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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.
A Many-Sided Brain
The Jain Approach for Studying Consciousness
We are currently at an impasse in the study of consciousness since no one theory has emerged as a clear front runner.
Science, by definition, is an open-ended approach to understand how the world works by observation, experimentation, and modeling. But underlining this human process is our ability to be wrong, to be corrected, and to change our views over time. As such, science invites contravening ideas that can compete with each other. This allows for its progressive nature, since we can then determine which hypothesis better describes a given phenomenon and its range of behavior. While Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is often regarded as the first Western thinker to properly codify what is commonly known today as the scientific method, it may come as a surprise to learn that Jain philosophy, which dates back to before the 6th BCE, has three core beliefs that are contributive and elemental for any budding scientist: Anekāntavāda (अनेकान्तवाद), Syādvāda (स्याद्वाद), and Ahimsā (अहिंसा).
The first concept, Anekāntavāda,, which means “many-sidedness,” states that truth, like an ocean, has varying features and that our approaches to understand reality are inevitably partial or limited. Thus, whatever stance or position we take must be bracketed, keeping in mind that others may have perceived what we ourselves have not. It engenders an openness to listen to other points of view and seriously take them into consideration.
The second concept, Syādvāda, is generally translated to mean that all final appraisements or judgements are tentative since what is theoretically proffered is understood to be potentially uncertain, as in it “may be” or “perhaps could be” or “let's wait and see.” As in the famous parable of the blind men and an elephant, each believes that what they touch reveals the true nature of the animal. But each man, by their limited feeling, only grasp a small part of the totality of the animal. Likewise, humans in their quest for knowledge always come up short and thus should hold back on any final adjudication, lest they like the blind man confuse a trunk for an entire head, or a twig for a tree, or a wave for an ocean.
The third concept, Ahimsā, which literally translated means “not to injure or harm,” is the most widely known Jain ideal and has far reaching implications. While it is generally viewed as not hurting other sentient beings, Ahimsā also applies to how we treat the thoughts and ideas of others. Do we in sharing our ideas give wide berth to what others believe and do we engage with them in a respectful and considered fashion?
These three core concepts of Jainism, I would suggest, are also—at least to some measure— part and parcel of a progressive scientific mind. First, science is predicated to a large degree on tolerating and encouraging multiple points of view which can be tested over time (Anekāntavāda), Second, science is never absolute since any theory, even if well established for centuries (e.g., Newton's law of gravity), can be changed, corrected, and augmented by new discoveries and new information (e.g., Einstein's general theory of relativity). It is a systematic process which at its center is always tentative and potentially uncertain (Syādvāda). And, third, for any scientific endeavor to flourish it must treat alternative concepts and speculations without prejudice and give sufficient latitude so that new ideas can be properly tested and not dismissed prematurely. In other words, while many hypotheses may indeed be rejected for lack of convincing evidence, respect and toleration (Ahimsā) must be accorded lest science devolve into the cesspool of dogmatism.
In this presentation, we will be taking a Jainist approach to the current study of consciousness, which far too often has been parochialized into various warring camps. Our goal is to understand how and why self-awareness evolved and see what respective strengths and weaknesses various theories hold. Furthermore, following the lead of Niels Bohr, the renowned Nobel prize winning physicist from Denmark, we want to see how the concept of complementarity (reveal one part only to conceal another and vice versa) can also be applied to different theories on consciousness and why the field is perhaps trapped in a Heisenberg-like uncertainty conundrum.
The Mysterianism Position | Ahimsā
We are currently at an impasse in the study of consciousness since no one theory has emerged as a clear front runner. Rather, there are a number of viable contenders, each taking distinctively different approaches. Perhaps the key defining moment in the past thirty years has been the acceptance that the study of self-awareness is not only a worthy pursuit (which had too long been neglected in the hard sciences) but that it is a peculiarly “hard” problem. This is so because the interiority of consciousness, the subjective sense of what it is like to be something (see Nagel's famous 1974 paper, “What is it Like to Be Bat?”), cannot easily be objectified or quantified. Indeed, some neuroscientists, such as Sam Harris, argues that we cannot find evidence that consciousness as such exists in the world outside of our own unique experience of it. As Harris explains in his essay, “The Mystery of Consciousness” (October 11, 2011).
