Friday, 8 September 2017

The Nature of Consciousness and the Role of Myth

The spirit is the spirit of love, the essence and the substance of love.
The standard view of consciousness, the way that seems natural to many people to think of themselves, is that consciousness is a separate thing from physical matter. The "stuff of the soul" is fundamentally different from the rest of reality. This view of the world is called "dualism", more specifically "mind-body dualism". An alternative philosophy of mind is called monism, of which there are various kinds.

The kind I subscribe to is that consciousness exists in a continuum with the physical and energetic world. By this I mean that consciousness is not separate from the physical world, which includes the world of energy as well as matter as described by modern physics. You can see consciousness as one end of a spectrum, joined to the natural world because it arises from the natural world. Consciousness is an effect of the natural operation of the world. Coincidentally this kind of view of mind is taught by  the Christian writer Watchman Nee when he described the "tripartite person", consisting of spirit, soul and body none of which are separate from one another but existing as a spectrum.

My contention is that the Christian concept of "Christ within", along with both the evidence of neurobiology proving that consciousness is inextricably intertwined with the physical brain and the physical symptoms of "being filled with the spirit" (mirroring the Buddhist experience of "rapture" in meditation and the Hindu "release of kundalini") all suggest that a monist world view is more plausible.

In fact I suggest two things. First of all, a monist world view is the only one that makes sense. Through the will the conscious moves the physical, so there is clearly a connection. Almost all spiritual systems allow the interaction between the physical and the spiritual, so however the connection works a connection there is. And in understanding the connection we can conceive of the physical and the spiritual as a single combined system even if we might categorise certain phenomena separately. Unless we are to entirely disconnect the physical from the spiritual, or to disallow any understanding of the connection, a monist world view is the result.

Secondly, if we accept evolution as the path by which humanity arose from the land then we grew up in connection with and in relation to the earth. We are formed from dust. So it is only in understanding evolution, and the way consciousness formed in relation to the earth, that we are able to understand our own nature. The land from which we came shaped who we are, both genetically and psychologically. You can see this in different people groups from different lands and how both their way of lives and their very nature reflects the land they inhabit. We are an expression of nature and exist through the operation of natural laws, that's who we are.

Every experience comes mediated through our mind, so anything that seems "external" does so only because that's the picture our minds build of it. Our experience, even of the external is still subjective. So it is safe to let our experience of external reality come completely to life and yet still understand that this is only our experience not an objective view of reality. The life we invest in the external, the life we permit it to have, is still our life and part of us.

The psychological chasm between external and internal is an illusion, a way of thinking our minds create to try and understand the world. The separation between internal and external is how the world seems, but what we perceive outside ourselves is still only our perception, the operation of the mind. Our personal reality is a three-dimensional (or multi-dimensional) picture our mind paints based on our senses, thinking and past experiences. This is confirmed by many studies demonstrating that how we perceive the outside world, what appears to be unfiltered information from our senses, is actually the creation of the mind. Our imagination at work.

This is useful to understand because it means that subjective experience is as real as it's possible for something to be. That striving for the individually objective is an impossible task and that the objective is best understood as the collective subjective.

This is the approach taken by Daniel Kahnemann in empirical psychology. He makes objective deductions about the functioning of subjective minds by testing hypotheses on many people. Any individual result is subject to the whims and vagaries of the subject, yet objective results can still be extracted.

Objective reality, in as much as the concept has any meaning at all, is the composite of all subjective realities. As you affect (and effect) the subjective realities of those around you (i.e. you interact with them) you are changing reality. Therefore we can change things, we're not stuck.

Myths, legends and the stories and actors of spirituality are metaphors. They are not meant to be understood in literal ways (which says nothing about their literal truth but is about the type of truth they contain), but instead are metaphors intended to point us at a greater truth about the depths of our humanity and the world around us. The collective dreamings and imaginings of all of humanity.

Some things are just too big to contain in our minds, too big to have any conception of. The size of a galaxy, the operation of quantuum mechanics, the number of atoms in your hand, the way ideas spread and change, the ravings and raging of culture and so on. Rather than attempt a literal understanding we can paint pictures that can have life and breath within us, metaphors that point us and connect us to a greater reality too large and mysterious to understand rationally.

This is the value of myths and legends, that they allow us to imagine and think about things that are otherwise too big or strange to conceive. How was consciousness created out of dust. How do cultures get birthed, rise and atrophy. The collision of galaxies, the destruction of planets, the birth of new ideas and the death of old ones, the creation myths, how everything arose out of nothing.

All these things are incredibly complex, yet humans are skilled at finding patterns (which can potentially drive us to madness, as in A Beautiful Mind) and using abstractions to understand things. Spiritual systems and the language of spiritual systems provide a framework for dealing with these deeper and bigger aspects of reality. You don't need to "believe in them" to have faith in them, to trust them as useful ideas. Letting these ideas have life within you is actually just you thinking.

Although its easy to think otherwise, our deepest and best thinking is not in words but in concepts, imaginings, feelings and visualisation. It's only in trying to communicate to others that we must concretify concepts in words unless you are particularly skilled with painting, music or the other non-verbal arts. This is something that meditation (I particularly like "mindfulness of breathing" as taught by the Buddha) teaches you. The deepest parts of who you are are far beyond rational explanation and impossible to express with mere words. (The "groanings beyond words" of Romans 8:26.)

