The Idea of Mind
- a Christian meditator considers the problem of consciousness -
Joel A. Wendt
(originally written in the early '90's, then corrected slightly with
the addition of active URLs in the late fall of 2003)
For many people, having been raised in modern culture, mind is thought to be something that
exists in the brain, and as a byproduct of basically chemical and electrical processes in
cells and nerves. This essay considers this problem quite directly and finds that,
for all its inventiveness, science has yet to ask and seek the answer to the
most important question - "what is mind to itself". When mind
considers itself directly, in its own inward environment,
then the idea of mind, as a product of the biology
of the brain, fails.
If laymen were not intrigued by the mysteries of the world, there would be little interest in the constant flow of books and magazine articles explaining modern cosmology, anthropology, paleontology, and so forth. While such explanations are often fascinating, far too many science writers unnecessarily confuse the boundaries between fact and speculation. For the layman this distinction, between what scientists truly know and what they speculate might be true, is not understood and has engendered in the public mind a scientific appearing, yet somewhat mythological, world view.
For example, the once unanimous acceptance of natural selection as the guiding principle in evolutionary biology is slowly eroding in those circles where the problem is critically considered. Yet this idea, which is not supported by any of the geological facts, remains a staple of the modern view of our evolutionary past. It is used in countless places to explain and support other speculations, and will no doubt continue for some time to be one of the main beliefs we have of the world. Its truth is not proven, however. The known facts do not support it.
In this regard, when speaking of natural selection, or "Darwinism", I am basically referring to the general idea which modern humanity is taught, namely that the human being developed through millions of years as a result of accidental processes leading from a mineral ocean, through a biological soup, to single celled organisms, then to invertebrates, vertebrates, mammals and man. It is this general picture which is not sustainable in the face of the actual facts, and the genuine pursuit of the truth.
The fossil record reveals that between when a geological age begins and when it ends the plants and animals have remained the same. The paleontologist calls this "stasis" - over the whole of a geological age there is no observable evolutionary change, particularly no evidence whatsoever of one species being transmuted into another. Whatever change does occur, appears to happen in the interval between ages, which for unknown reasons remaining quite mysterious, and leaves no trace of its processes.
This is an objective instance where the theoretical speculations of science have not stood the test of time, yet our ideas of the world, once captured by this speculative conception, are unable to disentangle themselves. Natural selection is such a strongly held article of faith, both within and without the scientific community, that it will continue to be a dominant idea for many many years. In human psychology it has more kinship with myth then it does with truth.
It is this myth making capacity of scientifically authored speculations that concerns us. It is such a powerful force on the ideas we hold about the world, that we can fully expect, for example, that many readers will not believe what has been said here about natural selection. Dozens of books and articles supporting what is said could be cited, yet most people would rather dismiss these statements as the prejudices of perhaps a "creationist", then risk their own belief system and actually look into what is being discussed in those circles where this question is genuinely being considered. (See for example: Evolution: a Theory in Crisis, Michael Denton, (Adler & Adler, 1986); and Dogma and Doubt, by Ronald H. Brady.
In a most recent popular critical examination of evolutionary biology, Darwin On Trial, Phillip E. Johnson, (1991, Regnery Gateway), the whole problem is carefully examined with an eye to aiding the layman in understanding the difficulties that "Darwinism" represents. The standard, however, is not to test modern evolutionary biology against some kind of competing theory, but rather to see whether it is good science. It is this which "Darwinism" fails at. It is simply bad science, and as a consequence results in two very serious and dangerous results.
The first is that it holds still the advancement of the biological sciences in that these might discover important facts upon which a more realistic theory could be advanced. As long as "Darwinism" is held to, biology is blind when it looks to the past, trapped in an illusion of its own creation.
The second danger is that this untestable theory is used to support other kinds of speculations in other realms, most significantly for our purposes, the investigation of human consciousness. Important questions, which otherwise would suggest alternative ways of thinking about consciousness, cannot be asked because "Darwinism" is already presumed to answer them. At various places, as we proceed with the text, we will encounter this danger. When this occurs, when we run into this speculative and myth creating impulse, I will endeavor to point it out.
The Idea of Mind
Recent advances in neurophysiology, in computer science, and in cognitive science and related disciplines, have produced numerous books, as well as major television series, on the workings of the mind. For the most part, when I read these books I find my morality, my heart-felt concerns, my idealism, my life of prayer, of meditation and contemplation - all these most precious, most subtle inner experiences - increasingly explained as mere electro-chemical phenomena, as products of brain activity in the most material sense, and nothing else. Here is the speculative myth making power of science in action. In saying this it should be noted that it is not so much that I am against science, but rather that science has only asked one-half of the essential question, namely what is consciousness viewed from the outside. The other half of the question is: What is consciousness viewed from the inside.
The views put forward by the vast majority of workers in these fields are materialistic, deterministic, and ultimately anti-religious, although often not consciously so. These questions of the ultimate truth of human nature, in so far as the mind sciences consider them, are being decided without really debating them in a forum in which the broader implications are considered. Neurophysiology, for example, really only asks certain limited kinds of questions (chemical happenings in brain cells, or how cells cooperate to apparently accomplish computation), yet appears to assume that inner states of consciousness are produced exclusively by these cell processes.
"It is old hat to say that the brain is responsible for mental activity. Such a claim may annoy the likes of Jerry Falwell or the Ayatollah, but it is more or less the common assumption of educated people in the twentieth century. Ever since the scientific revolution, the guiding view of most scientists has been that knowledge about the brain, its cells and its chemistry will explain mental states. However, believing that the brain supports behavior is the easy part: explaining how is quite another." (Mind Matters: How the Mind and Brain interact to Create Our Conscious Lives, Michael S. Grazzanica Ph.D. pp 1, Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1988).