“Physical events are simply mute as to whether it is 'like something' to be what they are. The only thing in this universe that attests to the existence of consciousness is consciousness itself; the only clue to subjectivity, as such, is subjectivity. Absolutely nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence of it in the physical universe—nor would we have any notion of the many experiential states that it gives rise to. The painfulness of pain, for instance, puts in an appearance only in consciousness. And no description of C-fibers or pain-avoiding behavior will bring the subjective reality into view.”
Although Harris is not necessarily resistant to a purely physicalist explanation of self-awareness, he doesn't see how current scientific models can adequately do justice to the subject. David Chalmers, the distinguished Australian philosopher, argues that materialist science is insufficient to explain consciousness and that we are confronted with an “explanatory gap” between the objective and subjective worlds we witness.
Dovetailing, at least in part, with Harris and Chalmers, is Duke University's Colin McGinn, who argues that humans are incapable of properly explaining consciousness. This position, somewhat misleadingly (because it encompasses differing versions), has been called the “new mysterianism,” since the mystery of self-awareness will remain such given our limited cranial apparatuses. What all three thinkers have in common, however, is that the study of consciousness cannot simply be reduced to something else (like water to hydrogen and oxygen molecules) without missing an elemental component. They sense that some philosophers (particularly Daniel Dennett, see his 1990s text, Consciousness Explained) are using verbal sleight of hand to explain away the phenomenal and ineffable aspects of awareness. More precisely, to accurately appraise self-awareness one must by necessity accept the phenomenon on its own terms and not “cheaply” (to borrow Daniel Dennett's pithy phrase, if slightly ironic in this context) reduce it piece by piece into something it is not. The Jainist concept of ahimsa (non-violence and non-injury) seems appropriate here, since whenever we prematurely reduce a complex issue (thereby losing the unique feature intrinsic to it), we not only misunderstand and obfuscate the problem, but we also too easily damage future investigations by our rushed judgements. A good, historical example can be found in psychology, where an overreliance on Freudian theories and later the restrictive empiricism of behaviorism hindered research into the human mind and its potentials. Science progresses best when it doesn't ad hoc explain away variegated structures with such non-informational starters as “hallucinations.”
As the article "Inside Outside" explains,
“Perhaps the Mobius strip is a useful, albeit limited, metaphor here to invoke since its unusual properties on first sight boggle the mind: “a surface with only one side and only one boundary component. It has the mathematical property of being non-orientable.” Analogously, the difficulty we have with studying consciousness is precisely that we cannot communicate what it is without losing the very quality that makes it such. Imagine that you wanted to convey what it was like to dream to someone who never dreamt and only had access to a waking state. How could you communicate dreaming without dreaming itself? Harris suggests strongly that you cannot and that any attempt to circumvent the obvious is simply unintelligible. How can one convey something that is non-orientable to that which is only orientable, if one has to forego the very thing that would communicate it? Isn't the breakdown of consciousness (which is strategically speaking the reductionistic paradigm of Crick, Churchland and others) precisely the problem, since it breaks apart the very thing that must be experienced as a gestalt?”
Anekāntavāda and Multiple Pathways
In Jainist literature, the parable of The Other Side of the Shield and The Blind Men and the Elephant are a deeply instructive one and goes to the very heart of how limited our knowledge is about any particular event, thing, or person. As Shri Jayatilal S. Sanghvi retells the two tales:
“In the outskirts of a village a statue was erected in honor of one of its hero. It had a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. One side of the shield was covered with gold while the other one was covered with silver. Two unknown persons came hereeach from the opposite direction and began expressing their views. One said that the statue was beautiful and more so because its shield was covered with gold. The other said that the shield was not covered with gold but was with silver. A quarrel ensued between them. A wise man came from the village by that time and said that the shield was covered with gold as well as silver. Let both of you just exchange your places and see the other side of the shield. Both realized their error and apologized to each other for fighting falsely.”
