After speaking at the 9th International Whitehead Conference last fall in Krakow, Poland, I was invited to help organize a track for the 2015 IWC in Claremont, CA next summer (June 4-7). The 2015 conference is called “Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization” and is largely the brain child of process theologian and environmental philosopher John Cobb, Jr. Plenary speakers include Cobb, Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, Brian Swimme, Catherine Keller, Herman Daly, and David Ray Griffin. The conference will be divided into 12 topical sections, with each section including 4 or 5 tracks. My track is in section 3, “Alienation from Nature: How It Arose,” and is called “Late Modernity and Its Reductive Monism.” For a brief description of the proposed focus of this section and its sub-tracks written by Cobb, click HERE.

In his proposal for my track, Cobb writes:

Rene Descartes, who developed the Enlightenment vision most profoundly and influentially, is known especially for his radical dualism of the human soul, on one side, and mere matter in motion on the other.  Although this carried the alienation from nature to its extreme, it gave dignity to human beings.  It supported the ideas of human rights and even of a fundamental equality of all.  However, in the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin showed that human beings are a product of evolution, so that they are fully part of nature.  This opened the door to re-thinking nature as having some of the properties Descartes attributed to the human soul.  But the commitment of the sciences to methods associated with nature’s purely objective existence was very strong.  Instead of changing the approach to the rest of the natural world, scientists chose to study humans in the way they had previously studied the objects of human experience.  Enlightenment dualism was replaced in late modernity by reductionist monism.  The Enlightenment led people to understand themselves as responsible citizens.  The new reductionistic monism represents us as laborers in the service of the economic system.

To re-phrase, my track will focus on the way that the classical Enlightenment dualism between morally responsible human souls and a morally neutral mechanical nature has, in the late modern period, been replaced by a pseudo-materialistic monism. Descartes was the first to articulate this dualism in its modern form. His attempt at a clean break from traditional dogmas by re-grounding human rationality on our own self-evident powers of reflective self-consciousness was an essential factor in the Western world’s later revolutionary struggles for individual political freedom. Without Descartes and those who followed in his wake (especially Locke and Kant) there would be no Modern philosophy, obviously, but nor would there have been a French or American Revolution. The dualistic ontology of spiritual human vs. mechanical matter, though unsuited for (and in some sense the cause of) our present ecological nightmare, was for an earlier epoch a catalyst for democratic liberation from the oppressive theocratic monarchies of the medieval world. Nowadays, since the dominant ontology has devolved into a confused monist materialism (which Latour deconstructs and re-assembles in AIME), the democratic political ideals of the Enlightenment are increasingly being called into question by neoliberal economists and reductive neurobiologists, among others. If there is no such thing as a soul, there is no such thing as freedom, no such thing as moral responsibility to other human souls, and so no real justification for democratic self-governance. If we are really just selfish desire-machines blindly designed by the Darwinian struggle for consumption and reproduction called Natural Selection (nature’s “invisible hand”), then, following the neoliberal capitalist approach, the best form of governance is that orchestrated by well-trained technocrats and social engineers, those who know how best to keep the civilizational machine running smoothly.

The discoveries of deep time and biological evolution that emerged during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries dealt the death blow to substance dualism, forcing humanity to make a fateful ontological decision: either, as Cobb puts it, (1) re-imagine nature as in some way ensouled, or (2) re-think the human soul as somehow mechanical. In the 20th century, Western techno-science committed itself to the second project: human society and the earth itself were to be re-made in the image of the machine (if ancient cosmologies suffered from anthropomorphism, modern cosmologies suffer from mechanomorphism). Our early 21st century world, with its exploding economic inequality and ecological unraveling, is the near ruin lying in the wake of that decision.

alfred-north-whitehead-1

Whitehead stands out among 20th century philosophers, not for his revolt against techno-scientific reductionism (certainly, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty were just as dedicated to resisting it), but for his decision to have a go at project #1. As I describe in my essay on Whitehead’s relevance to contemporary cosmology Physics of the World-Soul (2013), Whitehead’s response, not only to 19th century evolutionary theory, but to 20th century quantum and relativity theories, was to re-imagine, in process-relational terms, the relationship between the interior psychical and exterior physical worlds. That conscious human experience is continuous with the rest of an evolved nature is clear enough; but Whitehead argues that we cannot think coherently of this continuum in an eliminatively materialist way, as though consciousness could be explained by reduction to something entirely dumb and numb, unintelligent and unfeeling. If we are to remain civilized, we must take knowledge and love seriously as having a real effects on the course of human history. To take human knowledge and love seriously requires that we root these powers ontologically, that we ground them in the energies of cosmogenesis itself. Otherwise they are mere passing fantasies, cultural figments to be reduced to the neurotic mechanics of our brains and controlled by techno-scientific specialists.

