David 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).
Someone who dreaming says “I am dreaming,” even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream “it is raining,” while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain. Ludwig Wittgenstein (his last philosophical thought)
Our conviction that something is real or certain doesn’t mean that we cannot be mistaken.
How can one convince a skeptic that there really are higher states of consciousness beyond the rational mind? Or, framed in a different way, can science accurately explain the numinous experiences of mystics?
In several previous articles and books (see Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Confronts the Mystical), I have argued that science is indeed sufficient to the task of explaining the paranormal or transcendent. However, I don’t think it is very intellectually challenging or interesting to merely repeat one’s Wilsonian leanings or intertheoretic reductionisms over and over again.
So, in honor of both Andy Smith and Elliot Benjamin (who have inspired me with their open-mindedness), I thought it might be fun and hopefully useful if I did a complete U-turn and attempted to argue on their behalf. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I have somehow radically changed my mind over night and have thrown Edelman, Crick, and Ramachandran under the proverbial bus, but only that if we are to take the scientific study of mysticism seriously we should on occasion argue against our own purview and interests.
Ideally, for instance, one would love to see Richard Dawkins argue against his God Delusion hypothesis and side (even if temporarily) with the very theists he lambasts. Or, to more properly contextualize this in light of the Integral World website, it would be refreshing to see Ken Wilber assume a purely Darwinian position and self-critique his longstanding position on spirituality. In other words, perhaps we can learn more about any given subject if we allowed ourselves the freedom of going against our own vested ideologies or stratagems.
I often say on the first day of my Critical Thinking courses at Mt. San Antonio, the ultimate goal of this class is to develop the ability to think of good counter arguments against one’s cherished position. As F. Scott Fitzgerald essayed in The Crack-Up, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."
This also brings to mind the famous syllogism, “little doubt, little faith; great doubt, great faith.” Which I feel needs to be extended with its logical conclusion: infinite doubt, infinite faith.
We are not going to proceed very far in the study of mysticism (pro or con) if we are unwilling to switch hats from time to time. But before I do that, I want to first “tip” my hat to both Andy and Elliot for giving me the opportunity to change teams, even if only for this essay.
University of California, San Diego: circa 1985/1986
When I was teaching at Warren College at UCSD back in the mid and late 1980s it was not uncommon for several colleagues to discuss the current scientific ideas of the day. Paul and Patricia Churchland, the famous philosophers of mind, had just arrived on campus, and the fledging field of cognitive science was finding its bearings. One afternoon, the Director of the Writing Program at Warren College, James Crosswhite (now Director of the Composition Program at the University of Oregon) and I got into a friendly debate about consciousness and materialism. He more or less took a materialist position and, I, because of a deep interest in Indian spirituality, assumed an idealist posture which mirrored some of Ramana Maharshi’s Advaita Vedanta arguments.
Given my youth and exuberance for a Consciousness first ideology I felt fairly certain I had won the argument that day. However, given Dr. Crosswhite’s acute intelligence, I am also fairly certain that my recollections are probably wrong.
But I do recall one line of reasoning that stood out and which appeared to all who were present (a number of colleagues had gathered around Crosswhite and me as we engaged over this eternal philosophical question) to be at least of some merit, if only as a sharp analogy.
Here is how the thought experiment goes:
Imagine that the only state of consciousness that existed was, in fact, our dream world. Further imagine that in such a state an unusual person (we will call him Ramana) confronts you by claiming to have access to a hitherto unknown level of awareness which he calls the “waking” world. Ramana further argues that all experiences within the dream state are subsumed (indeed produced) by a waking brain which is inaccessible to dreamers. And therefore the attempt by the majority of dream materialists to reduce waking phenomena down to their dream stuff is completely wrong and misleading, since the truth of the situation is completely the opposite. The dream is happening because of the waking state brain (in another realm) not the apparent dream brain which looks to be generating awareness from itself and from its extended environment. Ramana’s ultimate point is a very simple one. While it may seem to overwhelmingly clear that the dream brain causes the dream world, the fact is that a transcendent state of being is its real cause and origination.
