My response to ‘Why Did God Create Atheists?’ @ AlterNet

Why Did God Create Atheists? | Belief | AlterNet.

…and my comment posted as a response:

I believe Jesus answers some of these questions when he says that “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” but that many do not yet have the ears to hear or the eyes to see what this means. Of course God is not falsifiable, but nor is God a scientific hypothesis. God is the eternal “I am”–that within each of us which grants us identity and self-consciousness, not to mention the ability to love one another unconditionally (because after all, in the depths of our souls behind all our personal idiosyncrasies, where the light of the “I am” shines forth, we are all already one in God). Let’s all please get beyond silly literalism and acknowledge that it is human nature to be spiritual, in whatever form that spirituality might take (one can be atheist and still deeply spiritual). Fundamentalism is a very recent invention, mostly an unfortunate but inevitable reaction against the moral depravity of the modern, industrial world. Our species’ religious traditions are themselves full of wisdom, if only we have ears to hear it. It is only those with political motivations that distort these teachings to suit their own desire for power. It is misguided to blame religion for the world’s problems. We could just as easily blame science and technology for building nukes and fueling the industrial makeover of our planet that is responsible for climate change and mass extinction. Instead, let’s take a look at ourselves and start taking responsibility for the only earth we’ll ever have. Science tells us how, religion tells us why. It’s up to us to live peacefully in light of this knowledge.

Consciousness of Science, post at PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula

Link to Pharyngula

…To believe self-consciousness can be accounted for in purely neurochemical terms is simply a category mistake. Empirical science presupposes self-consciousness, otherwise scientific reasoning would not be possible. Science cannot explain self-consciousness mechanistically without calling into question its own privileged epistemic status. Natural science attempting to explain consciousness in terms of brain mechanisms is much like trying to explain rainbows in terms of atmospheric water droplets. It reflects a lack of philosophical understanding of the phenomenon in question. The rainbow is not located in the sky, it emerges out of the relationship between light, certain kinds of eyes, and certain kinds of skies. I think consciousness is similar. It’s a mistake to try to locate it inside the skull. It is emergent, not just out of neurons, but out of space-time as a whole. If we deny the cosmic context of consciousness, i fail to see how we can avoid a dualism between the human mind and the rest of the natural universe. Contrary to a paper linked above about the challenges for any future science of consciousness, philosophers are growing increasingly aware of the hidden assumptions of dualist and materialist metaphysics that bias genuinely scientific research into its nature. Yes, consciousness is natural, but it is unlike any other natural phenomenon in that it is also noumenal. That is, consciousness can become an object to itself, as when we introspect or correlate mental states to fMRI readings, etc., but it also always remains the subject underlying these experiences. Consciousness is not just phenomenal, it is also transcendental (or noumenal). I think there are many limitations to Kant’s philosophical compromise between science and religion, or knowledge and morality, but whenever I participate in discussions on Pharyngula, I find myself having to repeat his arguments. This isn’t because I find his conclusions satisfying, but it is because I recognize that he defined the problems and laid out the territory. The problem with this message board (from my perspective) is that most of you are unwilling to give anything but a minor supporting role to philosophy as regards natural science. In other words, you’re all positivists. The video of Dawkins above is a great example of what happens when a scientist is blind to their philosophical assumptions, and forgetful of the cultural history of Western science. I might be interested in responding to any responses I get to this post, but I’m well aware it is an exercise in futility for both sides. I’ll just do what I usually do, which is recommend a few books (Bruno Latour’s “Science in Action” and Donna Haraway’s “Modest Witness”). They put science in it’s true cultural and historical context. If you’re especially brave (and patient enough to consider views that are probably radically different than your own), you might even read my paper on how re-situating science within culture is a necessary step before any solution to our social and ecological crises are possible: https://matthewsegall.wordpress.com/2009/11/21/logos-of-a-living-earth-towards-a-gaian-praxecology/

Response to PZ Myers on Science and Philosophy

A link to my first comment (also pasted below):

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/02/criticism_deferred_but_buildin.php#comment-2256674

You’ll have to refer to the link above if you want to see the other comments I am responding to below, though I do repeat them in brief in my own responses.
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# 168:

I’ve read the entire thread and wanted to toss a few thoughts into the mix for whatever they are worth. In light of Darwin’s own admission that variation under natural selection was by no means a complete account of speciation*, I think Fodor’s criticisms would be better directed at neo-Darwinists like Dennett and Dawkins, whose absolutist attitude seems to distort via over-extension Darwin’s more modest proposal. Fodor seems to want us to consider the role of endogenous organization in the evolutionary drama, instead of assuming that all form is imposed from without by the environment. Not only evo-devo, but complexity theory have gone a long way in providing insight into the role played by endogenous organization. It seems that most biologists are well aware of the gaps that need filling, and Fodor doesn’t give them enough credit. I would like to defend his apparently “consequentialist” reasoning, however. Evolutionary psychology (especially Pinker) is filled with ad hoc explanations that really cannot be separated from political ideology. Hume’s too easy “is” v. “ought” dichotomy may hold for physics (though even there, it is apparent that research into nuclear weapons technology blurs the boundary), but in biology and especially psychology, when science begins to study the very life processes that generate our own cognitive capacities, core philosophical issues quickly rise to the surface. The knowing scientist, after all, is a part of the universe he or she is trying to understand. Moral considerations cannot be treated as if they exist outside the facts of nature. Morality IS a fact of (human) nature. All too often, those with a scientistic bent treat such philosophical considerations as if they were irrelevant: now that the scientific method has been formulated, they believe all that is left for us to do is fit our theories to the data**. The consequences of over-zealous reduction of evolution to a Darwinian algorithm (a la Dennett), when unreflectively applied as a “universal acid” to other fields like psychology–while certainly generating lucrative research grants–cannot be ignored unless we mean to uphold the sort of Cartesian dualism between the human soul and the rest of the natural world that Hume assumed to construct his “is”/”ought” dichotomy. The way humanity thinks of nature (whether scientifically or philosophically) is not at all separate from the sorts of social forms and ecological policies we adopt.