We should perhaps note two things about the above quotation. First the words "common assumption" and "believing", by which Grazanica tacitly admits that we are not here dealing with proven facts, but rather with the "belief system" held in common by some unknown portion of the scientific community. Secondly, he clearly admits that moving from facts about brain chemistry and related phenomena to an explanation of consciousness, free will, morality etc. is a gigantic undertaking.
In that portion of the scientific community supportive of Grazzanica's "common assumption", brain and mind are considered a single phenomenon, and one popular science writer even goes so far as to say that the recent advances in neurosciences establish conclusively that there is no human spirit, and that all states of consciousness are caused electro-chemically. "There will of course be a certain sadness as the "human spirit" joins the flat earth, papal infallibility and creationism on the list of widely held but obviously erroneous convictions." (Molecules of the Mind, Jon Franklin, p 202, Atheneum, New York, 1987).
There can be no doubt that if a human being ingests certain chemical substances, whether for recreational purposes or as prescribed medicine, the state of consciousness is altered. Electrical stimulation of the brain also produces effects, whether it is simple stimulation of certain brain centers to cause pleasure or to bring out memories, or whether it is the more invasive electro-shock therapy, still used routinely today for certain intractable mental disorders. In one part of our society we say free use of chemicals to alter mental states is a crime and in another part forced use is advocated in order to control deviant behaviors. (c.f. Deivance and Medicalization: from Badness to Sickness, Conrad and Schneider, Merrill Publishing Company, 1985).
The point of this is to realize that we are not only dealing with serious questions of truth, of whether scientists actually know what they claim to believe, but also with the social policy consequences of this knowledge. The central question remains, however: what is the relationship between mind and brain? As we proceed, I would like to show how to extend our knowledge of human consciousness by considering what one can come to know from what might be called: Christian meditative practice. In such a practice, what one can know about mind is quite different from what science knows. In such a practice, mind is explored from the inside rather than from the outside. Even though, unfortuantely, those who have explored mind from the outside have pretty much concluded:
"...it has long been recognized that mind does not exist somehow apart from brain..." (The Mind, Richard M. Restak M.D. pp ll, Bantam Books, 1988);
"My fundamental premise about the brain is that its workings - what we sometimes call mind - are a consequence of it anatomy and physiology and nothing more." (The Dragons of Eden, Speculations of the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Carl Sagan, pp.7, Ballantine Books, 1977).
Quite other conclusions are possible, in fact, may be said to be mandated, if one takes the trouble to examine consciouness from the inside, as is possible for anyone with a more or less intact mental health, and the requisite good will.
At this point I would like to proceed in such a manner that it is provisionally allowed to use the words spirit and soul, but in a way that acknowledges the legitmate requirements of science for exact, emperical and logically rigorous consideration. These two words ar essential to understanding mind from a Christian contemplative view and can be put forward in a way free of metaphysical or mystical implications. The problem is in part confused by the fact that today, when we use the word mind in normal langague usage, we mean only the brain and as well confine this aspect of our nature within the boundaries of the skull. Mind (in modern usage) means brain, means within the head.
Soul and spirit, on the other hand, are not thought of this way, and while many people do not even think such entities exist in the same sense as mind and brain, at least these words have the advantage of being capable of a usage meaning something beyond the spacially limited confines of the cranium.
The problem is one of relating personal experience to langauge in a situation in which the practices of science have tended to already fix the meaning of certain words. For example, the poet will refer to heart with regard to the phenomenon of human feeling. Our whole language is filled with related expressions (heart-felt, warm-hearted etc.). On the other hand, the scientific community tends to see emotion (feeling) as a function of glandular and brain chemistry, and therefore as an aspect of the mind/brain/body nexus. Yet, an electo-chemical explanation seems to deny human experience, which has produced language implying that the center of our "feeling" life is not connected to the brain, not located specially in the head, but rather finds is primary locus in the chest. We say, "I have a gut feeling", or "my heart got caught in my throat".
The point of this is to notice the denial of this imagery (derived from human experience) by the processes of scientific thinking which have over the last few hundred years more and more confined the source of these experiences to the head and to material causes.
As a general trend in science this is called reductionism and involves a process which Eddington called earlier in this century: "Knowing more and more about less and less." Our body of knowledge about cell chemistry and neural networks in the brain grows, but often at a cost to genuine human understanding (I say this from direct experience, as one who has worked in a neuropsychiatric unit in a private hospital). Perhaps it is time to pause and consider whether or not it is necessary to go the other way for a while, to reintroduce the study of the soul, from the inside, as it appears to direct human experience.
This can, I am certain, be done with due regard for the demand of science for reproducibility. I recognize this is not the usual approach by religious thinkers, yet in this case our mutual respect for the truth seems to require it. This ethical demand of science for reproducibility, namely that whatever is asserted here concerning mind (soul/spirit) be discoverable by another who is willing to follow the procedures, the experimental protocols, as it were; this demand I believe is perfectly justified.
In "new age" circles one hears frequently about mind, body and spirit, meaning, I suppose, that these are three distinguishable human characteristics. In modern mind sciences we hear of mind and brain. Are these differing perspectives talking about the same things at all? It will be useful to note in passing that when Freud's works were translated from German into English the words "geistes" (spirit) and "seele" (soul) were both translated as mind (c.£ Bruno Bettelheim's Freud and man's soul, A.A.Knopf, 1983), even though English did have the correct dictionary terms. This really only shows that for the English consciousness the inner life was already thought of as mind even though Europe had had a long tradition of referring to inner life in terms of soul and spirit (Freud thought and wrote out of that tradition).