What to make of such a claim? If one were grounded in “dream stuff” methodologies, one might ask for some convincing evidence of such a world (let’s call this thinker Churchland). To which Ramana might reply that it was impossible to actually transport such waking stuff into the dream world, since the very moment one attempts to do so it instantly transforms into dream material. Churchland, ever the skeptic, might then rejoinder that Ramana’s bold claims lack proof and as such warrant no further attention. Or, she might argue that Ramana’s waking excursions were just modifications of his own dream brain and that what he thought was higher and transcendent was neither, since his numinous experiences were the result of neural dream discharges within his own dream skull.
At this juncture, Ramana may argue that to see the proof of his claim one must be willing to do a most radical experiment. One must literally “die” to the dream state in order to properly access the waking state. When that happens, then Churchland will actually have the extraordinary evidence she demands. Of course, Churchland might balk at this suggestion since dream death seems a bit extreme to prove a point.
Churchland may persist and query Ramana again and say, “Why can’t you produce something in our present state of awareness which would give us confidence that your claims are true?” In addition, is it not possible that you are wrong, Ramana, since your recollection of the waking state must be recalled in and through your present dream brain?
How do you possibly know that that the dream brain couldn’t produce what you wrongly believe is higher?
Ramana may then point out that the certainty of any experiment rests upon an uninspected axiom: that the present form of awareness is somehow the best and final arbitrator of all other states of consciousness. Why this is so isn’t an ontological fact and if other super-luminal forms of awareness do exist then exploring them may help us contextualize our present dream state.
At this stage then Ramana could encourage Churchland to take up the experiment by practicing a method that he himself used. Using one’s own self-awareness ask what is the source of such luminosity. According to Ramana, that very inquiry will lead to a deep questioning of what one takes to be “real” and “permanent” and will eventually prompt one to emerge into the waking state, which itself is the larger context behind the dream world. In such an awakening, the erstwhile skeptic will immediately discover that dream stuff was not the real cause behind dreaming. Rather, it was a physical brain in a completely different state of awareness.
I didn’t exactly argue like this with Dr. Crosswhite. Rather, I merely took Ramana’s consciousness as first principle and argued accordingly, borrowing and creating thought analogies when appropriate.
The gist of my argument was that saying everything was caused by the physical brain may appear to be perfectly sensible in this present waking state awareness, but may in truth be completely wrong if indeed there were higher states of awareness in which this and other states were subsumed.
More precisely, even if a purely materialist position absolutely convinced us that matter and only matter gave rise to our self-awareness, we could still be quite mistaken. The dream analogy or Fritz Staal’s three ants in a room analogy or Plato’s allegory of the cave or Edwin Abbot’s Flatland all address, to varying degrees, the idea of a multi-dimensionality to consciousness. The waking state does indeed seem certain until we fall asleep. Likewise, a lucid dream appears real until we wake up. If that is the case with two states, is it really that unreasonable to think of a third or a fourth state that would show the relativity of our present state?
I think I was convinced of Ramana’s reasoning and the efficacy of the interior search from an early age (I first read Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi when I was eleven years ago) and because of that was well acquainted with how certain schools of Indian philosophy might counteract skeptical inquiries. I started practicing yoga and meditation when I was barely 12 years old so I had some acquaintance with the varying techniques and methods that certain Indian school advocated. I was also quite familiar with monastic spirituality in Christianity and Roman Catholicism, especially the more mystical writings of Nicholas of Cusa, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and the pseudonymous author of the Russian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim.
But arguing with conviction (and I certainly was convinced by my own personal epiphanies) is also a pathway fraught with all sorts of dangers, not the least of which is conflating one’s mystical encounters with ultimate truths.
This hubris in me became more apparent when I had a prolonged debate via proxy with Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy at UCSD and one of the creative architects behind neurophilosophy (her book of the same title has been seminal in the field). It turned out that one of my students in my Warren College class at UCSD was also taking a course with Patricia Churchland which focused on the neurobiological basis of awareness. Tom Wegener and I had by chance met earlier while surfing a point break in Carlsbad and we were both pleasantly surprised to meet again in an academic setting. Tom was a philosophy major at the time and was keenly interested in Churchland’s eliminative materialism, whereby old folk-psychological tales are replaced by more accurate and robust scientific explanations. Invariably Tom would walk into my classroom and tell me about the latest insight he learned from Dr. Churchland’s brilliant mind. In my arrogance, I would immediately counter her materialism with my more idealistic Ramana musings, trying to convince Tom that even though neurobiology makes eminently good sense, particularly when applied to philosophy, it doesn’t mean that consciousness itself can be absolutely reduced to a set of neurons firing. [Sidenote: After graduating from UCSD and then getting his law degree from USD, Tom eventually moved to Australia where is now builds surfboards out of alaia wood like the ancient Hawaiians.]
