When we feel like somebody is putting us on, "Get real!" is an appropriate response. But what the heck is real? Most of us think we know. However, are we really right about reality?
I'm a sucker for big questions like this. So when I see a chapter called "Consciousness and Reality" in a book, my philosophical spine starts to tingle.
That chapter is in Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg's The Mystical Mind, which I praised in my previous post. It reduces a whole lot of scientific, philosophical, and religious speculation, thousands of years of it, down to a single question.
Which is primary, external reality or subjective awareness?
Scientists say "external reality." They argue that conscious awareness arises from the brain, which is part of material reality. Most mystics and religious types say "subjective awareness." They argue that consciousness – whether personalized as God or impersonalized as a cosmic force – creates and maintains materiality.
Most people's everyday experience is a blend (or you could say, mish-mash) of these perspectives. Newberg and d'Aquili write:
To the naïve observer, there is an absolutely certain sense that there is a reality external to the self that appears to be characterized by a heavy, substantive reality often termed matter or material reality.
The naïve observer also has the absolutely certain sense of a conscious self that seems to have a light, changeable, and ethereal quality often termed mind, spirit, or sometimes soul. The naïve terminology is anything but exact.
That's for sure. Because they point out that everything known about the seemingly objective external world, whether by scientists or anyone else, exists within subjective awareness. Knowing requires a knower.
What is known may indeed exist even if no one is aware of it. I find it difficult to believe that the universe was non-existent for the billions of years it took for conscious beings to evolve after the primordial Big Bang. And yet:
From the point of view of any careful examiner of the world, the only thing that is certain is that all aspects of material reality, including the laws of science and the mind/brain itself, exist within subjective awareness.
OK. So what if instead of assuming that subjective awareness arises out of material reality, we assume that material reality in some sense arises out of subjective awareness?
Solipsism immediately rears its self-centered head. It's pretty clear that my subjective awareness doesn't create material reality, because if it did a convertible Mini Cooper S would be sitting in our carport rather than a Prius. And my bald spot wouldn't be, well, bald.
So whose subjective awareness do the laws of nature really reside in? Beats me. And everyone else, since there's no proof that an entity called "God" exists. On the other hand, d'Aquili and Newberg correctly point out that we also have no way of knowing that the universe as we know it exists outside of our way of knowing.
Since all of material reality exists at least in the mind of the analyzing knower, and since one would have to step outside of subjective awareness to ascertain whether any reality other than subjective awareness exists (a patently impossible situation), then one is constrained to see material reality (its past and future), the laws of nature, and science itself as aspects of present subjective awareness.
As disagreeable as such an epistemological position might be to those of us trained in Western science, it is the only possible rigorous stance unless one wishes to make a complete act of faith that the vivid sense of the otherness of external reality, which certainly exists in subjective awareness, reflects an isomorphic referent outside of subjective awareness.
But anybody who has taken a dog for a walk, as I do just about every day, knows that this isn't the case. I'm strolling along, immersed in sights and sounds of the Oregon countryside, and Serena (the family pet) is off in another world of scent . With her nose to the ground, she is transfixed by another perspective on reality, knowing things about passing deer and coyotes that I'm completely clueless about.
So neither dog nor human can say, "The external world objectively is as I perceive it, even if none of my species existed to be subjectively aware of those perceptions."
In the end, d'Aquili and Newberg argue for an integrated approach to the problem of subjective awareness and material reality. Instead of either/or, they point to the possibility of both/and. Nice and Taoistic.
The cultures of the Far East tend to favor consciousness or subjective awareness as prior. The cultures of the West tend to ascribe priority to external reality. But, in principle, there is no way to choose except by cultural prejudice or personal aesthetics.
…But there is a strange theological conclusion to be drawn from the fact that individuals and cultures have an irreducible choice whether "external" reality or "subjective" consciousness is primary.
In the first case, one can conclude with certainty that the concept and experience of God, and all religious phenomenology, are generated by the brain and nervous system. In the second case, one can conclude with equal certainty, from a rigorous phenomenological reflection on experience, that God (absolute unitary being or pure consciousness) generates the world (including the brain) and subjective experience itself.
Since it is in principle impossible to determine which starting point is more "fundamental," external reality or the awareness of the knower, one is forced to conclude that both conclusions about God (AUB) [absolute unitary being] are in a profound and fundamental sense true – namely that God is created by the world (the brain and the rest of the central nervous system) and that the world is created by God.
More about absolute unitary being in my next post.