In closing, as a final defense of the importance of philosophy even in our technophilic and scientistic age, I’d like to recommend a book by Evan Thompson (Univ. of Toronto): “Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Science of Mind.” He has plenty of criticisms of Fodor’s approach to cognitive science, as well as Dennett and Dawkins approach to biology. Most relevant to what has been discussed on this thread is chapter 7 (starting on page 166). Most of it is on google books and can be read here: http://books.google.com/books?id=OVGna4ZEpWwC&lpg=PA170&ots=4madrcfcui&dq=evan%20thompson%20evolution&pg=PA166#v=onepage&q=&f=false

Thompson argues that Darwin’s mechanism assumes without explaining the self-production of biological individuals (which is logically prior to reproduction). Self-production (or “autopoiesis”) cannot be accounted for in Darwinian terms, and may require re-thinking the mechanistic ontology of nature that has gained ascendency since the Scientific Revolution. I’ve written a lengthy essay about this which also attempts to break down the “is”/”ought” dichotomy by showing how the modern conception of the biosphere in terms of competition and mechanism has more to do with capitalist social relations than it does with empirical facts.

The essay:http://www.4shared.com/file/167360855/ca8c5526/Towards_an_Integral_Economics.html?

*Darwin spoke of “evolution” only once in the 6th edition of “Origin.” The concept arose in Romantic philosophy long before Darwin. Lamarck (even if his proposed mechanism turned out to be misguided) was really the one who first made the idea plausible as an account of phylogenic change. Darwin wanted to avoid it because he wanted his theory to be strictly empirical, mechanistic, and therefore non-directional. Evolution implies the unrolling of something enveloped, and is therefore somewhat teleological. Romantic philosophers (Kant, Goethe, Coleridge, etc.) employed the concept to counter the mechanistic forms of thought that gained prominence in the late 18th and early 19th century. A good anthology on this: http://www.amazon.com/Romanticism-Evolution-Bruce-Wilshire/dp/0819143839

** Thomas Kuhn’s working out of the underlying perceptual re-orientations responsible for paradigm shifts should clue us into the fact that what makes science so successful is the plasticity of its method. Data and evidence are not the only relevant factors in scientific investigation. Facts are underdetermined by theories.

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# 169:

Also, I’d be curious to here what Pharyngulites think of this other NS article on horizontal gene transfer. It seems to me to present a much stronger case than anything Fodor has to say for the eclipse of Darwin’s mechanism as the most important factor in evolution:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527441.500-horizontal-and-vertical-the-evolution-of-evolution.html

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# 176:
Nerd of Redhead,

Sorry, not the peer reviewed scientific literature, which is the only thing that counts to science.

Let us hope that science never ceases to deeply engage with the philosophical underpinnings of its method. Once it severs its ties to philosophy, there is nothing to prevent it from becoming another unreflective form of dogmatism. Do not forget that the epistemological basis and ontological conclusions (if there be any) of scientific investigation are not themselves amenable to empirical investigation.

Scientific journals are where the nitty-gritty experimental work is hashed out, no doubt. But we will always need philosophy to put all the pieces together into some coherent picture of the universe and our place in it. This is especially true in light of the proliferation of scientific fields and the fragmentation of knowledge which has resulted.

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# 209:

I have to make a confession. I don’t do any of my thinking inside a laboratory–unless, that is, you are willing to grant me a metaphorical use of the term. Perhaps systematically thinking about thinking, and about thinking’s relation to our bodies, to other thinking bodies, and to the world, is a sort of scientific investigation. Except in my case, the laboratory is the Universe.

The relationship between science and philosophy has and will inevitably remain an intimate one. I will quote Alfred North Whitehead below because he seems uniquely positioned to provide insight into the turf war that always plays itself out here on Pharyngula. He lived through the quantum and relativistic revolutions as a physicist and came to realize their implications would require totally re-imagining the philosophical foundation of Classical physics. The classical relationships between space-time, energy/matter, and observation/consciousness that Galileo and Newton had assumed to be true could no longer serve as the metaphysical background of the scientific worldview. The results of scientific investigation, in this case, lead Whitehead deeper into philosophy.