Modern American English still uses these terms as in: soul power, soul brother, soul music, or in noting the distinction between the spirit and the letter of the law.Yet such usage's are more metaphorical, more imaginative, than the exact language usage which science demands, in fact depends upon. Even so, while brain has a very concrete physical existence, mind does not; it is much more ephemeral. It can't be touched, nor can consciousness, or inner life, or feeling, or even idea. Yet, these apparently non - sense perceptible - phenomena are all recognized intuitively. We accept loss of consciousness in sleep and in certain conditions of trauma or illness. We moderns are in love with feelings and their expression, about which have recently been written more books than one can read. The practice of science would get nowhere without ideas and in fact the principle foundation of science's logical rigor is mathematics, which has no sense perceptible existence at all, and is nowhere observable in nature, even with instruments.
Imagine that Descarte invented calculus while high on dopamine (a neurotransmitter identified as a factor in drug use and satisfaction). How are we to relate the chemical state of the brain and the simultaneous ideas? Is one producer and one product? And, if the productive cause is then questionable, can we accept the product?
Descarte has recently joined the (illustrious?) group of historic personalities to be diagnosed has having a psychiatric disorder (depression in his case) by a psychiatrist who never personally met him. If true would this make calculus a dubious discovery, or a hallucination (i.e. unreal)? Our electrical technology is impossible without calculus (and its relative differential equations), so there is something very different about this non - sense perceptible - phenomena called mathematics. It is somehow part of the world yet only knowable through mind.
It is clear that accepted scientific ideas are not being disputed because their producer has been at one time categorized as having been either physically or mentally ill. Yet, one can find in the literature (in the brain sciences) the idea that so-called mystic states and other kinds of religious experiences represent, or are caused by, unusual chemical states; i.e. are not what their experiencers say they are: experiences of God. But, how can this be, how can one make such a distinction that the discovery of a mathematical truth is different from the discovery of a religious truth, merely on the basis of the possibility that chemical happenings in the brain can induce hallucinatory states of consciousness?
Now the working scientist should have an argument here, which is, at first blush, quite reasonable. That nature conforms to mathematically oriented models at least establishes (I won't say proves) that this formal relation exists. Granted calculus can't be seen, but it does allow prediction of physical phenomena. Nature acts in conformance with mathematical principles. Where is the evidence it acts according to the principle God - this the working scientist should ask. After all, this is the habit of mind of the scientist to form such questions. Or, perhaps to put it another way, what predicted observation would permit the logical inference of the entity God?
Even so, such a response has not really appreciated the problem as I have been trying to state it. All the ideas of science are first and foremost mental phenomena.They appear in mind as a product of mind, not in sensible nature. I don't see gravity or even light. I see falling objects and colors. I infer the law of gravity and the existence of light from these experiences and, if I am a scientist, I make rigorous my observations through experimentation and precise instrumentation. But natural selection and the big bang are in each case mental creations, they proceed from the act of thinking, not from sense perceptible nature.
What this means to me is that if I am going to prefer one kind of mental phenomena over another (e.g. the idea of accident in the creation of life versus the idea of God) then I'd better be clear as to why I have such a preference. Yet, before I can make such choices, I need to understand mind, to understand the act which makes such a choice. But to understand mind don't I first need to understand understanding, to think about thinking?
To the philosophically sophisticated reader this may seem to be running backward in time. Modern academic philosophy (linguistic analysis), from Quine to Ayer to Wittgenstein is no longer thinking about thinking, at least in the way someone such as Frichte or some other 19th century German philosopher approached the problem. For the lay person the question might be put this way. How can I look to current work in linguistic analysis, in neurophysiology, in cognitive psychology, in order to build up my idea of mind, when these systems are already products of mind? Is not the cart before the horse? Don't I first have to have clearly before me what thinking is to my own experience of it, before I apply it in practice? I have mind directly before me. What might I understand if I investigate the nature of my own experience first?
This is a crucial point. If we were to examine each of these disciplines we would find some idea of mind, either being assumed or derived from the particular work. In some cases very explicit statements are being made about what thinking is, how it is caused, how it proceeds, what its potential is and so forth. Yet, it is thinking which is producing these ideas. How might such investigations evolve if first it was clearly before the thinker, just what thinking was to his own experience?
There are other reasons for making such a question the foundational step. Earlier in this century, the physicist/novelist C.P. Snow pointed out the existence of two cultures, the cultures of science and of literature (or the humanities). These cultures did not speak the same language and did not consider the same problems. Moreover the scientists seemed to believe that only their method produced objective truth, and that the humanities only produced subjective truths. Alan Bloom (in his The Closing of the American Mind) recently observed how the distribution of assets in the university reveals the domination of the sciences today, at least to governments and businesses, who provide most of the funds for research. When was the last time a President convened a panel of poets to help him define a problem? (This is not to say that this is a bad idea by the way. I suspect in many instances our poets and troubadours would give much wiser advice). My own view is that Snow did not go far enough, although his being a scientist/novelist makes this limitation understandable. There are, I believe, three cultures (or three constituent spheres to Culture): a culture of science or Reason, a culture of humanities or Imagination and a culture of religion or Devotion. Reason, Imagination and Devotion are related to the older ideas of Truth, Beauty and Goodness, in that the former are human capacities of the soul and the latter are the outer expressions of those capacities. Reason engenders truth, Imagination engenders beauty, and Devotion engenders goodness.
In reality this is a complex relationship. On a certain level, or from a particular viewpoint, these soul capacities are also capable of being called powers. The romantic poet S.T. Coleridge called imagination the "esemplastic power" and felt it was not just an aspect of human consciousness, but was a force of Nature as well. Reason, for example, could be called Truth, as that appears in the soul as a hunger first, then a question, and finally an answer. Reason is then a dynamic process which is intimately connect to Truth. In a way they are a mirror of each other.