Intellectual Pause One: Tom Wegener on building wood boards
Of course, this wasn’t precisely what Patricia Churchland was saying, but in my own form of reductionism it was the easiest way for me to underline what was at stake. Tom would then go from my class to hers (or was it vice versa?) and then attempt to get Professor Churchland’s opinion of this non-materialist explanation of the mind. Naturally, she didn’t buy it for a second, and would rebut my varying points with her usual alacrity.
However, her gifted retorts didn’t fundamentally change my position, despite the fact that I very deeply admired Patricia and her husband-colleague, Paul, who was also a Professor in the department.
Why was I so hard-headed? Well, I am sure there are several reasons for my stubbornness (ranging from epigenetic recourses to hidden brain lesions), but I think the overriding reason is because I, myself, knew from my own experiences that when one is in a higher state of awareness it makes the waking state look like a dismal and shadowy dream. It seemed as if neuroscience was merely the logical extension of Flatland thinking, of taking the dream brain too seriously, and snuffing out the possibility that deep meditation or self-inquiry could actually lead beyond the rational mind into realms thought impossible by physicalist thinking.
Of course, a whole host of thinkers have postulated this as well, ranging from early Gnostics to modern day mathematicians and quantum physicists. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Ken Wilber is so popular among a wide of range of readers. He is in a long line of philosophers who have advocated that there is something beyond our five senses, even if what is “beyond” may be deeply embedded within such material constructs.
But one of the great difficulties confronting such perennialist thinking (and this includes even present-day Wilber, even if he intimates otherwise) is that arguing by analogy or by experiential inquiry doesn’t easily translate as “evidence” or “proof” in the nuts and bolts world of everyday life.
Yes, there seems to be little question that amazing states of consciousness exist and that almost all humans can access such under certain conditions. Even the most skeptical of scientists will concede the plasticity of awareness. But such a phenomenological acceptance doesn’t mean that we have agreed upon what these experiences actually mean or portend. The impasse between materialists and mystics isn’t over whether UOE’s (unified oneness experiences) or NDE’s or OBE’s or any other illuminated “E” experience exist, but how to best interpret and explain them. In other words, how do we decide or know that consciousness isn’t reducible to the known laws of physics and neuroscience? We have already reduced water to its chemical make-up of H20 and nobody seems too concerned that we have more or less eliminated Neptune as a guiding explanatory principle. One could argue that science is one long (and quite successful) history of what occurs when humans discover a physical explanation for what was otherwise regarded as the province of god or metaphysics.
If this has been the case for explaining almost the entire known universe, from electromagnetism to gravity, why shouldn’t science also be successful in explaining human awareness? And aren’t mystics and spiritualists and religionists too prone to explain their numinous encounters with outdated modes of thinking?
As I argued in the Politics of Mysticism:
But, the argument goes, the devoted mystic will say that his or her experiences are authentic (because of the utter certainty of the encounter) and the experiences of others, especially if they belong to a rival group which splintered off after a succession dispute, are misguided, secondary, or illusory. So what we actually have in effect here in in terms of truth claims is not essentially different than that of a fundamentalist. The mystic is right by virtue of his/her inner attainment and everybody else is wrong (no matter how politely we may gloss over it: karma or chance?) because he/she happened to get the right guru and the right path (and by right we mean "highest").
But notice how the mystic is not calling into question or doubt his/her own truth claims. For example, one rarely finds a completely agnostic posture among disciples about the relative status of his/her guru. Why not? Because just like the fundamentalist he or she is not trained to severely doubt interior revelations of truth, primarily because they appear so real when they occur. It is one thing to state that my inner experiences have convinced me that I am on the right track; quite another to then make judgements on the veracity of other meditators' experiences.
