Concerning the move from ‘religious experience’ to religion.
An ’emergent property’ is something appearing in a system that was not predictable from looking at the individual parts alone. Examples? One could argue that studying oxygen and hydrogen separately would not let you predict the behavior of water. Similarly, it would be hard to predict cellular life from the set of elements created by the Big Bang.
I’m suspicious of how often the term is used, however. It seems, in many cases, to simply be the limit of the predictor’s imagination. “I didn’t see that coming! Ah, emergent property.”
I do, however, have a clear example relevant to this series.
It’s easiest to explain in terms of planning depth.
We think about the consequences of our actions continually. Some of the most complex planning involves our interaction with other people. Social species (elephants, killer whales, ravens, people) typically have bigger brains than other comparable species. This is because social interactions demand some of our highest cognitive capacity.
One way to analyze social interaction is by abstracting it out into a game theory framework of initial action, response, counter-response, etc. and consider each action as a game move. This makes it easier to think through. Planning depth is the number of moves ahead you can think, making assumptions about what your opponent will choose or be forced to do.
Let’s simplify and say it’s two players in a zero-sum game like chess. Grandmaster chess players have claimed to think 15+ moves ahead. They’ve been accused of lying:-) But certainly, good players can think 3-5 moves ahead. Planning out 5 of your moves in addition to your opponent’s 5 responses and you have a planning depth of 10.
Tools such as calculating calendars (Stonehenge?) and sketches in clay or dirt can extend planning depth beyond what can simply be held in one’s head. All that applies.
Planning depth evolving
At some point during the last .5M years, our evolving planning depth capacity generated a whopper of an emergent property. To see it, we need to back up through the phylogenetic tree to a proto-chimp/human and then move forward. (Genetically, we’re the third chimpanzee, so we can see three divergent evolutionary paths.)
Our close cousins, pan troglodytes, use tools and have a troop structure. They don’t use stone weapons or fire…both things that a proto-human species developed with a brain 2/3rds the size of ours. I think they can be imagined as a reasonable starting point. Chimps can set up ambushes. Let’s call that a planning depth of three: 1) you stomp around over there; 2) our target will bolt from the bushes in the direction of where I’m hiding; 3) I’ll grab ‘em. And maybe 4): then we eat it.
The point of all this planning is to keep us and our offspring alive and fed. The deeper the planning depth, the more successful we’d be.
An analysis like “We need to gather acorns in the high country, process them, and carry them out of the hills before it gets too cold. But the weather looks like the pattern of a dry year, so we need to head to the last place trees thrived in a drought rather than somewhere closer!” shows deep planning. (It also demonstrates a good reason to keep old people who remember long patterns around as humans have evolved to do.)
There’s a huge gotcha, however. Somewhere on the path from proto-chimp/human to homo sapiens, we hit the point where the deeping planning depth, evolving to keep us alive and thriving, hits the “Oh shit; we’re all going to die anyway” realization. It’s not a matter of what, just a matter of when.
At that point, we’ve stepped outside the bounds of the survival-based impetus provided by our species’ evolution. We’re now in a conceptual space with no given answers and a brain big enough to worry about such things.
Planning has suddenly become mind-blowing–perhaps even paralyzing–and something new emerges.
There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer. – Gertude Stein (Image: public domain)
I think this is where religions started to evolve…their job is to calm the existential freakout and get us refocused.
Not all approaches are adaptive. There are cults in India that pray to Shiva to open his third eye and destroy the universe. Some Christians hope for an immediate apocalypse (that, hopefully, they’ll refrain from imposing on the rest of us) rather than material thriving.
A recent, highly effective exploration of the problem is found in the work of Nietzsche, who sees meaning as something we posit as an act of will in the face of an uncaring and often cruel universe. He may not have generated the best answer, but he certainly away most of the cruft from the question.
What has this to do with a series on practical mysticism?
Mystical experiences are mind-blowing: at best, transcendent; at worst, shattering (and typically a bit of both.) Religion tries to contain the damage. Religion can support the mystic by providing a framework. It can also try to suppress it as a challenge to its power. Either way, it’s important not to confuse the two.
Next up: I’m going to try and put the pieces explored so far into a general theory of ‘non-ordinary experience’ as a feature of our evolved species.
