The Neural Seduction, Looking for the Meta Narrative of Our Lives, David Lane and and Andrea Diem-Lane

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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

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The Neural Seduction

Looking for the Meta Narrative of Our Lives

Understanding The Difference Between A Darwinian
Experiment And A Wilberian Conclusion

David Christopher Lane
and Andrea Diem-Lane

What drives our desire for the meta-narrative or our acceptance of Wilberian conclusions is perhaps more interesting and instructive than we at first realize.

The other night as I discussing evolutionary theory and the prime directive in life (live long enough to reproduce) in my Introduction to Philosophy course at Mt. San Antonio College one of my students asked a very pertinent question, “Then, given this, how can we explain suicide?”

It is a good question, and echoes back to Albert Camus' famous passage which he penned when he was only 28 years old, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.”[1]

Albert Camus
Albert Camus (1913-1960)

While there are many ways to tackle my student's query (as well as properly digest Camusian thinking), I think the simplest and most far reaching answer is one that is tinged with irony and in the spirit of Friedrich Nietzsche “transvalues” the question and turns it upside down. Given the utter brutishness of life on planet earth, where the dictum eat or be eaten is a literal fact, the real issue is how we would want to persist living here at all, particularly given how much we will suffer only to end up dying. In other words, what is it that can sustain us to remain here on this earthly terrain?

Here, I would argue, that Darwinian evolution provides us with a deeply insightful answer, which is intertwined with how self-reflective awareness operates when confronted with an apparently intolerable environment. Homo sapiens have been both blessed and cursed with an evolved brain that developed an inordinate capacity for sophisticated languages. This allowed us a deep reservoir of varying forms of self-awareness, where we could virtually project into the future all sorts of end-game scenarios while on the other end of the spectrum being able to reflect and ruminate over past actions and failed plans of action.

In sum, we went beyond the boundaries of mere instinct and got a penetrating glimpse into the horridness of what existence is like not only for us on occasion but also for the vast majority of differing species who struggle to survive.

It is in this context, why, as humans, we have been driven to find an overarching reason to persist in this life and death game. In other words, the great philosophical question is not whether to terminate ourselves or not but what will it take for us to live out the duration of our life span to its fullest?

Lest we forget, evolution is not a prescription for who or what should survive, but rather an after the fact description of those life systems that do emerge and which can successfully replicate their winning combinations to the next successive generation. In this way, not only is evolution blind it is not a force at all. There is no drive in nature towards anything, since that very term is itself merely our own limited way of imputing intention upon a process that is devoid of it.

Another way to understand life and its complex emergence is to ponder its absence. Nothing individually succeeds for very long on this planet and those organisms that have are an infinitesimally small minority compared to those who didn't get the chance.

It would appear that the universe we find ourselves in isn't one with a purpose, despite the very odd and (at first) counter intuitive fact that those life forms which maturate goal oriented behavior tend to flourish. As Tom Blake, author of the essay Voice of the Atom, put it, “Nature is without sentiment.” But those creatures that through time can develop a sense of belief and aspiration (even in a cosmos absent of both) are temporary survivors in this cruel lottery game we call life.

Much of this, though, is directly correlated to how our central nervous system advanced, especially in light of its triune confusion where our reptilian, mammalian, and cerebral aspects don't always conjoin in perfect harmony.

The instinctual part of our brain does everything unconsciously and must react instantaneously when confronted with its own termination. Here the operative instruction, coded over eons of trial and error events (where we have no records of how many failures there may have been), is to keep us alive and breathing.

I got a first hand glimpse of this the other day surfing some rather large waves from Hurricane Rosa at Newport Beach. I had one particular wipeout where I got tumbled over and over again and as I was losing oxygen my instincts went into over drive and my body reacted accordingly and I found myself on the surface of the water gasping for air. Whenever our bodies are put into critical situations, we are fortunate that our hindbrain kicks in and responds accordingly.

However, when it comes to our emotional selves, what neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean terms the paleomammalian structure, though much of its biocheminstry transpires at levels below our fully conscious threshold, provides us with some latitude with which to modify its impact though this varies widely with each individual and is dependent on a number of factors including environmental. At times we can play out the potential consequences of one action versus another. This is particularly true after the advent of self-reflective awareness—when the neocortex became operational—and we possessed the ability to virtually simulate a Rolodex of possibilities.