To strike a sociological note here, it becomes fairly apparent that culture plays a significant role in the ultimate interpretations of inner experiences. What at first glance appears to be a simple, sweet path to enlightenment, turns out to be on closer inspection a political contest over religious claims--claims, I should add, that have been transformed by the cultural landscape of when and where they take place. We may wish that mysticism was devoid of culture, or personal bias, or religious prejudice, but it is almost wholly entrenched in it.
Why? Because we never apprehend inner lights and sounds and beings divorced of their interpretative network. In other words, our socially conditioned minds are always flavoring, always transforming, always contextualizing whatever we perceive, whether those sights be inner or outer. And it is exactly when my experiences are personal and internal that I am most subject to error. Why? Because we have yet to discern a normative corrective for mystical encounters. Sure we have templates to gauge inner experiences, their relative efficacy and so on, but since most individuals have no mastery of leaving their bodies we are subject to tremendous imprecision and tremendous speculation. Yet do we admit to this impasse? Do we acknowledge our immaturity in the spiritual arena?
There is something fundamentally skewed when religious converts (of any persuasion and of any methodological bent) begin to believe that they have cornered the market on truth. As one wise saying puts it, "If there really is a God, He/She may find atheism to be less of an insult than religion." The point is obvious: what we know the least about is the very thing we make absolute statements on. Strange, but true. Take Jesus Christ, as a prime, if controversial, example. What do we really know about him? Not very much. Depending on your perspective and the sources that you cite, Jesus emerges as the only begotten Son of God, a Jewish mystic with Gnostic leanings, or a clever, but ultimately misguided magician. The only thing that is absolutely certain about Jesus, at least historically speaking, is that we know less about him than we think. Indeed, the real truth about Jesus' existence is forever buried in the recesses of time.
And yet we have some one billion plus people on this planet right now who more or less believe that if you don't accept the truth claims of Jesus Christ you will end up in eternal hell. All of this and we still don't know what he even looked like and what he did for some fifteen years in his teens and early twenties? Couple this with the contradictory and entirely insufficient biographical details contained in the gospels which are the major sources for Jesus' life and you wonder how a Christian can be so assured in their faith. Put bluntly, you wouldn't allow your son or daughter to marry a a prospective suitor if the only information you had on them was equal to what we know about Jesus. But there are millions of us who seriously think that we have to make a lifetime, nay eternal, commitment to a person we have never met and know less about than our next door neighbor.
When it comes to religion and its claims, whether they are based on revealed texts or interior visions, the one common denominator is that we somehow have to check our brains in at the door before entering into the tabernacle of ultimate truth. Yet it is exactly that brain, that three pounds of wonder tissue or glorious meat, as Patricia Churchland so succinctly puts it, that has allowed us to ponder life's ultimate questions. It is that very brain which has led us to pray, to read, to meditate. It is also that very brain which can misinterpret exterior stimuli as well as internal neural firing. My hunch is that before we make any ultimate claims for truth, we understand that we are constantly subject to error.
So the mystic may potentially be better off than the mere believer, who only reads but never actually engages in technical spiritual practices, because he or she gets firsthand experiences of alternate realms of consciousness not merely menu descriptions of them. But this does not mean that the mystic has experienced the "truth" in all its purity and that the mystic somehow "knows" the efficacy of other spiritual teachers or paths. No, what the mystic does in fact know is rather quite simple: a different state of consciousness which he or she interprets according to his/her cultural or religious background. On that score, I do think that mystics are on the right track; it is better to experiment than simply speculate. Yet, the results of those experiments are subject to numerous interpretations, some of which are better than others. Since we are still at such a preliminary level in our investigation of states of consciousness beyond the waking-rational level, it seems to me to be a much wiser course for us to adopt a stance of honest humility and openness than succumb prematurely to absolute statements or theorizing which in the end causes much more harm than good.
But isn’t the materialist agenda too myopic for its own good? John Searle, Professor of Philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, persuasively argues that third person descriptions of first person narratives cannot adequately do justice to the subjective nature of such experiences.
And even if analogies cannot constitute evidence, they can at the very least prompt unexpected voyages which can on their return trips provide the tangible evidence that was missing at the outset--witness Charles Darwin and his five year journey on the H.M.S. Beagle or Captain Cook’s encounters in Tahiti and beyond.
What kinds of evidence can a mystic proffer that would convince neuroscientists that their very paradigm may need to be transcended?