From “Adventures of Ideas” (1933), chapter 9: ‘Science and Philosophy’, p. 143:

The emphasis of science is upon observation of particular occurrences, and upon inductive generalization, issuing in wide classifications of things according to their modes of functioning, in other words according to the laws of nature which they illustrate. The emphasis of philosophy is upon generalizations which almost fail to classify by reason of their universal application. For example, all things are involved in the creative advance of the Universe, that is, in the general temporality which affects all things…

Philosophy is concerned with the most universal aspects of human experience. Science is after the details. In the end, though, science must assume the imaginative background that the great philosophers have intuited and systematized (it is usually not the same philosopher to do both). There have not been many great philosophers, as has been pointed out several times on this thread already. Perhaps all of Western philosophy is simply footnotes to Plato, as Whitehead suggested. But when a particular field of science tries to trace back its ideas to their basic notions, it eventually reaches a point where further pursuit of their source is no longer relevant to its immediate purposes. They must hand the baton of knowledge to the philosophers. As Whitehead says, These basic notions [of science] are specializations from the philosophical intuitions which form the background of the civilized thought of the epoch in question… The collapse of nineteenth century [Classical] dogmatism is a warning that the special sciences require that the imaginations of men [and women] be stored with imaginative possibilities as yet unuitilized in the service of scientific explanation.

Philosophy provides this great service to human ideas, that it keeps them fresh and free to re-imagine the world when, as a result of ongoing experimentation in the laboratory of the Universe, old world-conceptions fail the tests of empirical adequacy and logical coherence.

To recap, philosophy is concerned with the universal aspects of experience, some examples of which are space, time, and consciousness. Physicists cannot measure or observe any of these three, because they are universal forms of intuition and not particular sensory objects. Space, time, and consciousness are pre-conditions for special scientific investigation into this or that corner of the natural world. We can only approach these categories philosophically.

None of this is to say that philosophy somehow provides us access to the ultimate truth. Knowledge is an evolving process, and I’d offer that balanced constructive competitiveness between scientific and philosophic attitudes will best allow our civilization to continue its historic adventure.

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# 212:

Raven,

Perhaps we can agree then that evolution is indeed more complicated than we currently understand, and that while vertical transfer of variation under natural selection may be the norm for higher taxa, evolutionarily prior to that (i.e., for roughly 3 billion years) the rules were very different. Evolution itself seems to have evolved.

To all,

It seems like Pharyngula is more concerned with the cultural implications of our biological origins than with the specific details of evolutionary theory (though of course I’ve read some fantastic scientific blogs by PZ here, too). While I agree that the fact of the common descent of species MUST be integrated into our self-conception as human beings, I tend to think that the materialism taken for granted here is just as misguided an understanding of the complexity of our universe as intelligent design. Neither takes seriously the implications of a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy. Yes, complexity emerges from simplicity over time without the need of an external designer. But when put in a cosmological context, the mechanistic assumptions of both materialism and intelligent design fail to adequately account for our current experience as self-conscious animals. Traditional religion is indeed dead, and has no better explanation for our existence;, but dead, too, is the clock-work conception of the universe that initiated the Scientific Revolution and inspired Darwin’s attempt to find a mechanistic law working to produce living phenomena. I’m not suggesting his theory is incorrect; it is demonstrably true. But its truth is conditional, not universal.

Perhaps we might take a step back and consider for a moment the larger arc of the history of ideas. It seems to me, from such a view, that we should remain ever-vigilant for the sort of hubris which leads us to suppose our age is the first to see clearly, whereas all prior ages were living in the dark. Humanity has deepened its understanding in light of modern science, but that doesn’t mean there is no longer any room for imaginative speculation and appreciation for the mystery of the sheer fact that such a beautifully ordered universe should exist at all. Pre-modern answers to spiritual questions no longer inspire us–and so we must go in search of our own. But search we must. Scientific certainty about this or that particular fact will never be enough to keep the human spirit alive.

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# 216:

Rorschach,

I fail to see how this universe is beautifully ordered, wouldn’t thermodynamic equilibrium actually mean the universe was dead ?

Define those terms [Truth and Goodness], otherwise this is just the mother of all ambiguous statements.

The expansionary model of the universe, as well as the seeming infinite potential of the quantum vacuum, calls into question the idea that it is all destined for heat death.

I hold, as Plato did, that Truth and Goodness cannot be finally defined, but only approached through ongoing dialectical struggle. That they exist as ideal forms is an assumption I seem unable to avoid. But that I might once and for all define them for you in abstraction from the concrete actuality of the always new particular situations in which they are to be applied is hardly possible. It is a bit like what Augustine said about time, that he knew what it was (the very essence of the life of his soul!) only until he was asked to define it. All but the most poetic language fails us in these situations, but unless we buy into the relativism of our intellectually impotent age, we cannot avoid the conclusion that we have at least intuitive access to these ideals.

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# 219:

John Morales,

You use the terms, yet you claim they’re ineffable. Do you see the oddity in this?