Thanks for reading. Please let me know your thoughts.
Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. – Michael Pollen
Despite the American cult of individualism, I have never believed our identity was our idiosyncrasies and, despite my neophile tendencies, I have never believed that something was of value simply because it was new.
On the other hand, I don’t believe something is of value simply because it’s old—unless it’s really really old. That may be a different story.
Here follows a variant on Michael Pollen’s ‘eat what your great-grandmother ate’ test expressed not in a few generations but in tens or hundreds of millennia.
You are reading part of an intellectual wander aimed at building a framework for understanding the continuity between everyday experiences of awe and wonder and the type of ‘mystical’ experiences that are considered outside regular human experience (in my view mistakenly). And for considering the utility of such experiences.
My starting assumption is that this framework needs to address ego, instinct, and what are often termed nonordinary states. I have some theories about each of those. They will hopefully be modified in dialog with you and with the writing process itself.
Many of you who know me know of my love of grilling oysters and, in particular grilling oysters on the beach. It feels deeply right to me.
Explaining my theory about why requires a digression.
In an undergraduate course in Feminist Literature, I read Elaine Morgan‘s, The Descent of Woman. This was 50 years ago. I have no clue at this point what Shulamith Firestone wrote about. Time has fuzzed that out. Many of Morgan’s points, however, remain vivid.
Her central argument is that we share a few key odd body traits not with our close cousins, the chimps, but with aquatic mammals. Examples include women’s subcutaneous fat and both genders’ minimal body hair…traits that overlap with dolphins, for example, but not most terrestrial mammals. She believes this argues for some interregnum of seashore or riparian evolution. Women, specifically, were at the leading edge of evolution during this period. (Men’s layer of fat is half the thickness of women’s, and men are typically furrier.)
One reason she stayed fresh in my mind was that ‘real’ anthropologists would remind me of her in occasional snide footnotes or asides. You could almost see the eye rolls. Not that they actually disputed her claims. That would be beneath them. So, irritating certain pros, and ideas I liked: two points in her favor:-).
Jump forward to 2015 or so. Wendy, Griffin, and I are at a lecture on human evolution at the California Academy of Science. It’s being given by Zeresenay Alemseged, Curator and Irvine Chair of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences and discoverer of Selam, a remarkably complete Australopithecus fossil skeleton that predates Leakey’s famous Lucy by 120,000 years.
Alemseged is discussing one of the big issues in human evolution: what provided enough calories to allow the step up in brain size between Australopithecus and Homo species. Brains burn a lot of energy. Other primate’s diets could not support a brain of our size. And evolution does not support the sort of look-forward activity that would require some Australopithecus species to decide, “Hey, we need bigger brains, let’s go look for different food.” The calories have to be there already to allow a boot-up mutation to work.
His answer is based on his recent work in what was at one time the coast of South Africa. Shellfish! They’re easy to gather in quantity, can be eaten cooked or raw, and protein is calorie-rich.
Creative Commons license via Wikimedia. Australopithecus species had stone tools. Homo hablis used fire.
Soooo, oysters on the beach, baby! Step aside ‘man the hunter’. Enter proto-people with digging sticks on the shoreline. Elaine Morgan, fuck yeah:-).
(To set a bit of context. Both fire and stone tools predate the appearance of homo sapiens. An ancestor some 2.5M years ago used stone tools and one used fire 1M years ago give or take. All these dates keep getting pushed back. Homo sapiens likely clocks in at a mere .25M years to date.
Connecting it all up, there was an ancestor animal with a brain roughly 2/3rds the size of ours walking erect, using stone tools, cooking on a fire, and consuming shellfish. Likely there were adolescent hominids poking the fire with a stick. Shellfish have remained a high-quality staple for many cultures. The unceded Muwekma Ohlone land in nearby Emeryville contains a shell mound with the remains of millions of shellfish meals consumed over a recent two and half thousand years. )
Okay, evidence-wise, the oyster thing is a bit squishy. My feeling deeply grounded while cooking oysters at the beach…a feeling of ‘being all of one piece’… doesn’t exactly make it at the top of the hard evidence chart. And I’m not even sure how to articulate this within a theory of what’s commonly called instinct.