Perhaps the evidence we seek is by its nature transcendent and not amenable to empirical test claims? If so, then we are truly not in a Newtonian or Einsteinian world anymore and we should straight up admit it. That is, if mysticism is indeed a “transpersonal” science then it may just have to go it alone and forget convincing us flatlanders otherwise. I say this because if consciousness is indeed multi-dimensional in an ontological sense then it won’t be possible to reduce one state to another without concealing its most important features.
If this is indeed the case, as some mystics have argued, then we may be confronting the limits of what has been tantalizingly termed the Chandian Effect. It was so named because Faqir Chand was the first Sant Mat guru to speak at length about the "unknowing" aspects of visionary manifestations. In this context, the Chandian Effect designates two major factors in transpersonal encounters: 1) the overwhelming experience of certainty (ganz andere/mysterium tremendum) which accompanies religious ecstasies; and 2) the subjective projection of sacred forms/figures/scenes by a meditator/devotee without the conscious knowledge of the object/person who is beheld as the center of the experience. The Chandian Effect in the realm of mystical experiences is weakly analogous to Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty in subatomic physics. The more “certain” or “real” the mystical encounter seems, the less likely one is to believe that such is the product of subjective projection or transference. This invariably causes deep epistemological consternation, since what makes us certain that something is indeed real is the result of our own deeply felt subjectivity (even if dressed up in objectivist language).
This explains, albeit only partially, the great transformation that occurred to Ramana Maharshi of South India. Paul Brunton in his book A Search in Secret India retells it: "He [Ramana] was sitting alone one day in his room when a sudden and inexplicable fear of death took hold of him. He became acutely aware he was going to die, although outwardly he was in good health. He stretched his body prone upon the floor, fixed his limbs in the rigidity of a corpse, closed his eyes and mouth... 'Well, then,' said I to myself, 'this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and then reduced to ashes. But with the death of the body, am I dead? Is the body I? This body is now silent and stiff. But I continue to feel the full force of my self apart from its condition.' These are the words with which the Maharishee [Maharshi] described the weird experience through which he passed... He seemed to fall into a profound conscious trance where in he became merged into the very source of selfhood, the very essence of being. He understood quite clearly that the body was a thing apart and that the I remained untouched by death. The true self was very real, but it was so deep down in man's nature that hitherto he had ignored it."
As Ramana himself gracefully said: "There is only one Consciousness and this, when it identifies itself with the body, projects itself through the eyes and sees the surrounding objects. The individual is limited to the waking state; he expects to see something different and expects the authority of his senses. He will not admit that he who sees the objects seen and the act of seeing are all manifestations of the same Consciousness-the 'I-I' [Real Self]. Meditation helps to overcome the illusion that the Self is something to see. Actually there is nothing to see. How do you recognize yourself now? Do you have to hold a mirror up in front of yourself to recognize yourself? The awareness is itself the 'I.' Realize it and that is he truth."
This mystical resonance is quite understandable since the experience brings forth its own definite and convincing certification, just as the waking state does after a good night’s sleep.
But herein arises a pertinent observation. Our conviction that something is real or certain doesn’t mean that we cannot be mistaken. We most definitely can be.
A good example of this comes from Faqir Chand’s own life story, published near the end of his life in his autobiography, The Unknowing Sage, and also visually explained in the short film, Inner Visions and Running Trains.
Intellectual Pause Two:Faqir Chand on the Secret of Inner Visions
In 1919 1 was posted in Iraq. The aboriginal inhabitants (known as Baddus) revolted, which led to a fierce battle, I was inspector in the department of telegraphy in the railways with my headquarters at Divinia. The rebels made a heavy attack on the Hamidia railway station, killing the entire staff and setting the building on fire. Military forces from my post were rushed to Hamidia. I was also ordered to take charge of the Hamidia rail- way stations as Station Master. Our soldiers laid down wires in trenches and occupied their positions. Fierce fighting continued and there was a heavy loss of life on both sides. At Hamidia we were left with a group of thirty-five soldiers and one Subedar Major. The rest of the army was sent to Divinia to retaliate anyattack there. With the fall of the night the rebels attacked us. Our sol- diers, though less in number, fought back. One of our men was wounded while casualties on the opposition were very heavy. As the firing ceased for some time, the Subedar Major came to me and asked that I convey to our headquarters at Divinia that we were short of ammunition. And, if we had to face another such attack, our supplies would not last for more than an hour. If the ammunition supply failed to reach us before dawn, none of us would be alive. I wired the message to the headquarters accord- ingly. The situation was tense and everybody was feeling as if the end had come. I too was shaken with the fear of death. In this very moment of fear the Holy Form of Hazur Data Dayal Ji appeared before me and said, "Faqir, worry not, the enemy has not come to attack but to take away their dead. Let them do that. Don't waste your ammunition." I sent for the Subedar Major and told him about the appearance of my Guru and his directions concerning the enemy. The Subedar Major followed the directions of my Guru. The rebel Jawans came and carried away their dead without attacking our positions. By six o'clock in the morning our airplanes came and they dropped the necessary supplies. Our fears vanished. We gained courage. We were safe.
