of language, because an “I” must “have” perceptions instead of there just being perception alone. (Of course, the illusion of separate mental existence is an undeniable experience for all those who are members of a language-crazed society, so in this sense and this sense only, it is, again, “true enough” that other minds exist even when the ego or mind is, from the ultimate perspective, not an individual’s truest identity.)

This “perception alone” is the only real quality that can be assigned to consciousness. It is synonymous with Marleau-Ponty’s “direct experience” and Wilber’s apprehension of Spirit. We all intuitively feel this perception at the deepest level of our experience all the time. It reveals what there is. It is our total current experience, our body’s complete awareness of our environment as it exists in its entirety before the names and descriptions the ego superimposes upon it become our only way of thinking about it or describing it to others. This total bodily awareness with the environment also dissolves the illusory barrier between the two so that our current experience becomes an identity with the universe in its entirety, organism and environment as one. This is a step Marleau-Ponty may or may not have been willing to take, although it seems to follow naturally from the conclusions drawn by his philosophy. If the mind is embodied, then it is no great step to realize that the organism is also embodied by its environment. This hierarchical relationship between the mind and the body, and between the body and its environment, forms the center piece of Wilber’s theory of the spectrum of consciousness.

Wilber’s spectrum of consciousness is a formalization of what is known to mystics as the Great Chain of Being. While there are many forms of this chain, each of which being divided into its own special categories with their own original names and designations, the basic core of the concept remains the same in all cases. Wilber explains: “Consciousness is not, properly speaking, a spectrum—but it is useful, for purposes of communication and investigation, to treat it as one. We are creating, in other words, a model, in the scientific sense of the word… [This model incorporates] the revelations of psychoanalysis, Yogacara Buddhism, Jungian analysis, Vedanta Hinduism, Gestalt therapy, Vajrayana, and Psychosynthesis, among others” (Wilber 6). The rationale behind creating such a detailed account of consciousness was best summed up by Psychologist William James: “Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it parted from it by the flimsiest of screens there lay potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded” (Wilber 3).

Wilber’s spectrum begins at the level of Mind. This is the level at which consciousness embraces the whole of the universe and becomes aware of, as Huxley once put it, “everything that is happening everywhere in the universe” (Huxley 24). It is as if during one’s “normal waking consciousness” this “Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system, [and] what comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet” (Huxley 23). So then it is only the filters of our nervous system—the brain’s special ability to concentrate on specific stimuli while ignoring other less practically valuable stimuli—that prevents the average person from realizing their real identity with the universe as a whole.

Before we can progress to the next level of consciousness, it must be made clear exactly how each level comes to appear separated from the other. It is important to remember, first of all, that the level of Mind is both the source which creates and the substance which makes up all other levels on the spectrum. If the other levels of the spectrum are waves traveling through the ocean, Mind is the water itself. Like its namesake, Spirit, Mind is all that there is. The other levels are then said to arise as illusory boundaries are spontaneously erected which separate the universe from itself. That is not to say, however, that these boundaries are useless and destructive; quite the contrary. They provide the supporting structure of evolution, or as Wilber refers to it, the process of spirit returning to Spirit, as well as the basis for each individual consciousness’ development through life. In other words, the spectrum of consciousness develops both ontogenically and phylogenically. The first boundary, created one level above Mind, gives rise to what Wilber terms the Existential level of consciousness. At this level, the totality of the universe as a whole is divided into an organism and its surrounding environment. This is the level at which the consciousness of lower order animals appears to operate. Their daily concerns are usually finding food, avoiding death, and reproducing. The next level is the Ego level, and it is here that things begin to get more complicated. At this level, the mind begins to separate itself from the total organism and the mind/body duality is born. This step is the direct result of the development of language and the subsequent ability of the organism to form abstract concepts, including the concept of self. Without language, the realization of such a separation between the mind and the body would be impossible. The organism would have no way to bypass its present experience of momentary, embodied existence in favor of the symbolic abstractions derived from memory that create the sense of a continuous individual being separate from its decaying body. It is also clear that time plays a large role in the maturity of this level, as developing an understanding of time first requires the ability to record past and predict future events which are nowhere to be found in the directly experienced present. It must be pointed out that human beings are, as of yet, the only species on Earth to have developed the biological apparatus necessary for this level of consciousness. The final boundary is the level of the Shadow. On this level, the ego itself becomes fragmented and divided into a persona and a shadow, or a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. The persona includes all the thoughts and feelings an individual is not ashamed to identify with, while the shadow refers to anything forbidden or taboo that the conscious mind finds unacceptable or is incapable of expressing. No further division of consciousness is deemed possible, so it is at the Shadow level that the spectrum ends, or rather, that it collapses in upon itself. Here is a diagram of the spectrum:

(Wilber 131)

One can see that at each level on the spectrum, a larger part of the universe is divided from itself and that, as a result, a self/other distinction is created. At the existential level, the skin of the organism separates it from the environment it inhabits. At the Ego level, the mental abstractions of the mind separate it from the organism. And finally, at the Shadow level, the meta-mental abstractions of the formally unified ego divide it from itself.