I’m starting with a metaphor. In my defense, thinkers such as Thomas Kuhn and George Lakoff have argued that metaphors, despite getting trashed by the likes of Newton and Bacon, can play a central role at the core of the clusters of scientific thinking and evidence that Kuhn termed paradigms. Math and hypothesis testing are key in the mix as well, of course, but both verbal and visual metaphors are important ‘tools to think with’.
My metaphor will be the mouth of a bay.
My friend Martin has warned me that the mouth of bays are particularly dangerous places to boat. You have currents, tides, waves, occasional whirlpools, and abrupt shifts in winds caused by the temperature differential between the waters and the shore. The mouth of Tomales Bay and Drake’s Estero are both good examples. Sometimes they’re relatively placid, and sometimes they’ll kick your ass. Every once in a while, they kill somebody.
You can paddle in a specific direction with knowledge, good equipment, and determination, but sometimes it is much more difficult than others, and if you take your eye off your destination, you can suddenly find yourself somewhere you did not intend to go.
Our typical view of instinct is of something like salmon swimming upstream– a compulsion or drive–which I think limits what we consider when we talk about its impact in humans.
The hormonal/neurotransmitter blend in our internal sea marks the intersection of our bodies and the environment and adds the push of currents and tides to our behavior. We transverse them occasionally wondering how we ended up somewhere.
We can consciously tweak our blood chemistry by, for example, blocking adenosine receptors with caffeine or seeking dopamine hits with a game on our phone. But mostly all this is mostly happening below the surface. Our tide and currents are at play against underwater surfaces that are not typically visible in an easy-to-interpret way. This interacts with built-in and learned schema that helps pattern what might be called raw perception into what we perceive…all that outside consciousness as well.
Something between me, oysters, cooking, and the beach is tweaking how I feel. A hormonal and neural balance is emerging in my inner sea. I contend that this is on a continuum with whatever else human instinct might be.
Side note: other reasons I like the water metaphor are, first, water flows downhill following a natural ‘instinctual’ gradient, and, second, water has depth. Things can be closer or further from consciousness.
More on instinct: positive and negative examples
In order to firm up and challenge this formulation, let’s look at a few more examples. Next post we’ll complicate things further by adding in Jung’s concepts of imago and archetype. Then try and tie it up into a tentative theory of instinct.
Thinking fast and slow
We should at least mention Daniel Kahneman’s fast thinking vs slow thinking. Kahneman describes fast thinking as ‘instinctual and emotive’. That would include knee-jerk responses, but he includes pretty much anything that happens below the surface: perceptual and cognitive biases, the automatic placement of objects in space, and even skills that have achieved automaticity.
Certainly, danger reactions that have to be faster than conscious ‘slow thinking’ can achieve should be termed instinct.
Instinct with a positive impact
Despite a shocking lack of research on grilling oysters, there’s a significant body of evidence for a similar activity: getting out into a natural environment.
As an outdoor nerd, I’ve been collecting citations. Here are just a few from my stash that focus on measurable metrics.
… experiments conducted by Japan’s Chiba University found that forest bathing lowered heart rate and blood pressure and brought down levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that can wreak havoc on every system when large amounts circulate through the body. … These findings underscore that spending time in the forest is a medical intervention as well as an aesthetic and spiritual one, something scientists have long observed but haven’t been able to quantify.
There was an increase in mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness in counties infested with the emerald ash borer. The magnitude of this effect was greater as infestation progressed and in counties with above-average median household income. Across the 15 states in the study area, the borer was associated with an additional 6113 deaths related to illness of the lower respiratory system, and 15,080 cardiovascular-related deaths. [In other words, when the trees went away, health suffered.]
Our results reveal a significant positive association between the coverage of forest and amygdala integrity. We conclude that forests may have salutogenic effects on the integrity of the amygdala.
Brother Francis and Brother Sun, Giovanni Costa, 1878 – if there’s a patron saint of getting outdoors, it would be Francis:-)
Instinct with a negative impact
Regular readers know that I consider our Us vs. Them reaction to be a species of fast thinking with malign impact. (Links here, here, and here; it’s a long story.) Here are a few things more contained.