The difficulty for both Snow and Bloom is that they have no practical experience at devotion; they didn't really understand it or appreciate its role in their own soul, or in the world. Most Christian contemplatives are cloistered and are not encouraged to either prove their claims (in fact they make no "claims") or to exhibit works. Certainly no science curriculum, and few humanities curriculums teach the works of St. John of the Cross, or St. Teresa of Avila. Our secular age is filled with writings and teachers who believe religion is superstition, but who have never tested it on its own terms. When Christ Jesus says "No one comes to the Father except by me." it doesn't seem to occur to people that knowledge of God might depend upon method just as much as science does. Perhaps the reason the scientist doesn't find God behind creation is because he looked in the wrong place. God being ephemeral (spiritual), perhaps God can only be observed (known) by the ephemeral in man. Perhaps only to mind in a pure state is the supra-sensible, the Invisible, apparent.
I have written briefly here of reason, imagination and devotion because I wanted us to remember that mind (soul/spirit) produces much else besides technical wonders. So that when we think about thinking we will remember all the kinds of things which flow from mind and appreciate that skill and effort are as much involved in the discovery of truth as in the creation of beauty or in traveling on the stony path to goodness. Moreover, there seems to be evidence that our greatest geniuses are often active in such a way that combines these qualities. Are not the true scientists and artists devoted to their calling? Einstein was mathematical, musical and faithful. Michael Faraday, who was the founding theoretician of electrical and magnetic phenomena, was a man of special religious devotion. Teilhard de Chardin is a very obvious case in point, and so is Goethe, whose scientific work was impeccable, although today much under appreciated. Here is what Roger Penrose, a major thinker on the problem of mind and science, had to say in his The Emperor's New Mind, pp. 421, Oxford University Press, 1989:
"It seems clear to me that the importance of aesthetic criteria applies not only to the instantaneous judgments of inspiration, but also to the much more frequent judgments we make all the time in mathematical (or scientific work) Rigorous argument is usually the last step! Before that, one has to make many guesses, and for these, aesthetic convictions are enormously important..."
And here is Karl Popper, whose work on scientific method sets the standard (for many at least), in his Realism and the Aim of Science, pp. 8, Rowan and Littlefield, 1956:
"...I think that there is only one way to science - or to philosophy, for that matter: to meet a problem, to see its beauty and to fall in love with it;...".
Or as we might add to Mr. Popper's thought: "...to meet a problem (reason), to see its beauty (imagination) and to fall in love with it (devotion);..."
I'd like now to introduce the ideas of Thomas Taylor, as expressed in the introduction to his early 18th century book: The Theoretic Arithmetic of the Pythagoreans. He observes there an interesting fact and draws from it an intriguing conclusion. He starts by deploring the increasing emphasis in education on the practical side of mathematics instead of the theoretical side, i.e. teaching math only with the idea of enabling people to be good accountants or engineers. The theoretic side has special characteristics for Taylor, which should not be lost to the process of education. In Nature, says Taylor, we do not find the perfect circle or the straight line. All the beautiful (or elegant in modern mathematical parlance) characteristics of mathematics arise not from the contemplation of Nature, which is imperfect, but rather are products of the soul which thereby reveals its perfection.
Or to restate Taylor's observation in our terms: mind (soul/spirit) in showing its capacity to think the idea of the perfect, the elegant, the beautiful, as that appears in mathematics, reveals its own nature. Mind could not produce the quality of these ideas except as that reflects the quality of its own condition. Yet, we know that the brain is a physical organ, and is no less imperfect that any other aspect of material nature. How then does this electro-chemical machine come to the ideas which are clearly beyond its own structure? While you might say that God is an illusion, and therefore some kind of mental dream or hallucination, I don't think you can get very far arguing the same way about the circle, or other geometric, and algebraic formulations without making a complete mockery of the scientific and technological achievements which depend upon these ideas.
Taylor's observation, which I make my own as well, is simply this. What the human being produces, through his soul capacities of reason, imagination and devotion, namely truth, beauty and goodness, necessarily reveals that the human spirit possesses a reality clearly transcendent of a mere brain bound existence.
With this background then I would like to return to the question of what is thinking, and what the answer to that question can reveal for us about the nature of mind. I don't expect to answer this question here in the way it must ultimately be answered. No written work ever convinces, even scientific papers. The reader must make his own investigation and draw his own conclusions. This is fundamentally what truly constitutes proof, even in science. My obligation to reason is to state clearly my conclusions and observations and to explain adequately my methodology in order that another can test my results. My reader's obligation is to honestly carry out the instructions, otherwise there can be no scientific validation or invalidation. This will not be easy, and few will even try for the truth is that years of effort have gone into the understanding I presently have of mind. In fact it is not the point of this essay to establish or prove the idea of mind that might be held by a Christian contemplative, but rather to expose it, to make it known, and to do so in a way which accepts as authentic and justifiable the scientific requirement for reproducibility. That the effort at replication may well be beyond the will power of those who agree or disagree is a situation over which I have no control.
This is not a cop out, by the way. That it takes years of study and development to be able to understand "Hilbert space", in no way lessens its mathematical truth. Likewise, do we have to be able to paint the Mona Lisa in order to appreciate its beauty? So, as well, we can marvel at the goodness of the idea of mind as a moral/spiritual act, even though we may lack the ability to completely engender a full understanding of such a condition ourselves.
On the other hand, and if we are willing, we can learn fundamental mathematical and scientific truths, without just having faith in the scientist's teachings. We can, as well, take up artistic activity and discover our own creative potential; and certainly we might devote ourselves to prayer and contemplative thinking in order that we learn to encounter the threshold between the visible and moral (invisible) worlds.
For my own purposes I now want to put aside (for the most part) the word mind and use instead just the terms soul and spirit. These two words are to mean no more and no less than what the reader experiences in his own inner life. Such a process is called introspection or looking within. It is a most ancient discipline; the meaning of the Greek admonition: "Know thyself ". This does not mean, by the way, to know one's subjective individual character traits as is often thought, but rather to discover the universals of human nature as they appear inside our own being.