The results of the modern world deciding in favor of project #2 are detailed by Whitehead toward the end of Science and the Modern World (1925):

[All] thought concerned with social organization expressed itself in terms of material things and of capital. Ultimate values were excluded. They were politely bowed to, and then handed over to the clergy to be kept for Sundays. A creed of competitive business morality was evolved…entirely devoid of consideration for the value of…life. The workmen were conceived as mere hands, drawn from the pool of labor. To God’s question, men gave the answer of Cain– “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; and they incurred Cain’s guilt (181).

 

Participants in my track will have an opportunity to draw on Whitehead, as well as other congenial thinkers, in an effort to both critique late modernity’s reductive monism and to re-construct a more viable ontology for a future ecological civilization. I’ll continue to post updates about the shape of the track as the conference date approaches.

Steven Craig Hickman recently posted a fascinating commentary on the fantasy writer R. Scott Bakker’s “Blind Brain Theory.”  I’ve offered several of my own commentaries in the past (see HERE). My general sense of unease seems to be shared by Hickman, who ponders towards the end of his post whether Bakker’s BBT might be more of a prediction of our post-human future than a description of what remains of human being in the present. This is unnerving to me because I worry that mistaking a prediction for a description only serves to contribute to the realization of what I find to be a nightmarish future. Bakker argues that his thesis–“that what we call ‘consciousness’ does not exist at all, that we ‘just are’ an integrative informatic process of a certain kind, possessing none of the characteristics we intuitively attribute to ourselves”–is so disturbing that it remains unbelievable, even to him. Of course, there’s more than a bit of irony in his claim not to believe BBT himself: his whole point is that “beliefs” and the “selves” we think hold them are just sophisticated shams.

While for obvious reasons it is difficult if not impossible to actually experience oneself as a blind brain, the common sense theoretical account offered by most educated people nowadays is some variety of mind-to-brain reductionism. Nowadays we are all more or less materialists (as Obama’s recent “Brain Initiative” press conference brought home for me). Or we are unacknowledged dualists: we say the universe is just purposeless material in motion, while by some cosmic accident the moving matter of our nervous systems gained the capacity for self-reflection. While I admit that is some irony in some of his statements, I’d have to classify Bakker as an unacknowledged dualist. He is offering a “theory,” after all. How is theorization even possible if we are really just blind brains? Isn’t theorization just an illusion like everything else that takes place in consciousness? If consciousness can’t be trusted, why should we trust any theory, much less one that tells us our capacity for theorization is an utter fraud?

As I’ve come to understand it, consciousness is a perfectly real factor in the universe. It makes a difference in what happens next, at least for human beings and some other animals. I don’t conceive of it as a substance or a “thing” that exists separate from the body, driving it around like a go cart (i.e., it is not a res cogitans). It is, rather, a very special, high grade achievement of the more generic energetic activity making up the whole cosmos. I follow Whitehead the panexperientialist here (who Hickman also references in his post) by arguing that the most fundamental activity of the universe is already experiential, already in some sense “there” for itself. Consciousness, in other words, is a very sophisticated form of experience made possible by the organizational complexity of animal nervous systems. While all consciousness is experiential, not all experience is conscious. The less complexly organized (or “informationally integrated”) a system is, the less intense its experience. Another way to think about experience here is to put it in temporal terms. More complex organisms are capable of deeper experiential realizations because their nervous systems grant them access to thicker slices of time. For example, the temporal reach of human beings into the actual past or potential future is in principle nearly unlimited: it cannot be known in advance how far into the past (e.g., cosmologists have already reached to the edge of space-time 13.8 billion light years away) or future (e.g., think of the most imaginative sci-fi writers) the human mind can reach. On the other hand, the temporal reach of a hydrogen atom is rather narrow: it inherits its past and is launched into its future almost instantaneously, with very little opportunity for creative variation. Still, though, this opportunity to vary is there from the beginning. There are no instants in nature. Duration goes all the way down. Even hydrogen hesitates. There is a crack in causal transmission at the most fundamental levels of physical reality, an experiential gap that must be leapt. Nothing is absolutely determined or fixed in advance. The universe is radically creative and open ended. It’s for this reason (which follows from 20th century quantum and complexity theories) that Whitehead chose to aestheticize causality, to insert experience into every nook and cranny of the cosmos.

