The Soul of the Matter II

Well despite hundreds of requests to tell you the story of Mucky the Turtle instead, I am going to be willful and perverse and take you back to the body-mind problem.

Last week I explained that there seemed to be two principal responses to this vexing problem which has engaged philosophers over the millennia. I divided the two main responses between:

1. The Materialists who believe that the physical world is all that there is and who conclude that consciousness and a sense of self are merely the manifestation of physical brain processes and are largely an illusion, and
2. The Spiritualists who believe that either the essence of the universe is consciousness and that consciousness creates the physical world which is to them an illusion or some who believe that the sense of self and attendant attributes come from a non-physical entity endowed on us by God which is deemed to be immortal.

The dominant scientific opinion seems in recent decades to have come down on the side of the Materialists. This is despite the fact (as I boldly stated last week) that I suspect that this dilemma will never be resolved by science. One of the functions of spirituality has always been to try and explain that which we can’t account for. As science has developed and enlightened us in more and more aspects of our lives it might seem that spirituality has a lesser job to do. (Wasn’t it Dawkins or someone similar who proposed the notion of the “God of the gaps”? This was an assertion that traditional religion has had to retreat to merely explaining what science can’t yet explain.)

I have some unease with this. As a consequence many (perhaps most) of the critics of materialism come from the ranks of the conventionally religious. And, their god bless them, they have a vested interest in shoring up their conventional religious beliefs. This is not a criticism; – we all tend to behave that way. I just thought it might be useful if I could elaborate on some doubts about materialism that don’t resort to conventional religious defence mechanisms.

I related last week that the arch-materialists dispute our sense of self as being some deterministic illusion. It is hard to dispute this because our sense of self is a qualitative experience. But nonetheless I would have to say I have never met anybody who would admit to not having it.

In seminars I run I sometimes challenge people to define who they are. And of course they will start in a conventional way. “I am Joe Bloggs, accountant, married, a Christian and father of two.” And then we start to question this assertion.

“What if you changed your name by deed poll would that change who you are?” Of course not.

“What if you had embarked on a career as an architect. Does your profession define who you are?” Of course not.

“What if you had never married and not had children?” Does this change who you are? No, not really.

“Instead of being born and brought up in a Christian family, what say you had been born in Nepal and brought up a Buddhist?” Would that change who you are? I can’t see how.

Well who is this “you” that seems to be impervious to all these changes in circumstances?

What say you are now 50 years of age? Are you the same self that you were at five years of age? Most people would answer in the affirmative. This is despite the fact as the materialists would point out that you now inhabit a different body in vastly different circumstances to that which you contended with forty-five years ago. So most of us would concede that despite all these changes there is something that gives us a sense of continuity, that gives us an enduring sense of self through all these changes.

What is this characteristic that seems to endure through our lifetime despite changes to our bodies and our physical circumstances? It is obviously something that has the capacity to observe this lifelong panorama of change and adaptation.

Ken Wilbur suggests that we should recite silently the following to ourselves trying to realize as vividly as possible the import of each statement:

“I have a body, but I am not a body. I can see and feel my body, and what can be seen and felt is not the true Seer. My body may be tired or excited, sick or healthy, heavy or light, but that has nothing to do with my inward I. I have a body but I am not my body.

I have desires, but I am not my desires. I can know my desires, and what can be known is not the true Knower. Desires come and go, floating through my awareness, but they do not affect my inward I. I have desires but I am not desires.

I have emotions but I am not emotions. I can feel and sense my emotions, and what can be felt and sensed is not the true Feeler. Emotions pass through me but they don’t affect my inward I. I have emotions but I am not emotions.

I have thoughts but I am not my thoughts. I can know and intuit my thoughts, and what can be known is not the true Knower. Thoughts come to me and thoughts leave me, but they do not affect my inward I. I have thoughts but I am not my thoughts.”

What he is trying to make us aware of here is the transpersonal self, often called in Eastern traditions the Witness. This is the faculty we have to observe our thoughts, our desires, our physical being and its progress through life. This is what gives us an enduring sense of self.