After about three months the fighting came to an end and the Jawans retired to their barracks. I returned to Baghdad, where there were many satsangis. When they learned of my arrival, they all came together to see me. They made me sit on a raised platform, offered flowers, and worshipped me. It was all very unexpected and a surprising scene for me. I asked them, "Our Guru Maharaj is at Lahore. I am not your Guru. Why do you worship me?" They replied in unison, "On the battle field we were in danger. Death lurked over our heads. You appeared before us in those moments of danger and gave us direction for our safety. We followed your instructions and thus were saved." I was wonder struck by this surprising explanation of theirs. I had no knowledge of their trouble. I, myself, being in danger during those days of combat, had not even remembered them.
This incident caused me to question within myself, "Who appeared to them? Was it Faqir Chand?"
What Faqir Chand eventually realized was that what was appearing within both himself and his colleagues was a projection of his own mind.
Faqir Chand explains:
Now, after having such experiences with me, I question myself, "Faqir Chand, say, what mode of preaching do you wish to change? Which teachings should I change?" The change that I can make in the present mode of preaching I explained in the discourses that I delivered during my tour. The change is, "O man, your real helper is your own Self and your own Faith, but you are badly mistaken and believe that somebody from without comes to help you. No Hazrat Mohammed, no Lord Rama, Lord Krishna or any God or goddess or Guru comes from without. This entire game is that of your impressions and suggestions which are ingrained upon your mind through your eyes and ears and of your Faith and Belief.” This is the change that I am ordained to bring about.
Faqir Chand came to realize that his numinous experiences were not indications of a transcendent state of consciousness (though during the experiences it seemed to be exactly that), but were rather projections of his own mind.
When he began to doubt the reality of these visions he broke through into another state of awareness which itself seemed more luminous than the stage preceding it. But even this new ascending form of consciousness he believed was also a projection.
But the more certain the experience the less likely it was to reveal its real origins. In other words, the very illumination blinded one from discovering its underlying cause. It was only when one “doubted” what one saw and heard and experienced that one was able to wiggle free from its overwhelming certainty.
Faqir summarized this best near the end of his life, after nearly 70 years of continuous deep meditation:
So what I have understood about Nam is that it is the true knowledge of the feelings, visions, and images that are seen within. This knowledge is that all the creations of the waking, dreaming and deep sleep modes of consciousness are nothing but samskaras (impressions which are in truth unreal) that are produced by the mind. What to speak about others, even I am not aware of my own Self (in dreams). Who knows what may happen to me at the time of death? I may enter the state of unconsciousness, enter the state of dreams and see railway trains. . . How can I make a claim about my attainment of the Ultimate? The truth is that I know nothing.
If each state of consciousness tends to blind us about its causation then determining what is a higher or lower state seems predicated upon whatever state we are presently in. Is there any way out of this epistemological cul du sac?