Assuming this spectrum is accurate, which is no great assumption considering the many experiential reports gathered from mystics and other explorers of consciousness throughout human history that are in perfect agreement with its fundamental structure, then what can it tell us about the nature of the mind/body problem? It would appear to suggest that the basic theory of embodiment, that the mind and body need to be somehow reunited, is a step in the right direction. But to stop short at the barrier of the skin is to make the same mistake Descartes made when he thought himself out of his body. As Wilber’s spectrum makes evident, the separation of an organism from its environment is only an apparent separation. There can be abstract distinction between organism and environment but there can be no real division. “From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break,” as Merleau-Ponty reminds us. A biologist would agree, “[claiming] that a man’s self—his ‘real’ being—is the entire organism-environment field, for the simple reason that [he (the biologist)] can find no independent self apart from an environment” (Wilber 13). This identification of the self with the organism-environment field is the dissolution of all barriers to consciousness and the realization of the level of Mind. All filters are turned off and consciousness of the All is allowed to flow freely through itself.

All this talk of mysticism and states of unity consciousness has probably made the dedicated scientist or logic-bound philosopher queasy. This adverse reaction to incorporating the wisdom of the various contemplative religions into the academic research on the nature of consciousness should be no great surprise at all. Scholar Alan Wallace tells us why: “Especially since the Scientific Revolution, the Western mind has sought to know what is out there, in the objective world, while ignoring discoveries of what is in here, in the subjective world… We have commonly regarded the history of discovery as being principally a Western pursuit; and religion is commonly presented as a principal foe of discovery… Such ethnocentric biases concerning the history of discovery must be abandoned if we are ever to learn from the insights of the world’s contemplative traditions” (Wallace 179). This bias has many philosophers working tirelessly to produce a workable science of consciousness unaware that one may already exist. Mystic Ananda Coomaraswamy explains: “It would be unscientific to say that [unity consciousness is] impossible, unless one has made experiment in accordance with the prescribed and perfectly intelligible disciplines… That [mystical awareness is possible] cannot be demonstrated in the classroom, where only quantitative tangibles are dealt with. At the same time, it would be unscientific to deny a presupposition for which an experimental proof is possible. In the present case there is a Way [i.e., an experiment] prescribed for those who will consent to follow it” (Coomaraswamy 69). So it becomes clear that it is not the scientific desire for experimental results that hinders progress in this area, but rather science’s refusal to fully acknowledge the primacy of direct subjective experience. If this rejection of first person experience can be overcome, what better body of wisdom is there to draw from concerning the nature of direct experience than the world’s contemplative religions? What is needed then is not a denial of either science or religion, but integration—a science of religion.

In his book The Fiction of a Thinkable World, Michael Steinberg uses the insights provided by the theory of embodiment to remind us that “We are not thinking beings at all, but bodies that think, and without the body, thinking wanders into irrelevance” (Steinberg 23). The philosopher who agrees with Steinberg’s statement is also just such a thinking body, and it would seem that often times he forgets this, allowing his thinking to wonder beyond his body and into abstractions that turn out to be quite irrelevant. Most of these irrelevant abstractions rest on his sense of being an individual self, the same sense that leads the scientist to deny direct experience in favor of a third person, subject/object duality, as to objectify the world one must first assume that they are separate from that world. But Steinberg again reminds us that these separations are not real but merely apparent: “The life of the body is part of an intricate weave of relations in which all things ceaselessly change each other. Its transformative interactions make no distinction between inner and outer or human and animal. There is no boundary within which we can point to a “me” apart from anything else. It is only when we isolate those parts of the process which we experience as conscious discourse that we look to ourselves like conscious beings” (Steinberg 24). This “conscious discourse” is language, and, as was pointed out earlier, language is what fools the mind into feeling separate by erecting boundaries within itself. Mind, or Spirit, or “direct experience” can only know itself if it hides from itself, if it creates duality and draws a line between inside and outside. Steinberg again: “…the human subject is not an isolated percipient. Each of us is instead a unique node in a network of interactions, and there is nothing other than that network. You cannot cut off a fragment and say, this is mine; nor can you leave the rest and say that it is not” (Steinberg 25). The subjective realization that there is “nothing other than that [objective] network” is the attainment of unity consciousness. This level of awareness is its own truth, but no amount of second-hand vetting will ever convince the skeptical scientist that this is so. The scientist must, as Coomaraswamy says, “consent to follow [the Way],” which is nothing more than the experimental procedure laid out for him by the various mystical traditions the world over.

In closing then, the implications of the current neurological research and philosophical discussion pointing academia toward the union of mind and body into one embodied being cannot be understood to there full extent until the scientific perspective becomes humble enough to turn the microscope inward upon itself. Only then, after examining the metaphysical assumptions lying behind its worldview, can science begin to appreciate reality in the only way we ever actually come into contact with it; that is, through direct experience. When this most basic level of experience is acknowledged, the theory of embodied consciousness is necessarily extended beyond just the layer of skin that marks the boundary between my body and my world. Consciousness becomes embodied, instead, by the universe in its entirety. One may ask at this point, “But what does that mean? What does this add to the current debate? How can we incorporate this idea into further research on the topic?” It means only itself, as the universe can point to nothing but itself, and the realization of this, when practically applied, can tell us only that all forms of scientific knowledge are relative. That is, while they may be quite useful, they can never be truthful, at least not ultimately so.

“Tao is beyond words and beyond understanding. Words may be used to speak of it, but they cannot contain it. Tao existed before words and names, before heaven and earth, before the ten thousand things. It is the unlimited father and mother of all limited things. Therefore, to see beyond boundaries to the subtle heart of things, dispense with names, with concepts, with expectations and ambitions and differences. Tao and its many manifestations arise from the same source: subtle wonder within mysterious darkness. This is the beginning of all understanding” (Lao Tzu 1).

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