Whitehead’s experiential universe, as radically creative, is radically evolutionary. Every seemingly stable form of organizational achievement is subject to further change, either for the better or for the worse. In Whitehead’s aesthetic ethics (or aesethics), “better” would mean more beautiful, where beauty is defined as the harmonization of contrasting particulars into an organic whole, such that both the parts and the whole are enhanced in the process. My worry, again, is that believing in the blind brain theory can actually do damage to our human potential as consciously creative beings. We are all too ready nowadays to resign ourselves to the mechanical way of life demanded by techno-capitalist society. The only way to fight back against the reduction of human life to the blind machinations of the marketplace is to empower imagination. As Robert Richardson, Jr. says in his biography of Emerson, “It is not imagination that commonly masks reality; it is routine.” If the human soul is in fact a processual achievement and not, as was long thought, an eternal substance, then it must be made, and, once it has, can be unmade. Soul-making is a sort of theurgy; its what humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years; it is the very basis of culture. When we stop ritually enacting our souls, we lose them. We become blind brains.

Maybe this all sounds very conservative to some of my readers. Maybe it is. I’ll grant that their are conceptions of human consciousness that are overblown (e.g., the medieval notion of an eternal substance, the Enlightenment notion of an autonomous free agent, etc.): our agency is restricted, our memory faulty, our grasp of the massive emotional backdrop encompassing conscious attention is severely limited. But unless we take the admittedly wavering power of our consciousness seriously enough to continue ritually invoking it, extending it, experimenting with it, then the evolutionary achievement it represents (13.8 billion years in the making), along with the adventure of civilization, will come to an abrupt end. Yes, I know, the end is inevitable in any case: the Sun will eventually explode and swallow us all. But again, from a Whiteheadian aesethical perspective, it isn’t a question of if it will all end some day, but of how it will end. My own aesthetic tastes and moral proclivities lead me away from the post-human machinic future imagined by Bakker. Its not that I see such a future as impossible; its rather that I don’t see it as a necessary or desirable future. The way we talk and theorize about ourselves has a big role to play in what we in fact become. BBT is itself a form of ritual technology. It changes us as we begin to think it, as its logic infects us. If it is true, as Isabelle Stengers’ writes in her study of Whitehead, that “no thinker thinks twice,” then we must think more carefully, lest we become other than we want to be.

…Morality does not indicate what you are to do in mythological abstractions. It does concern the general ideal which should be the justification for any particular objective. The destruction of a man, or of an insect, or of a tree, or of the Parthenon, may be moral or immoral… Whether we destroy or whether we preserve, our action is moral if we have thereby safeguarded the importance of experience so far as it depends on that concrete instance in the world’s history.”

-Whitehead (Modes of Thought)

Almost three years ago, Steve Ramirez (neuroscience grad student at MIT) and I exchanged a few videos and blog posts about the scientific study of consciousness (see HERE for a run down). Ramirez began and ended our brief electronic debate convinced that I, like most other philosophers he’s encountered, have developed a profound misunderstanding of how science works. In his original post back in 2010, he argued that the tools of neuroscience have become precise enough to explain consciousness without remainder by causally reducing it to intracranial neural states. Two years later, Ramirez published a fine bit of neuroscience in the journal Nature, seemingly making good on his promise. He and his colleagues’ memory re-activation experiment on lab mice has been making its way around the Internet recently and also led to this TEDx talk. It is truly an ingenious experiment that raises all kinds of interesting scientific and ethical questions regarding how such “optogenetic reactivation” technology might be used in the future on human brains (see for example this Scientific American article about the arrival of “memory engineering”).

In their paper, Ramirez et al. don’t comment on the far more difficult because more general project of explaining consciousness itself, but rather focus in on memory, one particular faculty said to be related to consciousness. They claim in their paper to have proven that activation of “specific ensembles of hippocampal neurons that contribute to a memory engram is sufficient for the recall of that memory.”

Given that we know specific memories are often stored holographically (as Karl Lashley famously showed), I can’t find a reason to assume that activation of a specific neural ensemble is even necessary for the recall of a related memory, much less that such activation is sufficient for recall. It doesn’t make sense to me to claim that a memory is simply located in this or that group of neurons when so much research has already corroborated the global distribution of memories throughout the nervous system. That the controlled activation of these neural ensembles in surgically altered lab mice with giant lasers attached to their hippocampuses should seem to cause a reactivation of previously learned behaviors in no way proves or even suggests that the mouse’s experience of said memory is somehow caused by or localized within those particular cells.