Earlier in this century there was briefly a psychological "school" which sought to discover truths about the psyche (soul) through introspection, but this work did not make much headway, did not seem to contribute scientifically. and was abandoned. Its flaw was to pretend there was no tradition, no previous exploration of inner life, of psyche (soul) which might offer some experienced insight into the problems involved. The pretense is understandable in that invariably those disciplines which actually know something practical about inner life are spiritual disciplines and the general trend of scientific thought has been to view spiritual ideas about the Earth, Cosmos and Man, as mere superstition. It is no wonder then that, when science seeks to investigate inner life, its anti-spiritual assumptions and preconceptions become an impediment to the discovery of just those facts sought after.
Every human being experiences consciousness, which includes sense experience (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell), varying degrees of well being (health, vitality and illness), thoughts, dreams, feelings, impulses of will, desires, sympathies, antipathies, and so forth. Our language is full of a variety of words for different inner experiences, or states of consciousness, and these usages can often be very instructive. For example, why do we call someone "bright" or speak of "flashes of insight" or draw cartoons in which having a "bright idea" is depicted by a light bulb going on over someone's head? We do this because we instinctively know that certain kinds of thought activity (intuitions) are accompanied by phenomena of inner light. This is not light as seen by the physical eye, but light experienced by the "mind's eye", the individual human spirit.
In our ordinary state of soul (consciousness) this experience is not paid attention to because we are focused outwardly on the problem, whose solution the "flash of insight" represents. Moreover, the activity by which we produce the "in-sight", lies below the level of consciousness. It is unconscious. Now the fact is that within many spiritual disciplines exists the knowledge by which this unconscious can be made conscious, the inner eye strengthened and intuitions can be produced more or less at will. Even so, not all spiritual disciplines are the same, have the same world view, or the same purposes. It becomes necessary then to say a few words about this, in particular the differences between Buddhist and Christian depth meditation practices, the principle paths of Eastern and Western forms of spiritual life.
Buddhism today enjoys a certain ascendancy in America.
"The Buddhist movement has become a regional phenomenon. It is pervasive. And it is quietly transforming our North American culture. This is the golden age of Buddhism. Right here. Right now. " (Don Morreale, quoted in Masters of the Universe, Pamela Weintraub, Omni, March 1990.)
Examine, for example, the book by William Irwin Thompson, Imaginary Landscape. This is a book straining to realize ideas about man and the world by combining reason, imagination and devotion. Thompson is a cultural historian fascinated with the cutting edge of the new sciences such as chaos research and cognitive science.Thompson has clearly been influenced by Buddhism (apparently the Tibetan Llama Choygam Trungpa), and this reveals itself in the ethereally vague, almost ungrounded character of Thompson's prose. If you were to follow reading Thompson's book by reading Speakers Meaning by Owen Barfield, who is a student of the Western spiritual teacher, Rudolf Steiner, the different effect of the style of meditation and related practices on the thinking of the two writers is clear. There is a mystery here concerning the effect of meditation styles on cultural life.
I do not say this because I am opposed to Buddhism as a spiritual path, but rather as an observer of culture and the ebbs and flows in the dynamics of a civilization's cultural existence. Years ago I had a profound experience of Buddhism, for which I am ever thankful, yet I believe there must arise an effort on the part of the leaders of both Western and Eastern cultural life to work together, in mutually supportive ways. There is, I believe, hidden in the mysteries behind both Christianity and Buddhism, a higher unity, which ought to sought for; all the while remaining mindful of the different effects on the soul life of the individual which are due to the different practices, and the natural consequences these must have in the life of a culture. Just like political leaders, humanities spiritual leaders owe the individual certain responsibilities.
The orientation of Buddhist and Christian inner disciplines toward the act of thinking is quite different. The reader who begins to take an objective look at his inner life, at his soul (which includes all that appears inwardly, both conscious and unconscious), will find that there is an actor, a self, an egoicity. To this we refer when we think or say "I". Buddhist meditation takes the view that this "I" is the cause of suffering, the cause of life's difficulties and that it (the "I") needs to be abandoned, eventually to disappear into an experience of self within Self.
Christian meditation sees the "I" as the point of creation, as the image of God, which can be redeemed from its fallen nature, so as to produce the mysterious and paradoxical Pauline dictum: "Not I, but Christ in me."
The Buddhist leaves the act of thinking, the "I"'s spiritual activity, to take its own course, believing that this activity only produces illusions. Christian meditation sees the act of thinking as capable of being metamorphosed, altered through discipline, into a new organ of perception, an organ which can then perceive deeper into the mysteries of creation.
Lest one believe this is an inconsequential matter, just consider the following as reported in the Boston Globe newspaper in December of 1990. The story reveals that a Carthusian priest, a monk in a Catholic contemplative order, has just completed seven years training in the meditation practices of Vipassana Buddhism. This priest, Rev. Denys Rackley, is quoted as saying: "What Western Christians need...is practical knowledge...of preparing the mind for the spiritual experience, something almost entirely unknown in the West." It is understandable why he believes this, but it is not true. The depth meditative practices with Christian understanding are not unknown, but one does have to look for them, rather then look to the East.
Father Denys is also quoted as saying: '...as long as you're functioning at the level of the rational thinking mind, you're not really into the heart of the spiritual life". This is the Buddhist view, but one of the purposes of this essay is to suggest that thinking can in fact lead to direct spiritual experience. And that for the Christian, to abandon his cognitive capacities in the manner of Eastern meditative practices is to miss developing "Not I, but Christ in me."
This short consideration hardly exhausts what would be a proper examination of these differences, nor does it deal with the complex and difficult relation between modern depth Christianity and the current theological beliefs of many Christian churches. I did feel it necessary, however, to note briefly these themes as part of giving as rounded out a picture of mind (soul/spirit), as that exists for the Christian meditative practitioner.
