Sunday, November 20, 2016
THE FIRST DELUSION
In the fall of 2012 a group of eminent scientists and philosophers convened at a lovely hotel in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusettes. Among them were Richard Dawkins, author of
'The God Delusion,' Daniel Dennett, author of 'Consciousness Explained,' (which his detractors nicknamed 'Consciousness Ignored'), Jerry Coyne, author of 'Why Evolution is True,' Owen Flanagan, author of 'The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World,' and Alexander Rosenberg, author of "The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions.'
There was an enormous amount of common ground in the room. These men shared and continue to share the belief that the normal way that people see the world, as containing other people, colors, sounds, sights, sensations, good things and bad things, evil things and inspiring things; which they refer to as the 'manifest image,' is entirely illusory. They believe that there is an 'objective reality' which consists merely of soundless, colorless moving particles. Sounds and colors, for instance, are the result of how certain vibrations are translated into electrical current and interpreted by our brains. Our sense that colors and sounds exist in the outer world rather than the inner world of our brains as well as other qualities of objects and spaces such as being attractive or repellent, edible or inedible, scary or safe; all of this sense of the world that we currently enjoy and allow us to survive and maneuver in a way that we can not only survive but get our needs met in the outer world; all of this ability is entirely the result, according to the conferees, of an extemely long line of remarkably fortuitous mutations, each one of them retained because they conferred a slight survival advantage over the genetic apparatus of the previous generations.
So at some early point on the evolutionary tree these mutationally advantaged creatures were preceded by creatures who merely perceived the 'objective reality' of colorless, meaningless particles, and perceived them where they were 'really' taking place within their skulls, as the interpretation of electrical signals received by their brains. It was only a few of their progeny, many, many generations later, who had been the recipient of a whole series of fantastically fortuitous mutations that allowed them to sense the external world as being colorful and producing various sounds, as well as having distinct qualities; a world in which there are objects that are attractive or repellent, edible or inedible, scary or safe. Also, at some point, and also do to a long series of really remarkably fortunate mutations, the entire field of perception flipped from being inside their heads to being outside of their heads.
Now the survival advantage that all these myriad mutations would provide is very easy to understand. What is harder to grasp are all the tiny incremental advantages that would very gradually lead a creature from perceiving things inside their heads to outside their heads. If there ever were such ancient predecessors that actually experienced the world as taking place inside their heads, or even partially inside their heads, and their survival was dependent on being able to meet their needs by accurately maneuvering in the physical world outside of their heads, then that would make survival very difficult indeed! How many of these feckless creatures could survive an existence of bunking into every object, falling off every cliff, completely incapable of finding water or food or sex partners; how many of these could still be around at the age of sexual maturity for them to replicate for countless generations until one of them was lucky enough to be the recipient of a long series of random mutations that would allow their whole perceptive field to flip outward?
Of course there is no fossil record of any creature anywhere living like that, because living like that would be utterly impossible. Even the existence of bacteria, that preceded all other life by two billion years, depend on their accurate negotiation of their environment to locate food and water sources, to seek coolness when it gets too hot, to seek warmth when it gets too cold, etc. If you experienced everything as taking place inside your head, even if it really was (see post 'Location, Location, Location) so that there was no way to distinguish memories, which really are experienced as inside your head, from actual events happening in the present moment, then that would make surviving, which includes finding nourishment and safety and sex partners, and not walking off cliffs, or running into walls, but being able to maneuver skillfully and alertly in the physical universe in order to get your needs met, well, that would make surviving very difficult indeed.
This agreed upon way that we perceive the world around us, which they refer to as the 'manifest image,' although ultimately illusory, is the agreement within which we all operate, including all the attendees at that conference, otherwise they could never have managed to get themselves to the Berkshires or even inside that conference room. And each species operates within their own uniquely shared agreement. What one species defines as a food source, another species defines as a predator. What one species defines as a sex partner another species defines as a terrifying threat. What is a comfortable, appealing environment for one species is a fatal environment that must be escaped from for another. And this species specific, shared illusion, could not have evolved. No organism, no species, could survive without such a shared illusion; the illusion that corresponds with a particular species is the birthright of each member of that species, and is an integral part of the design of both the species and the environmental niche in which the species is born.