The almost infinite range of our imagination—fueled to a large degree by the onset of language--may be one of the key features that distinguish humans from all other animals. But what has been praised as our Darwinian gift has also too often become our Darwinian curse.

Why?—because to the degree that my consciousness allows me to portend possible future outcomes, I can foresee scenarios of absolute horror. Every parent, I suspect, who has a teenage daughter or son who comes home later than expected has thought up all sorts of bad case scenarios and has suffered simply because of such ideas.

In a way we can imagine too much and much of that is not to our benefit. Instead of having our head buried in the ground looking for something to eat, like our distant cousins the sand piper, we look too far ahead and think too laterally about what may or may not happen. And, as such, we can become victims to our own overwrought speculations.

Thus, it would appear that our brains evolved a buffering system so as to offset our increased knowledge of death and its apparent universal applicability. Otherwise, our existential circumstances would be too overwhelming and we may simply collapse under the realization of where we find ourselves.

As I often tell my classes when discussing evolutionary theory, think of being on a roller coaster, with all sorts of terrifying twists and turns, and having the foreknowledge that at the end of the ride it goes off the track into a mountain of fire and everyone dies. How can one stay seated on such a ride? Wouldn't we want to jump at some point, realizing all too well how badly it will end?

Or, put differently and more in line with how we have reversed Camus' great philosophical query, what would it take for us to stay on the roller coaster and not bail too quickly? There are multiple answers, but two stand out: distraction and purpose. The first way to remain riding would be to distract ourselves from what is really happening. As each of us know too well, we do this during much of our day, whether daydreaming about what we would rather be doing or being so engaged in what we are doing so as to not to get bogged down with unnecessary philosophical conjectures. We are a distracted creature, par excellence, and for very good reasons. The experiences we have in awareness are somewhat dualistic, ranging from dissociative revelries, when we wander deeply off into the contours of our own mind, to those moments when we are fully attentive to the present moment.

Gerald Edelman, the distinguished Nobel laureate and pioneer in consciousness studies, has explained in various publications that consciousness can be best understood in terms of two natures. As the website, Academic Studies of Consciousness, elaborates:

Gerald Edelman
Gerald Edelman (1929-2014)

“Edelman makes a distinction between 'primary consciousness' and 'higher order consciousness.' Primary consciousness is the ability to create scenes or complex discriminations, which he calls 'the remembered present.' Not until you have animals that have semantic capabilities, in the case of humans, true language, do you get higher order consciousness. If you have higher order consciousness, you can do what an animal that has only primary consciousness can't do. You can have concepts of the past and the future, and you can develop a social self through language. Lower animals are conscious beings, but they only have primary consciousness. Conversely, humans not only have a sense of past and future but they are able to be conscious of being conscious! Edelman's 'primary consciousness' and 'higher order consciousness' appear to be somewhat similar to Antonio Damasio's concepts of 'core consciousness' and 'extended consciousness.'

Primary Consciousness: Edelman uses the term 'primary consciousness' to stand for the varieties of perceptual awareness that humans share with many animals. He locates this neural basis in a 'dynamic core' of neuronal interactions, a dominant but constantly shifting nexus of activity that plays across the cerebral cortex, coloring the shades of our experience as its internal alliances form and break. Edelman uses two approaches to understanding how these neuronal networks came to be. The first, his 'theory of neuronal group selection,' uses a Darwinian model to explain how such networks are generated during the brain's development, selected through interaction with the environment, and consolidated by a process of 'reentry' that creates stable long-range 'mappings' across the cortex.

The second approach identifies the role of exchanges between anterior brain systems, concerned with memory and the evaluation of experience, and posterior regions, concerned with perceptual categorization. The ultimate work of the dynamic core is to enable the infinity of discriminations summarized in the 'scenes' of our perceptual experience, which constitute primary consciousness. Edelman believes that selfhood and subjectivity, two of the defining features of consciousness, result naturally from the ideas just outlined: selfhood is a consequence of the grounding of all our later experiences in early perceptions of the internal environment; subjectivity results from the unique developmental trajectory of each and every human mind.