The reader may then consider the soul to be all that appears before him inwardly as his consciousness, including as well sense experience. While we feel, and have been taught, that sense experience is caused by outer nature, the actual experiencing of these so-called stimuli occurs within the soul or conscious awareness. For example, if one whose normal environment is urban were to be transported suddenly to a grand vista of nature they would experience the soul's expansive movement deeper into the senses. Normally in urban life the soul withdraws as far as possible from its sense experiences which are so chaotic and immoderate. We tend to hear, see, smell, taste, feel (as in touch) with less sensitivity while we lead an urban existence. The opposite is also true. If an urban dweller, who has spent a month or so in raw nature were to suddenly return to downtown Manhattan, they would experience a sudden contraction of the soul, a rapid withdrawal from the senses, and a constriction of the diaphragm (so as to breathe less deeply the toxic air).
Soul includes as well that which exists in the unconscious, and which manifests over time, such as mood, character, temperament and other like phenomena. Within the field of soul, within the totality of psychic life, the "I" or spirit appears as the experiencer, the actor, and the creative or initiating cause.
Now please remember that this way of describing soul life comes from the process of active objective introspection. It does not try to infer from outer perception as do the sciences, but seeks to objectify the direct experiences of the observer of his own self. Just as science then points to technological products to validate its views, so can these practices point to reproducible effects in the inner life brought about by the disciplined activity of the "I" through self development exercises, such as concentration, meditation, contemplation and prayer. I would like to put forward a model here, just as science does, but in this case I want it to be clear it is only a device by which to convey an idea, a mental representation of a real process, which can be known, but which can't be described by the concepts we are used to.
Imagine if you will that you are holding a "stick" between the palms of your hands. If you move your left hand in such a way as to push the "stick", your right hand will move as well. Move the right hand and the "stick" will push the left. This then is the idea I want to suggest for the brain-mind relationship, or the body/soul/spirit relationship. Brain chemistry can cause changes in consciousness, but as well the "I", the spirit, can cause changes in brain chemistry. In Mind Matters, Grazzanica, having already likened brain to a mechanism, then says paradoxically: "A thought can change brain chemistry, just as a physical event in the brain can change a thought". My question for Grazanica is: what does he think causes the thought which changes the brain chemistry?
If I ingest substances, food or chemical, I alter my state of soul, of consciousness. There is no ignoring the fact that brain chemistry effects statesof mind (soul). However, the opposite is also true. My active spirit can also effect states of soul, and in some circumstances brain and body chemistry as well (c.f. the capacities of Jack Schwartz who is able to control consciously a number of so-called involuntary bodily processes including blood flow.). Moreover, any conscious physical movement is initiated by my spirit which first imagines it. Ordinarily we are not aware of how our "I"'s will brings about this physical movement. The "stick", as it were, is hidden deep in the unconscious.
With regard to the act of thinking, however, the whole activity lies within the reach of my self conscious spirit. Thinking takes place in the conscious parts of the soul and with training one can become aware of and be active in the whole process.
Ordinarily we experience thinking as an inner dialogue, a flow of words. This talking to ourselves (don't we say, "I can't hear myself think") is the end product of unconscious processes. In this instance it is the spirit which intitiates the silent wording and the soul which hears. This act of thinking (which is unconscious ) produces thoughts or trains of thought (the flow of words) of which we are conscious. The training disciplines of a specific spiritual practice can, stage by stage, uncover and make open to experience, and will activity, what remains otherwise hidden in the unconscious.
I will now describe some of the consequences of such a discipline in terms of capacities and experiences. This is not meant to be exhaustive, only indicative. Later we will discuss certain books which have much more to offer in this line, books which I have used (tested) myself. The stream of "words" can be brought to a halt. The act of thinking can then be focused on a single concept. The discovery here is that concept and word are two different experiences. This is another crucial matter, but its main difficulty for the reader's understanding is that it cannot be put into words. It is completely a function of experience.
Now ordinarily we think of concept and idea as the same as the word which we experience in our inner dialogue. The true experience of the concept is beyond language. It can ultimately be experienced in a way analogous to that in which a sense object is experienced. The difference is that I am in an unusual state of consciousness, which can be described as "sense free". Only to my mind's eye, my spiritual eye, does the concept appear. Moreover, as an experience it is more vivid, more intense, than sense experience. It touches, as it were, my whole soul, filling the soul with "sensation", with image, sound, tactility, engagement (I am pulled toward it, it seems to rush toward me). In addition the experience can only be sustained if my "I" is active in a certain way. In the face of sense experience I can be passive. In the face of the supra-sensible experience of the pure concept, I must remain active inwardly.
Roger Penrose in his The Emperor's New Mind relates how as a mathematician (recall what has been said previously about mathematics by Taylor) he is beginrung to think mathematical truths have their own independent existence. "...I cannot help feeling that, with mathematics the case for believing in some kind of ethereal, eternal existence, at least for the more profound mathematical concepts, is a good deal stronger..." (pp. 97). Mathematical thinking is a very concentrated activity, is good practice for meditation and contemplation and can easily evolve into the contemplation of the pure concept.
When we think, then, in the ordinary way (stream of words), our unconscious thought-creative activity is within the realm of the pure concept, but our conscious awareness is only of the words which fall out, as it were, like autumn leaves blown free of the living tree of our mind.
As with mathematics, so with music. Consider the poetic intuition out of the imagination of the writer Kim Stanley Robinson in his novel: The Memory of Whiteness:
"A music leads the mind through the starry night and the brain must expand to contain the flight like a tree growing branches at the speed of light."
Thinking cannot only focus on the single concept, it may also suspend itself just before the act which produces the awareness of the concept. Thinking can take up a question, but not proceed all the way to an answer. We can live in the question, in a condition of heightened anticipation. A great deal can be learned from appreciating the qualitative difference of the "I"'s activities of "focus" and "question".