The catch and the question is, when you perceive and connect with something deeper than yourself are you actually connecting (and being changed by) something beyond yourself? I think there is an answer to that question and the answer is both yes and no.

Maybe it's safer to never find out. That's not the fun option though.

I describe myths, legends and spiritual stories as metaphors pointing us to a greater reality. Therefore understanding them means perceiving the aspect of reality, either present or past or future, that they correspond to. Our collective reality is our life, so the life that can be found within a mythos is the truth that it contains. For it to be alive to you is you understanding it, or at least in part. There's a difference between perceiving and having the rational clarity to describe it to yourself or someone else.

So not just how much do you understand it, but how much does it correspond to the other ways you understand the world. Can you reframe the language of spirituality in other languages, the language of the everyday. We all use many different sets of metaphors (different abstractions, different ways of thinking, different languages) to deal with the world. The depth of our understanding can be seen as how unified our thinking is. How able to express something are we in multiple different ways of thinking.

This is not unusual or different to how we normally think. Much of how we understand the modern world is through the use of abstractions. Money, as a medium of exchange representing abstract value, is the classic example. Money has no intrinsic value, it only has the value we invest in it psychologically. Because we all believe in it.

I've said that myths and legends are symbols and metaphors, understandable to humans, that point us to deeper truths about who we are both individually and collectively and about the world we live in. I've said that the measure of the life these metaphors have within us is the measure of our understanding of them, but that this is not the same as rational understanding. We can also understand the life these metaphors have within us rationally and communicate the life of them in other ways, other languages as I described it. The best way I know to get to that point is to be able to see the same thing from different points of view, and see what seems the same and what seems different from a different perspective. If you have faith or beliefs, how do they seem to others from the outside?

If myths and legends have an inner life, a life within the psyche, of many people and we have a shared experience and understanding of that life, then the myths and legends are independent of any individual. They have an objective life of their own beyond any subjective individual. Our subjective understanding and experience is carried by us, and even if subconsciously, is communicated by us and affects other people.

This is a large part of what culture does, we collectively tell stories about ourselves and the world. We dream and imagine together.

We can describe our shared imaginings and understanding, along with our shared experience, as "the realms of the psyche". As stories and ideas are passed, and changed, from person to person and from generation to generation, we can say that these stories and ideas have life. Not life that is totally independent of us, they exist in us, but they were also here before us and shaped the culture we came out of.

So our mythos, if it really does touch on something deep, has shaped who we are and continues to shape humanity. The gods we look to and the gods we create, and the stories we tell of them.

The concept of our shared, but subconscious, foundation of understand was called by Jung the "collective unconscious". Our common symbologies, and the life they have, he called "archetypes".

With our common and shared thinking defined coarsely as "the realms of the psyche" there are two different ways of thinking about it. We can either see it as an independent aspect of reality, perhaps joined to or in some way part of physical reality, but normally viewed as having a different form - operated on, both effected and affected, by a vast number of individual wills that exist within it. Alternatively we can see it as a collection of individual psyches that are both influenced by the external world (shared) and in turn influencing the external world. The "complete collection of individual psyches" is the manifestation and the manifesting of consciousness; of which we are all a part and in which we all participate.

If the individual consciousness, that certainly sprang from the physical world, truly exists in a continuum with the external world it therefore exists in a continuum with other consciousnesses. We are all joined through the external world from which we all came and which we all share. Therefore there is a way that we can conceive our collective individual consciousnesses as "linked" and conceive of them as a single system. Seeing the world of the mind, the spiritual world if you like, as having an independent existence of our own mind that forms part of it can be a useful abstraction for understanding the operation of the human soul.

In that sense it is just a different way of looking at the same thing. The two different ways of thinking, if understood correctly which of course is the great challenge, become "functionally equivalent". As all we can know of the world comes through our mind, our whole experience of life is always subjective, the abstraction of "universal mind" (spirituality) is as real as a thing can be too us. Spirituality is a construct of the mind, a way of understanding how we are connected to each other because we were formed by the outside world and are connected to the outside world. But our whole experience of life is a construct of the mind. It's the same class of experience even if it feels or seems (through unfamiliarity) to be very different.

If shared experience is possible, if we can have a mutual experience of something and be influenced by each other's experience, then it validates that an objective spiritual abstraction can be useful. Objective because it is independent of any individual participant, but only possibly experienced as the subjective. Because all we can know is the subjective our experience of the spiritual can be as real to us as our experience of anything. The life these experiences have is our life, where our is both singular and plural.

The question then becomes, although I can only ever experience things from my own perspective, if I assume that the external world and other people are real, am I really connected to something greater than myself. If my life can extend into the outside world and others (do you "bring life" to those around you?) then am I a part of more universal life that is objectively real because it exists even without my participation.

This leaves another question. This collective life of ours, that extends into everything, from which we came and of which we are a part, who's life is the same stuff as our life yet is greater than any of us and exists without any of us, the source of all life, what name shall we give it? What names does it have.

Further Reading and Background Reading

"I dreamed I was asleep. In my sleep I dreamed that I was asleep and dreaming. In my dream everyone was there and everything was normal. Yet still I wanted to awaken."

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