Not at all. Language allows us to approach intelligibility, but not to arrive at it in the form of fixed definitions. Inquire seriously into the meaning of most words and you’ll find you eventually reach an aporia. The ground of language is speech, which at its root is a matter of communication between persons. When we talk about Truth and Goodness, we are attempting to share attentional ‘space’ about ideas which do not in fact exist anywhere in our sensory experience of the physical world, but rather come to us as spiritual intuitions. I use the loaded word “spiritual” because our own self-conscious capacity to think (i.e., our spirit, or “I”) doesn’t appear to exist anywhere in the spatially extended world of material objects. Rather, it is that which is able to conceive of the world as a spatiotemporal manifold in the first place. Space and time, like Truth and Goodness, are ideas. You’ve never literally seen space. You’ve only seen shades of color. Nor have you seen time, only motion. You intuit space-time and can never be quite sure what it might be independent of your intuitions. Said otherwise, you can never be quite sure what the words “space” and “time” actually refer to; though of course this doesn’t mean we can’t have meaningful conversations about them so long as we are willing to take the imaginative leap necessary give them content.

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# 222:

I don’t mean to create some dualism between the mind and the extended world of nature here (a la Descartes). The challenging thing about a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy is that it requires we articulate how it is possible for mental experience and material process to share a common origin. The universe doesn’t do what it does because of some extra élan vital; rather, the expansion of space-time and organization of matter/energy constituting our ongoing cosmogenesis was from the beginning in possession of interiority or mind. To speak of “matter” (or exteriority) as if it might exist in abstraction from “mind” (or interiority) is to employ a form of substance dualism. Unless our concepts of both mind and matter have a necessary relation to one another such that the one requires the other for its meaning, they sink into incoherence. We cannot conceive of them as separate substances requiring nothing but themselves in order to exist, even if, like many here at Pharyngula, we chose to ignore mind in favor of explanation by way of material substance alone.

All this is to say that while thinking, ideas, and intuitions cannot be outwardly sensed or weighed, they remain integral to the universe. They are not immediately evident anywhere “out there,” perhaps, but they nonetheless require and participate in the becoming of the world. Only by becoming real does the ideal complete its mission.

Language is itself a feature of the outside world, and so it cannot entirely contain the inwardly experienced meaning of our ideas–certainly not as abstract definitions. But we seem nonetheless able to change the world with our words, because by speaking with each other we give rise to shared networks significance, to entire civilizations.

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#225:

Agreeing on use of terms is important, but it is only because we can never quite agree that culture evolves by continually realizing new forms of language that give insight into our relationship to the physical world. We can only know the world, whether through judgement or otherwise, because of our relations to other people. I can conceive of perspectival space, for instance, only after taking into consideration the fact that others see the world from a different angle than myself. Truth and Goodness are not entities in the way that the apple I hold in my hand is an entity. They are ideal forms. As soon as I speak and give them a name, they become mere abstractions unless in some concrete encounter between myself and other people an immediate intuition is shared concerning their participation in our given situation. These ideas could be thought of as strange attractors guiding our complex interactions with one another in the world.

As for an account of self-consciousness as epiphenomenal to the brain, I refer you to my reasoning (#222) concerning the incoherence of any definition of matter in abstraction from mind. Yes, we are both material objects; but so are we spiritual subjects. Otherwise we would not be capable of the sort of knowledge science claims we have of the spatiotemporal world.

Human beings are not the only creatures with an interior perspective on the world, and so if we went extinct, space-time would still be realized by other beings.

I don’t think it is so easy to distinguish between perception and intuition. We always already perceive the world in terms of the concepts of space and time. These are the very conditions for the possibility of experience in the first place. We do experience a real world, certainly. But the constitution of this world includes both a mental and a material pole and can’t be reduced to one or the other.

This all sounds awfully Kantian, and I think his approach fails in the end to overcome Descartes dualism, but so far as it goes I think he successfully destroyed any hope for a materialistic account of thinking and self-consciousness.

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# 227:

Kel,

It’s not so much that there is something “beyond” the material. It’s that within matter itself there lies the capacity to think, to be aware, to know. This has implications so far as our general conception of the universe is concerned, the sort of implications that force us to wonder if perhaps the modern scientific notion of a dead, mechanistic universe–rather than the pre-modern one of an organic, living universe–is the mistaken projection. Science has corrected much that was wrong with ancient cosmology and totally reoriented us in the universe based on empirical observation, no doubt about that! But the total sterilization of the universe by reduction to exterior matter in motion according to deterministic law has turned out to be a bit premature. Such a picture leaves the human observer entirely out of the picture. Since relativity and quantum theories over-turned the Classical conception of the physical world, such an oversight is no longer excusable even within science, much less philosophy. We are in need of a metaphysical scheme that ties mind and matter together into a single evolutionary process. There’s no doubt they are intimately wed. But it is a huge leap to the assumption that we can hope to account for our very ability to give an account of anything (Plato referred to this ability as our participation in Logos, which could be translated as mind) in terms of external brain mechanisms alone. To do so is to ignore the significance of our own thinking activity.

Response to PZ Myers on the Philosophy of Science

The following was posted on PZ’s blog, Pharyngula, in response to this entry: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/10/nicholas_wade_flails_at_the_ph.php

Evolution. Theory, fact, or both? I don’t think answering these questions is as simple as PZ or Wade make it seem. It involves more than science and philosophy, and forces us to deconstruct notions of a pure science uncontaminated by politics, culture, industry, and the happenstance of history.