Up to now little has been said here of the Christian nature of such practices. Consider then that the Christian contemplative's practice is to think in a concentrated and focused way ever and ever again on the Being of God. If Penrose has begun to suspect that mathematics is derived from an experience of something that is "there already", are we to be surprised when the contemplative finds God as an experience in his consciousness (soul) and as a consequence (in part, we will have to avoid complicating things with the problem of Grace) of the activity of his thinking (spirit)? Prayer is another form of question, and by combining question and focus, or prayer and contemplation, the contemplative proceeds in an exact, disciplined and rigorous fashion.
The summa of my own investigations (which is not by any means to be considered more than the work of a beginner) is the discipline of sacrifice of thoughts. I have found it especially important to learn to give up any tendency to fixed ideas. Always it is necessary to approach the situation ignorant, to sacrifice all previous ideas. "Blessed are the poor in spirit. " is the Beatitude. Only in a condition of humility, of not knowing, can I come to the more subtle, more intimate inner experiences. One of my favorite teachers calls sacrifice of thoughts: "...learning to think on your knees...".
This leads us to the consideration of the core problem, that of morality and conscience.
Many people today think of education and character development as having to do with pouring something into an otherwise empty soul. To my experience this is mistaken. Rather it is always a question of development, of unfolding. A human being becomes. True morality then involves the development of a capacity, and is not merely a matter of instruction. You can get people to conform, but real morality comes from the inside out and is not a response to expectations of right behavior. (This appears to be a new condition for mankind. Previously, in human development, morality, to a great extent, was set for the individual by the outside social structure, through codes of behavior, traditions, and other socially enforced expectations.
Depth introspection of the act of thinking will discover that the outcome of thinking is significantly affected by the moral intention of the thinker. Just as the act of thinking needs to be made conscious, so the moral intention connected to the object (or the why) of the thinking needs to be fully conscious. If, for example, I am a business man looking for a solution to a certain problem, the answers I get will vary according to the moral intention. Ultimately the practitioner of such thinking will come to an appreciation of the activity of conscience within his own soul life.
This is a special experience. The "voice" of conscience needs to be carefully distinguished from the more subjectively incorporated authority figures. The conscience, for example, never endlessly nags us, does not make us feel inferior. Conscience is the experience of the higher element of our nature, which is normally in the unconscious. In the awakening and the development of conscience we begin to develop within us this higher element (What St. Paul calls: "Not I, but Christ.in me."). The conscience does cause pain, "pricks of conscience", because it forces us to recognize the true moral consequences of our actions. The truth hurts and our voice of conscience reminds us of the truth. The conscience, however, loves us, which is why it makes us conscious of the truth, but does not seek to destroy our self image or impair our self esteem.
Now just as one can evoke certain kinds of inner experiences through various types of thinking disciplines, so can one evoke the voice of conscience and thereby come to certain moral knowledge. This understanding of the life of the soul and the activity of the spirit, this part of the idea of mind, involves the most subtle inner discrimination; and, since it places morality within the realm of individual knowledge, it represents a threat to authoritarian organizations, religious or otherwise. No one, who eventually learns this fine discrimination, will ever assert to another that they possess a more perfect moral knowledge. Each individual must make his own experiences.
This does not mean that morality is subjective, or that it is relative and changeable. The problem is more subtle and more complicated. The conscience is an organ of knowledge - of understanding the true moral qualities underlying human action. Two individuals with the same choices, the same life questions to balance, if they strive for the same depth of understanding, they will arrive at the same knowledge of what is right. However, the reality is that, in life, two individuals seldom have to face the same choice. Our lives are very individual, regardless of superficial similarities. What needs to be weighed and balanced is unlikely to be the same. So when the individual problem is presented to the organ of conscience, we often get an individual result.
This can be very confusing. In part the confusion is due to our usually thinking of morality as a set of immutable principles, and the teaching of most religious authorities of quite definite rules and codes. For example, to many murder and abortion are absolutely prohibited. In these instances, to suggest, as the above seems to suggest, that the individual has some kind of free choice, is to appear to go against these most obvious and traditional moral restrictions. Such thinking, however, misses the point.
First we should remember that most of us, in many situations, do not follow the indications of our conscience, to the extent we become aware of them. Conscience gives us knowledge; we choose to act, or not, upon that knowledge. That we often choose to ignore conscience in no way takes away the power of conscience to know what is moral. Secondly, what is often forgotten, is that one of the most common ways we ignore conscience is in judging other people. If we put to conscience whether we should judge another's morality, what answer do you think conscience will give? "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.".
In the process of coming to this understanding of the role of conscience, or moral intention, and the consequences of these acts upon the activity of thinking, we also come to a practical understanding of many of the lessons of the Gospels. The teachings of Christ Jesus, in that they have a practical psychological effect, in that they concern matters of "mind", conform exactly to all that has been said above. In spite of what religious dogma might say, this knowledge, which is derived from the direct experience of a Christian meditant,and which is also representative of a community of such meditation practitioners, in no way conflicts with true Christianity.
Certain implications flow from this idea of mind. We might ask the question: where is the "there" where the "already there" is? When the mathematician Penrose proposes that mathematical ideas are "already there", where is this "there"? Inside the physical space of my skull? This is our habit of thought, but does that "habit" have to be true?
It will help to consider a parallel problem/question. Which comes first in evolution/creation, mind or matter? We assume matter, or at least such is the fundamental assumption current in science today. The basic belief is that at some point in evolution the complexity of the nervous system reaches a point where consciousness arises and ultimately what we know as mind (soul/spirit to the Christian meditative expenence). We have no proof of this. It really hasn't even been seriously investigated, if it can be investigated at all. That mind arises spontaneously, out of some accidental physical condition is an axiom (unproven assumption) of many mainstream scientists.
Such a supposed event, lying as it does in the distant past, cannot even be the subject of an experiment, or any other direct observation. This alleged event must be inferred, but from what? The fossil record only gives us bones, hardened substances. The soft tissues are always dissolved. And as to the thoughts?