Part of it depends what we mean by “recall.” If we define recall behavioristically, as was the case in this study, then sure, I will grant Ramirez et al.’s claim. When they flip the light switch, the mouse freezes (ostensibly because its fear response is being reactivated).

If, however, we approach memory from a phenomenological as well as a neurological point of view (i.e., neurophenomenology), we will not be able to settle for a behaviorist definition of memory recall. A neurophenomenologist would be left wondering what the mouse was experiencing when the light switch was flicked on. Was its recalled memory identical to the original experience? Was it the same in some ways, but different in others? How can we say? Claiming that reactivation of a localized group of neurons is sufficient to recreate the memory said to be somehow caused by or “inscribed” on those neurons begins to seem way more speculative from the neurophenomenological perspective. We simply don’t know what the mouse’s remembered experience is like, and unfortunately we can’t ask it. Whether or not we can or should perform similar experiments on speaking animals capable of describing their experience remains to be seen. I suspect it won’t be too much longer before technology is available that is just as precise but way less invasive than that used in Ramirez’s experiment. Indeed, developing this sort of technology is one of the main goals of Obama’s government funded Brain Initiative.

But I didn’t begin this post to pick at Ramirez et al.’s experiment. It is good science, as they say. I think they’ve developed an amazing research technique that will prove to have many applications in the future (medical, commercial, political, military, etc., applications). (I can only hope these future technological applications enhance rather than undermine the spiritual freedom, aesthetic intensity, and moral depth of human existence. Based on prior technological augmentations of human cognition, I can’t say I’m all that optimistic. I am open to being surprised. Life always finds a way.)

I am writing this post not to critique his science, but to redirect his wayward philosophical interpretations of that science. In a recent post on his blog titled “Conquering All Mysteries,” Ramirez writes:

The starry heavens above and the moral law within — these were the two things that Immanuel Kant claimed were immune to scientific investigation. Equally untouchable was the vague abstraction known as consciousness. That was in the 1700s… [Nowadays] consciousness can be explained solely in terms of orderly neural activity and is fully measurable; and, morality is and ought to be understood in light of the brain states of conscious creatures. We can — and do – have a neuroscience of both, because we’re not in the 1700s anymore.

My almost instinctual response to any scientist’s aggressive attempt to explain away consciousness by causally reducing it to neurophysiological mechanisms in the skull is to fall back upon transcendental philosophy. Transcendental philosophy is said to have begun with Kant’s critiques (of pure reason, practical reason, and judgment), all published in the last decades of the 18th century. Kant’s philosophical discovery (or invention?) of the transcendental method has made him the modern equivalent of Aristotle (who for 1500 years Islamic and Western scholars simply referred to as “the Philosopher”). But unlike with Aristotle, whose metaphysical decrees were swallowed almost without chewing by medieval European thinkers, Kant’s work repeatedly mutated as it was chewed over, swallowed, digested, and improved upon by the best scientific minds of his era. Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel (and Husserl in the 20th ce.) vastly expanded the reach of transcendental philosophy. Where Kant believed he had been forced “to limit knowledge in order to make room for faith,” his three main German predecessors, each in their own way, broke open all dogmatic limits to scientific knowledge–not only to knowledge of nature, but also to knowledge of God (because as Spinoza taught us, God is Nature).

Kant didn’t exactly claim that the natural world and human consciousness were “immune to scientific investigation.” Rather, he tried to uncover the a priori conceptual and perceptual conditions under which any science of nature–whether cosmic or human nature–must necessary proceed in order to remain scientific. Kant was in a sense trying to place limits on positive science (whether it purported to produce knowledge of the cosmos, the soul, or the divine), but he was also trying to provide a firm foundation for the possibility of scientific investigation of the natural world (the world that appears to our senses and conforms to our logic). I don’t count myself as a transcendental philosopher when in conversation with other philosophers (see HERE for example), but when confronted by anti-philosophical scientific materialists, I can’t help but invoke the transcendental position. If subjective consciousness is the condition for the possibility of the experience and cognition of external objects (as transcendentalists argue), then an explanation in terms of those objects, no matter how sophisticated or complexly arrayed they may be, will always fail to explain said consciousness. What so many scientific materialists seem to neglect is that a reduction of human consciousness to the deterministic playing out of neurophysiological mechanisms is also a reduction of the scientific enterprise to a talking primate’s delusion of grandeur. If consciousness (and with it, rigorous logic and honest empiricism) is just an empty word, just a culturally acquired illusion with no causal or physical role to play, then we have no reason to take science–one of human consciousness’ greatest achievements (right up there with art, religion, and morality)–seriously. Neuroscientific reductionism (usually unknowingly) undermines its own philosophical conditions of possibility. As Hegel argued, it treats spirit as though it were a bone.

