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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Andrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.
THE CEREBRAL MIRAGE
The Deceptive Nature of Awareness
The following article is an excerpt from a larger visual presentation given at the International Conference on Quantum and Nano Computing Systems and Applications at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, India. Professors David Christopher Lane and Andrea Grace Diem-Lane (Mt. San Antonio College) were invited to give the plenary presentations, along with Professor Mark Juergensmeyer (Director of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara) and Professor V.S. Satsangi (DEI / University of Waterloo) on a special forum on Consciousness: Integrating Eastern and Western approaches. The entire proceedings were filmed. Also giving plenary talks on the following two days were Professor Leonard Mlodinow (Cal Tech) and co-author with Stephen Hawking of the book, The Grand Design and Professor John C. Mather, Nobel Prize winner for his work on the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite (COBE) with George Smoot. A fuller report of the proceedings and some of the controversy certain talks generated will be forthcoming. This the second part of a 5 part series. Also included are several original short films specially created for this Conference.
“If one really believes in the infinite, one has entered into a realm of mystery where intelligence soon becomes a trespasser; in any acceptance of infinite mystery, a certain agnosticism is inherent.”
One of the most significant discoveries of modern science is that the world we perceive around us is not as it appears. Rather, neuroscience, evolutionary biology and quantum physics have demonstrated that our day-to-day reality is a relative construct, built upon a scaffolding of information bits that betray their real origin and causation. For instance, the other day, I remarked to my oldest son, Shaun, that the ocean water around Catalina Island looked exceptionally blue. But, given his deep knowledge of science, my son responded that such “blueness” was actually not in the water at all, but how different light waves get absorbed and refracted. The colors we see are due to the spectral properties of light. The longer wavelengths of light (such as red, orange, and yellow) are more readily captured by H20, whereas the shorter wavelength of light (such as blue) gets refracted and thus we see the color blue, particularly if the water is clear.
But the scientific explanation for why an ocean is blue or a sunset is red is precisely not how we tend to experience such at first glance. In other words, the way we apprehend the world around us is not necessarily how we later comprehend it through scientific analysis. And herein lies the great divide, the great deception, or what early Indian rishis insightfully called “maya.” We live in a magic land, where all that manifests and appears real and certain is anything but.
Yet, the idea that the world is an illusion is not a new insight or the exclusive discovery of modern science, but actually dates back to the beginning of human civilization. Ancient seers in India and Greece and the Middle East wrote extensively about nature’s inherent trickery.
Plato’s allegory of the cave is perhaps the most illustrative example of how the world of shadows conceals man’s real contextual situation. As Plato explained through the mouthpiece of his teacher, Socrates,
“And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall, carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall. Some of them are talking, others silent. Thus the prisoners see only shadows cast by images of real things, — not even shadows cast by real things themselves.”
In India, Vedantists, particularly those of the Advaita persuasion, have argued that the world of appearance is a beguiling illusion which hides the truth of the universe’s real essence, and as such it is akin to the curtain in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz (where a balloonist from Kansas plays out his antics in order to gain power and respect) which deceives by hiding that which is behind it.
Likewise, in early schools of Gnosticism they saw the world as the manifestation of a demiurge that entraps all who succumb to its tempting guises. The higher truth is lost because one believes that the image to be real, whereas it is merely a secondary power.
What early philosophers and mystics understood (even if they couldn’t articulate it scientifically) was that humankind was under the spell of a cerebral mirage, one that gave a false sense of knowledge and certainty.
Although religious thinkers of differing persuasions drew out most of these ancient insights, it has turned out to be remarkably prescient in light of modern science. Interestingly, our advanced technology provides us with a very apt metaphor for how the world of our senses belies what lies underneath.
