Sharing an email response to a question I received about the possibility of explaining human consciousness computationally, and whether such explanations might be compatible with Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual science.

I do not think the computational paradigm has much to teach us about the sort of Sophianic consciousness Steiner attempted to unveil. I summarized my thoughts on this in an essay back in 2012: https://footnotes2plato.com/2012/03/15/thinking-with-steiner-beyond-the-brain-reflections-on-my-bildung-and-the-philosophy-of-freedom/

The computational paradigm does have something to teach us, but it is not what proponents of computationalism may intend. What it teaches us, I think, is that human consciousness and the thinking activity at its root cannot possibly be understood as a merely computational or algorithmic operation, or as information-processing. If our consciousness was explainable as computation, then we would not be here to understand the explanation. We’d be robots who only talk as if they are conscious, as neuroscientist Michael Graziano suggests (I address his views and the computational paradigm more generally in my recent journal article on the place of consciousness in the physical world). 


Thinking is a spiritual activity, an intuitive and transformational process, not merely the rearrangement or exchange of information between fixed transistor nodes in a finite network architecture. In other words, thinking is something we know from the inside and freely, not something that can be measured, objectified, or programmed. Even self-programming computers/machine learning algorithms cannot reproduce human consciousness. Human consciousness gives rise to such insights as Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Heidegger’s Dasein, and Berkeley philosopher Hubert Dreyfus’ brilliant refutation of computational cognitive science in light of existential phenomenology (See his famous book What Computers Can’t Do, as well as the follow up, What Computers Still Cannot Do).

Human consciousness or Anthroposophia, like all spiritual entities, is an animate, intelligent, compassionate presence striving to participate in the further evolution of the world-process. Computers might be able to (re)program themselves, but they will never be conscious or be capable of thinking, never have aims other than those given them by their programmers. Computers are a product of thinking, not the other way around.

That said, the more we surround ourselves by screens and computer algorithms, the more our thinking becomes machine-like, the more we begin to imagine ourselves and other people as mere automatons. Thinking is not easy. Emerson as well as Steiner agreed that thinking is the hardest task in the world. But it is the task of our age. 

INTERSECT: Science & Spirituality

Join us for a 2-Day Conversational Conference (July 27-29th) for the purpose of Exploring Syngergies between the world of Science and the world of Spirituality.

Topics to include CosmologyEcologySustainability, and Consciousness.

Speakers include: Drew Dellinger, John Hausdoerffer, Matthew Segall and Brian Swimme (via video).

Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/intersect-science-spirituality-tickets-4239963846

Check out this interesting post by my cousin, Seth Segall, over at the Existential Buddhist. The topics Seth discusses include whether consciousness is emergent from or intrinsic to the physical world, the place of values (human or otherwise) in the universe, and the variety of God concepts available to those willing to philosophize about such matters. Seth also compares the ideas of the 13th century Zen Buddhist monk Dogen, the 17th century Jewish philosopher Spinoza, and the 20th century mathematician and cosmologist A.N. Whitehead.

galaxy-wallpapers-17

Seth writes:

I could never believe in a supernatural, anthropomorphic God, an omniscient autocrat standing outside of creation, judging it, and miraculously intervening in accordance with our prayers and petitions—in other worlds, the kind of God that Whitehead describes as having the attributes of “a Caesar.” “God talk” doesn’t interest me or turn me on. As I’ve mentioned in another post, when I hear “God” mentioned in a Dharma talk, my mind wanders off.  But how different — really — are Spinoza’s and Whitehead’s naturalistic, creative, immanent Gods from Dogen’s understanding of the dharmakaya? How different is Whitehead’s God who experiences the experiences of the world and nudges us towards love and beauty from Dogen’s compassionate Avalokitesvara who hears the cries of the world and awakens us to wisdom beyond wisdom? Even if one dispenses with Gods and Buddhas, if mentality, morality and aesthetics can be features of reality right down to the bone, why can’t reality also include some non-supernatural “spiritual” dimension as well? Some beneficial principle that encourages us and the world towards greater love and compassion, beauty and understanding, and our own best selves? I’m not convinced, like Whitehead and Spinoza, that God is either necessary or tenable, but I’m more open to consider it than I once was. That’s why I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist; it’s what keeps me from joining the secularist camp.

I appreciate Seth’s pragmatic (in the Jamesian sense) approach to these questions. I do not pretend to any metaphysical certainty about the existence of the Whiteheadian or any other God. From my perspective, we inhabit a cosmos that is always on the edge of chaos with nothing guaranteeing continued peace, goodness, or beauty. I do believe these ideals are realized in the ongoing genesis of this universe to a degree far greater than mere chance, but I cannot go so far as to claim they are metaphysical necessities. I think the process-relational God articulated by Whitehead allows us to recognize the realization of these ideals as somewhere in-between utterly contingent and totally necessary. They are potentials freely realized by the creatures of this cosmos because of their intrinsic desirability. Nothing is to stop any particular being in some particular circumstance from desiring otherwise. On the other hand, Whitehead makes it clear that we cannot speak of a “cosmic order” without already assuming the realization of an ideal of beauty. For Whitehead, all order is aesthetic order. In other words, no beauty, no cosmos. So the fact that there is a cosmos at all is already evidence enough that the scales are tipped toward harmony.