Newly published research finds fear of the infectious disease, which was widely in the news in the month before the election, increased voters’ intention to vote Republican. This effect was primarily found in red states, which means the outbreak effectively turned them a deeper shade of red.
“Disease outbreaks may influence voter behavior in two psychologically distinct ways: increased inclination to vote for politically conservative candidates, and increased inclination to conform to popular opinion,” writes a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Alec Beall.
For those working on a better class of conspiracy theories, note the Ebola panic faded shortly after the election.
A new experimental study found that heightened anxiety makes people more prone to believe in various claims they are exposed to and to share them on social media. This was especially true for Republicans and did not depend on the accuracy or truthfulness of the claim. The study was published in New Media & Society.
In part #004, I intend to complicate things considerably.
We will explore a Jungian view of ‘instinct’. Here we find an unconscious realm populated by ‘imago’ and archetypes and inhabited by dark gods and talking animals. A realm from whence not just impulse but full-blown narratives arrive. A realm of entities that constantly tweak our felt gradients and that can override our everyday self quite dramatically—but that might also contain an instinct for wholeness and healing.
The driving question that Jung successfully answers: what form did instinct take as hardwired behavior evolved in beings such as ourselves that need room for the huge role of learning and culture?
Next up – maybe: a dive into awe and the outdoors. What is it about showing up in a natural environment with a human nervous system that has a positive impact? (Or, at least, a positive impact on the human:-) – me, part #001
I guess the key word in that was ‘maybe’:-)
There are three interconnected concepts that frame up the story I want to tell. In rough terms, they are ego, instinct, and awe. All feel connected to me as ideas circling around something that might be called access to a bigger self. But, also to potential groundings of identity.
(This is not to be confused with the Bigger Us that connects outward to what ML King calls a ‘blessed community.’)
As per usual, I’m having trouble unbraiding and crisping up my three framing concepts–a great case in point of why it takes me forever to get something written. The issue: crisping up any of these, impacts my understanding and formulation of the others, which in turn, feeds back and alters the starting point. Rinse and repeat. Until I throw in the towel and hit publish.
Well, I’m going to throw in the towel right off the bat. Brother Skip once told me he was convinced all the bolts were there…but that they were only on hand tight. I like that. I’ve vowed to use the blog to write more casually and let the ideas mature as we go. Hopefully, I’ll get the bolts on hand tight. Lord knows how many more passes it will take from there.
We’ll start with Ego.
A good enough theory of ego
Starting with ego means we start with the Freuds, Sigmund then Anna. Ego is pretty much defined by its defenses which are mostly a response to unavoidable childhood sexual trauma. An example of an ego defense is projection, i.e., discomfort in one’s unacknowledged dark traits is projected out as dislike or irritation with someone else who seems to exhibit those traits. The unconscious, of course, is where all the scary stuff lives.
Jung’s unconscious can be much less fraught than Freud’s. It’s the repository of the excluded, the inferior, and the undeveloped– things you are bad at, ashamed of, etc., and not just trauma. Also, sex isn’t the main driver, and trauma isn’t a given.
Jung adds a second big component. The ego creates directable energy and attention by walling off the ebb and flow of unconscious reactions, which can unfocus and distract us. (Look, squirrels!)
Further, the paradigm of classical Jungian thought is that this ability not to be taken over by whatever stray impulse arises has been gained relatively recently, i.e., subsequent to us becoming anatomically homo sapiens. Humans accomplished this by developing a psychic structure that provides a barrier against the unconscious. The classic paradigm further states that the barrier mechanisms have become too rigid, and the task now is reconnecting with the unconscious.*1
Last, I think I should also throw in a concept that I identify with Buddhism: ego’s fear of annihilation: that white-knuckle fear that makes even a little ego loss or loss of control feel like death.
Okay, that was a long way around to a ‘good enough’ theory of ego.
In summary, we have a psychological structure that acts to include things in and exclude other things out (all the things are us, of course); that maintains barriers and defenses to make that happen; and that can too rigid to our detriment.
My thesis here is that awe and wonder are a small ‘pop’ that expands our acknowledged self. Something that was ‘outside’ egoland is now ‘inside.’ Further, this same mechanism leads into the mystic, as it were. Or rather, wonder is a bit of the mystic touching down in everyday life.
