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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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).
The Theory of Meaning Equivalence
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 first part of a 5 part series. Also included are several original short films specially created for this Conference.
I think the simplest reason that there are thousands of religions around the world is due to Meaning Equivalence.
The enormous evolutionary pressure that is placed upon us is nearly immeasurable, if we stop to consider that none of our ancestors failed in their genetic transmissions, since otherwise we would not exist. Everything is competing, consciously or otherwise, for a temporary safe haven, realizing all too well how easy it is to be eliminated from the proceedings. It is no surprise therefore to realize that most of us never fully awaken to this horror show we call daily life.
To emotionally feel this existential situation is literally unbearable and gives fuel to why Albert Camus could reasonably argue in The Myth of Sisyphus with a straight face that
“There is only one really serious philosophical question, 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.”
Shakespeare, writing centuries before, perhaps captured this human dilemma best when in the Nunnery scene of the play Hamlet, he writes in a soliloquy,
To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Thus it is not surprising that Homo sapiens, with their enlarged brains which see well beyond the day’s horizon, should have developed fine-tuned antennae for reasons and purposes to prolong living and not simply give up.
But for something to be truly meaningful, as the social theorist Peter Berger insightfully argued decades ago, it must be seen as believable and plausible. Otherwise, if our beliefs lack such a requisite plausibility we are thrown back once again to that most precarious of postures—looking down at the abyss. In other words, we must find something of value and of truth in our seeking and to the degree that we feel assured in our philosophical or religious templates the easier it is for us to willfully act towards a calculated goal.
Thus meaning or purpose isn’t as powerful if only seen as merely projective and relative. The more we are convinced in the truth of our chosen trajectories the more energy we feel in accomplishing our stated aims. A good example of how this operates can be seen in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is convinced (by a whole host of external agents—from the Lollipop kids to the Good Witch) that the best way go home to Kansas is to follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City and secure an audience with mighty and powerful Wizard.
Dorothy must firmly believe that walking upon the yellow brick road is a genuine and viable path to insure her liberation. Otherwise, she would be stalemated in her quest and be overwhelmed by an array of possibilities. More precisely, Dorothy must really believe before she can act. This is what Camus means when he says that we must answer the primary question (of whether to succumb to suicide or not) before can embark on how to live this life.
Imagine you are going to ride on a brand new roller coaster and once seated you discover to your shock that the track hasn’t yet been completed and that at the very end of the ride you will end up dying in a huge ball of fire. Further imagine that the roller coaster lasts for a set duration of time (fill in the blank . . . an hour, a day, a year, a decade). On such an up and down journey, you have two fundamental options: jump early and die or don’t jump and die when it goes off the track.
This is reminiscent of the opening sequence to the 1940s British movie, A Matter of Life and Death, where the main character is a British Royal Air Force pilot (played by David Niven) returning from a bombing run during World War 2. However, his plane is critically damaged and on fire. He is confronted with two options: stay with the plane until he is burned alive or jump and most certainly die from impact. In a much less dramatic context and with longer time gestations, is this not our own situation? Are we not also on that same ride in life, spinning as we do on a planet going some 60,000 plus miles an hour year long around a massive object known as our sun? Do we not have to decide whether we wish to stay or jump on this global spacecraft?
such meaning makes one want to live an extra day."
We are an amazing repository of undying genetic successes and as such carry within ourselves the unique record of our unimaginably competitive past.
What is it that prevents us from leaping? Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace discovered the answer and it explains (perhaps too well) why the overwhelming majority of Homo sapiens do not commit suicide. Who we are right now is the result of a tremendously long line of successes. None of our ancestors killed themselves before puberty, since even one such premature death (consciously intended or not) means we wouldn’t be alive today. We are an amazing repository of undying (the pun is intended) genetic successes and as such carry within ourselves the unique record of our unimaginably competitive past. This is why Darwin could argue as early as 1859 in On the Origin of Species that
“In the distant future I see open fields for more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.”
Given this pruning heritage, it is no wonder that Homo sapiens appear to have a built-in Meaning Positioning System (MPS), since without such an inclination the world’s disorientations would be too overwhelming to navigate. I remember back in 2004 I suffered an acute vertigo attack, while disembarking from our little electric boat. I was with my then four-year-old son, Shaun and I couldn’t stand up, so I put Shaun on my back and slowly crawled along the dock up to the gangplank to a safer area.
I couldn’t position myself in the least since my world was spinning off its axis. All of this happened because I had taken one Vioxx pill that was prescribed by my dentist for recurring tooth pain. I have an older friend, a one-time Hollywood stuntman and coordinator who told me of his own severe case of vertigo which his doctors diagnosed as “Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) [which] is a condition resulting from loose debris (otoconia) that collect within a part of the inner ear. In addition to head injury, BPPV can occur due to the degeneration of inner-ear hair cells during the natural process of aging.”