If you’re a Bay Area local, do try to attend this conference celebrating the work of Stan Grof Oct. 24-25 (Friday and Saturday) at the Hotel Whitcomb. It is being sponsored by the new Center for the Study of Psychedelic Medicine at C.I.I.S. and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

Grof-Conference-Featured-Image

>>More information<<       >>Registration<<       >>Presentation descriptions<<

This fall, the California Institute of Integral Studies and the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program is hosting a unique conference honoring the lifetime achievements of Stanislav Grof in the several fields to which he has made such major contributions, including consciousness research, psychiatry and psychology, psychedelic studies, religious studies, philosophy, and esotericism. Scholars and researchers from many disciplines will explore and build upon Grof’s extraordinary expansion of our understanding of the human psyche as well as the range and power of psychotherapeutic approaches. Grof will respond to the diverse presentations, followed by open dialogue with the participants. 

Presenters will include:
Christopher Bache, Ph.D.; John Buchanan, Ph.D.; Fritjof Capra; Rick Doblin, Ph.D.; Jorge Ferrer, Ph.D.; Leonard Gibson, Ph.D.; Charles Grob, M.D.; Paul Grof, M.D.; Stanislav Grof, M.D.; Diane Haug, M.A., LPCC; William Keepin, Ph.D.; Sean Kelly, Ph.D.; Ralph Metzner, Ph.D.; Annie Mithoefer, B.S.N; Michael Mithoefer, M.D.; Thomas Roberts, Ph.D.; Tav Sparks; Richard Tarnas, Ph.D.; Kylea Taylor, M.S., M.F.T.; and Jenny Wade, Ph.D.

Last year, some colleagues and I at CIIS participated in a panel discussion on Speculative Realism called “Here Comes Everything.” My lecture drew primarily upon Grant’s text Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2006). This summer, I’ve been doing research for a comprehensive exam on the recent resurgence of Schellingian philosophy (HERE is my reading list). I saved Grant’s book until last, since I think it provides the strongest case for Schelling’s contemporary relevance by foregrounding the extent to which his long life of philosophical creativity remained, from beginning to end, focused on the problem of nature.

What is the problem of nature? Grant locates this problematic in the Kantian revolution, when the transcendental gap between freedom and nature reduced nature to mere appearance, a phenomenal ghost lying in wait for the practical projects of human industrialism. “The whole of modern European philosophy has this common deficiency,” wrote Schelling in 1809, “that nature does not exist for it.” Grant suggests that, in adopting Aristotle’s “physics of all things,” rather than Plato’s “physics of the All,” Kant made it impossible to ground his transcendentalism in anything but the anthropocentric ethical projects of practical reason (p. 7). From Schelling’s perspective, this is hardly a ground at all, since the transcendental subject cannot account for the genesis of its own subjectivity. Kant isn’t blind to this problem, but is forced to posit a logical concept of ground as the supersensible substrate underlying both nature and freedom. Schelling is not satisfied with a merely logical ground, so he retreats from Kant’s Aristotelian approach to physics (what Grant calls somaticism) to pursue Plato’s physics of the All. Instead of conceiving of ground as an underlying substrate or substance, Schelling, following Plato, grounds subjectivity in the dynamic activity of matter itself. Schelling here inaugurates a form of process ontology that will later be picked up by Whitehead, though the latter seems unaware of the former’s contributions to his own project. Whitehead bypassed any explicit acknowledgement of Schelling’s naturphilosophie, going back to Plato himself to find in the Timaeus the same possibility for a physics of becoming that Schelling did.

“Nature is subject,” says Schelling, which is not to say that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind (a form of anthropomorphism), but rather that the human mind is a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know what we are?”

In his celebrated 1809 text, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling delves into traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological problems only to re-emerge, not with new answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that human reason is itself a recapitulation of the sublime tension of cosmogenesis itself: the eternal struggle between darkness and light. Our human freedom to choose good or evil, according to Schelling, irrevocably separates us from the animal kingdom. Evil isn’t an obedience to brute instincts that might draw us back into animality; no, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical calibrator Fr. Baader: “…it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals” (40/373).

This spiritual freedom of humanity should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, as this characterization would entirely miss the literally decisive importance of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity, since this implies some more original subjectivity which would employ freedom as a means. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. I am the freedom to choose good or evil, and nothing besides. There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of freedom. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. This is not some special human difference, some special capacity, as though our essence was just to be some other kind or species of natural being. Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very being of nature itself self-consciously, while other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming. Like the divine, humanity is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to erotically reproduce ourselves in relation to some irreducible otherness within ourselves (i.e., evil). But unlike the divine, there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically engaged in the sacred marriage of eternal circulation. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected. Evil appears real precisely when a human being denies the evil in themselves to wage war against it in others. Schelling saw no hope in national politics, since the state is merely an evil made necessary by the fall. True human salvation lies elsewhere, in a democracy of spirits who freely chose the Good out of love, not due to fear of secular or religious punishment.

