Often it's said, "God is mystery." People love mysteries. They're interesting, intriguing, and, well, mysterious.
So religious believers, rather strangely, somehow combine an acceptance of well-defined dogmas, teachings, commandments, and such with an embrace of a Great Unknown.
Mysticism, to which I'm considerably more attracted than religion, dumps the "acceptance" stuff and jumps right into the "embrace."
Mystics say, I want mystery (that's why they're called mystics).
So does science. The known is appealing to scientists. But it's the unknown that really gets their truth-seeking juices flowing.
The central thing that differentiates my churched self from my churchless self is this: now I've realized that the first, and maybe only, cosmic mystery I want to solve is who I am, not who or what God is.
Such was a point I made in my previous post about Robert K.C. Forman's fascinating book, "Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness."
The book's index only has one reference to God.
And this is a negative one, since Forman speaks about how a beginning monk, when asked why he is doing such and such, will give an answer that refers to certain objects or goals: samadhi, God-Consciousness, or whatever. In other words, an intention.
Intentions or desires are interesting. But they're not really mysterious. The big mystery is what underlies intentions. And everything else that appears in a person's consciousness.
Consciousness thus is the here-and-now, right in front of me, closer than the end of my nose, analogy to God -- in that consciousness is the seeming source of what is in our minds, just as God is considered to be the creator of what is in the universe.
But our consciousness is directly accessible to us. God isn't. So it makes sense to mystics (and me) to focus on figuring out the Mystery of Me first and the Mystery of God later.
If at all.
"If at all," because it might turn out that our clear and present consciousness is the primal mystery, not a murky and distant God. (Some traditions equate the two, of course, as in atman is brahman.)
Forman has had a profound mystical experience himself. He's also an academic, so he is able to analyze the experience and place it within the context of mystic philosophies and practices.
His basic thesis is this:
The evidence provided by mystics leads us to distinguish between two concepts that are generally not distinguished: intentional consciousness and awareness per se...In the pure consciousness event, we argued, mystics experience their own awareness to be without content.
...Awareness itself functions and remembers itself differently than it remembers content. It does not know or remember itself through any kind of intentional structure, but rather, we said, just unintentionally knows and holds itself together through time.
Thus we can distinguish two distinct epistemological structures: knowing intentionally, which [William] James divided into knowledge-by-acquaintance and knowledge-about, and the nonintentional form of self-knowing, which I call "knowledge-by-identity."
Knowledge by identity is an epistemological structure that any and every conscious being must have, a knowing what it is to have a consciousness simply by virtue of being conscious.
In other words (and I'd be the first to agree that Forman uses some fairly abstruse words), we know consciousness by being aware.
As Popeye said, "I am what I am." (Or rather, "I yam what I yam.")
Knowledge by identity.
What's beautiful about this thesis, which makes a lot of both experiential and intellectual sense to me, is how it points toward a non-metaphysical oneness.
Forman observes that while being an American is profoundly different from being Japanese, the awareness per se of an American likely is the same as the awareness per se of a Japanese. Or any other human being.
Often it is said that we don't know what it is like to look through another person's eyes. Meaning, what it is like to be them, rather than our own self.
Jean-Paul Sartre speaks a lot about this -- how we are a subject to ourselves and an object to others.
Existentialists like him tend to find this a bit (or a lot) depressing, since it seems to establish an unbridgeable gulf between our subjective sense of self and the appearance of others as objects within our consciousness.
But this notion of awareness points toward a commonality between every person on Earth, and maybe even between all sentient beings of any sort.
Take away what each of us is conscious of, and perhaps what is left is... awareness pure and simple.
Watching my dog stare at a chipmunk hole at this moment, I can't help but feel that if I subtracted all the contents of my human consciousness from my awareness, and if she could subtract all the contents of her canine consciousness from her awareness, we'd be pretty much the same.
Maybe exactly the same. Awareness. Consciousness aware of being conscious.
One. Which is pretty darn close to what God often is considered to be.
"What's beautiful about this thesis, which makes a lot of both experiential and intellectual sense to me, is how it points toward a non-metaphysical oneness."
See this is where i think you are grasping.
Apologies if this aspersion is incorrect, and perhaps you do appreciate it on a rational intellectual level, but i think if someone really understands an idea they can often convey that idea very clearly without abstruse wording. To be frank i do not believe either you or Forman have succeeded in this regard. In fact, you admit the language he uses is abstruse and it is.
Forman is not saying anything of substance, just inventing semantic categories that are not clear or meaningful. It needs to be put accross more clearly.
