In Mind

My world burned December 21, 2012, and from the ashes a new one emerged.

I won’t describe the burning, but the seed of transformation appeared immediately after when I stumbled across this blog.

More specifically, I encountered this simple, absolutely brilliant argument:

Materialism requires the following four statements about reality to be true:

  1. Your conscious perceptions exist;
  2. The conscious perceptions of other living entities, different from your own, also exist;
  3. There are things that exist independently of, and outside, conscious perception;
  4. Things that exist independently of, and outside, conscious perception generate conscious perception.

The first statement is very similar to the famous cogito ergo sum. If there is anything you can be absolutely certain of, it is that your perceptions exist; in order to refer to anything else, you would have to refer to your perceptions first.

The second statement involves a small leap of faith. It supposes another instance of the one thing known for sure to exist. It proposes that your perceptions are not the only perceptions.

Statement three requires a huge leap of faith. It postulates not another instance of a known thing, but whole new ontological category. It postulates that there exist not only your perceptions but things outside of those perceptions, which you can not know even in principle, because to know them would be to have them within your conscious perception.

The fourth statement is a far greater leap of faith, as it supposes not only that there exist things outside of consciousness but that they generate consciousness. As Bernardo says, “This is quite an extraordinary statement in that it completely inverts the natural order of inference: normally, one infers the unknown from the known, not the known from the unknown.”

The fourth point — essentially, the assertion that mind is generated from matter — is the most problematic and its greatest problem is well known to the field of study called philosophy of mind as the Hard Problem of Consciousness. The whole Universe can be described by physics by the usual means and nowhere within the resulting calculations would we ever find consciousness. We would never, in any possible mathematical formula, find experience. There is nothing red or blue about a wavelength of light, for example, and nothing red or blue about the firing of neurons in the back of your head. A complete mathematical description of the Universe simply is not a complete description of the Universe.

The most common attempt to solve the Hard Problem is to appeal to the principle of emergence, often likening consciousness to the emergent properties of water, which are not found in the molecules of water themselves. A water molecule is not wet. On the level of molecules, wetness as a property simply doesn’t exist, but when water molecules interact wetness seems to appear out of nowhere. At first glance, this may seem like a fine attempt at an explanation, but it ultimately fails, and very simply. What emerges from a system can always be derived from the properties of the system. Using the water as our example, the behavior of water referred to as “wet” can be modeled from the behavior of individual water molecules. So, also, can the hexagonal structure of a snowflake. As David Chalmers says in his book The Conscious Mind,

But emergent properties of this sort are not analogous to consciousness. What is interesting about these cases is that the relevant properties are not obvious consequences of low-level laws; but they are still logically supervenient on low-level facts.

That is, the behavior of a school of fish is dependent upon and explained by true facts about the fish. What is sometimes called strong emergence, the kind of emergence proposed to explain the emergence of consciousness, is really a form of property dualism in that it proposes that a phenomenon may exist independent of the facts of its parts, thus it is itself a refutation of Materialism.

In order to avoid the problems inherent in the assertion that mind is a product of mindless matter, many people increasingly turn to Panpsychism for an explanation. Panpsychism is the doctrine that consciousness is inherent in all things — that consciousness is an irreducible property of matter. This does eliminate the Hard Problem, sort of, but it seems to put the cart before the horse.

The problem with Panpsychism is that it still assumes points three and four of the Materialist ontology to be true. Panpsychism solves some problems created by the fourth point, but essentially ignores that the problems need not be in the first place.

Matter is, fundamentally, an inference. Even within the Materialist framework matter of itself is inherently unknowable. Within the Materialist framework, everything we know is an attempt at a reconstruction of the world by our brains, as informed by our senses. According to Materialism, the whole Universe as you can ever know it is inside your head and you as a personal consciousness are trapped forever inside of it. According to the Materialist ontology, what is truly real is a shadow universe, akin to a set of mathematical equations, which informs the universe we know and which is fundamentally inaccessible to us, always and forever.