Ramirez’s approach to the brain remains at the level of what Owen Barfield called “dashboard knowledge.” Such knowledge gives us the ability to manipulate and control the brain from the outside, but tells us very little about how the brain is related to the consciousness we experience directly “in here.” For the latter, we need something like phenomenology or contemplative practice (or both, as Evan Thompson argues). Any hope we have of explaining experience (whatever that might mean…) is going to have to emerge as much from a transformation within experience (i.e., through a new first person expression of subjectivity) as from outside it by way of a new third person description of or technological intervention upon the behavior of the objective brain and body.

Ramirez claims that his hypothesis regarding the neural causes of consciousness is falsifiable. I fail to see how this is the case. He isn’t researching the brain to see if it causes consciousness. That the brain causes consciousness is a presupposition of his neuroscientific research method. If we grant that there is some kind of correlation between conscious experience and neural processes (which I am perfectly willing to do), he can’t help but confirm his hypothesis with every experiment. Ramirez’s hypothesis is blind to the difference between mind-brain correlation and brain-mind causation (as I argued in my response to him three years ago). It is no surprise that neuroscientists operating from within such a reductionistic paradigm can only confirm their own initial hypothesis. Brain-mind reductionism is more a metaphysical position than a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. Its faults and merits would be better considered in the court of philosophy. The situation today is no different than it was for Kant more than 200 years ago. There were reductionistic neurophysiologists then, too. His transcendental arguments still apply, for those who care to understand them.

Ramirez responds to the claim of a philosopher in this MIT neuroscience magazine (see p. 23) that scientific study of the brain has only shown and could only ever show mind-brain correlation rather than brain-mind causation. According to Ramirez, we philosophers “deeply misunderstand what correlation and causation really mean.” But his rebuttal entirely misses the point both the author of the magazine piece and myself are trying to make, which is not at all concerned with whether physical manipulations of the brain (using laser beams or pharmaceuticals, etc.) can alter consciousness. Obviously they can. The point is that, no matter how proficient we are at altering consciousness by manipulating the brain (i.e., “dashboard knowledge”), this tells us nothing about the causal relationship between physical brain states and subjective experience, nor does it tell us anything about the ontology of the latter. We know they must be somehow related, yes. But how? If Ramirez or any other neuroscientific reductionist has a theory for how the grey matter in the skull could generate mental experience, I’m all ears. Thus far, I’ve yet to hear of such a theory. What I hear are aggressively asserted unfalsifiable metaphysical claims masquerading as science, claims that can only be properly adjudicated philosophically.

In philosophy, there are no final solutions. No philosopher’s judgment ever goes unchallenged by another’s. Every genuine philosophical problem is therefore an infinite task. I approach the hard problem of consciousness as precisely such an infinite task. If there is an explanation for experience, it better include an injunction for erasing experience, a sort of Zen koan or psychedelic trip that opens me to the emptiness that is supposed to reside inside my “no-mind.”

Here is my original video response to Steve Ramirez three years ago:

Here are some of my reflections from several years ago on materialism:

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).

From The Soul’s Code by James Hillman, p. 150-154:

The upshot of genetic studies leads in two (!) directions: a narrow path and a broad one. The narrow road heads toward simplistic, monogenic causes. It wants to pinpoint bits of tissue and correlate them with the vast complexity of psychic meanings. The folly of reducing mind to brain never seems to leave the Western scene. We can never give it up because it is so basic to our Western rationalist and positivist mind-set. The rationalist in the psyche wants to locate causes you can put your hands on and fix.

Machines provide the best models for meeting this desire. Take them apart, find their inner mechanisms, and then adjust their functioning by modifying their ratchets, enriching their fuel, greasing their connections. Henry Ford as father of American mental health. Result: Ritalin, Prozac, Zoloft, and dozens of other effective products for internal adjustments that we consume in abundance, millions of us, daily or twice daily. The simplistics of monogenic causes eventually leads to the control of behavior by drugs–that is, to drugged behavior.

Robert Plomin, on whose passionate, prolific, and perceptive writings this chapter has frequently relied, urgently warns against using genetics in a simplistic manner. He states: “Genetic effects on behavior are polygenic and probabilistic, not single gene and deterministic.” I gather from him a warning to psychiatry: Do not capsize your noble vessel under the weight of pharmaceutical, insurance company, and government gold, and do not set your compass toward Fantasy Island, where genetics will define “disease entities in psychiatry.” “We have learned little about the genetics of development [how genes act and interact over time] except to appreciate its complexity.” Therefore we can never arrive at that equation where one defective gene equals one clinical picture (except for true anomalies like Huntington’s chorea).