We can use Zen koans as an additional example. They pose a problem not solvable with everyday tools and are traditionally solved with a pop that signifies a change in the student, not the correct answer per se.
Even our well-known ability to solve problems by sleeping on them is relevant. The ego is relaxed to a bit player, more of us is brought to bear, something that was outside is now inside, and the self is just a tiny bit bigger.
It occurs to me now that we need another component if we talking about awe/wonder in the context of the wider sweep of ‘non-ordinary states’*2 and ego. As framed up by our ‘good enough theory of ego’, the core concept is sidestepping the walls ego built. But the ego has a purpose. We need to get past ego without obliterating it or freaking it the fuck out.
The protocol for psychedelic sessions beginning with Grof and Leary and continuing through contemporary John Hopkins mushroom sessions, is to emphasize set (mental state/expectations) and setting (the physical space and guide.)
That’s missing a piece I call ‘container.’ In the above, the container is the assumption that your guide is competent and benign. Container is the wider envelope. Sangha can be the container. Growing up in a culture that gives 15-year-olds monastic experience is a container. For me, movement in nature is itself a container, along with community and music.
Next up (maybe): a good enough theory of instinct.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to share this.
I had some interesting discussions as a result of the last post in this series…in particular with Paula, my running buddy on much of this whether she’s aware of that or not. Here are some resources as a result.
One more. Here’s a fascinating interview with Katherine May, author of Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age.
*1 – More: this classical Jungian story holds that ego development arose at the same time as the patriarchies and that the ego is experienced as masculine while the excluded is thus seen as feminine This part is a little sketchy in a Joseph Campbell ‘all heroes are male’ sort of way. Both Jung and Campbell use a pattern of myth called the ‘night sea hero’…Jung as a story of individual maturation, and Campbell as a story of cultural advancement. The use of gender here is highly debatable, but, on the other hand, it is easy to argue that patriarchal thinking is a pathology. Might be worth a future discussion.
*2 – ‘Non-ordinary’ has become the standard description of non-ego-centered mental states. I don’t like it. First, many of these states are more ordinary than assumed…they just don’t have much acknowledgment in our culture. Second, the objective here is to make them ordinary. Third, by most definitions of nonordinary states, there is a very common ordinary one caused by alcohol consumption–which might become less common if a better one came along.
Wikipedia: A peak experience is an altered state of consciousness characterized by euphoria, often achieved by self-actualizing individuals. The concept was originally developed by Abraham Maslow in 1964, who describes peak experiences as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.” There are several unique characteristics of a peak experience, but each element is perceived together in a holistic manner that creates the moment of reaching one’s full potential.
Back in the early 70s, inspired by Maslow’s work, I was interviewing almost everyone I knew for a psychology research paper. (Psychology was my college major.) I’d read to my ‘subjects’ Maslow’s description of peak experiences, then ask a series of questions about whether they’d had such experiences, how they viewed them, and whether that had led to any noticeable behavioral changes.
Watch out. Folks will try and convert you at a very vulnerable time: right after you’ve been saved!
The whole thing was tremendous fun. I had fascinating conversations. Best, I became a go-to person for discussions of intense, weird, and/or transformative experiences.
One Monday, I received reports from two friends who both attended weekend events that triggered a ‘classic’ white light experience. Their descriptions were pretty much identical: white light, bliss, doubt being lifted, ‘heart strangely warmed.’
Both had then dedicated themselves to the event organizer’s practice and suggested rather urgently that I check it out!
The kicker: one had gone to an evangelical Christian rally…one of the early Jesus Freaks events… and the other an event with the Guru Maharaj Ji.
My conclusions after all this:
Watch out. Folks will try and convert you at a very vulnerable time: right after you’ve been saved!
Awe and ‘mystical’ experiences are human birthrights whether you view them as biochemistry or the grace of God or both.
But, also, based on reading Maslow and, more so, others like Evelyn Underhill, William James, and Aldous Huxley, there are mystic traditions that can provide some conceptual grounding when the going gets weird. Things often get a bit unhinged otherwise.