Take a current smart phone, such as an iPhone 6, and almost all of us simply stay at the level of its user interface. We tap and swipe at the screen, opening up a vast array of applications that lead us into a wonderland of Angry Birds, Doodle Buddies, Facebook, Instagram, Flipboard, ad infinitum. And in each of these little islands of entertainment we become enveloped into virtual worlds, never pausing to reflect that it is all being engineered at a much deeper level (behind the screen) by software programmers, using computer languages such as Objective-C and Cocoa-Java. The user interface is, to invoke Plato’s allegory, our cave and we don’t even know we are prisoners to the operating system, which unwittingly constrains our movements in a predesigned template. Aldous Huxley prophesized in the 1930s in Brave New World how we would be enslaved by a variety of amusements.
Similarly, the app entraps us by giving us an illusory sense of latitude. As Zadie Smith rightly opined when analyzing the lure of Facebook worldwide: we enjoy the fruits of a social network without realizing that we are not living out our own dreams, but we live within one engineered by a 20 year something named Mark Zuckerberg. But even the programmers themselves are constrained within the languages they use, which are usually pre-given before they employ them. I remember learning UNIX at UCSD back in 1984 and feeling a euphoric sense of freedom, since it freed me from the mechanical boundaries of a Selectric typewriter. But then as I became more proficient in using the language, I confronted its own limitations and realized anew that I was also bounded with another preset coding system.
Even when programming, we sometimes forget that all we are really doing is manipulating a binary system of 0’s and 1’s, which is the fundamental basis of all computation, brilliantly articulated by Alan Turing back in 1936 in his famous paper, On Computable Numbers. And binary coding is geometrically portioned within silicon chips, guided and controlled by the transference of electrons from one signal point to another.
What we are witnessing, interestingly, is a nested hierarchy: hardware, software, programming, user interface, etc. But for most of us we know little if nothing besides the smart phone’s display screen. This is true whether we are using Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Microsoft’s Surface, Google’s Chrome Books, or Apple’s latest iteration of the iPad. We are surface surfers in the techno world and we remain dutifully oblivious of all the subterranean caverns that lurk within.
Analogously, our brain has several layers of parallel processing systems. However, we tend only to be aware of our own surface level consciousness and as such oscillate between Gerald Edleman’s first and second nature (extended present moment sentience or self-reflective/self- conscious awareness). We remain almost completely incognizant of unconscious processes that take place moment to moment within our own neuroanatomies, whether it is the circulation of blood and our pumping hearts or the firing of neurons within our cerebral cortex. We are, in essence, strangers to our own genetic programming.
In this way, it can be argued, that we are predominately occupied with the human user interface, what we commonly call the waking state. The nine orifices of our body receive incoming data streams and we react accordingly, depending on the waves and intensity of information that impacts us.
But for the most part, we are not aware, even for seconds, about how these data streams get appropriately channeled. We are witnesses to an ongoing process that seldom requires our deepest attention. And even when our body demands our immediate and undivided attention, we are often helpless to do anything since the Operating System of Being Human (OSOBH) is beyond our conscious reach. This is why there has been a history of missteps in medicine throughout the centuries and why, in turn, we have yet to solve even the most mundane of illnesses such as the common cold.
Back in the 1980s as an undergraduate student at UCSD I conducted a research study on behalf of my then mentor, V.S. Ramachandran, who has become famous worldwide for his pioneering work on the brain and visual perception. He was curious about how the brain could produce a singular impression of an object, when in fact distinct channels within the visual cortex were processing the information related to it. We conducted a number of fairly simple, but nevertheless sophisticated experiments to better pinpoint how the brain “uses impressionistic” and “filling-in” procedures so as to best compute colour and motion and synchronize them as a whole even though processed by different channels. As Ramachandran concluded in his August 1987 paper published in Nature, “This strategy allows economy of information processing and also ensures perceptual synchronization of form and colour as the object moves.”
But most tellingly, our sense of a “unified” field of awareness remains oblivious of all the machinations and shorthand tricks that go on behind the scenes. We are ignorant of the unconscious programs, so to say, and are only dutifully conscious of the illusory, but highly beneficial result.