Higher Order Consciousness: Edelman builds upon his theory of primary consciousness to provide for what he calls 'higher order consciousness.' This type of consciousness comprises an awareness of the past, the future, and the self that is aware of them. Edelman links this type of consciousness closely, though not exclusively, to our command of language and our associated semantic and/or symbolic capabilities. He also argues that neuronal complexity can best be understood in terms of the simultaneous compartmentalization and integration of brain function. The movement in Edelman's exposition from simple to sophisticated forms of consciousness indicates that his theory is conceived 'bottom-up.' This is in contrast to the 'top-down' theories proposed by psychologists such as Julian Jaynes and Nicholas Humphrey, who propose that normal human consciousness is post-language and is a relatively recent arrival on the biological scene.[2]

As Edelman himself elucidates,

“What the philosophers call 'qualia', the greenness of green and the redness of red, I think is a little too constricted. I believe that qualia are all the states you are experiencing and not experiencing now. Those qualia are those discriminations. So, effectively speaking, the thalamocortical core, or dynamic core as we call it, is responsible for giving rise to all these incredible numbers of discriminations. And, qualia are the discriminations. Obviously, an animal that could discriminate in this fashion would have a selective advantage and be selected in evolution.”[2]

Arguably, those organisms that have higher order consciousness can ponder what was erstwhile imponderable and may, given this ability, be more prone to the option of conscious suicide—though it is relatively rare among the populace. While it is certainly true that other animals, besides humans, have killed themselves, we are not altogether certain why.

Although there has been a strong resistance, some would suggest bias, against recognizing the advanced cognitive and emotional abilities of many animals, a number of thinkers believe that we need to acknowledge that other life forms have a wider range of cognitive abilities than we might suspect.

As Jessica Peirce in article for Psychology Today, which summarizes much of the work of David Peña-Guzmán on animal sentience, writes,

“The idea that animals can and do engage in self-harming and self-destructive behaviors, even to the point of causing their own death, is challenging on many fronts. It upsets our folk belief that humans alone possess subjective awareness and are qualitatively different from animals. It suggests that animals have a level of 'decisional and volitional capacities' that go well beyond what we typically ascribe to them.”[3]

Steven Weinberg, the distinguished Nobel Prize winner in physics, is often quoted for his famously existential observation, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

Nietzsche writing a century earlier realized that once man gave up his mythological security, he was doomed to wake up to all sorts of nihilistic possibility; and if we sucummed to anarchy, life would be unsustainable. Thus Nietzsche, ever the artistic optimist (contrary to how he is popularly mischaracterized), argued for man to become the architect of his own life, realizing that there was no objective or ontological ultimacies by which to guide his sojourn.

Jorge Borges in several of his short stories captures the underlying essence of what I term the “meta-narrative” wherein we search for an underlying meaning and directive for our existence so that we can overcome the painful truth inherent in Steven Weinberg's astute observation. As Borges notes, “I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.”

In essence, we need our heroic myths, even if fanciful and hyperbolic, to provide us with hope in a hopeless world. The Darwinian twist here is that each of our various meta narratives are neural seductions precisely because they allow creatures to live long enough to procreate. It doesn't ultimately matter, in terms of belief and motivation, whether the stories we tell ourselves are true or not, but rather how well they succeed in galvanizing us to carry on in what Borges termed “the miserable circumstances of our lives.”

Yet, in championing these meta-narratives, we too often get entrapped within our own hubris and confuse a Darwinian experiment with a metaphysical conclusion. Instead of realizing that our universal models tell us more about our own angst and pathos, we believe that they have some transcendental truth that stands above and beyond the biological soil which first fertilized them. A prime example of this conflation (where we confuse an evolutionary impulse for meaning with meaning itself) can be found in the Integral theories of Ken Wilber, who writes with axiomatic certainty about Eros and humankind's ultimate purpose in the cosmos.