I Fart Therefore I Am
Quite honestly, I chose the psychology major because it required no courses that met before 1:15 pm. I was very interested in psychology, but this was the heyday of BF Skinner and various flavors of behaviorism, and that’s a lot of what they were teaching. Not all that engaging.
Luckily the Religion Department was teaching Jung (along with Buddhism and Taoism), and the Philosophy Department included a bit of Freud in the mix along with the opportunity to read folks like Husserl. Both, in other words, studied folks that were asking the type of questions I was asking.
All were the result of a bit of an identity crisis. My questions started with ‘What is a meaningful grounding for action despite the risk of unintended negative consequences?’ and progressed to ‘How is meaning generated?’ and ‘What’s at the root of needing meaning, anyway?’
In other words, what is this ‘meaning’ of which you speak:-)?
Quite honestly the Western classic, ‘I think therefore I am’ seemed like a particularly lame place to start building an answer. My counter-example, probably cribbed from somewhere, is why not ‘I fart therefore I am.’ Or any one of a near-endless set of parallel formulations.
Very long story made very short, I ended up with, ‘There is awareness therefore I am’. Thinking has no special privilege. But where does this realization get us?
Awe and ‘mystical’ experiences are human birthrights…
First, if you take awareness instead of thinking as the irreducible root of further philosophy, the project shifts towards something Hindu philosophers and their offspring, followers of the Buddha, have been working on for a few millennia in both abstract and concrete terms. (Husserl ends up starting somewhere similar but lacks the millennia of subsequent development.) There are a whole lot of systems of thought to scaffold up from there…but again, where does that get us?
Second, that is where awe comes in. My answer is that there needs to be something in awareness itself, rather than in some configuration of ideas about awareness, that can make it a ground for meaning. Awe adds an emotional, some would say spiritual component.
This is a good stopping point. These blog posts are intended to be short. There’s a lot more that could be said, but I’ll save that for future articles. I do have a long discussion of what I believe are the underlying dynamics of awe and its bigger sisters on Medium.
Scientific third-party research was sparked by Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ and, in large part, debunked it–particularly as a hierarchy where some needs have to be met in order to enable others. Research on peaks, on the other hand, languished along with research into psychedelics. Both are now undergoing a reboot. A major influence in the study of awe is UC Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and his Greater Good Science Center. (See The Science of Awe, 2018.)
Next up – maybe: a dive into awe and the outdoors. What is it about showing up in a natural environment with a human nervous system that has a positive impact? (Or, at least, a positive impact on the human:-)
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After noting that he liked to move around, see the shops, and meet people in any neighborhood he lived in, he described going to a house-warming party in New York in the late ’70s.
The taxi delivered him to an address in a bad neighborhood. He suspected he was at the wrong address until, arriving at the top floor, he found himself in a “multi-million dollar palace.” He asked the host if she liked the neighborhood? The reply: “Oh, the neighborhood? Well, that’s outside.”
Over the past few months, I’ve added a fairly rigorous discussion of Free Will and a two-part rant on Consciousness to Medium. During the process, I made a point of reading what others had posted on the topics, adding Claps and trading comments with a variety of interesting folks.
I did notice a certain muddiness in some of the discussions…not surprising when words like Free and Consciousness are involved.
Asking questions of other writers and, even more so, being asked questions led me to isolate a series of ‘pivot point questions’ that seem to distinguish the different stances. I’m offering them here in hopes of making a contribution to clearer thinking about it all.
I’ll editorialize with my own conclusions but I think the questions are useful even if you break the other way on them.
But first, what am I talking about here? Conscious Free Will?
I’m going to ground it like this:
My lab rat, or thought-experiment core, is the conscious consideration of at least two options and a conscious choice between them.
Pivot Point 1: Does what is experienced have agency?
There’s a view that choices happen ‘off-stage’ and what we experience as ‘free choice’ is epiphenomenal, or color commentary, or even some sort of post hoc tale we tell ourself so as not to appear inexplicable to ourself.
The commonality is a belief that agency lies somewhere outside the experience itself.
My view: in many cases agency is precisely where it presents itself to be.