“Fact” comes from the Latin, “facere,” meaning “to do,” or “to make.” In this sense, technoscientific facts are constructed not only by what scientific heroes do in the laboratory, but by the larger socioeconomic context determining which questions are worth asking and which research programs provide the best opportunity for investment returns to shareholders. The production and protection of facts costs money. If someone wishes to contest a fact, it also costs money to set up a counter-laboratory. Take a look at Bruno Latour’s book, “Science in Action” if you’re interested in how scientists and their networks of human and nonhuman allies construct facts.

As for theory, it is difficult to know where to start. Perhaps with PZ’s statement that theories “integrate a collection of facts into a useful model in our brains.” It is difficult to articulate how mysterious the work of theory is precisely because we must already have assumed a theoretical background to say anything at all about the world. Contrary to PZ’s assumption that facts pre-exist theories, I’d argue that the theory (or paradigm) within which one operates determines what counts as a fact. This is only partially true of course, because scientists inevitably begin to notice after a while the unexplained “noise” which builds up around a once favored theory. Given enough world-class scientific experimentation, the history of science clearly shows that revolutions occur and theories collapse, leading to gestalt shifts in the way scientists perceive the world (see Kuhn, 1962). What was once the highest and most authoritative scientific fact can come to seem in a single generation to be the silliest sort of pseudoscientific superstition. Theories change everything, even facts.

This is not a metaphysical claim about reality. I’m not saying human theoretical frameworks literally create nature. I am making phenomenological claim by saying that in every attempt to know the world, the world changes us as we change it. Knowing is not passive observation, but active participation.

So… evolution. Fact, theory, or both? I’d say both. But there is a history behind the word “evolution” which makes it a problematic choice in this context. As much as I’d like to get into the various reasons Darwin refused to use the word anywhere in “Origin of Species” (until he entered it once in the 6th edition), for lack of time I’ll just sum up: There are many evolutionary facts (like the genetic unity of all life), just as there are many evolutionary paradigms (neo-Darwinian, DST, Teilhard, Aurobindo, etc).

Avoiding the Religion of Scientism

Several weeks ago, I posted a blog about my entry to Discover Magazine’s “Evolution in Two Minutes” contest. Developmental biologist and outspoken atheist PZ Myers is judging the entries (still no word on the winner), and out of curiousity, I decided to visit his blog Pharyngula. Though it is supposedly a science blog, Myers posts little about his field of study: evolutionary development. The few posts he did make over the past month about biology were fascinating, and I learned quite a bit. Evo-Devo is a research program attempting to fill in the gaps in neo-Darwinism, which originally assumed the development of organisms had little to do with the evolutionary process. I’m quite interested in Evo-Devo, as it calls neo-Darwinism out on its greedy reductionism. Organisms cannot be understood based only on the differential survival of genes. But Evo-Devo isn’t in any way in opposition to the basic approach of theModern Synthesis, unlike Developmental Systems Theory, which aims to totally overthrow the neo-Darwinian paradigm in favor of a more holistic account. Not genes or isolated organisms, but whole organism-environment systems become the focus. All this takes us far afield from the point of this blog, but suffice it to say that Myers’ biological work fascinates and excites me. The point of this blog, however, is about Myers’ (and the watchdogs policing his blog’s) militant brand of atheistic materialism. I can understand the frustration many scientifically-educated people express concerning the widespread denial of the common descent of species among fundamentalist Christians in America. But accepting evolution, and all of contemporary science for that matter, does not necessarily religate all forms of spirituality to a superstitous past. For me and a growing number of others, the scientific cosmological story provides a more numinous background to earthly existence than any ancient religious cosmogony to come before it. Matter, energy, space, and time have been on a 14 billion year adventure that has inexplicably lead to the creation of an intelligent species of ape capable of knowing so. It’s quite astounding.

The most pressing challenge of the 21st century is to develop a planetary mythos, a global spiritual worldview that allows all human beings to become integral with the ongoing process of creative expression that brought us into existence. Science must play a central role in any such development. Myers and his cheerleaders seem to go wrong not in their enthusiasm for science, but in their dogmatic insistance that the observations of science must be interpreted in a materialistic fashion. There are many complex arguments for a materialistic or physicalist interpretation of scientific facts, but none that I am aware of can coherently account for human consciousness. There is plenty of hand-waving, plenty of “just-so” stories pretending to explain how an entirely mechanical process could lead to sentience and volition, but so far as I know, no convincing solutions to the hard problem of consciousness have yet been devised. If anyone disputes this, please comment below and fill me in!

Many materialistic atheists would dispute the idea that our species still needs myth in a scientific age. This amounts to saying that consciousness can exist entirely independent of the unconscious. There is no hubris greater than this conceit, and none more dangerous. As William Irwin Thompson writes, “That shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being is the landscape of myth,” (The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, p. 87). Science is an epistemic activity, a way of knowing. All our human attempts to rationally know the full extent of our cosmic existence are limited for the simple reason that we are that which we are attempting to know.

Alfred North Whitehead expressed a similar sentiment: “Every philosophy is tinged with the coloring of some secret imaginative background, which never emerges explicitly into its train of reasoning.” No amount of scientific progress will ever change this basic fact about human psychology. Knowing is not a disembodied, purely rational activity. What we know is always already shaped by our imaginative and intuitive faculties.

The danger of supposing science can totally rationalize our society is already apparent. The mechanistic model of nature has made possible the current global religion (at least in the West): capitalist consumerism. It’s a myth that has grown out of the assumption that the only truly real, truly powerful thing in the world is money, and that the non-human earth community is ours to exploit as we see fit (since it is nothing but blind matter in motion, anyways). There can be no solution to the current ecological crisis until this self-destructive mythos is totally re-imagined.

But the mechanistic/materialistic myth is not only dangerous because of its ecological implications; it also degrades human life. Prior to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, humanity had a system of values based on more than a merely horizontal scale. As E. F. Schumacher explains in his wonderful little book A Guide for the Perplexed, this flattening of value reverses the vertical conception humanity has held for the vast majority of its existence. The result is moral relativism and/or utilitarianism. The Good is measured solely upon what feels good at the time for me, so long as it doesn’t prevent others from getting their cheap pleasures, as well. Schumacher outlines the Great Chain of Being, which begins with matter and progresses through the plant kingdom, the animal, the human, and continues to God, the ideal Person. Natural science focuses only upon the material level, and so long as it doesn’t overstep its legitimate bounds by claiming to explain all other levels by reduction to matter, it remains a tool of utmost value to the human endeavor. Science is an empirical enterprise, and so fittingly studies only that aspect of nature that is visible. As Schumacher makes plainly evident, however, all of reality above the material level is invisible. To know anything about these higher levels, we must become internally adequate to them. This is where the vertical chain of being becomes so important. If you want to know what life is, or what consciousness is, or what self-consciousness is, you’ve got to develop your instrument of knowledge. The reason science is so successful and produces so many incontrovertable theories about the physical world is that any normal adult with fully functioning senses is adequate to understand it. When it comes to truths about higher levels of being, something more than simple logic and sense perception becomes necessary: namely, wisdom.

Schumacher writes:

“There is nothing more difficult than to be aware of one’s thought. Everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see. Every thought can be scrutinised directly except the thought by which we scrutinise. A special effort, an effort of self-awareness is needed – that almost impossible feat of thought recoiling upon itself: almost impossible but not quite. In fact, this is the power that makes man human and also capable of transcending his humanity,” (p. 54).

Science is one of the most valuable tools the human spirit has ever developed, but if all human knowledge is reduced to the empirically verifiable sort, most of reality is placed entirely beyond our reach. Further, a reductionistically naturalistic picture of the universe puts the cart before the horse by forgetting that all knowledge of the cosmos comes through experience (therefore, attempting to derive experience from nature conceived of as entirely physical is incoherent from the get go; read my essay Unearthing the Earth for a more developed explanation as to why). There is no conflict between faith and reason, nor between science and religion. The only conflicts arise when science is adopted as a religion, thereby becoming scientism, or when religion begins making scientific claims, thereby becoming creationism.

As Galileo put it: “The Bible [<—insert your spiritual tradition of choice] shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

And Kant: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Let us not obscure the difference.

Ongoing discussion on PZ Myers’ blog

Anyone interested in following the thread I’ve been participating in over on Myers’ blog, here’s the link:

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/07/i_was_wondering_about_that.php

A little taste of what’s been going on there (one of my posts):

@ 201 John Morales writes: “those assumptions (of science) are that there is an external reality, and that it is consistent, and that only the senses can convey information about that reality.”

You must have left out the other necessary assumption on accident? I mean, that there be in addition to external reality, an internal consciousness capable of consistently observing, measuring, and formalizing all that sensory data into meaningful scientific theories? I would never deny the existence of the external world, but I would argue there is absolutely no sense (reasonable or empirical) to be made of any supposed pre-given, objective material world. The external world is always already together with the internal. Consciousness wasn’t parachuted into a sterile, mindless universe as if from outside; it grew right out of the center of what is actually more of an organic universe still in the process of creating itself. Based on my understanding, our scientific knowledge of the universe not only doesn’t disprove, but actually supports the idea that it is a directed (not “designed,” but lured by recognizable laws, like entropy or Teilhard’s complexity/consciousness), experiential universe, which is all that I am arguing for here (not for the existence of “God”).

John Morales writes: “you claim not to be a dualist, yet you refer to “spirituality”. Q: What is this ‘spirit’ concept (presumably you don’t mean mind), and why do you apparently consider it is not amenable to scientific scrutiny?”

I don’t bring up spirit because I want to annul matter, nor because I think the two are irreconcilably enemies or ontologically distinct substances. To tell you the truth, I don’t think we need to talk about anything but matter—but I think matter is more than brute stuff devoid of self-enjoyment. I think all organized material bodies feel the rest of the universe in an increasingly intense way depending on their complexity (I didn’t add above that we also need to talk about time, which is where this “increasingly complex” business comes from). Hydrogen feels gravitational gradients, stars feel magnetic fields, bacteria feel nutrient gradients, human beings feel the need to understand the universe. I think these feelings are leading the universe somewhere: time’s influence on matter is not merely accidental; to argue that it is to contradict the plainly evident pattern of natural history. If we had to separate matter and spirit for the sake of metaphor, I’d say that “spirit” describes what we call “matter” is evolving toward. We might also swap “novelty” for spirit and “habit” for matter, so long as we see that the two are really part of a single process called the universe and that no actually existing thing/event is ever one or the other exclusively. The universe is creative process–it is not entirely determined by the past but has spontaneously emerged to higher states of order on multiple occasions. I can only assume it will continue to do so. Science cannot scrutinize the idea that ours is a reasonable, a purposeful universe. If it were not such a universe, the scientific enterprise would not be possible. Reason has emerged in our universe—this is a fact. I do not think mechanistic materialism can account for this, other than to say it is a complete fluke. This leads us to the anthropic principle.

@216 John Morales writes: “you’d better look up anthropic principle, for I suspect you don’t understand it.”

Perhaps I don’t understand it. I’ve yet to hear it described by any two people exactly the same way. When I say that our universe can’t help but be human, I mean only that we necessarily exist in a universe whose processes were potentially, and are now actually intelligent.

John Morales writes: “the scientist says ‘there is no evidence of telos when examining the universe’. Note that to say something is a value judgement here is trite; any expression of a conclusion or judgement is de-facto a ‘value judgement’.”

As I said above, for the scientific enterprise (which I believe to be a cultural activity—I’m not sure where you’d begin arguing otherwise? More below) to be possible, human beings must be rational creatures in a universe which conforms to certain reasons (ie, purposes, causes, laws). Even Darwin’s theory of evolution invokes telos. Natural selection only does theoretical work if we take the analogy of human and natural selection quite literally. The scientist has every reason not to deny the universe is reasonable and purposeful. If he/she does, I don’t see how he/she can avoid erasing causality itself from the picture. It is only the materialist who argues based on any number of non-scientific motivations that the universe lacks all telos.

John Morales says: “Science is a self-correcting, bias-annulling and iterative process for acquiring knowledge about reality;”

Yes, science is that cultural institution which has proven itself to be the most progressive yet devised by the human spirit, at least in terms of technological advance. I don’t think this means civilization can thrive without other value spheres having a share of power, however. For instance, we have pressing moral decisions to make about how scientific knowledge ought to influence the way we relate to the rest of the non-human earth community. A materialist response to these moral issues (I think materialism is as much a moral, as a scientific stance) is usually either supportive of or indifferent to industrial growth capitalism, which is pushing us into the largest mass extinction since the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs according to E.O. Wilson. Science can and should help us make moral decisions about human-earth relations; a materialist wouldn’t seem to have a stake in the matter, because how can one argue that non-human nature has value independent of human desires if it is all just a blind mechanism? Economics becomes just another science concerned with objective facts with no ethical implications.

John Morales writes: “every person has experienced it (atheism)— it is the tabula rasa, or normal state before religious indoctrination/imaginative wishful thinking occurs.”

Actually, recent developmental psychology might show otherwise, that children are originally quite open to spirituality, and only as adults become self-described atheists: http://www.science-spirit.org/article_detail.php?article_id=128

I’ll admit this is open to debate, mostly for semantic reasons concerning how you prefer to use the word “atheist.” You say it means the lack of a belief in deities, but when a child says “God did it!,” I don’t think they mean the same thing that, say, Jerry Falwell did.

Noospheric Evolution: Science and Religion

A few weeks ago, a contest put on by Discover Magazine was brought to my attention. The publication asked for short video submissions explaining evolution (by which they meant specifically Darwin’s theory) in a lucid enough way that even the most dim-witted of creationists would be able to grasp it.

From Discovery’s submission page:

“Think you can convince even the most hard-headed creationist that Darwin was right? If so, show us—and that creationist—how it’s done
.”

I was a bit annoyed with the polemical attitude of the guidelines, but nonetheless decided to enter a submission with the A/V help of several others, which you can watch below. My hope was to find a form of discourse friendly to both scientists and the spiritual.

Evolution’s Essence:

As you can see, I decided to ignore the narrower focus of the contest’s guidelines, and instead tried to expand our scientific perspective of reality beyond the biological into the cosmological. If science and religion (or spirituality) have anything to talk about, the discussion would begin with cosmology, not with biology. This is not to say that our understanding of life is uninformed by our spirituality, not by any means–but merely to suggest we begin at the beginning so as not to get lost in trying to tell the story.

P.Z. Myers, atheist apologist and associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota (his blog), just so happens to be the judge of the contest, and based on the debate I just listened to him have with Dennis Alexander, directer of the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion at Cambridge, I’m rather certain my entry will not be chosen.

Myers was basically accused of scientism by Alexander–a charge I would have to agree with. Of course, the term needs to be explained a bit to avoid it being merely pejorative. Scientism is a view of the world wherein the only valid knowledge one can hold is that produced by the scientific method. Myers, while he acknowlegdes the existence of “other layers of reality” like poetry, religion, and politics, does not grant these layers the same dignity that he grants to the scientific sphere. As far as he is concerned, the scientific sphere (ie, the empirically measurable external world) is the only true and real layer of what is in fact a layerless (purely extended and surfacial) universe of mechanism and chance without any interiority or depth.

What was most frustrating about listening to this debate was the way in which the scientific method and materialism were conflated. Myers continually, and I think correctly, argued the point that materialism and Christianity (or any spiritual tradition) are incompatible. The question at hand, however, was whether the scientific method and spirituality were somehow in conflict. Myers would probably argue that science and materialism are functionally equivalent, as the former cannot operate but under the assumptions of the latter. While I agree with Myers that one should not and need not discuss God in the laboratory, I think there are numerous metaphysical perspectives one could interpret the findings of science from other than materialism (ie, dualism–Leibniz, pantheism–Spinoza, panexperientialism–Whitehead, etc.). The scientific method provides us with valid theoretical relationships between facts from an ever-growing array of diverse fields. An individual scientist produces facts in only one very narrow slice of this larger torrent of experimentation, which is why talk of God is usually unnecessary in any specific scientific paper. In the science of cosmology, however, where all this theoretical information needs to be organized into a coherent whole, one cannot avoid asking metaphysical questions, such as “why should there be something rather than nothing?” Perhaps talk of “God” is still unnecessary in cosmology, but certainly questions of formal and final causation–the sorts of reasons for things that empirical science can leave (at least temporarily) unexplored when investigating various features of intra-universal phenomena–become of paramount importance.

Many cosmologists will refer to the anthropic principle whenever the issue of teleology comes up, which to oversimplify a bit states that ours is a universe that produced intelligent life, and so anything we scientificially discover about its nature must be such as to imply or at least allow for our existence. The fact that our universe is so finely-tuned as to produce such complexity is not explained by this principle, but it at least points out the way in which we as observers are necessarily embedded in an intelligence-producing universe. We can only know a universe capable of creating beings capable of knowing so. It’s a mouthful, but if you can manage to digest it, its meaning is profound.

A materialist could easily argue that, while paradoxical, the anthropic principle doesn’t rule out the possibility of our universe being created with the particular cosmological trajectory it has had entirely on accident. I would grant this, however I’d argue such a position contradicts what I find so laudatory about the M.O. of the scientific method: that we ought to pay attention to experience over conjecture. This is, after all, the only universe we can know. It has evolved over billions of years into intelligent life. Can we really, as cosmologists, ignore the implications of such a creative process? Can we hope to explain even the possibility of its existence, much less the actual emergence of life and intelligence, in a purely materialistic/mechanical way (ie, without formal or final causes)? I have argued extensively in other blog postings that we cannot.

I am not a supporter of creationism or intelligent design (my views are more in line with the likes of Teilhard and Whitehead than the Kansas Board of Education), but I do support organizations like Alexander’s and the Templeton Foundation in their attempts to redirect the evolution of the culture war between fundamentalists of whatever stripe, whether atheist or theist, in a more encouraging direction. I do think that there are regressive forms of religious belief, but so too are there regressive forms of materialism. Myers said in the interview that he wanted to look at the world in a rational and logical way, and I of course agree with him, at least on the surface. In reality, though, what he really means is that he wants to assume the world is reducible to mindless forces. Obviously, Myers and I have a different understanding of the nature of rationality and logic. He assumes they both necessarily lead one to interpret the world as a purposeless machine. I see our mental capacities as evidence of something quite the contrary, that we are in a universe capable of generating human organisms that contemplate the meaning of existence. Humans do not project meaning onto the universe, but express the meaning of the universe in their very humanness.

Finding the proper human expression of the meaning of the universe is religion’s reason for being. No doubt it has lead past civilizations to commit attrocities, but we cannot simply jettison all those layers of reality deeper than scientific measurement can reach because they are more difficult to agree about. Human beings are always going to ask big questions. Leading meaningful lives is always going to require that we have attempted at least some sort of answer to these questions. The scientific method should of course inform our journey as earthlings and our attempts to come to terms with our existence, but I think one unnecessarily handicaps themselves if they base their worldview soley on that layer of reality grasped by scientific discourse alone. There are artistic, moral, political, spiritual, etc., layers to reality, and none has final authority over any of the others (though each can aid our understanding of the other). Science is one perspective of many that human beings are capable of taking on the unfolding event we call the cosmos, each with its own limited spectrum of validity. Coming to some coherent, integral picture of the whole of reality requires going beyond the scientific method to tackle issues more existential than can be tested in a laboratory.

The results of Discover Magazine’s contest haven’t been announced yet, and perhaps I’m not helping my chances. I’d much prefer to speak up about my version of our universe’s story than win a contest, however. Alexander used the metaphor of a “drama” to describe our existence here on earth, and I think that reaches right to the core of the disagreement between Myers and myself. I cannot help but hold an enchanted worldview in which our universe is the play of spirit in time as evolving matter. I realize there is no scientific proof of this, but then I don’t expect science to pronounce one way or the other upon such metaphysical issues. As Myers himself admits, there are no scientific answers to metaphysical questions. I don’t think this means we cannot or should not continue to ask them.

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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