"Powered by Darwin, modern science proceeds," in Dennett's phrase, "as a 'universal corrosive,' destroying illusions all the way up and all the way down, dismantling our feelings of freedom and separate selfhood, our morals and beliefs, a mother's love and a patient's prayer: All in reality are just 'molecules in motion.' "* So these people, these molecules in motion, although they do not actually behave that way, live in their imaginations, in what they call the 'objective reality.' Although it may be a source of professional embarrassment for them, they probably all do, to some degree, love their mothers, feel compassion for people in need, and reach for the accurately perceived door knob on their way out of conference rooms rather than trying to walk through the wall that they had just bunked into, or trying somehow to reach the doorknob located somewhere on the surface of their cerebellum.
Like members of any cult, all of these people were in total agreement about their core beliefs. There was, however, one bone of contention, which was the reason for this conference. Some of them thought that this materialist view should be taught in its full, relentless form; that people should know the utter meaninglessness and randomness of their existence and that every thing that they hoped for and cherished were merely delusions. Then the masses, who may not understand the truth completely, could just accept it and discover that living a life without purpose, free will or spirituality was not as bad as they had been led to believe by superstitious people, and by superstitious they meant anyone that didn't hold the identical set of beliefs that they did.
Of course if life wasn't so bad for these conferees, it was precisely because they did not live, did not actually manage their lives, according to the tenets that they preached. They all shared the belief in the ultimate reality of molecules, and in the supreme powers of mutation and natural selection to create all the manifest illusions that we experience around us. They also had the deep sense of commaradarie, as all cult members do, in that they were the small group that really knew the truth and by virtue of that, they were superior to all the common, unenlightened (or should I say 'unendarkened') people around them. They were also all professionals, making a good living writing books and doing lectures and panels discussing all this stuff. If this truly became an age of endarkenment, as they hoped, then the masses, those incapable of grasping the true genius of this vision, would have lost not only all the things they had previously lived for, but would not have that sense of exclusivity, commaradarie and superiority that the Berkshire group enjoyed.
The other conferees argued that even though what we are is no more than 'moist robots,' if the masses realize that there is no objective reality or free will, then that might undermine civilization. It would be hard to imagine people taking personal responsibility to live within the civil order if they realized that civil order, responsibility and even one's own personhood were ultimately illusory. They should be told, according to Dennett, "that the self and free will do exist, and that colors and sounds do exist, just not in the way that they think. They exist in a special way." This uncommunicated special way, of course, was that they, ultimately, did not exist at all. Rather like Santa Claus; if you could just convince the kids that Santa did exist and that he was coming to bring you gifts if, and only if, you were good, then you might be able to wrangle some decent behavior out of the little brats for at least the month of December and, if you were lucky, even for some of November.
THE SECOND DELUSION
There is another group of people that also believe that the way we perceive the world and most of the things that we hold as important to us is illusory. I can't point to a specific conference that they attended, although they do confer, but I do know how they experience the world, and, although there are some cultural and stylistic differences among them, they experience the world in the same way. I know this because in speaking with these people or in reading what they have written, the identical understanding emerges.
Notice that I did not say that they share the same beliefs. Beliefs pre-date experience. I believe I will enjoy a movie. After I have watched the movie it makes no sense to ask me if I believe I will enjoy it. I already had the experience. I now know what that experience was like. So when I am talking about this group, I am not talking about their belief system; in fact, they do not argue about belief systems among themselves; in a very real sense they have no belief systems because the way that they experience the world automatically dictates how they behave. The golden rule, do unto others as you would have others do unto you, is practiced among them, not because they believe in the authority of the author of that rule, but because they realize that the other that they are doing something unto is actually themselves.
While the first group has come to believe what they believe based on a certain amount of research (while selectively ignoring a huge amount of other research), this second group has come to believe what they believe based on search. Before research there is search. These people searched within, and what they discovered was that the material world, which the first group thinks of as the one and only ultimate reality; that the material world has no ultimate reality at all. Even the molecules that Dennet exalted are not really solid particles, but are configurations of bound forces, with nothing 'solid' in them; that the physical universe, as we perceive it, is the result of the interplay of forces, call them yin and yang, baca and fana, in and yo, Heaven and Earth, celestial and terrestrial, or by many other names. These forces, which configure with each other, give the illusion of permanence and solidity because of the stable force fields that they create. Ultimately, the force behind the force fields is consciousness, and consciousness, rather than being a delusional survival trick, is actually the only reality. In other words you exist and every other being exists, and the delusional part is the way we perceive each other as separate beings.