For several years now, I have from time to time engaged in philosophical debate with commenters over at Pharyngula (the atheist and biologist PZ Myers‘ well-traffic blog). It is often impossible to maintain a civil discussion or sympathetic reflection about the topic at hand (usually having to do with the ontology of life, the meaning of consciousness, or the role of spirituality/religion in contemporary society) because our complete lack of shared assumptions about the world quickly causes the conversation to degenerate into defensive ideological posturing. Myers (and the Sentinels who patrol his site always ready to beat back the vitalist and mysterian “trolls” who dare question scientific orthodoxy) displays a way of thinking that is perhaps the best contemporary example of what Alfred North Whitehead called scientific materialism. This mode of thought prevents its possessors (or those it possesses) from practicing what Keats once called “negative capability.” Negative capability could be described as the power or potency of the human imagination to think without acting, i.e., to contemplate the possibility of something without assuming its actuality. To practice philosophy, itself a spiritual and imaginative activity, one needs to have mastered this negative capability.

A recent post by Myers, wherein he ridicules the notion of “spiritual exercises” for atheists, illustrates well the conceptual blockage preventing scientific materialists from considering anything other than deterministic mechanical laws in their explanations of the natural world. Myers writes of spiritual exercises, like meditation, visualization, and breath work, that:

“…they are physiological exercises. [1]They do not manipulate ‘spirit,’ [2]they change the physical state of the brain. But these glib pseudoscientific quacks just love to borrow the language of science and slap the label of ‘spiritual’…”

Myers thinks he is able to discard the notion of “spirit” quickly and easily as a relic of pre-scientific dualism; but I think his concept of “spirit” is deeply confused. He seems to imagine “spirit” as some sort of super-matter, a subtler kind of extended substance capable of reaching in from the outside to direct physiological activity. He rightly dismisses this caricature of “spirit” in one clause [1], only to implicitly re-affirm it in the next [2]!

Who, exactly, changes the physical state of the brain? The language here is difficult, and some may argue that philosophy simply plays with the infinite ambiguity of linguistic reflexivity until all discernable meaning becomes entirely obscured. But if one is capable of any degree of philosophical sympathy with the likes of such difficult thinkers as Kant, Ficthe, Schelling, Hegel, Steiner, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson, James, Whitehead, etc., I think it becomes rather obvious that the sublimity of feeling resulting from consciousness’ attempts to understand its own conditions of possibility (whether cranial or celestial) lead straight into what can only be called “spirituality.” “Spirit” is an easily misunderstood word referring to one’s own present consciousness. It is the “I” that knows who it is, the “will” who intends, regrets, and foresees. Spirit is that in the physiologist that experiences the feeling of knowing the structure and function of the brain. A thinker cannot reduce his or her own thinking to the structure and function of the brain without a performative contradiction.

This defense of spirit as irreducible to matter is not a plee for dualism. On the contrary, it is an attempt to provide the mechanistically minded with an opportunity to discover the deeper meaning of what even their own language cannot help but admit. Spirit and matter are not opposites, but complementaries: the two faces of a single, creative process.

One possible antidote to the self-erasure of scientific materialism is the organic cosmology of the Romantics, for whom nature was visible spirit, and spirit invisible nature. I won’t try to say it better than Emerson, who in Nature, writes:

Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass…The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. Thus, “the whole is greater than its part;” “reaction is equal to action;” “the smallest weight may be made to lift the greatest, the difference of weight being compensated by time;” and many the like propositions, which have an ethical as well as physical sense. These propositions have a much more extensive and universal sense when applied to human life, than when confined to technical use…This relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men. It appears to men, or it does not appear. When in fortunate hours we ponder this miracle, the wise man doubts, if, at all other times, he is not blind and deaf;

—— “Can these things be,
And overcome us like a summer’s cloud,
Without our special wonder?”

for the universe becomes transparent, and the light of higher laws than its own, shines through it. It is the standing problem which has exercised the wonder and the study of every fine genius since the world began; from the era of the Egyptians and the Brahmins, to that of Pythagoras, of Plato, of Bacon, of Leibnitz, of Swedenborg. There sits the Sphinx at the road-side, and from age to age, as each prophet comes by, he tries his fortune at reading her riddle. There seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms; and day and night, river and storm, beast and bird, acid and alkali, preexist in necessary Ideas in the mind of God, and are what they are by virtue of preceding affections, in the world of spirit. A Fact is the end or last issue of spirit. The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.”

More reflections on PZ Myers, science, and philosophy…