I bring this up precisely because I think it is a fitting analogy to the deep need in human beings to have a stabilizing Meaning Positioning System (MPS), particularly in a world where (to cite Darwin’s quote of Tennyson), “nature is red [read?] in tooth and claw.” Just as the tiniest bits of otoconia within the inner ear can flatten the heartiest of men within seconds, so too can we succumb to any host of mental disturbances if we lose sight of some balancing meaning in our day to day lives. Otherwise, the world is too much and we are get lost in the onslaught of sensory chaos, not dissimilar to what happens when we drive in a major metropolis for the first time and we are without a proper map or GPS. What we regard as our normal lives hangs by a very thin line indeed. A simple phone call, for example, if it carries bad news about a loved one can put us immediately into a tailspin, as anyone who has had a loved one die unexpectedly understands all too well. We live on an informational tightrope and anything that allows us to keep our balance (even if illusory) is to our benefit. Self-reflective awareness without a working MPS is akin to funambulism without a net.
Yet, needing meaning doesn’t mean that such a model is necessarily true in any ultimate sense. In fact, meaning seeking has precious little to do with facts or truth, but has much more to do with creating within us a desire to live. Keep in mind that anything that can keep the flame burning for us to battle another day is sufficient to insure its survival, even if that value system is completely fictional. It is not an issue of fiction versus non-fiction, as such, since our meaning systems are essentially buffers against reality not necessarily crystal clear windows of what lies beneath.
I think it is fairly obvious what evolutionary benefit higher order consciousness conveys upon those who have it. Any organism that can “virtually simulate” varying options within itself before outsourcing them in a real, empirical world has a tremendous advantage over creatures who lack such a simulacrum Rolodex.
Think about what your consciousness does most of the time, particularly during an uneventful and tedious lecture on consciousness itself. It spaces out. We tend to dissociate and ruminate about all sorts of things, from fantasizing about this or that person or imagining what we are going to do on vacation or perhaps if the lecture doesn’t go too long about what we are going to order at Veggie Grille. These mind wanderings allow us to conjure up all sorts of real and unreal possibilities and as such allow us the opportunity to play out different end game scenarios without ending up injured or dead. Those who lack such an internal theatre don’t have the ability to “rehearse” and thus are forced to act in a real and dangerous world almost immediately.
There is, undoubtedly, a drawback to have such a conjuring mind since it can (and often does) capture us in an admixture of fantastic phantasms which have no direct correlation to the eat or be eaten world in which we live. We can also be subject to some truly horrifying delusions, such that it becomes nearly impossible to differentiate the exterior world from our interior machinations.
This became clearer to me this past semester at Mt. San Antonio College when I became well acquainted with an older student in my Introduction to Philosophy class. He introduced himself early in the semester after I had given a lecture on consciousness as a virtual simulator. He couldn’t look me in the eye and explained that he hadn’t left his house for nearly 20 years. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had an inordinate fear of people. His doctor had advised him to go back to school and my class was the first one he was taking. He was mesmerized by the idea of the virtual simulator since he felt that it explained his situation to a tee.
He then proceeded to write a long narrative in which he described in excruciating detail what a typical day in his was like. Here is but one small excerpt,
“Now that I look back, I remember that I did experience mild panic attacks beginning at the tender age of nine years old. I would sleep in a sitting position because I thought I was going to vomit my intestines if I slept lying down. I slept in this position for months. Now that I look back at this moment, I realize that this was just the beginning of the nightmare that lay ahead. You see, once a stubborn notion enters my mind, I cannot get rid of it. It completely takes over my mind and body. I guess I am so screwed up in my head that when a notion enters my mind, I get sick for days. My body gets overwhelmed with fear. I also begin to tremble. My head begins to hurt and my stomach begins to turn. I sometimes even suffer from diarrhea. The sickness lets me know that a negative notion has entered my mind. If the notion was caused by wearing a new shirt, I either don’t ever wear the shirt again, or I decide to put up with the sickness every time I wear it. I have been asking myself the same question for twenty years, 'How can something as harmless as a shirt cause so much mental and physical pain?' I know the shirt is not to blame for my defective mind, but I would still love to know the scientific explanation from beginning to end. I always end up depriving myself of many simple pleasures in life because I have associated them with pain. Half of the things I own I don’t use because a negative notion in my head developed that induces fear every time I try to use these items. For example, I bought an expensive stereo a few years ago and I haven’t touched it since then. I am afraid that my head is going to explode if I listen to the stereo (that is the crippling belief that exists in my mind). Every time I try to use these items, a rush of fear takes over me and I begin to perspire. My stomach begins to turn and I immediately begin to get sick. If I am ever in a rare happy mood, all I have to do is reach out for one of these items and fear and sickness will wreak havoc on my body and mind.”
As I got to know this student (we would invariably talk at length after our class was over) I realized how brilliant he was. Indeed, he was by far the brightest student I had taught in years, since he seemed to grasp almost any complex subject immediately, despite not having any academic training per se.