We know matter only as a concept. Matter is an abstraction, and the abstraction is derived from experience. Thus, Materialism seeks to explain experience itself in terms of an abstraction, which is itself derived from experience. Materialism, we see, is an exercise in circular reasoning.

Bernardo likes to say that proposing the existence of this hidden universe outside of mind is no different from proposing the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Most of this clicked with me instantly that morning. I understood it without a problem. But some of this has taken some time to develop, in particular the felt, intuitive understanding of what this means. Old habits of thought take time to adjust and I can tell even now, nearly four years later, that I am still adjusting in some ways.

I’ll try to show you what I mean. Have a look for yourself.

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Take a look at something. Anything. By seeing, that which is seen is in consciousness. You are aware of it, even if you insist that what you see is solely a creation of your brain. Even if you insist that it is an illusion, the illusion is what you see. What you see is in consciousness; it is a particular excitation of consciousness, and the same is true for what you hear and what you feel and anything you happen to imagine. We quickly realize that that is all there is. Stated very simply, we are only aware of that of which we are aware, or if you prefer: we are not aware of what we are not aware of. Everything you know is in some sense in consciousness.

Observe your own body. Your arms and legs. Even the thoughts running through your head and these words born of these letters. These are all within consciousness. Consciousness, therefore, is not inside of your head — reach up and touch it. Rather, your head is inside consciousness. Your body is within consciousness, and so, also, is the rest of the Universe.

Your mind is not inside of your brain; your brain is inside Mind.

When I finally realized this point — that mind is a container within which I and the world exist — everything seemed to pop out at me, as though the world had been flat for so many years and in an instant returned to its proper three-dimensional state.

Look at that glass of water on the desk or whatever it is, wherever it happens to be. Look at it! It is really there. I mean it is really, really there! It has shape, place, tangibility.

What we are dealing with now, having discarded the third and fourth assertions of the Materialist ontology, is an Idealist ontology, and as we have seen, an Idealist ontology is immeasurably more parsimonious than Materialism in that it explains literally everything that Materialism explains and very probably much more while using fewer assumptions.

In our attempts to explain or describe the world, we are forced to explain each given thing in terms of something else. And we then explain that in terms of another thing, and so on until eventually we are forced to stop at what we call an ontological primitive — something that can not be explained in terms of anything else, something in terms of which everything else is explained or described.

Physicalism, the specific form of Materialism we actually encounter every day, informed by physics as we know it, holds a whole array of particles and forces and physical laws to be brute fact. They simply exist. Every fundamental particle and force and law of nature is thus an ontological primitive, as are space and time.

Idealism entails only one ontological primitive: Mind.

Everything you know is an excitation of Mind.

Everything you don’t know is also an excitation of Mind.

So many constraints fall away. The Universe opens itself up to us.

My body is an image of a process in Mind. When this image passes away, the form of my self-reflective awareness may be dramatically altered, but Mind itself remains.

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Bernardo likes to use whirlpools to illuminate the discussion. He says that we are like whirlpools in a vast river, and, as such, suggesting that brains generate consciousness is like suggesting that whirlpools generate water. Again, my brain is the image of a process in consciousness much like fire is the image of combustion, not the cause of combustion. Fire is what combustion looks like and my brain is what certain processes in consciousness look like when observed from a second-person perspective. Ripples in the water, then, are things that we observe in our environment, particular excitations of consciousness, which can enter into individual self-reflective centers of lucid awareness.

But most importantly, we are all a part of the same river. We are all living a shared dream. This waking world that we all seem to inhabit together, which seems to be the same for everyone, then, is what we can call consensus reality. We all act together to create it. In so many ways, we seek agreement on what reality is. It’s passed on to us through our parents, through language, through the rest of the community and reinforced in so many ways through conversation, books, television, and so on. Storytelling is world building.

Reality is Mind. The content of reality is story; its structure, myth.