Discussion: There can, of course, be unconscious contributing factors but… notwithstanding the braid of physical, cultural, conscious, and unconscious processes that set up a decision point…a conscious decision is made. Sometimes it’s proceeded by weeks of research filling out a checklist. Sometimes it’s making a list of 6 options and rolling a dice. Regardless, a decision is made — and the thing that causes the results of the decision is precisely consciously making the decision.
That seems like a pretty clear statement but I’ve found that it isn’t. A mental image may help. Folks would tell me, “oh yeah, I agree but the real decision has already been made, right?”
When I was in middle school and a Boy Scout, we specialized in construction: towers, bridges, that sort of thing. We made our own rope out of bailing twine. The twine was of varying thicknesses with fibers sticking out in all directions. We used it because the twine was cheap and, although the appearance of the end result was bristly and funky, it was a very sturdy rope.
Here’s how I imagine the intertwined and overlapping systems that make up our mental and behavioral processes.
Imagine 12 strands of the twine woven together into a bristly rope and dyed splotchily on a continuum from dark grey to bright white. The strands are intertwined paths of causality. The bright white is when that causality proceeds via a conscious process; the various greys are processes outside of consciousness to varying degrees. Consciousness is not an observer of a non-conscious process. It is a process.
Pivot Point 2: Is what is experienced a completely material and, hence, predictable process?
Some, of course, believe it is not.
My View: I’m with the materialists.
Discussion: Descartes split the human experience into two components: the body and higher abilities, the two connected through the pineal gland. Some phenomena attached to the material body and others…thought, belief and doubt, choice…are of the mind and immaterial. Our ‘higher’ nature here is the classic Ghost in the Machine
Note that this is fundamentally a religious perspective. There are things outside the world…God, angels, souls…and we participate in that transcendent plane.
That Ghost still hovers over this discussion and, even when unacknowledged, has left an unrehabilitated bit of religious sensibility…an unconscious assumption that if Free Will and Consciousness aren’t somehow immaterial and unpredictable then they aren’t really what they present themselves to be. (My workout on the topic is here.)
To sharpen this up, I’d like to propose a ‘Turning test’ for conscious experience:
If we materially recreate all the processes leading into a conscious moment then the output will be precisely what we experience.
To rephrase, if consciousness and choice are fully material processes, what could prevent their replication? To return to the rope metaphor, current fMRI research should let us tease out all the threads — all the systems activated — and model them in some material substrate that isn’t an actual human nervous system.
That should totally recreate our experience. If it can’t, then something else is going on and I’ll happily back up and take the other fork:-) And, either way, this will move us into serious sci-fi territory!
Of course, given the architecture and number of connections in a human nervous system, there will be some significant challenges getting to this point.
Pivot Point 3: What do we mean by consciousness?
This is the tricky one with roughly three continually evolving schools of thought.
My view: heck if I know precisely. However, I don’t find it useful to approach the question in the abstract, ie primarily by thinking more and harder. This is a topic to approach empirically.
Discussion: Evolutionary biology, broadly defined, provides a better path in.
We are not simply embodied consciousness. We are part of an evolutionary history and connected to a web of species. Each species is the current exemplar of a different branching at some point over the last three billion years.
On the paths from bacteria to complex animals, there are points where decisions are clearly all instinct — another somewhat muddy term but let’s use bugs as an example.
At some point, Sapiens, and most likely a few other species, developed ‘planning depth’ best conceptualized in game terms as the ability to think some number of moves ahead. (In the case of Homo Sapiens, we have developed sophisticated tools to add complexity and reach to our planning depth but our starting base depth is just a few moves ahead of what’s observed in our closest Chimp relatives.)
Our consciousness is so intertwined with rehearsing the next few steps or replaying the last few, that it’s hard to separate basic awareness from the ongoing planning chatter. Sorting out the threads in all this will be difficult but essential to eventually grasping what consciousness is. Perhaps transcranial magnetic stimulation or brain lesion research can give some clues. Perhaps cross-species comparisons of fMRI scans can as well.
I’d like to note that Carl Jung and members of his school believe that myth, e.g. Prometheus’ story, encodes and even channels the emergence of ego-centered consciousness.Myths, to them, aren’t merely a chronicle of changes in human culture and consciousness but are the vehicle for those changes. What is described in many of our myths is the wresting of deployable energy from the type of unconscious impulse that directs most behavior. ‘Conscious free will’ is an accomplishment, still tenuous. There’s a chance that some of the tools out there in Carl Jung / Joseph Campell land may prove helpful. I think so, but I’ll save more discussion on all that for another story.
