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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Don Salmon and Jan MaslowDon Salmon, a clinical psychologist and composer, received a grant from the Infinity Foundation to write a comprehensive study of yoga psychology based on the synthesis of the yoga tradition presented by 20th century Indian philosopher-sage Aurobindo Ghose. Jan Maslow, an educator and organizational consultant, has, with Dr. Salmon, given presentations, classes and workshops in the United States and India on this topic. Both have been studying yoga psychology for more than 25 years.

Why Can’t Rabbits Turn into Roller Coasters?

A Response to Elliot Benjamin’s
“Who Shaves the Barber?”

Don Salmon

Ignoring experience for the time being is not a problem as long as we remember it’s a tactic.

Benjamin and I have been having some conversations by email, and we’ve given each other permission to quote from the conversations. We just had a very nice exchange about his last essay. He wanted me to comment on Bertrand Russell’s “Who Shaves the Barber?” paradox (it wasn’t really Russell’s but related to a paradox Russell concocted using set theory). I explained that there really wasn’t any parallel, because the barber paradox deals with real, observable entities (barbers, bearded men) whereas physicalism deals entirely with non-material, supernatural (“super” if you think of “natural” as sensory” and conceptualized created entities like “matter”, “energy”, “dead space” and “unconscious time” as supernatural) mind-constructed conceptualizations, which of course can’t possibly exist in the form that the fundamaterialist catechism adheres to.

So I was thinking about our online conversation and Benjamin’s essay. I have come up with a series of fairly short responses. I was about to publish one that I put in semi-mathematical (well, not really mathematical, but a set of logical propositions) form. Then I woke up in the middle of last night and thought again about the absurdity of “laws of nature” arising “by chance” in a dead, mindless, non-sentient universe.

I understand that people like Daniel Dennett (who says the laws of physics could “be the outcome of a blind, uncaring shuffle through Chaos”, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995, p. 185) have no difficulty with this. But as an eliminative materialist (much like the Churchlands who have been repeatedly celebrated in Integral World essays) he would probably agree that our life is utterly meaningless but “Don’t Worry—Life Will Proceed as Always” (see Merlin Donald’s take on the Hardliners like the Churchlands and Dennett below)[1]

Similarly, Richard Dawkins has no problem with the idea that extraordinarily complex patterns of matter and energy (here I’m using “matter” and “energy” as conceptualizations derived from our conscious experience, not as “things-in-themselves” that are essentially dead, stupid and unconscious). He says that

“in a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” (River out of Eden, 1995, p. 130-131)

And of course, there’s the Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who believes he’s saying something comprehensible, from a purely scientific perspective, when he says that

”The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” (The First Three Minutes, 1993, p. 154)
I think this is extraordinary. It is an abdication of all rationality.

I think this is extraordinary. It is an abdication of all rationality. The idea that the extraordinary patterns that we observe—that have persisted and in fact, grown more complex, over billions… and billions… and billions… of years—arose as a result of a “blind, uncaring shuffle through Chaos” is far far more of an extraordinary claim than anything any psi or NDE researcher ever conceived of.

So let’s explore this a little more—just briefly:

            Is the sound of a bell in a dream physical?

  1. You and I are together in a lucid dream. We’re exploring the nature of science in an environment where all forms are known through the medium of awareness. We hear the sound of a bell. Is that sound physical or material? Of course not.

    If you can’t tell the difference between waking and dream, maybe waking is more like dream than we think

  2. We know from repeated experience of false awakenings, that by the 5th or 6th awakening, it is virtually impossible to tell whether we are dreaming or awake—that is, it is impossible to tell, by scientific observation—whether the forms we perceive are known solely through the medium of awareness (that is, as everybody agrees takes place in dreams) or as purely objective, dead, non-conscious “somethings” (since nowadays everyone agrees we really don’t know what “matter” and “energy” are in themselves”) which we somehow “know” (I don’t even know how to say this, I’m just pretending to try to articulate the phsyicalist position, even though it’s impossible to state in a rational manner) which somehow, our brains construct and for some reason, we believe that this construction bears a striking resemblance to that dead, something “out there” existing entirely apart from the medium of awareness (though we could never produce even one scintilla of scientific evidence that anything exists apart form the medium of—some kind of—awareness).

    Why Introduce Physicalist Ideas at All?