We do have a picture of stages of development, one that we have been indoctrinated in from our earliest years in school: single cell plant, to multi-cell, to invertebrate, to vertebrate, to mammal, to man. We have an idea of mind (soul/spirit) as solely reason, and therefore connect mind and tool making. This picture itself is an inference. Are we justified in building inference upon inference. The fact that the majority of scientists believe this to be the case is of no moment whatsoever. We don't vote facts into existence, and at the very least the history of science itself reveals, not an unbroken advance, but rather a series of "beliefs", a series of substitutions of ideas often quite at odds with each other (c.f. T. Khun, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).
Is there any reason for inferring the opposite? Is there something which suggests mind preceded matter? As a matter of fact there is. The discipline of philology, the study of language as developed by the mind (soul/spirit) of Owen Barfield reveals that what we call thinking was experienced by certain ancient peoples as outside them. The whole way they used language, their references to muses and to genii, shows that they experienced thoughts as coming into them from the outside. (c.£ Owen Barfield's Speaker's Meaning, also his Poetic Diction, History in English Words, and Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry). Barfield's investigations, which represent deeply profound and scientific studies of the history of meaning and the meaning of history, suggest unequivocally that modern assumptions regarding the nature of consciousness, both historical and prehistorical, must certainly be rethought; and if that is done, the inferred idea of matter proceeding mind in evolution will be replaced with its opposite, that mind is prior. Moreover, this philological research shows that mind (soul/spirit) has over the course of history (that is the period of man's evolution for which we have records) only just finished a long period of contraction; thinking, having first been outside the human entelechy, is now inside.
This is not the place in which to give a full recapitulation of the relevant trains of thought (arguments) which Barfield makes, nor to go into the supporting evidence that can be found in the field of art history (c.f. Art and Human Consciousness, Gottfried Richter, Anthroposophic Press, 1985). Rather I wanted to point out the question and as well to point to work which finds a satisfactory answer. Where is the "there" where one finds ideas already? It is in the great field of Mind (Soul/Spirit) which encompasses all of Nature (sense perceptible as well as supra-sensible), to which our individuality, our "I", has access through its own disciplined inner activity. Just as it is quite unreasonable to expect the imperfect to conceive the perfect (the material brain to imagine the immaterial and elegant truths of projective geometry), so it is non-reason to assume that mind (soul/spirit) is not born out of its own likeness. Matter cannot have given birth to consciousness, to thinking, or to certain moral knowledge (conscience). Our inwardness (soul/spirit) can only be the progeny of the Universe's Inwardness.
How do I know this? Because I have explored my own inwardness, and found there much more than I had been lead to assume was "there" by the scientifically oriented education of my youth. It has become a matter of experience, an empiricism of inwardness. In fact, such is the nature of this experience that the idea of mind as solely a product of brain electro-chemistry cannot be sustained. Moreover, there is a community of practitioners which replicates (repeats) this experience, the whole activity being conducted with the rigor and discipline justifiably required in this scientific age.
I would like to remind the reader, as we draw this exploration to a close, that the intention has never been to prove an opposite idea of the mind/brain nexus to that one currently held in science, but rather to give as clear as possible a picture of the idea of mind which can be held by a Christian meditation practitioner. Further, to do this in a way which at least offers the reader the opportunity of testing for him or herself the truth of this idea.
Ultimately, I believe it will be most healthy for our culture and our civilization, if what is understood as the powers of reason, be supplemented by the faculties of imagination and devotion, as well. What is offered then, in this theme, is not adisagreement with present day mind sciences, but rather an attempt to extend them, to evolve them by adding to their considerations what can be discovered about the nature of mind from a disciplined investigation which proceeds from the inside, from what appears to our direct experience of mind.
We need to remember that these questions are fundamental to the future course of our civilization. It is crucial, both for the health of our social order, and the meaning we attribute to our existence, that we have a true idea of human nature. Our culture is deeply psychologically split, in a quite unhealthy way, by the confused idea we have of human nature which raises Reason above the capacities of Imagination and Devotion, and which makes so-called scientific knowledge the only truth worth considering. This is a prejudice which grants an illegitimate power to what is really far too often only another belief system.
In the hospital where I worked for over seven years, powerful drugs are routinely administered to individuals, without sufficient consideration for these individuals spiritual nature or needs. That their "depression" might instead by caused by a life crisis with moral and self definitional (spiritual meaning) dynamics, is not really considered. At the same time, just down the hall, in the chemical dependency units, where the alcoholics anonymous model is practiced, meetings frequently end with the Lord's Prayer, and spiritual self transformation is considered an absolute necessity in order to deal with the relevant problems.
What a picture this gives us of the deep inconsistencies that exist in our culture!
We can do no better than to begin to end our considerations of this theme with these remarks by a spirit (individual) in whom reason, imagination and devotion were maintained in the soul in a remarkable balance. From Emerson's essay Nature: "Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again, as ice becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought. "
Here, with remarkable intuitive powers, Emerson sees to the heart of what we have been attempting to suggest. Contrary to the assumptions of the scientific age, namely, that there is no correlation between human thought and the world, the world itself is a product of Thought, and the human being, in that he or she thinks, has directly before him, in the experience of his own mind, the like, but rudimentary, capacity. We were Thought into being, and we also can think.
In the preceding, I attempted to show how one could begin that exploration which will validate, in a scientifically acceptable way, the proposition that human consciousness and the act of thinking are not the product of material happenings in a physical brain, but the products of acts of soul and spirit. Whether critics of such an idea will be willing to struggle with the difficult work of replication, I cannot say. At the same time I will insist that, without such an effort, any argument to the contrary need not be listened to or heeded.
For those who will wish to take this challenge seriously, I recommend the following two books: The Philosophy of Freedom, Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophical Press; and Meditations on the Tarot: a journey into Christian Hemeticism, author anonymous, Amity House.
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