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We can come to the same place from another angle. This is a quote by one of my other great inspirations, Richard Tarnas, in his book Cosmos and Psyche:

Let us, then, take our strategy of critical self-reflection one crucial and perhaps inevitable step further. Let us apply it to the fundamental governing assumption and starting point of the modern world view–a pervasive assumption that subtly continues to influence the postmodern turn as well–that any meaning and purpose the human mind perceives in the universe does not exist intrinsically in the universe but is constructed and projected onto it by the human mind. Might not this be the final, most global anthropocentric delusion of all? For is it not an extraordinary act of human hubris–literally, a hubris of cosmic proportions–to assume that the exclusive source of all meaning and purpose in the universe is ultimately centered in the human mind, which is therefore absolutely unique and special and in this sense superior to the entire cosmos? To presume that the universe utterly lacks what we human beings, the offspring and expression of that universe, conspicuously possess? To assume that the part somehow radically differs from and transcends the whole? To base our entire worldview on the a priori principle that whenever human beings perceive any patterns of psychological or spiritual significance in the nonhuman world, any signs of interiority and mind, any suggestion of purposefully coherent order and intelligible meaning, these must be understood as no more than human constructions and projections, as ultimately rooted in the human mind and never in the world?

Perhaps this complete voiding of the cosmos, this absolute privileging of the human, is the ultimate act of anthropocentric projection, the most subtle yet prodigious form of human self-aggrandizement. Perhaps the modern mind has been projecting soullessness and mindlessness on a cosmic scale, systematically filtering and eliciting all data according to its self-elevating assumptions at the very moment we believed we were “cleansing” our minds of “distortions.” Have we been living in a self-produced bubble of cosmic isolation? Perhaps the very attempt to de-anthropomorphize reality in such an absolute and simplistic manner is itself a supremely anthropocentric act.

The Universe speaks to us. We only need to learn how to listen.

 

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Author: cazimi3

Amateur philosopher, long-time monster trainer, and aspiring mad scientist turned starving artist.

6 thoughts on “In Mind”

  1. Seems like a direct form of idealism. We experience reality through a common mediator yes? Some kind of reality propagating medium that connects all the minds together. How is matter defined in this paradigm? I still branch out before positivism but after empiricism so I’m still operating on the assumption that matter is to the ideal what very high notes are to the base notes in harmonic series. It’s positivism’s stupid axiom that we need to have a theoretical framework that explains a phenomenon before we consider it real that’s generating many problems.

    To be perfectly clear, I’m reaching the conclusion of universal unity and common substance(s) intuitively and working backwards but I end up meeting my old materialist self somewhere along the path. For example, I had to do some stuff before I finished this comment and in the meantime “something” made me combine these three things: Paleolithic flutes have been found, many of them using the pentatonic scale, right there at the dawn of our subspecies’ unique consciousness. Brain scans of people listening and playing music. Stealing fire from the Gods in a hollow reed.

    This makes me think that consciousness needs animal sentience as the substratum plus an Other-thing to form. Still natural and material but not meaty. Or call it locally material, or mathematical principle downgraded to physical sound or Prima Causa transferring a higher structure to an imperfect form, mumble muble insane rambling continues..

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    1. How do I approach this?

      Your brain is an image of a process in consciousness, a whirlpool, if you will, in a stream of water. Water – consciousness – doesn’t need the whirlpool in order to exist. The objects around you are images in consciousness – like ripples in our analogy.

      Matter is defined as it is according to science: anything that has mass and takes up space.

      The hardness of a rock is a property of experience. Materialism would say that the rock has no qualities, that its “hardness” is an illusion because the rock is really nothing more than a set of physical laws which we then interpret through our senses with our brains. By way of Materialism, qualia exist only in our brains.

      Idealism would state that qualia are real, that brains are known only through experience and so are, in essence, like everything else, collections of qualia to some observer.

      It seems that in the story about bring down the fire of the gods, matter might refer to “the stuff of the world”. There is nothing problematic about this definition. Materialism, however, defines matter as fundamental, as that substance which alone forms all things. It states that all things are in some way reducible to matter and matter only.