What truly surprised me, though, was that once he understood the virtual simulator hypothesis it noticeably calmed him down because the model helped him better understand his own behavior and how he was fueling (even if unconsciously) his own obsessive behavior and getting trapped within it. Over the course of the term, he even began to make prolonged eye contact and to develop a sense of humor about his predicament. This student also claimed to have improved more in the past few weeks than had in ten years of seeing his psychiatrist. It may well be that if we are convinced in the rightness of a theory and how it applies to our own situation, it can liberate us to some degree from our own guilt and our own consternations. For example, I have noticed that a medical condition can dramatically improve if I receive a proper diagnosis that I can firmly believe is accurate. Clearly, the placebo effect is a powerful one across all fields including those suffering from certain mental illnesses.
Higher order consciousness may provide a tremendous advantage for us to live within our heads before acting out our varying plans, but it can also boomerang against us since we have a tendency to conflate our dreams with the world around. To the degree that our internal models help us navigate and survive it is a tool of incalculable power, but to the degree that it binds us into mistakenly believing (without sufficient evidence) our own imaginings we can become prisoners within its hallucinatory walls. The mind is a simulation operator and evolved to allow individuals to imagine and plan for events not yet occurring in the world we live and breathe in. As Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist at City College of New York, explains in his most recent book, The Future of the Mind,
“Human consciousness is a specific form of consciousness that creates a model of the world and then simulates it in time, by evaluating the past to simulate the future. This requires mediating and evaluating many feedback loops to make a decision to achieve a goal.”
It can be argued that we are all delusional to some extent since many of our delusions (religious or otherwise) allow us to buffer ourselves from the stark reality that the planet we find ourselves foraging about is a death machine where no one gets out alive. Consciousness as a virtual simulator (Edelman’s 2nd nature) may have evolved not only to help us with developing ways to strategize but also to distract us from our precarious predicament. As my student once quipped to me, “Too much reality and we become catatonic and too much fantasy and we become schizophrenic.”
Perhaps most importantly, certain aspects of the virtual simulator hypothesis have been tested and are garnering impressive results. New Scientist recently reported that thinking about a certain activity, such as juggling skills, before doing it could significantly improve one’s ability later on.
“Sook-Lei Liew and her colleagues from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, asked eight adults to watch a circle on a screen while an fMRI machine scanned their brain. When the circle turned into a triangle, the volunteers moved their fingers. This movement caused activity in their premotor cortex and supplementary motor cortex—brain areas involved in imagining moving and actually moving—which in turn raised a bar on the screen. The more synchronised the brain activity, the higher the bar went. More synchronisation has previously been linked with better performance in movement tasks.
The researchers then asked the volunteers to imagine performing a complicated action—whatever they liked, as long as it increased the height of the bar. This enabled them to develop a way of improving coordination between the brain regions using thought alone. After an hour of mental practice, participants were 10 per cent faster at a manual task. Those who showed the greatest increase in speed also showed the greatest enhancement in synchronisation.”
Interestingly, some neuropsychologists believe that our sense of a self developed after (not before) we evolved ways to envisage (via intentional stances) why others behaved the way they do. In other words, we became adept at projecting prior to becoming adept at reflecting.
I think the simplest reason that there are thousands of religions around the world is due to Meaning Equivalence which is that any meaning is better than no meaning provided such meaning makes one want to live an extra day. It is not really an issue of whether one religion is truer than another or even that a particular religious system is simply made up, but rather that the believer finds something of value or solace in it. The fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Scientologist each have differing ideologies, but what they share in common is that they are each believers and it is the act of believing (and not necessarily what is believed) that is the motivating force. This is a very obvious but nevertheless telling point that is too often obscured by a relentless focus on doctrinal differences and not on what is the same with all devotees, without exception . . . the brain.
The theory of meaning equivalence (M.E. for short) helps explain why even the most bizarre of creation myths can be accepted as true by otherwise very rational and level headed disciples. For instance, in Eckankar’s cosmology, it is believed that the true teachings were originated on the city of Retz on the Planet Venus and transported to this planet some 6 million years ago by an ancient Master named Gakko. Scientology goes a step further and its founder L. Ron Hubbard (for whom, coincidentally, Twitchell used to serve as a press agent) has an elaborate schema which claims that
“Xenu was the dictator of the "Galactic Confederacy" who 75 million years ago brought billions of his people to Earth (then known as "Teegeeack") in a DC-8-like spacecraft, stacked them around volcanoes, and killed them with hydrogen bombs. Official Scientology scriptures hold that the thetans (immortal spirits) of these aliens adhere to humans, causing spiritual harm.”
However, new creation stories are not any more bizarre than old ones. Being brought up in the Roman Catholic church I was taught almost from birth that thousands of years ago, if not millions, there lived two humans named Adam and Eve who displeased God by eating from the tree of knowledge, even though they were forbidden by him to do so. However, a closer reading of Genesis shows that there was also another tree in the Garden of Eden called the tree of everlasting life and because God feared that Adam and Eve (with their new found knowledge) would soon discover its location and eat of its fruit (and become like him) he cast them out of the garden and put a cherubim and a flame of fire to guard it, ostensibly forever.
What overall purpose do these narratives serve, particularly if one cannot verify their respective truth claims? They provide an overarching narrative in which to explain why the world is so perplexing and help position one’s relative place within it. These are contextual stories that ultimately give one purpose in a cosmos that seems devoid of any.