  3. Why, if we can’t tell the difference between the dream/all-objects-known-through-the-medium-of-awareness environment and waking/we-have-conditioned-ourselves-to-believe-we’re-directly-contacting-objects-outside-the-medium-of-awareness states, should I accept the physicalist’s notion of these dead, stupid, unconscious somethings existing outside the medium of any kind of awareness whatsoever?

    Pseudo-Physicalism as a tactic

  4. After all, this whole physicalist edifice got its start simply as a tactic, a maneuver to avoid censor from the church. Galileo, Newton, Bacon and the rest quite wisely figured that they weren’t going to get very far if the church authorities thought they were trying to encroach on religious territory (mind, consciousness, emotion, etc). So they said, “Let’s only look at what can be measured, controlled, what is repeatable, non-individual, general, predictable.” None of them (well, some did, but not all) said, “This is ALL THERE IS.” They just said we’re only going to look at the tiny, infinitesimal fraction of the experienced world that is susceptible to this particular form of exploration. And it was wonderful, and has yielded the astonishing results we see all around us, and as a method of describing the marvelous patterns that occur in experience, it is unparalleled in its success (well, it’s particular kind of success, which may not be such a success after all, but that’s another story).

    The Origin of Physicalism

  5. The problem arose a century or so later (Billy Blake was prescient enough in this regard—he warned us about Newton’s “single vision”) when scientists grew so enamored with what they had discovered in their tiny corner of the experiential universe, that they began to say that any other kind of discovery was not that important (the Churchlands, Dennett and their cohorts simply took it to the extreme—rather than saying other discoveries weren’t important, they said there WAS nothing else—the most extraordinary claim ever made in all of human history, compared to which the most outrageous claims of some obscure Sikh master or some Wilberian are quite small potatoes). It’s like a kind of world-wide confidence trick by a 3 card monte expert. He takes away the experience card at the beginning, then shows you the cards and asks you to look for it. When you can’t find it, he says, “See, there’s no experience anywhere” (actually, some 3 card monte con men do this by sleight of hand, but some also do it by removing the card).

    Ignoring experience for the time being is not a problem as long as we remember it’s a tactic

  6. The tactic of focusing on externalities—measurable observable forms of experience—was possibly useful at the time (though the organic philosophers of the Renaissance, as well as Goethe and Arthur Zajonc, among many others, would dispute this). But it is not only not needed now, and in fact, since it has been transmuted into the holy church of physicalism (the de facto belief system for at least the last 50 years of the entire world population, whatever other competing “religion” they claim to abide by), which if disputed can lead to the end of a scientist’s career and reputation.

    “God”—the source of “laws of nature”?

  7. The tactic also wasn’t so transparently nonsensical several centuries ago, because at the time, there was an explanation for the patterns of nature (referred to as “laws” back then)—God. Now in case some fiery atheist stops at this point in horror, let me quickly say, if I ever met the psychopathic monstrous serial killer that is the “God” that so many religious people so strangely believe in, well, I’d certainly have a few things to say to him (it’s usually a “him”, isn’t it?)—and in considerably stronger language than I’d care to repeat here!

    Without “God”, the god of chance “creates” (??) the laws of nature, which have been denoted to observable patterns

  8. But once the hypothesis of “God” was rejected (remember LaPlace?) the laws become patterns and now are inexplicable within a mindless, unconscious, non-living world—unless you consider a “blind uncaring shuffle through Chaos” to be explicable (rather than an epithet, or at least, worthy of an epithet or two).

    The absurdity of believing the patterns arising by chance can persist unchanged for billions of years in a mindless, dead, non-conscious universe

  9. The idea that repeating, orderly patterns can arise spontaneously in an utterly mindless, dead, stupid, unconscious universe (arising some period of time after the “Big Bang”?) is in itself, extraordinary enough, worthy of Tertullian’s explanation of why he believed in Christianity: “BECAUSE it’s absurd.” But we are also asked, as initiates in the physicalist, fundamaterialist faith, to believe these patterns continue, stably, and even grow more complex—for another few nanoseconds. This already strains all credulity of even the most rationally-challenged human. But wait—there’s more—we are to believe that in this utterly mindless, dead, stupid unconscious universe these patterns persist and grow more complex—not just for nanoseconds, minutes, weeks, months (not that there were minutes, weeks, and months then, but please forgive me this poetic lapse)—but for billions… And billions… and billions… and billions… and billions… and billions…and billions of years. (and Richard Wiseman believes that the claims of psi research are extraordinary—to which I can only say, “extraordinary”!)