These warnings have little effect; simplistic thinking fulfills too many wishes. The heads of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are carved into the Mount Rushmore of the mind. The monster of mechanism appears in every century of modern Western history and must be watched for by each generation–especially ours, when to hold out for “something else” besides nature or nurture means believing in ghosts or magic.

Ever since French rationalism of the seventeenth (Marin Mersenne, Nicolas de Malebranche) and eighteenth (Etienne de Condillac, Julien Offroy de La Mettrie) centuries and right through to the positivism of the nineteenth (Antoine Destutt de Tracy, Auguste Comte) in which all mental events were reduced to biology, a piece of the collective Western mind had been yolked like a dumb ox to the heavy tumbrel of French mechanistic materialism. It is astounding how people with such subtle taste as the French and with such erotic sensibility can go on and on contributing so much rationalist rigor mortis to psychology. Every import that arrives from France must be inspected for this French disease, even though it carries the fashionable label of Lacanism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, or whatever.

Today rationalism is global, computer-compatible every-where. It is the international style of the mind’s architecture. We cannot pin it to a particular flag, unless to the banners of the multinational corporation that can spend big bucks turning psychiatry, and eventually psychological thinking, and therefore soul control, toward monogenetic monotheism. One gene for one disorder: Splice the gene, teach it tricks, combine it, and the disorder is gone, or at least you don’t know you have it. The narrow path leads back to the thirties and forties of psychiatric history, though in a more refined manner and with better press releases. From 1930 into the 1950s, correlating specific brain areas with large emotional and functional concepts provided the rationale for the violence of psychosurgery and the lobotomizing of many a troubled soul at odds with circumstance.

The narrow path is yet more retro, going back to the skill analysis of Franz Josef Gall (M.D., Vienna, 1795), who settled in Paris and was much appreciated by the French. From him came the “evidence” that skull bumps and declivities could be correlated with psychological faculties (a system later called phrenology). Much as they are today, the faculties were given big names, such as memory, judgment, emotionalism, musical and mathematical talent, criminality, and so on. Refinement in methods over the years does not necessarily lead to progress in theorizing: 1795 or 1995–material location, and then reduction of psyche to location, prompts the enterprise.

The contrary direction to narrowing nature to brain simplistics is expanding nurture to a far more embracing notion of environment. If environment means literally what’s around, it must also mean whatever is around. This because the unconscious psyche selects quite arbitrarily among the stuff encountered every day in the environment. Tiny and trivial bits of information may have huge subliminal psychic effects, as the days’ residues in dreams show. We do dream of the damnedest things! Much of each day is never noticed or recalled, but the psyche picks up the environmental flotsam and delivers it to the dream. The dream–a processing plant recycling the environment, finding soul values in junk. The dream–an artist, appropriating images from the environment for recollection in tranquility.

Because we walk about in fields of psychic realities that influences our lives, we have to broaden the notion of environment in terms of “deep ecology,” the hypothesis that the planet is a living, breathing, and self-regulating organism. Since anything around can nourish our souls by feeding imagination, there is soul stuff out there. So why not admit, as does deep ecology, that the environment itself is ensouled, animated, inextricably meshed with us and not fundamentally separate from us?

The ecological vision restores to environment also the classical idea of providentia–that the world provides for us, looks out for us, even looks after us. It wants us around, too. Predators, tornadoes, and blackflies in June are only pieces of the picture. Just think of all that’s delicious and sweet-smelling. Do birds sing but for each other? This breathable, edible, and pleasant planet, invisibly serviced and maintained, keeps us all by means of its life-support system. Such would be an idea of nurture that is truly nurturing.

“Environment,” then, would be imagined well beyond social and economic conditions, beyond the entire cultural setting, to include every item that takes care of us every day: our tires and coffee cups and door handles and the book you are holding in your hands. It becomes impossible to exclude this bit of environment as irrelevant in favor of that bit as significant, as if we could rank world phenomena in order of importance. Important for whom? Our understanding of importance itself has to change; instead of “important to me,” think of “important to other aspects of the environment.” Does this item nurture what else is around, not merely us who are around? Does it contribute to the intentions of the field of which we are only one short-lived part?