      Many creation myths throughout the world involve a creator deity who dreams up the world, then enters into it or “wakes up” inside of it to live as a man. This in an excellent metaphor for what I’m proposing. “Mind at Large,” or the Universe as a whole, separates itself into individual “alters” to experience itself from the inside. In the beginning, everything was a single dream. A dream of stars and expanding space. Then Mind at Large began to enter its dream, essentially to wake up within it as life formed. The process continues and we are just a part of it.

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      1. So the common mediator only generates consciousness -and allows perception- but permeates all physical reality without it being the physical reality?

        The whole emergence thing by the way, if embraced as the source of consciousness, could be used to arrive at a similar conclusion from the other side. The emergent property of a non-entropic universe that can contain conscious humans locally, must be a super-consciousness.

        What made me feel terribly odd as I was reading this post was the use of whirlpools. Do you mind describing how you imagine the birth of the universe and its evolution so far in non-mythic terms? If it’s not too much trouble obviously.

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      2. There is no generation of consciousness. Nothing precedes consciousness. It simply is.

        The whirlpool analogy is meant to show how we are localizations of consciousness, that our personal perspectives are particular configurations of mind within mind. A whirlpool is made of water and necessarily exists within water. The only thing that makes a whirlpool what it is as distinct from the rest of the stream is its motion.

        “Before” anything existed within Mind, hypothetically, there was only idle emptiness, a single eternal experience within non-self-reflective awareness. Then something began to happen within consciousness. Mind experienced new things. Yet, at first, it lacked a perspective from which to experience them. Eventually it localized itself and took up individual perspectives as figures within the dream. There may have been many, many stages of this.

        The birth of the Universe is a point where time becomes meaningless. In a very important sense, each moment is the birth of the Universe. There is only one moment of time. Past is always memory and the future is always just your imagination. However, within the illusion of time we can still talk about it meaningfully. We don’t have much choice. So the birth of this universe was probably much like cosmologists imagine, the Big Bang – at least, I have no cause to doubt or contradict it. The birth of this universe was the start of this particular dream. Countless other dreams probably exist in parallel (and may sometimes bleed through).

        The localization process is the same problem as the question of abiogenesis (according to Bernardo, though I have my own ideas).

        The Universe sprang into existence in exactly the same way that the worlds of your nightly dreams spring into existence. You don’t imagine that in a dream your mind inhabits a dream body and exists only because of that body. We know that’s not true because you wake up sometimes. You don’t even need a dream body to dream, yet when the dream has need for you to look at yourself you will tend to find something. Some of the “rules” are a bit different in the waking world, as it is a shared experience, but the essence of it is the same.

        I hope I answered your questions well enough. Don’t hesitate to keep them coming if you’d like.

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  2. Alright, I can imagine what you mean now. It’s a kind of idealism that aims to maintain some of the principles of classical materialism like realism, matter and so on but in an immediate way. You’d tell a realist that due to the existence of qualia, experiential knowledge is never good enough and you’re solving that through immediacy of consciousness. You know what you know, not because you sense it and reconstruct it in your meaty brain but because existence is a common thing for everything and you’re just one of the infinite loci of it like CCTV cameras on the same circuit. I think all this reminds me of Castaneda a bit but it’s been years since I’ve read any of it.

    Epistemologically though, why don’t you (or anyone) have perfect access to knowledge? Regardless of how we experience whatever we experience, shouldn’t this process give us direct access to the knowledge of everything else? I mean okay sure, many things go beyond the strictly physical senses but even those sources remain limited.

    Actually, I’m not sure I want to ask too many things about this theory because of your foreword. I just found it interesting that you can reach pretty much identical conclusions -unity, idealism, the cosmic whisper and so on- from an entirely different starting point. I mentioned the whirlpool thing because of the spinning spiral form. With some imagination, that’s an approximation of how atoms are constructed, the solar system and there’s some evidence that the universe itself is or used to spin or revolve around a central point. I didn’t expect to bump into it in this context.

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