As Wilber posits [in "What is the Meaning of Life?"],

Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber (b. 1949)
The simplest answer is that the meaning of life is to realize ultimate unity, to realize the ultimate Ground of Being, to realize, in a direct immediate experience, Godhead or Spirit or Brahman or Tao. And that stands as a unique meaning among all the various meanings that have been offered, because many meanings are referred to what the traditions would call “relative truth”—they can go from fairly low life meanings to fairly noble meanings, but they're all relative. And so it can go from “the meaning of life is to make as much money as you can,” or “to be as famous as you can,” or “to get as much power as you can.” Then, moving up a little higher, “the meaning of life is to find love and have love as an overpowering force in your life,” “to find meaning in general—to discover a particular value or a series of values that you find very important and that add meaning to your life and add a grace and joy to your life.” And these include everything from belongingness all the way up to group identities and finding a community that shares your values. And then there's the idea that the meaning of life is to increase your knowledge, and therefore to become more educated and to learn more and more about the world itself. All of this is going to expand your psyche and even your soul, and yet all of those are still relative truths—they come into being, they exist in time for a particular period, and then they disappear.
But for traditions that divide truth into two truths, “relative truth” and “ultimate truth”, those are all relative. Ultimate truth is essentially very simple and similar however it appears, although the wording can vary a little here and there. It is to discover and to find the ultimate reality of life, the ultimate Ground of All Being, the ultimate is-ness or thusness or suchness of all reality, the goal and the source of all manifestation itself. But whatever it is, it's an absolute: it's absolute being, absolute consciousness, absolute happiness, absolute joy. It is a timeless realization. It's the discovery of that reality which is so all-pervasive and all-pervading that it is ever-present in your own awareness. And so you can't really accomplish it or achieve it or reach it, you can only recognize it.[4]

Ken Wilber, of course, is making a longstanding religious argument for the creation of the world, which echoes Teilhard de Chardin's oft cited line that, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Calvin and Hobbes

While one may wish that this is true, we simply don't yet know that it is so. As religiously inclined humans we tend to make absolute pronouncements on subjects we know the least about. Ironically, the guru who can tell us about how to journey in the inner regions beyond the physical cosmos (and where not to go) has difficulty providing correct driving directions from his house in Delhi to a 3 star hotel five miles away. Yes, we desire purpose and direction, but that doesn't mean that the ultimate guidebooks offered to us at various times and in various cultures are true in some supernatural sense. They are, for the most part, half-baked and quite rudimentary attempts to resolve our existential dilemmas. Because of our impulse for meaning, we too often confuse these spiritual maps for the territory itself, never fully realizing that we should look first to the reasons why we lust for such map building.

In other words, focusing on why humans long for a meta-narrative can tell us more about our situation than our naïve acceptance of all such encircling templates.

We are, in a metaphorical sense, living out a Darwinian-like experiment, where we the ephemeral champions in Nature's raffle are trying to keep alive while knowing the wretched condition we are in. In this cursed scenario, any lifeboat that promises to carry us to safe harbor is welcome, even if it will eventually leak and sink before reaching its final destination.

Stephen Wolfram, author of the overly worded and overly hyped but nevertheless deeply insightful book, A New Kind of Science, has made the profound and disturbing argument that the universe is not the result of some superior intelligence we cannot grasp, but rather the result of simpler computational rules played out over time. That these codes are blind and unconscious and yet lead to enormous complexity upturns our cherished ideas of an intelligent design or designer.

That the world does not appear to be the result of conscious intentionality has an anthropic basis that is reminiscient of a similar theory in quantum theory and astrophysics. Simply stated, the reason we find our universe occasionally habitable for life (even if very rare) isn't because it was compelled to do so by some Wilberian Eros, but because this is but one of an almost infinite set of other universes that may not be so hospitable. Hence, we can contemplate our origins because of probability. We live because of cosmic odds. Given enough bubbling universes, one that emerges for the right conditions for life will eventually house creatures that will be able to seek out their own causation.

This may seem improbable and that is because it is. That very improbability is what has tricked us into believing otherwise. As Daniel Dennett lucidly explains it, “Evolution works the same way: all the dumb mistakes tend to be invisible, so all we see is a stupendous string of triumphs. For instance, the vast majority—way over 90 percent—of all the creatures that have ever lived died childless, but not a single one of your ancestors suffered that fate. Talk about a line of charmed lives!”

A lottery winner may ponder how fortunate she was and think it was destined for her to win because so many unusual occurences had to transpire before she bought the winning ticket. Change any sequence of events, even by seconds, and she wouldn't have gone to the store at the right moment. But what the lottery winner forgets to realize is that there are millions of other losers who instead of praising fate curse it. Chance, not divine guidance, governs who wins and who loses in the California Lotto.