As notions of environment shift, we notice environment differently. It becomes more and more difficult to make a cut between psyche and world, subject and object, in here and out there. I can no longer be sure whether the psyche is in me or whether I am in the psyche as I am in my dreams, as I am in the moods of the landscapes and the city streets, as I am in “music heard so deeply/That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts” (T.S. Eliot). Where does the environment stop and I begin, and can I begin at all without being in some place, deeply involved in, nurtured by the nature of the world?

The following is an exchange I had on YouTube with cosmanthony21 about the nature of “awareness.”

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cosmanthony21’s original message:

Ok, lemme give it a shot. This is an interesting topic for discussion, so if you’ll humor me, Id like to write some thoughts coming to mind on the topic of awareness you had brought up.
Awareness as a recepticle of information-the capacity for containment of sensate data. Embodiment. Throwing around words I think are descriptive enough…Awareness is sensation. Awareness is pain, heat, sunlight, and color. It is heavy and light. Its not these typed words, but what they are pointing to.
If awareness were a container of sensations, it must be a physical, material thing like a cup would be filled with liquid. Are there boundaries to awareness? Just as far as my eyes can see and the lowest tonal threshold my ears can hear. It is the quality and quantity of what an organism can process. It can be measured. Awareness is dull, it is sharp.
I am aware of the pressure the pen between my finger creates. It is the pressure of impression on these living, tactile appendages. Is there a physical location in the brain that is responsible for awareness, thats what you are trying to figure out I think.
You may say awareness is a process, an emergent property of physiological alchemy. Is it located Everywhere? Not bound and confined to the span of my arms and legs, or even a portion or organ of the brain…It still seems that if this were true, awareness being everywhere, I would have no distinct way of experiencing that a part from this condensed packet of information and systems that is me.
Anything within the boundary of my physical body that is alive is subject to awareness, save hair and such. Maybe not so much my toenails or kidneys, but my fingers have sensitive nerve ending so them, yeah. What if awareness was only a product of a nervous system, a system with the capacity to be impacted by pressure, heat, wetness and relay that impression to the brain which does its damnest to recreate and mimick what the actual “external” stimuli is. Perhaps our experience of reality is second hand and lesser than that which is the responsible stimulative.
Its like a painting of a landscape. Although we cant compare the two entirely, we can say that if the artist intended to paint the mountainscape Realistically, the mountainscape he is seeing will always remain superior on this basis because it is the primary, direct source, yet that requires a belief in an objective world. That out there coming in here, in the painters eyes I mean. So the best the painter can do is the best his nervous sytem can recieve, process and recreate the mountainscape reflecting light intowards his eyes.
OK, so what if Whats being seen is no more than a mock up of what is impressing the rods and cones of the retina. The image of the mountainscape has to go through a few medium conduits until he sees the mountainscape. Is what we call seeing just the awareness of this process? Oh wow, thats an interesting thought! Ok, let me finish up my jumble of thoughts. So, what is awareness? My best guess is that awareness is aliveness, sensation, and feeling. Slightly recursive to say feeling feelings, sensing sensation…thinking thought. Awareness is just this? Anyway, I presume this isnt the kind of stuff you Usually respond to as its rough and tumble, but theres some good thoughts in here and make of it what you will.

Taylor

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my (0thouartthat0’s) response:

Hey Taylor,

Great thoughts, let me see what I can unpack here…

The relationship between awareness and information is a good place to start. In standard, mechanistic biology, they talk about the genome containing information. But they do not mean the kind of information that requires “awareness” to be processed. What they mean is mechanical information. Like the digital sequences of computer code, it is all based on the formal structure (syntax) of the symbols (in this case, sequences of nucleic acid bases) and requires no “interpretation” or semantic awareness of their meaning. All that is required is the transfer of energy from one entity (DNA) to another (mRNA, followed by interaction with ribosomes to produce proteins). It can all be described mechanically, one inert molecule interacting with another based solely on their electromagnetic properties, etc. So in this reductionistic sense, “information” really has no meaning. In other words, the syntax can perform a task (transcription and translation of DNA into proteins) without the need for semantic interpretations of each symbol. Now, this all rests on the standard neo-Darwinist understanding of evolution, which has it that “performing a task” (ie, the apparent teleology of biological systems) is accomplished purely by chance as the result of billions of years of random mutation and environmental selection. The corollary of this approach in the cognitive sciences is representationalism, where what we think of as “consciousness” is explained as just the result of the mechanical interaction between syntactical structures in the brain. “Information” comes in from the objective structure of the world through the senses and is processed in much the same way that my computer translates each of my key strokes into a pixelated letter on the screen. Further syntactical processing, based on evolutionarily instincts embedded in brain structure and experiential changes reflected by synaptic connections, then leads to an appropriate motor response. While this may pass as an explanation for animal/human behavior, it isn’t an explanation of consciousness. It makes our subjective awareness completely superfluous at best (if it doesn’t deny that it exists all together!). Now obviously, we all know we are conscious. We feel pain, we see color, we experience emotion and insight, etc. So it can’t be that consciousness simply doesn’t exist (claiming that it doesn’t is absurd, so far as I can tell, though many neuroscientists/cognitive scientists still claim this for theoretical purposes). So we are left with the idea that consciousness is superfluous, like “the whistle on a train,” as T.H. Huxley put it. It serves no mechanical purpose (ie, has no effect on sensation or behavior, which means free will is a complete illusion). Now to my mind this creates a HUGE explanatory problem for the mechanists/reductionists, because how and why would consciousness have evolved if it served no adaptive function (and so could not be selected for like other beneficial traits)? If consciousness has no role to play in the way information is processed in the brain syntactically, then it should not exist at all and we should all be zombies. Of course, we aren’t! So…?