    In a dead, mindless, unconscious universe, there is no reason why the patterns couldn’t stop altogether, or at least, change radically at any moment—and don’t try to refute this (as so many have) using (unwittingly) the laws of nature as the basis for your refutation!

  10. There is no reason why these patterns should persist—they just do, as Steven Weinberg said in the passage I quoted in “Shaving Science With Ockham’s Razor”. He said there’s no explanation for how they arose or persist (and added in his most delightful, utterly humble manner) and since scientists can’t answer the question of how they arose or persist, nobody else can either (though some philosophers of science think it’s actually an explanation to say “they persist because they have to be that way”)

    Why are we not astonished every moment, that these patterns all around us persist and persist and persist? And why aren’t we even more astonished that we’ve been conditioned by the fundamaterialist/phsyicalist faith to believe these patterns arose and continue—just by chance (yes, I know, because of the laws of nature, right?)

  11. The only reason we are not continuously utterly and totally amazed at this is we’ve simply come to take them for granted. G K Chesterton had a wonderful way of conveying this. He said if 7 year-old Billy opens a door and sees a dragon, he’s amazed. But when 3 year-old Johnny opens a door—any door - he’s amazed. Just amazed at what is.

    Given the above, there’s absolutely no reason—at least, as long as we cling bitterly (thank you President Obama) to our physicalist faith—why at any moment, a rabbit might not turn into a roller-coaster

  12. So without any possible reason (at least, not within the fm/p faith) for the patterns to exist and persist as they do, there’s simply no reason why they should persist in the same form (or, continue at all). Thus, it is perfectly consistent with the fm/p faith that the whole thing (the universe, or whatever you want to call it) could just dissolve altogether at any moment (it doesn’t even really exist anyway in the form that fm/p-ists think, but that’s another matter). Or, at any moment, a rabbit could turn into a roller coaster, or a Chevy into a cockroach (at which point Lane may have to think again about whether he should consult Asheville’s “Organic Mechanic”), or the sun might grow arms and legs and start dancing in some kind of vaudeville routine.

Just think of the possibilities!


[1] From Merlin Donald’s A Mind So Rare—the close of the chapter on Hardliner eliminative materialists like Paul and Patricia Churchland:

We have come full circle since the pre-Socratic philosophers. After two and a half millennia of endless fussing and analysis, we must conclude, as they did, that All is Illusion. Except that, by denying the existence of the Central Meaner itself, Hardliners [like the Churchlands] have made this conclusion much more devastating than the pre-Socratics ever did. The pre-Socratics held that external reality was an illusion, but human awareness was not part of that reality. It always stood apart and provided the arena in which our intellectual excursions could take place. But now our own awareness itself has been folded into that chaotic external reality. To say that we are reduced in status by this would be an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that we are annihilated. Human awareness, by this doctrine, is nothing but an aspect of the soulless ether, not even an organizing force, just a clutch of algorithms turning tricks in an endless vacuum [don’t you love the whore metaphor!!]. And that is it. Things pass through our conscious minds but this impression is entirely illusory; there really is nobody home.
A Mind so Rare
I confess that I bail out at this point. Maybe I am a more practical man than I thought I was. Maybe I lack the infinite faith in words and semantic hairsplitting that seems necessary to qualify as a Minimalist or Hardliner. Maybe I am just irritated by the academic habit of indulging in exotic forms of intellectual seppuku, a sort of methodological rite de passage whereby one conducts sadomasochistic experiments with various forms of angoisse (one of which is the overuse of foreign words) and occasionally, if necessary, defines oneself out of existence (I notice that there is usually a temporary lull in this exercise in self-annihilation around tenure time, however).
Of course, Hardliners and Minimalists are not ordinary self-effacing academics. With their customary flair, they have made their point with truly Rabelaisian excess. Their message is obvious enough: Consciousness is an illusion, and we do not exist in any meaningful sense. But, they apologize at great length, this daunting fact Does Not Matter. Life will go on as always, meaningless algorithm after meaningless algorithm, and we can all return to our lives as if Nothing Has Happened.
This is rather like telling you that your real parents were not the ones you grew to know and love, but rather Jack the Ripper, and Elsa, She-Wolff of the SS. But not to worry. (A Mind So Rare, Merlin Donald, pps. 44-45)

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