Someone adept at this self-witnessing, is able to look upon the event occurring in the mind-body with the very same impartiality that they could look upon clouds floating in the sky, water flowing in a stream or rain falling on the fields.
So, I am suggesting to you that there is something more fundamental here. It is not that the body (the brain) through its fantastical processes of chemistry, physics and electrical activity begets a mind. Nor is it that a mind is bestowed upon us by some arcane process outside our physical ken. It is that there is something more than mind and body, which for convenience I will call the Witness that is metaphysical and stands above them both.

The good Dr Phil has elaborated on this. (See my blog of 27/10/2010 or Chapter 5 of our book “The Myth of Nine to Five”.)

The stunning message of the mystics is at this level, at the very core of our being (the Witness) we are all One. Spirit transcends duality. Again did not Einstein say that paradoxes are solved by considering the issue from a higher level of consciousness?

(“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”)

In the Chandogya Upanishad, one of the ancient Vedic texts, it is written,

“In this very being of yours, you do not perceive the True; but there in fact it is. In that which is the subtlest essence of your own being, all that exists has its Self. An invisible and subtle essence is the Spirit of the whole universe. That is the true, that is the Self, and thou, thou art That.”

Ken Wilbur again comments,

“Thou art That – tat tvam asi. Needless to say, the ‘thou’ that is ‘That’, the you that is God, is not your isolated and individual self or ego, this or that self, Mr or Ms So-and-so. In fact the individual self or ego is precisely what blocks the realisation of the Supreme Identity in the first place. Rather the ‘you’ in question is the deepest part of you – or, if you wish, the highest part of you – the subtle essence, as the Upanishad put it, that transcends mortal ego and directly partakes of the Divine.”

So in many respect the mind-body dualism is a distraction because it leaves out the highest level of our being, the seat of our consciousness, our connection with each other and the Divine – the “Witness’.

Sometimes it helps to get another angle on a concept which many of you might find difficult. So, eschewing philosophers and scientists, I will finish with a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous American essayist and poet (although I will concede that many Americans will probably claim that he was, indeed, a philosopher):

“All goes to show that the soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being in which they lie, – an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things and makes us aware we are nothing, but the light is all.”

7 Replies to “The Soul of the Matter II”

  1. On the Materialist defence, they would claim that the watcher of our thoughts is nothing more than parallel processing. One computer watching another and then communicating what it saw to the computer it observed and vice versa. The I is not the hardware (the chemicals that make up the body) it is not the electrical impulses in the computer, the I is the software. The computer may fail but the software goes on for ever it just requires new hardware to run it. So immortality the materialists would claim is very real, just make a copy of the software and load it into new hardware. Of course they can’t do that as yet but in theory it could be possible. The question I pose for you Ted and anyone else who may like to have a crack at it. If we could perfectly transfer our software from our brain to another would our sense of self transfer with it? Of course there is no answer to this questions but it does create great stimulus for thought. On a similar vein, if a computer became so complex that it became self aware (theoretically possible with neural networks) would we have created consciousness or would the computer have inherited it?

    This is all very logical and plausible but it is not very satisfying. For me the Materialist perspective is the cleanest and most logical because it starts with what I can hold on to (the real nuts and bolts solid world) and progresses to explain things fairly adequately. But again it is not very satisfying. Some part of me senses there is more. It is illogical but a real feeling all the same. I can explain the Materialist argument, the Consciousness argument I just know. I don’t think it is faith, just lots of little unexplainable mind glimpses that tell me there is more. Here’s hoping the Materialist are wrong but of course while we exist in this plane we will never know.

  2. Despite your plea Father Ted I have no intention of being constrained by your rules.

    To my perception, language is the problem.

    Materialists talk about self.

    Spiritualists talk about Self.

    Can’t we quietly bang their heads together?

  3. And as far as Easter is concerned it will be celebrated in the same way as Christmas.

    With a kilo of prawns, a couple of bottles of champagne and the Blonde Buddhist.

  4. “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

    A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, – and Thou

    Beside me singing in the Wilderness –

    Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”

    As appropriate now as it was a thousand years ago.

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