Ramachandran in a series of ground-breaking papers demonstrates how easily the brain can deceive our perceptions of physical realities. In Brain: The Journal of Neurology (Volume 121, number 9) Ramachandran writes:
Almost everyone who has a limb amputated will experience a phantom limb the vivid impression that the limb is not only still present, but in some cases, painful. There is now a wealth of empirical evidence demonstrating changes in cortical topography in primates following deafferentation or amputation, and this review will attempt to relate these in a systematic way to the clinical phenomenology of phantom limbs. With the advent of non-invasive imaging techniques such as MEG (magnetoencephalogram) and functional MRI, topographical reorganization can also be demonstrated in humans, so that it is now possible to track perceptual changes and changes in cortical topography in individual patients. We suggest, therefore, that these patients provide a valuable opportunity not only for exploring neural plasticity in the adult human brain but also for underst anding the relationship between the activity of sensory neurons and conscious experience. We conclude with a theory of phantom limbs, some striking demonstrations of phantoms induced in normal subjects, and some remarks about the relevance of these phenomena to the question of how the brain constructs a 'body image.'
Intellectual Pause Three:Ramachandran on Neurology and Awareness
If we can anatomically be mistaken when it comes to ordinary reality, which we can easily double check, then it seems we are confronted with much larger issues of literal confusion when it comes to alternative states of consciousness.
Of course, Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic Magazine, critiques the natural/supernatural divide from a different angle:
I don't think a union between science and religion is possible for a logical reason, but by this same logic I conclude that science cannot contradict religion. Here's why: A is A. Reality is real. To attempt to use nature to prove the supernatural is a violation of A is A. It is an attempt to make reality unreal. A cannot also be non-A. Nature cannot also be non-Nature. Naturalism cannot also be supernaturalism.
In a natural worldview, there is no non-natural or supernatural. There is only the natural and mysteries left to explain through natural means. Believers can have both religion and science as long as there is no attempt to make A non-A, to make reality unreal, to turn naturalism into supernaturalism. The only way to do this for theists is to posit that God is outside of time and space; that is, God is beyond naturesuper nature, or supernaturaland therefore cannot be explained by natural causes. This places the God question outside the realm of science. Thus, there can be no conflict between science and religion, unless one attempts to bring God into our time and space, which is a violation of the principle of A is A.
If we substitute mysticism or transcendent consciousness for religion, Shermer’s argument is that there is an indissoluble gap between science and spirituality. And any attempt to bridge the two is a violation of the simple principle that A is A. While I am not quite convinced by Shermer’s verbal sleight of hand, I do think he is on to something that deserves closer inspection.
For instance, if consciousness is indeed brain based then neurology should be able to help us better understand how it arises from material structures. Mysticism or the pursuit of higher states of consciousness, therefore, will also be part and parcel of such neurological studies, and will not be beyond its jurisdiction. However, if consciousness (or some part of our awareness) is not physically produced then science will not be able to comprehensively explain it as such. This implies that science will eventually confront a border it cannot cross.
The Sound Grenade Application on the I-Phone
Now scratch out everything I have just written and let’s talk about a new application on the 3G I-phone called the “sound grenade.”
Okay, before you think that I have just forced you into one very strange non sequitur (or, what I like to call a hypertext parenthetical), it may well be that the real difficulty in studying consciousness can be easily demonstrated without any words whatsoever.
My son Shaun downloaded this application which plays (I am told) one very annoying high pitched sound which can be quite irritating. Some commentators have even mentioned getting sick to their stomachs after hearing it.
Well, Shaun likes to randomly explode his sound grenade while eating dinner or watching television to both surprise and annoy his young brother Kelly, and his mother, Andrea.
However, it never works on me. Why? I cannot hear it. In fact, I hear absolutely nothing when he turns it on. At first I thought my family was in on some secret joke, since I didn’t believe that the application was really emitting a sound. Later when I was convinced that they were not lying I was a bit wonder struck. Why do I hear absolutely nothing?
So, one day when I was playing Frisbee golf I secretly turned on the application to see if I could annoy my brother, Joseph, and throw him off as he went for a birdie. Nothing happened. I tried it again and again nothing happened. I finally told him about the high pitched sound that was supposedly generated by the application and he couldn’t hear a thing. In fact, he too didn’t believe that the device really emitted a sound and he proceeded to get a bit irritated with me as he thought I was playing some stupid joke on him. Even to this day, I still don’t think he believes that the sound grenade really does work.
The other day I thought I would test the application on my Religion and Science students at CSULB. Everyone heard it except me and one other student, who was also flummoxed to be the only one of his colleagues to not hear it.
Why do I bring up this apparently silly example? Because I think it strikes at the very heart of the inherent difficulties in consciousness studies. For instance, how can one properly study the physics of the sound grenade application on the 3G I-phone if the one studying it cannot hear what everyone else is hearing?