“Once a royal retinue was stopping at a village to spend their afternoon. The village folks came here and amongst them there were six blind men. All had heard a lot about elephants but none had ever been able to see one. They requested the care-taker to allow them to touch the elephant so that they may be able to make out what the elephant could be like. They were permitted to do so. The first who came across the ears stated that the elephant was like a tusk weeding tool (Supada). The other caught hold of the trunk and stated that the elephant was like a big wooden pestle. The third touched the tusks and said it was like a big windpipe. The fourth touched the legs and said it was like a big pillar. The fifth felt the stomach and said it looked like a water-bag. The sixth had a tail in his hand and said it appeared to him like a broom. Each thought that his version was right and others were wrong. The care-taker said that none of them had ever seen the elephant fully. Each one had merely seen one limb and from that data each one had given his surmises about the whole elephant. This was, therefore, the cause of their quarrel. He explained the whole position, and all the blind men became silent and departed.”
Interestingly, the Jain idea of Anekāntavāda has some similarities with Niels Bohr's concept of complementarity, where in physics (particularly quantum mechanics) the revelation of one feature at a specific time and place conceals another aspect from view. A prime example of this, of course, can be found in Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle which posits that the more one ascertains the momentum of a subatomic particle/wave the less certain one becomes about its relative position and vice versa. It is as if the inner workings of the universe were a cosmic tease, forever revealing just as it is forever concealing.
In this regard, Ken Wilber has been at the forefront of advocating a multi-sided approach to the study of consciousness. He has developed a four-quadrant model, “Upper Left (UL); subjective: individual, self, consciousness, experience—I. Lower Left (LL); intersubjective: collective, community, culture, worldviews—WE. Upper Right (UR); objective: object, organism, thing, behavior—IT.” As he is famous for saying, and which goes to the very heart of Anekāntavāda,
“I have one major rule: Everybody is right. More specifically, everybody — including me — has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace.”
One of the great difficulties in the purely academic study of consciousness has been a tendency towards recalcitrant parochialism, where each philosopher tries to overly protect their own pet theory instead of genuinely understanding opposing purviews and trying to find a useful middle ground. This is precisely why Anekāntavāda can serve as a constant reminder to adopt a many-sided perspective, even if it may contravene our own theories.
Far too often, because we have invested so much time and energy in our own staked out positions, we end up creating defenses around our hypotheses instead of following Richard Feynman's wise dictum that we should be our own greatest critic when it comes to positing our theories, since given our myopic biases we don't always see from the vantage point of multiple angles. As Feynman elucidates, giving a modern twist to a long held Jainist truism:
“Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a subtler problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition. In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.”
If we are to truly understand the multifarious nature of awareness, each and every discipline—from physics to sociology—will be useful, because like our proverbial blind men they capture one vital facet that others may not see. This is why Edward O. Wilson's book, Consilience, is a necessary reminder for us to take a wholistic approach to the subject even if we champion intertheoretic reductionisms whenever such is possible and viable.
Syādvāda and the Uncertain Nature of Science
I find it extraordinarily remarkable that an ancient religion would establish the principle of uncertainty or tentativeness as one of its key tenets when positing claims about truth. It speaks volumes about Jainism intellectual richness and profundity that its early seers understood a core principle of modern scientific thinking thousands of years before its more physical articulation. Syādvāda indicates that there are an almost infinite vantage points by which to appraise any event, experience, or specific thing (naya). As humans we have a limited cranial apparel and thus we are bounded by a set of neurally laced components. This simple fact is elemental and comes into sharper relief when we look at an animal, such as a squirrel or a beaver and take a closer look at its particular anatomy. Do we believe that they are fully equipped to grasp Einstein's General Theory of Relativity or Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems?