Well, this is why I think panexperientialism (consciousness goes all the way down) might solve a lot of these conceptual difficulties. It requires a complete shift out of the mechanistic paradigm and into an organic paradigm, where semantics (awareness of meaning) is primary and syntax is a later evolutionary advance which human beings have devised (but which also may have already been devised by our cells in the form of DNA, which acts as a kind of digital memory storage adding to the analog capacities of non-genetic cellular dynamics). The molecular biologists who say the DNA contains “information,” even though they see translation and transcription as entirely mechanical processes, have been heavily criticized by semioticians, who point out that the notion of information necessarily implies awareness (meaningful interpretation) of that information. So it appears that even mechanistic/reductionistic science has been unconsciously assuming some form of consciousness exists at the molecular level, because otherwise they never would have been able to conceive of a reliable theory for how the process works. The paradigm shift is a bit easier, then, because all it involves is that science become aware of what has already been implicit in its “Central Dogma” about how organisms use DNA.

So again, the existence of “information” requires more than just syntax. It requires a semantic meaning to an interpreter. So the neo-Darwinists who see DNA translation/transcription as entirely mechanical cannot have it both ways: either molecules are sentient in some fashion, and so can “understand” information exchange, or the notion of “information” in the genome must be scrapped (and as a result, most of what we know about genetics would have to go as well). I think the former option makes more sense : ), but of course it requires a complete reconceptualization of the relation between mind and matter, which makes a lot of materialist scientists uncomfortable for some reason.

The reason your awareness seems restricted to your own body (you can’t feel my pain, at least not directly) has to do with the difference between pantheism and panentheism. For the time being, lets just assume “theism” is equivalent to “sentience.” Pantheists see the whole world as the mind of God, and so we are at somewhat of a loss to explain why it is that I (as God) feel only my body and not yours. If all is equally God, why am I seemingly restricted to awareness of my own body? Pantheism seems to ignore the reality of how material bodies organize and distinguish themselves from others (not separate, just distinguish). Panentheism seems to correct for this oversight, as each material body then becomes the focusing point for God’s mind, such that God is One Mind/Body only transcendentally, while immanently, God is Many Minds/Bodies. God is made far more vulnerable in the panentheist model, as he is fully embodied in each and every one of us (not only humans, but animals, plants, cells, molecules, atoms, electrons, photons, etc). This is not to say that God is truly separated into many pieces, but only that God has devised a way to differentiate aspects of One into Many (by way of involution). The Many are of course compelled to reunite (by way of evolution). If the universe is infinite (circumference is nowhere), then each sentient being is at the center (center is everywhere). The awareness of each organism (whether you or I, or single cells, or atoms, etc) is God’s way of incarnating and experiencing Its own creation. This is certainly a paradigm shift, as no sober-minded materialist scientist is going to accept it easily considering all this mention of God. But I don’t think the concept of “God” can ever be gotten rid of. There simply is no other way to understand consciousness but to admit the existence of such an ultimate principle. It is not that we have to “believe” in God once again. That entirely misses the point. You cannot believe in that which allows you to believe to begin with. We must realize God experientially, not merely believe in the idea of It. Taking the strictly materialistic approach to explaining the universe is a dead end. It makes our own conscious experience obsolete and all but non-existent, just a persistent illusion which for whatever reason colors the otherwise mechanical behavior of our bodies.

Anyways, hope this isn’t too long for ya! Thanks for the message.

Peace,
Matt