This morning I picked up "The Mystical Mind," a book I've read several times. With every re-reading I get something more out of it. It's a terrific blend of neuroscience, philosophy, and mysticism.
I was planning to write something new about stimulating ideas I came across in the Consciousness and Reality chapter. Then I decided to check blog posts about the book that I'd shared back in 2007.
Reading them over, I saw that just about everything I was planning to say, I'd already said. So if you're looking for some non-religious "spiritual" inspiration which harmonizes with modern science, click on those links.
That said... there's always more for me to say. And to quote what others say.
Today I was struck by how the authors, Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg (both are medical doctors), linked two Big Questions: how there is something rather than nothing, and the nature of subjective awareness.
It seems to us that if we start our philosophical analysis with the reality of matter and the external world, then there are fundamentally two great discontinuities in the universe.
The first discontinuity is the big bang, or more specifically, why there is something rather than nothing. This is, of course, the question that plagued Martin Heidegger and many philosophers since.
The second great discontinuity in the physical universe is the existence of subjective awareness. It simply represents an unexplainable jump from material organization to a level of reality of another order, analogous to the jump from nothing to something.
Again, we must keep in mind that all these statements are true only if we assume the primacy of material reality as our philosophical starting point.
By which they mean, stating their position in my own words and with my own mind, that these Big Questions are meaningful only within a worldview where "subjective awareness" and "objective world" are distinct realities.
Yet let's think about this.
Is there such a thing as objective awareness? Is there such a thing as subjective world? That is, do the adjectives "objective" and "subjective" add anything to our understanding of awareness and world?
For this to be true, there would have to be a difference between subjective and objective awareness, and there would have to be an objective and subjective world. Yet the authors correctly point out that everything we know about reality is the result of awareness.
Here we get into Zennish territory, koans about the nature of existence that can't be understood or explained logically, much like how quantum physics eludes either/or definitions.
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. Whether they have any other substantive reality is an open question, but what is certain is that they exist within awareness.
Furthermore, what also exists within subjective awareness is the vivid sense that the external is substantively real and that matter is something other than consciousness. But this vivid sense likewise exists within awareness or is an aspect of awareness.
So how can we decide who wins the Reality Contest, subjective awareness or the objective world? d'Aquili and Newberg persuasively argue that what is most really real has to be decided by a feeling of this is really real.
There's no objective criterion for reality, because subjective awareness is how everything we know about reality comes to be known. Seemingly this leaves us stuck in solipsism.
However, "The Mystical Mind" posits a neuroscientifically believable state of Absolute Unitary Being (AUB). People who claim to have experienced this state describe it as neither subjective or objective.
This isn't any sort of other-worldly mystical state, according to the authors. They describe how, physioloogically, the brain can produce a feeling of oneness that transcends our usual feeling that there's a difference between subjective me and the objective world.
Our neurophysiological model of how this state is generated (i.e. by deafferation of areas of the parietal lobe) seems to be confirmed in our brain-imaging studies of mature contemplation in Tibetan Buddhist meditators.
Thus, there can be little doubt that AUB exists, even it is a relatively rare state. From the point of view of our concerns here, AUB has an interesting property. Neither during the experiencing of AUB nor upon subsequent recollection is this state ever perceived as subjective.
Although it is attained by going deeply within the subject, once it is attained, it is perceived as neither subjective nor objective. Indeed, from a phenomenological perspective, AUB or pure awareness seems to be anterior to either subject or object.
Of course, awareness of something is clearly perceived to be a subjective state. But as difficult as this notion may be to understand, pure awareness seems to be neither subject nor object when analyzed by the meditator after the fact. It seems to be the only state to which humans have access that eludes the categories of subjectivity and objectivity.