Is Korman suggesting our consciousness is comprised of a learned (or experential) part as distinct from a more primal simple awareness part?
If so, is awareness not merely the senses of a particular animate organism that combine to give a model of the external world? This model allows the organism to interact with the world via their specific senses that have evolved, regardless of thinking or learning or experience-based knowledge.
However, this type of primal awareness will differ depending on the organism. For example, a human being's basic awareness will be different from a dog's basic awareness since the dog has slightly sharpend senses to the human or for example different senses a bat with a sonar sense or a shark with an electromagnetic sense. Each having a different primal awareness.
Indeed, perhaps this basic awareness might dictate how the reliance or ability for the learned part of consciosness develop. For example, if humans have less developed senses or a less accurate basic awareness or perception of reality, perhaps they have developed their intellectual or learned part to compete with other organisms in nature's evolutionary arms race for survival.
i've purposefully given a coarse specific example, since if there is another type of deeper awareness that is sensory-independent, it needs to be better explained.
Posted by: George | August 23, 2009 at 05:40 AM
George, your reaction is reasonable. Forman notes that many people (including consciousness researchers, I presume) consider that consciousness is always consciousness of something.
Meaning, pretty much as you said, that sensory, cognitive, and other systems of the body/brain convey information about something out there (physical world) or in here (internal mental state) and then it becomes an object of consciousness.
WIthout some object to be conscious of, there would be no consciousness -- under this hypothesis (don't physicists say much the same thing with regard to space? if there is no object in empty space, does it exist? don't we need a something to make a nothing?)
I'm sympathetic to this argument. It could well be true. But when I came across Forman's reference to awareness as being a human universal, as contrasted with the particular contents of each person's consciousness, I was intrigued by this notion.
To shift gears a bit... as a long-time vegetarian, I've frequently pondered the morality of killing animals for food. Or killing animals for any reason. What is it like for an animal to feel pain, imminent death, other discomfort?
I can't know. Like you said, animals have very different sensory and cognitive systems than humans do. One of the classic articles in consciousness research was called "What is it like to be a bat?" if I recall correctly.
However, it seems to me that I do know what it is like to be aware. To be conscious of some event, some thing, whether internal (pain) or external (danger!). Whenever I try to get a bug out of a sink, I see this. It is aware of the piece of paper I'm trying to get it to climb on, and moves away from it.
I know even less of what it is to be a bug, than to be a dog. There's just something wonderfully mysterious about consciousness -- which all sentient beings have. To be aware, what is this like? Is this sense of awareness unique to different species, and to different humans, or is it something we share, a commonality of consciousness?
I don't know the answers. I just found the questions intriguing.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | August 23, 2009 at 08:38 AM
Yes thanks, that is more clear than Forman's wording, and i agree the questions surrounding consciousness are extremely intriguing and unanswered.
"Without some object to be conscious of, there would be no consciousness"
I'd agree, but suggest it might go even further that consciousness needs to have the means to be conscious of an object.
The philosophical riddle goes "if a tree falls in a forest and there is no-one to hear it did it make a sound", which i probably would answer scientifically in that the object needs to exist (i.e. tree crashes to ground emitting vibrating air waves), but also to be consious of the sound we require an ear sensitive enough to pick up the air vibration. If the observer is too far away or deaf, the tree falls and the air vibrations occur but the observer is not conscious thereof.
The relationship between subject and object is intriguing as is your reference to 'space'. Space was initially thought an infinite nothingness vacuum and yet einsteinian relativity thinks of it as a sort of expanding space-time fabric which can be distorted and shaped by mass and gravity. Planets influence one another accross the expanse of space by gravity, so what is in the space-time fabric allows for the remote transmission of such a force?
On animal awareness, i think most believe that those lifeforms with more developed nervous systems experience a greater range of feelings such as pain and perhaps a host other others. I suppose no-one really knows if a tree feels the same pain in losing a branch or leaf as a human losing a limb. In any event, i respect the vegetarian outlook and morally it makes little sense to kill other living things for no reason. Nevertheless all animate matter has its own nervous system.
If Forman is right that there is a common underlying primitive human awareness, i would argue the only thing that could be similar is the human nervous system and its five known senses. However, such a consciousness would never be exactly the same since each person will differ (just as different fingerprints) so even humans will have a differnce in primitive awareness. This difference becomes exarcerbated with other species and lifeforms having evolved different different nervous systems to interact with their environment (human, bat, plant).
It might stop there, but some speculate over a sort of immanent cosmic consciousness, especially since science has not answered how life first began?
Posted by: George | August 23, 2009 at 12:54 PM