The same appears to be the case on planet earth but those who have emerged as survivors here learn too early that what they have “won” (by becoming conscious creatures) has to be played out under bloodcurdling surroundings. Thus, we are neurologically tricked to conjure up all sorts of meta-narratives that will make sense in a senseless megacosm.

It is little wonder, therefore, that many will opt for a Wilberian conclusion, where a metaphysical and integral overlay infused with love comes replete with a happy ending, instead of accepting a Darwinian-like experiment that lacks teleology and where no one is in full command.

If looked at obliquely most of what constitutes our day to day existence is utilitarian: we breathe, we drink, we eat, we urinate, we copulate, we exercise, we sleep . . . and we do it all over again in 24 hour chunks, 365 days of the year, for a lifetime of 80. In the midst of that we contemplate why we are here and look for explanations that will keep us struggling onwards. But we already know how the plot ends and it is neither desirable or beautiful.

Thus, we discover that any meaning is better than no meaning, provided that such meaning will make us live another day—even if such meaning is utter nonsense. What we desire is something to believe in, particularly if that belief elevates our humdrum existence beyond the urinal we visit too often daily.

Scott London, writing his review of Ken Wilber's autobiographical book, One Taste, for Parabola magazine, writes

“Someone once observed that there are at bottom two kinds of writers, those who write what they know and those who write in order to know. Wilber clearly belongs to the former camp. His instincts are always explanatory rather than exploratory. His goal is always to reveal rather than discover. As such, his writing simply doesn't lend itself to compelling autobiography.”[5]

London's pithy observation is telling since it underlines the very thesis of this essay. If as humans we can realize the very limited state of our knowledge then we venture forth in an “exploratory” and “experimental” fashion. We take a broader, scientific view of things, realizing that our observations are tentative, often uncertain, and always open for correction. We posit our theories not as dogmas but as means for further investigation, augmentation, and falsification. But if we succumb to Wilberian conclusions where we arrogantly pontificate that we have the model of models and invoke mythic beings (such as Eros) to convert the masses to a New Age communion of spiritual oneness, then we have succumbed to what a resurrected Paul Kurz might label, “The Transcendental Explanation,” one which at each turn betrays the very obvious limitations of our cranial capacities.

This doesn't mean that spiritual theorists, such as Wilber, may not have good insights or that they may be eventually correct in their mystical worldviews, but only that a very questionable hypothesis shouldn't be prematurely accepted as factually true. We are as the cliché rightly states, rushing in where angels fear to tread.

What drives our desire for the meta-narrative or our acceptance of Wilberian conclusions is perhaps more interesting and instructive than we at first realize. I suggest it reveals more about our own evolutionary past and present than about the spiritual liberation that awaits us in some future time.

Yes, it would be revelatory if as in Carl Sagan's novel, Contact, that in more comprehensively examining the number Pi we discover that there really is an intelligent intention beyond our cosmos. But we will not unlock that secret if we are premature in our theorizing and swallow speculations as laws. As meaning seeking creatures we are tempted to make certain and absolute that which is neither. We are neurologically seduced at each turn by intellectual magicians who trick us into thinking that they know more than we actually do. In our search for security we stop short our experiments and accept conclusions that are not properly inspected and thus are unwarranted.

In a Camusian way, to ward off our own physical suicide we instead commit an intellectual harakiri and, though this may seem tragic, it nevertheless makes perfect Darwinian sense. In carnivore land, where Herbert Spencer's dictum, “Self-preservation is the first law of nature,” holds court, any directional aim we can invoke (even if fictional in its import) that can keep us alive and kicking will have value, even if the universe is valueless in itself.

NOTES

[1] A. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Hamish Hamilton, 1955.

[2] "Consciousness Concepts of Gereld Edelman", Academic Studies of Human Consciousness, consciousness2007.tripod.com

[3] Jessica Pierce, "A New Look at Animal Suicide", Psychology Today, Jan. 6, 2018.

[4] Ken Wilber, "What Is the Meaning of Life?" The Big Question Series - Question 4, www.patheos.com, May 12, 2014.

[5] Scott London, "Book Review of One Taste", Parabola, Spring, 2000. (Reposted on www.scottlondon.com)






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