A comment conversation between me and "cc" on a recent blog post got me to thinking about whether any human experience can be unmediated. Meaning: not communicated or transformed by an intervening agency
In a comment I said:
But sometimes people do need to be talked out of an erroneous belief system. That was the job of my wife, when she worked at a state mental hospital, and then also (to a different degree) as a private psychotherapist.
Just because someone feels like they are one with the cosmos doesn't mean this feeling has any basis in reality. People also feel they are God, or they are being abducted by space aliens, or that their minds are being read. Every weird feeling doesn't point to mental illness, but sometimes it does.
To which I commented:
Now, when I said "a dream also is an immediate unmediated experience," what I meant is that a dream feels like there is no intervening agency between me and what is being experienced.
Actually, my brain is producing the experience. But since I'm sleeping, I'm not aware that I have a brain, so the dream feels like immediate unmediated reality while I'm in a dreaming state.
When I wake up, I realize that I was dreaming.
Even when awake, though, nobody can experience anything in an unmediated fashion. Without a brain, we can't be conscious (I realize some people disagree; well, show me human consciousness without a brain, and I'll likely change my mind).
Understand: I'm open to the possibility of an unmediated experience. This basically would be a "pure consciousness experience" or "pure awareness," something that I'm attracted to, but can't bring myself to believe in.
Here's an excerpt from my blog post on Brain's "dark energy" casts doubt on pure awareness.
But whatever pure awareness is -- and again, I'm kind of vague about this -- this notion needs to be compatible with an emerging neuroscientific world view if it is to make sense to me.
The mind/brain filters unadorned reality markedly before perceptions become conscious. All the while, unconscious mental systems are churning away unrecognized, apparently laying the groundwork for interpreting those heavily filtered perceptions based on past experience and for taking action in response to some event.
How "pure awareness" enters into all this is a very open question. It sure looks like modern neuroscience is challenging some of the fundamental assumptions of spiritual belief systems.
Regarding "cc's" comment that "the immediate (unmediated) experience of inseparability is beyond belief," I'd say: so is every experience.
Right now, I don't believe that I'm typing on my laptop at our kitchen counter. Neither does my wife believe that she is chopping broccoli and putting it into a glass bowl for microwaving.
Like everybody else (aside from, perhaps, some mentally ill people) we simply experience life; we don't believe that we're experiencing life. This is because humans aren't aware of how the brain produces awareness. All we know is what we experience, not how the brain processes experiences outside of conscious awareness.
I don't see how an experience of inseparability is different from any other experience.
Again, every experience is ineffable, seemingly (but not really) unmediated, and unquestionable to the experiencer (though others might reasonably question the validity of an experience, as when a driver in a desert is sure he sees water on the road, which really is a mirage).
Various spiritual and mystical faiths believe in something variously called enlightenment, pure awareness, satori, and such. This is a belief, because that state only demonstrably exists as a cultural phenomenon.
For example, supposedly the Buddha was an enlightened being. He then passed on his enlightenment to someone else. And then that person did the same. At least this is my crude understanding of traditional Zen Buddhism: only a Zen master can validate someone's enlightenment, and the master's enlightenment was validated by his or her master, etc. etc.
So if I walk into a Zen monastery and say "I don't need this crap; I'm already enlightened!" -- almost certainly I won't be believed. Nobody will bow down to me, or make me the head Zen honcho.
Why not, though?
If an experience of inseparability (which basically is what Buddhism is all about) is unmediated and beyond belief, then why is it necessary for someone to believe in my enlightenment? Why all this testing, koan stuff, mysterious interchanges with the Zen master?
Just accept that I've had an unmediated experience of inseparability, a.k.a. enlightenment.
My point is this: those who claim that it is possible to have an unmediated experience of reality belie that claim through their utterance of it. Again, I don't go around asking people to believe that I'm writing a blog post on my laptop here in Salem, Oregon at 9 pm on a Sunday night.
I simply experience that I am. Even if this is a dream, or a computer simulation of some advanced alien civilization, I sure feel like I'm doing what I'm doing, and experiencing what I'm experiencing.
So when someone expects that I should believe in their experience of inseparability or enlightenment, this makes me think that they aren't very confident in the reality of that experience. Which makes sense, because every experience is questionable, being mediated through the often-flawed (or at least, deceptive) human brain.
Such is the attitude of an essay, "The Only Unmediated Experience You Ever Know." Travis Eneix basically says that every experience other than you are is mediated. That's pretty much what Descartes said hundreds of years ago, and it makes fairly good sense.
My only quibble with that contention is that a person's sense of I am can't exist without a human brain. So even that experience of I am arguably is mediated.