While the first group talks about and writes books about the God delusion, the second group realizes that nothing actually exists beyond God (the Atman, the Cosmic Consciousness, Allah, Hashem, or whatever you would like to call Him/Her/It); that even the molecules that are the foundational truth of the first group are the illusion of the second group. In fact, now that quantum physicists have discovered that particles only exist when they are being observed, it is hard to imagine particles as pre-dating the observer. If particles are a product of consciousness, then, it seems reasonable to assume, consciousness pre-dates particles. The same would hold true for the wave potentials that things seem to be prior to being observed. They are wave 'potentials' for what? For being perceived and interacted with by conscious beings, each conscious being experiencing each thing in their own unique way; and each wave potential having the capacity to be perceived and experienced in a multitude of different ways, sequentially or simultaneously, depending on which beings are perceiving and experiencing it.
How pure consciousness (consciousness not separated by unique organisms, genomes, nervous systems and cultures) the cosmic consciousness, Milton's "bright essence increate," that beginingless essence from which we all come and to which we will all return, how the world is perceived through that unfiltered consciousness, is beyond our understanding. It seems to me, though, that it would be similar to the way a gift is perceived by a parent prior to giving it to a child. We imagine all the different ways that the child could enjoy it, and then watch as the child does enjoy it and, hopefully, falls in love with it. We experience that with the toys and clothing and cars and allowances that we give our children. The Infinite experiences it with the clouds and mountains and trees and bodies and minds and stars and galaxies and every thing of the natural and organic world that the Infinite provides for all living organisms.
The realization, as the first group would have it, that all is illusory except particles, and that even the observer, the experiencer of these particles and particle formations, which is you, is also illusory, leads to the deepest experience of alienation and despair. The members of this first group avoid that despair by priding themselves not only on truly understanding what so few others have been able to grasp, and making a good living at it in the process, but they also pride themselves on coping very nicely with this utter meaninglessness, and knowing that this Herculean coping activity is something that the unwashed and uneducated masses most likely could not grapple with. Their's is a loveless world whose only reward is a cynical superiority over everyone else who doesn't know 'reality' as they know it.
The second group is not really a group, because they understand that all boundaries, including the boundary that separates their group from everyone else; that all boundaries are illusory; that boundaries only exist when you are conscious of them. If you have ever been in the presence of a saint, you feel the boundary between you and the saint disappear. You feel the saint bonding with you and knowing you in a way that perhaps no one has known you before, even if you have never met the saint previously. And this is precisely what love is, the disappearance of a boundary; the realization that you and another person, or group, or your environment, or your planet, or your galaxy, are not separate at all. That you are of a piece, are one with the entire universe.
The realization of the second group, that all things are illusory, but that you are not a thing; that you are not matter, but that 'bright essence increate,' and that every separate thing that you see is not separate but is, in essence, that same brightness, that same beginningless and endless consciousness 'increate,' leads to an experience of nothing but love. Isn't it time that we climbed out of the Darwinian darkness and this age of material delusion and despair and entered the light? Isn't it time that we developed the capacity to slow down the mind and see through this illusion of separation and began to treat each other with the love and respect that all the sages of the past have demanded? Isn't it time that we realize that, not religous and culture bound dogma, but real spiritual understanding is not a delusion, not the opiate of the masses, but based on a clear understanding of the ultimate truth; that the material world is not the end all and be all, but is merely a phantom, a chimera that exists between desire and experience?
Every particle and every particular thing changes. Your particular body, your particular genome, your particular brain and nervous system, your particular way of perceiving and experiencing the world, all these things change. But you, in your essence, you are not a thing. You are of a piece, you are one with that 'bright essence increate,' that beginningless and endless consciousness. You are beyond change and beyond separation. The first group would demolish you and elevate the particle. The second group sees through particles and the boundaries between particles, to reveal the you which is boundless, limitless and which is also me.
Whether you agree or disagree, please let me hear from you. Peace!