Emerson elaborated on the varietals of illusions we confront in our lifetime:
“There are deceptions of the senses, deceptions of the passions, and the structural, beneficent illusions of sentiment and of the intellect. There is the illusion of love, which attributes to the beloved person all which that person shares with his or her family, sex, age, or condition, nay, with the human mind itself. 'Tis these which the lover loves, and Anna Matilda gets the credit of them. As if one shut up always in a tower, with one window, through which the face of heaven and earth could be seen, should fancy that all the marvels he beheld belonged to that window. There is the illusion of time, which is very deep; who has disposed of it? Or come to the conviction that what seems the succession of thought is only the distribution of wholes into causal series? The intellect sees that every atom carries the whole of Nature; that the mind opens to omnipotence; that, in the endless striving and ascents, the metamorphosis is entire, so that the soul doth not know itself in its own act, when that act is perfected.
There is illusion that shall deceive even the elect. There is illusion that shall deceive even the performer of the miracle. Though he make his body, he denies that he makes it. Though the world exists from thought, thought is daunted in presence of the world. One after the other we accept the mental laws, still resisting those which follow, which however must be accepted. But all our concessions only compel us to new profusion. And what avails it that science has come to treat space and time as simply forms of thought, and the material world as hypothetical, and withal our pretension of property and even of self-hood are fading with the rest, if, at last, even our thoughts are not finalities; but the incessant flowing and ascension reach these also, and each thought which yesterday was a finality, to-day is yielding to a larger generalization?”
We live on the outer perimeter of our own bodies and thus still remain aliens to our own home. No wonder the human species is a jumbled morass of confusion. To echo the words of Nietzsche, the world suffers from paroxysms of madness, and it only because of this that life becomes somewhat understandable.
Socrates may have been considered wise to admonish us to “know thyself”, but how can we know our self when the greatest part of who we are remains hidden from view? Our consciousness is merely the topography of a vast ocean, something that Freud understood all too well. But psychoanalysis notwithstanding, the greatest difficulty we confront is that we have evolved not necessarily to understand how the universe works, but to find ways and means to survive within it. In this way, much of our unraveling of the human condition will be counter- intuitive and what we may assume to be true and evidential on the surface may on deeper inspection turn out to be something quite different.
This may partially explain why such movies as the Matrix have become philosophically popular worldwide since they touch upon a universal idea that we live in a veiled cosmos, and that our body-brain complex perennially tricks us.
Right now in this very room there are innumerable channels of potential knowledge, but we only access a minute portion of them. Depending on the limits of our receiving set (in our case, the triune brain), we can only tune-in to a certain set of frequencies and from this limited data set we extrapolate and pontificate about the world and its ultimate meaning and purpose. Yet, we would immediately recognize the absurdity of our quest, if we look at any other animal and imagine how they would ultimately interpret reality. Do we really think that a cow, a dog, or a dolphin—given their respective cranial limits— can deduce how and why they behave or think as they do? Or, do we immediately cognize that the limits of their skull are to some measures the limits of their respective worlds?
This is not suggest, of course, that an external reality apart from our bodies doesn’t exist, or that we are consciously creating our own mini realities, but only that our filtering mechanisms are not über clear transparencies for how things are. Rather, our brains developed, from a biological sense, as eco adapters to eke out a living within the local environment so as to best navigate its relative survival--at least long enough to produce viable offspring.
Therefore, any deep understanding of human cognition must first understand the historical context from which it initially arose over time. Simply put, a theory of human consciousness necessitates a deep understanding of biological evolution and natural selection, since it is the guiding mechanism for why certain species flourish and others decay into extinction. Consciousness, therefore, is a contextual medium as well as a communicative one. Hence, one’s awareness is invariably related to keeping one’s body alive long enough so as to ensure progeny. Self-reflective awareness, in other words, doesn’t arise within a sterile vacuum, but is the result of a long history of survival successes, since those who didn’t withstand nature’s cruel and unrelenting competitive game are no longer genetic contenders.
All this serves as a necessary prelude to understand the inherent difficulties in developing a robust science of mysticism. All too often the mystic quest wants to bracket away the physics of awareness, neglecting how and why consciousness emerged as a virtual simulator to better map out future competitive strategies and thereby increase its survival rate,
More importantly, the inner journey isn’t a pure and unadulterated glimpse into higher realities as such, since what we experience within is also bounded by a whole series of poorly understood pathways. If our brains evolved to neurally trick us so as to better help us make immediate judgments and future predictions in order to live an extra day, then we should be doubly cautious with what magnificent tricks it has in store for us when we penetrate into different realms of awareness
Ralph Waldo Emerson in a section of The Conduct of Life (circa 1860) captures this human dilemma quite well when he wrote:
“Society does not love its un-maskers. It was wittily, if somewhat bitterly, said by D'Alembert, 'qu'un etat de vapeur etait un etat tres facheux, parcequ'il nous faisait voir les choses comme elles sont.’ I find men victims of illusion in all parts of life. Children, youths, adults, and old men, all are led by one bawble or another. Yoganidra, the goddess of illusion, Proteus, or Momus, or Gylfi's Mocking — for the Power has many names — is stronger than the Titans, stronger than Apollo. Few have overheard the gods, or surprised their secret. Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood. All is riddle, and the key to a riddle is another riddle. There are as many pillows of illusion as flakes in a snowstorm. We wake from one dream into another dream. The toys, to be sure, are various, and are graduated in refinement to the quality of the dupe. The intellectual man requires a fine bait; the sots are easily amused. But everybody is drugged with his own frenzy, and the pageant marches at all hours, with music and banner and badge.”
What all this portends—and the wise counsel it engenders—is that each one of us is on open quest whether we be mystics or scientists and whatever discoveries we make on the way we must be cautious not to be dogmatic in our pronouncements, knowing too well how limited our understanding may be at any particular point in time and how easy nature can trick us in her multifarious fashions. Nicholas of Cusa, writing in Latin, called this proglomena “on learned ignorance” and famously quipped (paradoxically as it may at first sound) that the “unattainable was attained by its unattainment”. We are better educated, in other words, when we realize how little we know. Or, as Nicholas of Cusa himself penned, “For a man-even one very well versed in learning-will attain unto nothing more perfect than to be found to be most learned in the ignorance which is distinctively his. The more he knows that he is unknowing, the more learned he will be.”
The warning shot for would-be mystics is that we under the spell of a cerebral mirage and to understand what consciousness is we must first come to grips with its beguiling and deceptive nature.
As a child I was fascinated by a set of Chinese boxes, which contained smaller boxes hidden within it. However, I couldn’t access all the boxes at once, since each were locked by a secret panel that I had to discover and then unlatch. Recently there has been much pointed, if controversial, discussion in astrophysics about how our universe may be a subset of something much grander but which is clouded from view. Razieh Pourhasan, Niayesh Afsordi and Robert B. Mann in a recent paper published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics theorize that our three dimensional universe “emerged as a consequence of the formation of a black hole in a higher- dimensional universe,” but which is cloaked by something similar to an event horizon. In a more popularized version of their thesis, “The Black Hole at the Beginning of Time” in the August issue of Scientific American, the authors propose that the “big bang [is] a cosmic mirage. Our picture would cloak the singularity at the big bang just as an event horizon cloaks the singularity at the heart of a black hole.”
In this sense we are living in a three dimensional holographic image of a four-dimensional parent universe. We are, and not just metaphorically, the descendants of a cosmic beginning for which we have no direct access. The rishis of old had long felt that something was deeply amiss about our understanding of reality and that a deeper truth remained obscured from view. Today, scientists from almost all different fields have come to a similar conclusion, albeit with a whole array of supporting evidences to back up their claims. It looks as if we indeed lost in an almost infinite labyrinth as envisioned by Jorge Borges. We live in a set of Chinese boxes, falsely presuming that we have reached the limit of such encasements.
“That which we know is a little thing; that which we do not know is immense.”