Likewise, we suffer from what may be rightly called the true original sin of humankind: the tendency to confuse neurology for ontology. Our brain states are in flux and every theory we postulate are but incomplete models of what, by necessity, far exceeds their capability to encompass each and every unique particularity within in it.
Jainism understood this existential truth early in its history and made it a cornerstone of its spiritual outlook, which, when combined with its high ethic of non-injury and openness to multiple viewpoints, provides a necessary and advantageous beacon for anyone interested in the scientific study of consciousness.
The history of science provides us with a rich array of examples of how important it is to be cautious in ever making claims about the future. One only be reminded of Lord Kelvin's infamous reply about the future of aerial navigation; to which he replied, “Neither the balloon, nor the aeroplane, nor the gliding machine will be a practical success.”
On one end of the spectrum, we have philosophers who argue that consciousness is an illusion and on the other end that it is the fundamental reality underlying the universe.
By the turn of the 19th century, some physicists believed that all the fundamental laws had been discovered and that only further tinkering and refinements were needed. This turned out to be wrong in ways never imagined, especially when Max Planck threw physics upside down when he introduced the concept of quanta, which eventually gave birth to quantum mechanics and a complete revolution in understanding causality and probability.
One senses that the study of consciousness is also at a tipping point, ripe for a transformative breakthrough similar to what happened to molecular biology in 1953 when Francis Crick, James Watson, Maurice Wilkins, and (overlooked for the Nobel prize because of her untimely death), Rosalind Franklin, discovered the structure and inner workings of DNA. Yet, even here, much work remains and no biologist worth his or her salt would postulate that any model was absolute.
Syādvāda is a cerebral parenthetical, an admonitory “maybe.” This intriguing and productive way of seeing the world is brilliantly illustrated by the oft-told story of a pot. As explained by the renowned Indian philosopher, Bimal Krishna Matilal:
From a certain point of view, or in a certain sense, the pot exists
Of course, the pot in question here is merely an analogous placeholder for any event or object. Yet, it is a helpful pathway to understand the vagaries in studying something as heterogeneous as consciousness.
On one end of the spectrum, we have philosophers who argue that consciousness is an illusion and on the other end that it is the fundamental reality underlying the universe. In between, we have admixtures of both positions, ranging from an epiphenomenal spandrel to a panpsychic elemental. Ken Wilber, taking an Integral approach, would argue that each side is right and must be incorporated in any theory that wishes to properly appraise consciousness. The problem with Wilber's approach, however, is that he has shown a bias for dismissing ad hoc a purely Darwinian understanding of how self-awareness may have emerged from unconscious processes. Wilber's Integral theory is, ironically, less integral than he imagines.
This is why I believe that Jainism's core ideals of Anekāntavāda (अनेकान्तवाद), Syādvāda (स्याद्वाद), and Ahimsā (अहिंसा) are so vital in any quest for knowledge, but most pointedly in our continued studies on the nature of consciousness and what it portends.
“Science is founded on uncertainty. Each time we learn something new and surprising, the astonishment comes with the realization that we were wrong before.” --Lewis Thomas
“Science is a game—but a game with reality, a game with sharpened knives … If a man cuts a picture carefully into 1000 pieces, you solve the puzzle when you reassemble the pieces into a picture; in the success or failure, both your intelligences compete. In the presentation of a scientific problem, the other player is the good Lord. He has not only set the problem but also has devised the rules of the game—but they are not completely known, half of them are left for you to discover or to deduce. The experiment is the tempered blade which you wield with success against the spirits of darkness—or which defeats you shamefully. The uncertainty is how many of the rules God himself has permanently ordained, and how many apparently are caused by your own mental inertia, while the solution generally becomes possible only through freedom from its limitations.” -- Erwin Schrödinger