The rope of darkened threads is a mythic tangle
Pivot Point 4: How can we tell if anyone else shares what we experience as consciousness?
My view: Technically we can’t but cmon!
Discussion: First, there’s the above: our evolutionary history. We are members of a species and an evolutionary lineage and share most of our genotype and most all of our morphology with the other Sapiens present and past and, in fact, a couple of our chimp cousins to boot.
Second, taking that as a given, the argument for any individual’s uniqueness is weak. What exactly would make you different from any other member of our species in this respect or, in fact, different than a number of other fellow inhabitants of our wonderful but imperiled biosphere?
In point of fact, I may not be able to tell if we’re seeing the same red but I can test to see if you’re color blind. I’m not privy to your decision-making process but we can experimentally determine the impact of a wide variety of cognitive biases. I don’t think it’s all that opaque. Frankly, I hear shards of the Ghost’s sheets flapping around this question and assume it will join Xeno’s Paradox in the annals of temporarily useful but ultimately irrelevant questions.
Pivot Point 5: Without truly ‘free’ conscious choice is there any basis for morality?
I’m going to leave this one alone. Not that it’s irrelevant, but it’s not something I’ve spent much time thinking about beyond a simple heuristic that specifies that one’s responsibility extends to the range of one’s awareness of the impact of one’s actions.
Wisdom is a fuzzy term usually pitted against ‘mere knowledge.’ The implication is that we often use knowledge unwisely.
And the old are said to be wise.
Being old, I feel I should come up with a operational definition in case I’m called into account.
1. Wisdom is pattern recognition across relatively long spans of time…decades rather than years.
I feel I started getting wise when I realized that a 3 year plan could actually happen and widened my planning horizon to 5 years, then 10, then longer.
2. If the old are wise, then it is simply because they have lived long enough to see longer cycle patterns. There’s no other way to do it.
Having objectives and watching what fucks them up helps with long time span pattern recognition. Pyrrhic victories teach wisdom. Being right but losing the fight teaches wisdom. So does being sure and finding out over a long expanse of time that you were flat out raggedy ass wrong….so becoming wise requires a fair amount of self-directed honesty.
3. Evolutionarily, since people and only a very few other species (elephants, killer whales) live beyond menopause, it is likely that we get to be old people precisely because we might become wise!
The contribution to the gene pool by individuals past reproductive age in big brained social species is almost certainly because they offer something to the tribe that isn’t obvious in a short term or immediate perspective.
4. There is a large tactical component to wisdom. Recognizing and pointing to long-term patterns is of value to the listener depending on the tact and precision of the story-teller. Observing how good advice goes wrong or gets ignore and learning to compensate for that is the heart of wisdom.
5. Finally, there is a contextual component to wisdom. The past must be enough like the present and projected future to make generalization possible. It’s easier to be wise about human nature than about changes triggered by science and technological disruption.
Fellow old folks note: pointing out that things are “not what they used to be” does not qualify as wisdom.
[[This is an experiment. Generally I write and edit and write and edit and edit some more and then publish. I’m working on this in public; parts will probably only be comprehensible to me while that’s happening..]]
I’ve been sporadically preoccupied with the big Why Bother questions since high school: What’s worth doing? Why bother to act? What justifies itself in the face of the imminent heat death of the universe. (Well, maybe not always the latter.)
This has lead through the decades to a slow motion analysis of the meaning of meaning.
My initial thoughts were shaped by three books I found in the paperback rack in my father’s drug store when I was a high school freshman: Alan Watt’s Psychotherapy East and West, RD Laing’s Politics of Experience, and Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections.
It should be obvious from what follows which one of the three had the biggest influence.
I will still argue that Jung is inappropriately dismissed as unscientific. His basic mechanism of the Self, particularly as elaborated by his collaborator Erich Neumann, is an auto-regulatory system, an explicitly compensatory mechanism, that kicks in when the personality becomes lopsided and fore-grounds and integrates needed but excluded and/or under-developed aspects of the person.