Correlatively, how can one study higher states of consciousness if one has never experienced them?
I understand that it might be theoretically possible to do so, but isn’t something fundamentally lost by trying to apprehend a given phenomenon by way of a surrogate versus one’s own immersion?
Do we really think that someone who is not conscious can truly understand one who is?
Now, ironically, the sound grenade analogy doesn’t mean by way of extension that higher forms of awareness are metaphysical (the I-phone application uses real sound waves, not astrally generated ones), but only that a spectrum of variances may exist that shouldn’t ad hoc be collapsed to each other.
If we prematurely do so, we end up with what Daniel Dennett rightly called “cheap” reductionism. It may look valuable but on closer inspection it offers us nothing useful in exchange.
To say my consciousness is merely the result of a bundle of neurons is neither enlightening nor useful. What we really want to know is how such a set of tiny physical on and off points could produce self reflective awareness. This is a technical problem, not a philosophical one.
And it is for this reason that scientists such as Gerald Edelman have tried to see if it is possible to construct artifacts that are self-aware. As Edelman explained in an interview with Elmundo Digital:
Question: Do you believe that it will be possible to create robots that replicate the working of the brain in the future? Answer: This is just what we are doing in my lab. We are trying to create a conscious machine. In fact, we have already built devices whose performance is based on the structure of the brain. They look like robots, but I wouldn’t call them that way, because they don’t have an automatic programmed behavior, they have an artificial brain whose design in based on what we know about the human brain structure. This devices, even not being living entities, are able to perform some cognitive operations that imply the usage of memory.
Question: For instance? Answer: They can learn by heart different paths to an object, and apply learning to get to the object by the shortest path. In fact, our devices have participated in robot soccer tournaments, and they have won all the matches because they are able to learn and adopt strategies. In sum, today we can say that we have managed to build devices that are able to do certain things by themselves; this is something that 10 years ago I myself would have said to be science fiction. Therefore, nowadays I would dare to say that, once we understand more about the structure of the brain, we will be able to build conscious machines in the future.
Yet, on the other hand, the conviction of my own experiences (or lack thereof) is not an indication of its causation. Rather, we have an almost innate predisposition to confuse our own transferences and projections for objective realities or truth--neglecting in the process just how such numinous illuminations arise in the first place.
The problem with mysticism, therefore, isn’t the lack of subjective experiences of extraordinary realms but the inability while in such exalted states to recognize the humble and ordinary bases for their generation.
Intellectual Pause Four: Gerald Edelman on Neural Darwinism
This confusion of a neural system about its own interpretation of reality can be quite startling. As Gerald Edelman recounts,
“There’s a neurologist at the University of Milan in Italy named Edoardo Bisiach who’s an expert on a neuropsychological disorder known as anosognosia . A patient with anosognosia often has had a stroke in the right side, in the parietal cortex. That patient will have what we call hemineglect. He or she cannot pay attention to the left side of the world and is unaware of that fact. Shaves on one side. Draws half a house, not the whole house, et cetera. Bisiach had one patient who had this. The patient was intelligent. He was verbal. And Bisiach said to him, “Here are two cubes. I’ll put one in your left hand and one in my left hand. You do what I do.” And he went through a motion.
And the patient said, “OK, doc. I did it.”
Bisiach said, “No, you didn’t.”
Of course, the problem for the scientist may be exactly the oppositethe inability while working in an ordinary state of awareness to recognize the superluminal bases for its very existence.
Perhaps the study of consciousness can benefit by listening more carefully to that ancient quip about spirit and matter. "The more I study the mystical, the more physical it becomes and the more I study the physical, the more mystical it turns out."
"But, strange to say, although she had so made up her mind not to be influenced by her father's views, not to let him into her inmost sanctuary, she felt that the heavenly image of Madame Stahl, which she had carried for a whole month in her heart, had vanished, never to return, just as the fantastic figure made up of some clothes thrown down at random vanishes when one sees that it is only some garment lying there. All that was left was a woman with short legs, who lay down because she had a bad figure, and worried patient Varenka for not arranging her rug to her liking. And by no effort of the imagination could Kitty bring back the former Madame Stahl."
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina