“We are hanging in language. We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down,” Niels Bohr lamented in the 1920s when confronted with the paradoxes, absurdities, and seeming impossibilities encountered in the then newly discovered quantum domain. The problem, he insisted, was not the quantum wonderland itself, but our language, our ways of thinking and talking about it. His colleague, Werner Heisenberg, went a step further and proclaimed that events in the quantum wonderland are not only unspeakable, they are unimaginable.
The same situation confronts today us when we try to talk about consciousness and how it relates to matter-energy. Go fishing for consciousness using the net of language and it always, inevitably, slips through the holes in our net.The limits of language-and imagination- in talk about consciousness have been recently underlined, yet again, by the exchanges between philosopher Mark Woodhouse and physician Larry Dossey in the pages of Network (December, 1966, No. 62; April, 1997, No. 63).
Essentially, both men take opposing positions regarding the appropriateness of “energy talk” as a way of describing or explaining consciousness or mental phenomena. Woodhouse defends the use of energy talk (and proposes what he seems to think is a novel solution); Dossey denies the appropriateness of talking about consciousness in terms of energy. In short: for Woodhouse, consciousness is energy (“each is the other”); for Dossey, consciousness is not energy. As a philosopher passionately committed to exploring the relationship between consciousness and matter, between mind and body, and, specifically, the question “Can we have a science of consciousness?” I think the dialogue between Woodhouse and Dossey opens up a crucially important issue for philosophy of mind and for a science of consciousness. I believe the “energy question” is central to any significant advance we may make into understanding consciousness and how it relates to the physical world.
I have my own views on this relationship; but before outlining them, I want to address some points raised in the Woodhouse-Dossey debate. First, by way of foreshadowing, let me say that I think Woodhouse is on the right track with his double-aspect perspective: “Energy is the ‘outside’ of consciousness and consciousness is the ‘inside’ of energy throughout the universe.” But he goes on to make a fundamental philosophical error. Dossey, I believe, is right to urge us to be cautious before engaging in “energy talk” about consciousness. But his critique of Woodhouse’s
double-aspectism misses the most important point, and thereby fails to acknowledge what is of true philosophical value in Woodhouse’s model.
A Bias in Our Language
A major challenge facing philosophers and scientists of consciousness (and anybody else who wishes to talk about it) is finding appropriate concepts, words and metaphors. So much of our language is derived from our two most dominant senses: vision and touch. Vision feeds language with spatial metaphors, while touch-or rather, kinesthetics-feeds language with muscular push-pull metaphors. The visuo-muscular senses dominate our perception and interaction with the world, and consequently metaphors derived from these senses dominate our ways of conceiving and talking about the world. It is no accident that spatial and mechanical descriptions and explanations predominate in physics-the paradigm science (and our culture’s paradigm for all knowledge). Given our evolutionary heritage, with its selective bias toward vision and kinesthetics, we live predominantly in a spatial-push-pull world-the world of classical mechanics, a “billiard-ball” universe of moving, colliding, and recoiling massive bodies. Ours is a world of matter in motion, of things in space acted on by physical forces.
It should not be surprising, then, that when we come to talk about consciousness, our grooves of thinking channel us toward physics-talk-expressed today as “energy talk.” Forces are felt-experienced in the body- and we are tempted to think that the experience of force is identical to the energy exchanges between bodies described by physics. But this is to confuse the feeler’s feeling (the subject) with what is felt (the object). More on this later.
A few paragraphs back, I noted that the Woodhouse-Dossey debate highlights yet again the limits of language when we try to talk about consciousness. This problem is at least as old as Descartes’ mind-body dualism (though, as we shall see, it is not confined to Cartesian dualism-it is there, too, in forms of idealism known as the “Perennial Philosophy”). When Descartes made his famous distinction between mind and matter, he found himself “suspended in the language” of physics. He could find no better way to define mind than negatively in the terminology of physics. He defined matter as that which occupies space-“res extensa,” extended things. He defined the mental world as “res cogitans,” thinking things-and thinking things differ from physical things in that they do not occupy space. The problem was how could material, physical, things interact with nonphysical things? What conceivably could be the nature of their point of contact-material or mental? Centuries later, Freud, too, resorted to physics-energy talk when describing the “mechanisms” and dynamics of the psyche-e.g. his concept of the libido. Today, the same tendency to use energy talk, as Dossey points out, is rife in much new age talk about consciousness, soul, and spirit, exemplified in Woodhouse’s article and his book Paradigm Wars.
Because of our reliance on the senses of vision and kinesthetics, we have an evolutionary predisposition, it seems, to talk in the language of physics or mechanics-and by that I mean “matter talk,” or “energy talk.” Yet all such talk seems to miss something essential when we come to speak of phenomena in the domain of the mind-for example, emotions, desires, beliefs, pains, and other felt qualities of consciousness. The inappropriate clunkiness of mechanistic metaphors borrowed from classical physics seems obvious enough. The mind just isn’t at all like matter or machines, as Descartes was keenly aware. But then came Einstein’s relativity, and the quantum revolution. First, Einstein’s E = mc2 showed that matter was a form of energy, and so, with the advent of quantum theory, the material world began to dissolve into unimaginable, paradoxical bundles of energy or action. Matter itself was now understood to be ghostly swirls of energy, and began to take on qualities formerly associated with mind. A great physicist, Sir James Jeans, even declared that “universe begins to look more and more like a great thought.” Quantum events were so tiny, so undetermined, so un-mechanical in the classical sense, they seemed just the sort of thing
that could respond to the influence of the mind.
The quantum-consciousness connection was boosted further by the need (at least in one interpretation of quantum theory) to include the observer (and his/her consciousness) in any complete description of the collapse of the quantum wave function. According to this view, the quantum system must include the consciousness of the observer. Ghostly energy fields from relativity and the quantum-consciousness connection triggered the imaginations of pop-science writers and dabblers in new age pseudo-science: Quantum theory, many believe, has finally opened the way for science to explore and talk about the mind. But the excitement was-and is-premature. It involves a linguistic and conceptual sleight-of-hand. Whereas the clunky mechanical language of matter was obviously at best metaphorical when applied to consciousness, it now seemed more reasonable to use the language of energy literally-particularly if cloaked in the “spooky” garb of quantum physics. But this shift from “metaphorical matter” to “literal energy” was unwarranted, unfounded, and deceptive.
The Challenge of Subjectivity
Dissolving matter into energy makes neither of them any less physical. And the mark of the physical, as Descartes had pointed out, is that it is extended in space. Despite the insuperable problems with his dualism, Descartes’ key insight remains valid: What distinguishes mind from matter is precisely that it does not occupy space. And this distinction holds just as fast between mind and energy-even so-called subtle energy (hypothetical “subtle energy” bodies are described as having extension, and other spatial attributes such as waves, vibrations, frequencies). Energy, even in the form of infinitesimal quanta or “subtle vibrations,” still occupies space. And any theory of energy as a field clearly makes it spatial. Notions of “quantum consciousness” or “field consciousness”-and Woodhouse’s “vibrations,” “ripples,” or “waves” of consciousness-therefore, are no more than vacuous jargon because they continue to fail to address the very distinction that Descartes formulated nearly four hundred years ago.
But that’s not even the most troublesome deficiency of energy talk. Even supposing physicists were able to show that quanta of energy did not occupy space; suppose the behavior of quanta was so bizarre that they could do all sorts of “un-physical” things-such as transcend space and time; even if it could be shown that quanta were not “physical” in Descartes’ sense . . .even supposing all of this, any proposed identity between energy and consciousness would still be invalid.
Energy talk fails to account for what is fundamentally most characteristic about consciousness, namely its subjectivity. No matter how fine-grained, or “subtle,” energy could become, as an objective phenomenon it could never account for the fact of subjectivity-the “what-it-feels-like-from-within-experience.” Ontologically, subjectivity just cannot emerge from wholly objective reality. Unless energy, at its ontologically most fundamental level, already came with some form of proto-consciousness, proto-experience, or proto-subjectivity, consciousness, experience, or subjectivity would never emerge or evolve in the universe.
The Fallacy of ‘Energy Monism’
Which brings us to Woodhouse’s “energy monism” model, and the notion that “consciousness is the ‘inside’ of energy throughout the universe.” Despite Dossey’s criticism of this position, I think Woodhouse is here proposing a version of the only ontology that can account for a universe where both matter-energy and consciousness are real. He briefly summarizes why dualism, idealism, and materialism cannot adequately account for a universe consisting of both matter/energy and consciousness. (He adds “epiphenomenalism” to these three as though it were a distinct ontology. It
is not. Epiphenomenalism is a form of property dualism, which in turn is a form of materialism.) He then proceeds to outline a “fifth” alternative: “energy monism.” And although I believe his fundamental insight is correct, his discussion of this model in terms of double-aspectism falls victim to a common error in metaphysics: He confuses epistemology with ontology.
Woodhouse proposes that the weaknesses of the other ontologies-dualism, idealism, and materialism-can be avoided by adopting a “double-aspect theory which does not attempt to reduce either energy or consciousness to the other.” And he goes on to build his alternative ontology on a double-aspect foundation. Now, I happen to be highly sympathetic with double-aspectism: It is a coherent and comprehensive (even “holistic”) epistemology. As a way of knowing the world, double-aspectism opens up the possibility of a complementarity of subjective and objective perspectives.
But a perspective on the world yields epistemology-it reveals something about how we know what we know about the world. It does not reveal the nature of the world, which is the aim of ontology. Woodhouse makes an illegitimate leap from epistemology to ontology when he says, “This [energy monism] is a dualism of perspective, not of fundamental stuff,” and concludes that “each is the other.” Given his epistemological double-aspectism, the best Woodhouse can do is claim to be an ontological agnostic (as, in fact, Dossey does). He can talk about viewing the world from two complementary perspectives, but he cannot talk about the nature of the world in itself. Certainly, he cannot legitimately conclude from talk about aspects or perspectives that the ultimate nature of the world is “energy monism” or that “consciousness is energy.” Epistemology talk cannot yield ontology talk-as Kant, and later Bohr, were well aware. Kant said we cannot know the thing-in-itself. The best we can hope for is to know some details about the instrument of knowing. Bohr said that the task of quantum physics is not to describe reality as it is in itself, but to describe what we can say about reality.
The issue of whether energy talk is appropriate for consciousness is to be resolved ontologically not epistemologically. At issue is whether consciousness is or is not a form of energy-not whether it can be known from different perspectives. If it is a form of energy, then energy talk is legitimate. If not, energy talk is illegitimate. But the nature of consciousness is not to be “determined by perspective,” as Woodhouse states: “insides and outsides are determined by perspectives.” If “insides” (or “outsides”) were merely a matter of perspective, then any ontology would do, as long as we allowed for an epistemological dualism or complementarity (though, of course, the meaning of “inside” and “outside” would differ according to each ontology). What Woodhouse doesn’t do (which he needs to do to make his epistemology grow ontological legs) is establish an ontology compatible with his epistemology of “inside” and “outside.” In short, he needs to establish an ontological distinction between consciousness and energy. But this is precisely what Woodhouse aims to avoid with his model of energy monism. Dossey is right, I think, to describe energy talk about consciousness as a legacy of Newtonian physics (i.e. of visuo-kinesthetic mechanics); and this applies equally to “classical energy talk,” “quantum-energy talk,” “subtle-energy talk,” and Woodhouse’s “dual-aspect energy talk.” In an effort to defend energy talk about consciousness, Woodhouse substitutes epistemology for ontology, and leaves the crucial issue unresolved.
Unless Woodhouse is willing to ground his double-aspect epistemology in an ontological complementarity which distinguishes mind from matter, but does not separate them, he runs the risk of unwittingly committing “reductionism all over again”-despite his best intentions. In fact, Woodhouse comes very close to proposing just the kind of complementary ontology his model needs: “Consciousness isn’t just a different level or wave form of vibrating energy; it is the ‘inside’ of energy-the pole of interiority perfectly understandable to every person who has had a subjective experience of any kind” (emphasis added). This is ontology talk, not epistemology talk. Woodhouse’s error is to claim that the distinction “inside” (consciousness) and “outside” (energy) is merely a matter of perspective.
In order to defend his thesis of “energy monism,” Woodhouse seems to want it both ways. On the one hand, he talks of consciousness and energy being ontologically identical-“each is the other”; on the other, he makes a distinction between consciousness and energy-“energy is the ‘outside’ of consciousness and consciousness is the ‘inside’ of energy. He attempts to avoid the looming contradiction of consciousness and energy being both “identical yet distinct” by claiming that the identity is ontological while the distinction is epistemological. But the distinction cannot be merely epistemological-otherwise, as already pointed out, any ontology would do. But this is clearly not Woodhouse’s position. Energy monism, as proposed by Woodhouse, is an ontological claim. Woodhouse admits as much when he calls energy monism “a fifth alternative” to the ontologies of dualism, idealism, materialism (and epiphenomenalism [sic]) which he previously dismissed.
Furthermore, Woodhouse’s “inside” and “outside” are not merely epistemological when he means them to be synonyms for “subjectivity” and “objectivity” respectively. Although subjectivity and objectivity are epistemological perspectives, they are not only that. Subjectivity and objectivity can have epistemological meaning only if they refer to an underlying ontological distinction-between what Sartre (1956) called the “for-itself” and the “in-itself,” between that which feels and that which is felt. Despite his claims to the contrary, Woodhouse’s distinction between “inside” and “outside” is ontological-not merely epistemological. And as an ontological distinction between consciousness and energy, it is illegitimate to conclude from his double-aspect epistemology the identity claim that “consciousness is energy.” Woodhouse’s consciousness-energy monism confusion, it seems to me, is a result of: (1) a failure to distinguish between non-identity and separation, and (2) a desire to avoid the pitfalls of Cartesian dualism. The first is a mistake, the second is not-but he conflates the two. He seems to think that if he allows for a non-identity between consciousness and energy this is tantamount to their being ontologically separate (as in Cartesian dualism). But (1) does not entail (2): Ontological distinction does not entail separation. It is possible to distinguish two phenomena (such as the form and substance of a thing), yet recognize them as inseparable elements of a unity. Unity does not mean identity; and distinction does not mean separation. (I will return to this point shortly.) This muddle between epistemology and ontology is my major criticism of Woodhouse’s position. Though if he had the courage or foresight to follow through on his epistemological convictions, and recognize that his position is compatible with (and would be grounded by) an ontological complementarity of consciousness and energy, I would consider him a metaphysical ally. Which brings me to some of my minor criticisms of his
The ontological position implicit (though explicitly denied) in Woodhouse’s double-aspect model-where consciousness (“inside”) and energy (“outside”) are actual throughout the universe is none other than panpsychism, or what has been variously called panexperientialism (Griffin, 1997) and radical materialism (de Quincey, 1997). It is the fourth alternative to the major ontologies of dualism, idealism, and materialism, and has a very long lineage in the Western philosophical tradition-going all the way back to Aristotle and beyond to the Presocratics. Woodhouse does not acknowledge any of this lineage, as if his double-aspect model was a novel contribution to the mind-matter debate. Besides Aristotle’s hylemorphism, he could have referred to Leibniz’ monads, Whitehead’s “actual occasions,” and de Chardin’s “tangential energy” and the “within” as precursors to the distinction he makes between “inside” and “outside.” This oversight weakens the presentation of his case. Of course, to have introduced any or all of these mind-body theories would have made Woodhouse’s ontological omission all the more noticeable.
One other weakness in Woodhouse’s article is his reference to the Perennial Philosophy and the Great Chain of Being as supportive of energy talk that unites spiritual and physical realities. “The non-dual Source of some spiritual traditions . . . is said to express itself energetically (outwardly) on different levels in the Great Chain of Being (matter being the densest form of energy) . . .” Woodhouse is here referring to the many variations of idealist emanationism, where spirit is said to pour itself forth through a sequence of ontological levels and condense into matter. But just as I would say Woodhouse’s energy monism unwittingly ultimately entails physicalist reductionism, my criticism of emanationism is that it, too, ultimately “physicalizes” spirit-which no idealist worth his or her salt would want to claim. Energy monism runs the same risk of “physicalizing” spirit as emanationism. So I see no support for Woodhouse’s position as an alternative to dualism or materialism coming from the Perennial Philosophy. Both run the risk of covert dualism or covert materialism (see sidebar, “Problems with the Perennial Philosophy”).
Interiority and Exteriority
Dossey’s critique of Woodhouse’s energy monism and energy talk, particularly his caution not to assume that the “nonlocal” phenomena of quantum physics are related to the “nonlocal” phenomena of consciousness and distant healing other than a commonalty of terminology is sound. The caution is wise. However, his critique of Woodhouse’s “inside” and “outside” fails to address Woodhouse’s confusing epistemology and ontology. If Dossey saw that Woodhouse’s intent was to confine the “inside/outside” distinction to epistemology, he might not have couched his critique in ontological terms. Dossey says, “By emphasizing inside and outside, interior and exterior, we
merely create new boundaries and interfaces which require their own explanations.” The “boundaries and interfaces” Dossey is talking about are ontological, not epistemological. And to this extent, Dossey’s critique misses the fact that Woodhouse is explicitly engaged in epistemology talk. On the other hand, Dossey is correct to assume that Woodhouse’s epistemological distinction between “inside and outside” necessarily implies an ontological distinction-between “inside” (consciousness) and “outside” energy.
Dossey’s criticism of Woodhouse’s energy monism, thus, rests on an ontological objection: Even if we do not yet have any idea of how to talk ontologically about consciousness, we at least know that (despite Woodhouse’s contrary claim) consciousness and energy are not ontologically identical. There is an ontological distinction between “inside/consciousness” and “outside/energy.” Thus, Dossey concludes, energy talk (which is ontological talk) is inappropriate for consciousness. On this, I agree with Dossey, and disagree with Woodhouse. However, Dossey goes on to take issue with Woodhouse’s “inside/outside” distinction as a solution to the mind-body relation. If taken literally, Dossey’s criticism is valid: “Instead of grappling with the nature of the connection between energy and consciousness, we are now obliged to clarify the nature of the boundary between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ . . .” But I suspect that Woodhouse uses the spatial concepts “inside/outside” metaphorically because like the rest of us he finds our language short on nonphysical metaphors (though, as we shall see, nonspatial metaphors are available).
It may be, of course, that Woodhouse has not carefully thought through the implications of this spatial metaphor, and how it leaves him open to just the sort of critique that Dossey levels. Dossey, I presume, is as much concerned with Woodhouse’s claim that “consciousness is energy,” meaning it is the “inside” of energy, as he is about the difficulties in taking the spatial metaphor of “inside/outside” literally. On the first point, I share Dossey’s concern. I am less concerned about the second. As long as we remember that talk of “interiority” and “exteriority” are metaphors, I believe they can be very useful ways of pointing toward a crucial distinction between consciousness and energy.
The metaphor becomes a problem if we slip into thinking that it points to a literal distinction between two kinds of “stuff” (as Descartes did), or indeed to a distinction revealing two aspects of a single kind of “stuff.” This latter slip seems to be precisely the mistake that Woodhouse makes with his energy monism. By claiming that consciousness is energy, Woodhouse in effect-despite his best intentions to the contrary-succeeds in equating (and this means “reducing”) consciousness to a physical “stuff.” His mistake-and one that Dossey may be buying into-is to use “stuff-talk” for consciousness. It is a logical error to conclude from (1) there is only one kind of fundamental “stuff” (call it energy), and (2) this “stuff” has an interiority (call it consciousness), that (3) the interiority is also composed of that same “stuff”-i.e. that consciousness is energy. It could be that “interiority/consciousness” is not “stuff” at all, but something altogether distinct ontologically-for example, feeling or process-something which is intrinsic to, and therefore inseparable from, the “stuff.” It could be that the world is made up of stuff that feels, where there is an ontologically distinction between the feeling (subjectivity, experience, consciousness) and what is felt (objectivity, matter-energy).
Dossey’s rejection of the “inside/outside” metaphor seems to presume (à la Woodhouse) that “inside” means the interior of some “stuff” and is that “stuff”-in this case, energy-stuff. But that is not the position of panpsychist and process philosophers from Leibniz down through Bergson, James, and Whitehead, to Hartshorne and Griffin. If we make the switch from a “stuff-oriented” to a process-oriented ontology, then the kind of distinction between consciousness and energy dimly implicit in Woodhouse’s model avoids the kind of criticism that Dossey levels at the “inside/outside” metaphor. Process philosophers prefer to use “time-talk” over “space-talk.” Instead of talking about consciousness in terms of “insides,” they talk about “moments of experience” (Whitehead, 1979) or “duration” (Bergson, 1911). Thus, if we view the relationship between consciousness and energy in terms of temporal processes rather than spatial stuff, we can arrive at an ontology similar to Whitehead’s where the relationship between consciousness and energy is understood as temporal. It is the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity, where the subject is the present state of an experiential process, and the object is its prior state. Substitute “present” for “interior” and “past” or “prior” for “exterior” and we have a process ontology which avoids the “boundary” difficulties raised by Dossey. (There is no boundary between past and present-the one flows into the other; the present incorporates the past.) From the perspective of panpsychism or radical materialism, consciousness and energy, mind and matter, subject and object always go together. All matter-energy is intrinsically sentient and experiential. Sentience-consciousness and matter-energy are inseparable, but nevertheless distinct. On this view, consciousness is the process of matter-energy informing itself.
Metaphors of Meaning
Although our language is biased toward physics-energy talk, full of mechanistic metaphors, this is clearly not the whole story. The vernacular of the marketplace, as well as the language of science itself, is also rich with non-mechanistic metaphors, metaphors which flow direct from experience itself. Ironically, not only do we apply these consciousness metaphors to the mind and mental events, but also to the world of matter in our attempts to understand its deeper complexities and dynamics. For example, systems theory and evolutionary biology-even at the reductionist level of molecular genetics-are replete with words such as “codes,” “information,” “meaning,” “self-organizing,” and the p-word: “purpose.” So we are not limited to mechanistic metaphors when describing either the world of matter or the world of mind. But-and this is the important point-because of our bias toward visuo-muscular images, we tend to forget that metaphors of the mind are sui generis, and, because of our scientific and philosophical bias in favor of mechanism, we often attempt to reduce metaphors of the mind to metaphors of matter. My proposal for consciousness talk is this: Recognize the limitations of mechanistic metaphors, and the inappropriateness of literal energy talk,when discussing consciousness. Instead, acknowledge the richness and appropriateness of metaphors of meaning when talking about the mind. In short: Drop mechanistic metaphors (energy talk) and take up meaning metaphors (consciousness talk) when talking about consciousness.
One of the thorniest issues in “energy” and “consciousness” work is the tendency to confuse the two. Consciousness does not equal energy, yet the two are inseparable. Consciousness is the “witness” which experiences the flow of energy, but it is not the flow of energy. We might say consciousness is the felt interiority of energy/matter-but it is not energy.
If we say that consciousness is a form of energy, then we have two options.
(1) It is a physical form of energy (even if it is very, very subtle
(2) It is not a physical form of energy.
If we say that consciousness is a form of energy that is physical, then we are reducing consciousness (and spirit) to physics. And few of us, unless we are materialists, want to do that.
If we say that consciousness is a form of energy that is not physical, then we need to say in what way psychic energy differs from physical energy. If we cannot explain what we mean by “psychic energy” and how it differs from physical energy, then we should ask ourselves why use the term “energy” at all? Our third alternative is to say that consciousness is not a form of energy (physical or nonphysical). This is not to imply that consciousness has nothing to do with energy. In fact, the position I emphasize in my graduate classes is that consciousness and energy always go together. They cannot ever be separated. But this is not to say they are not distinct. They are distinct-energy is energy, consciousness is consciousness-but they are inseparable (like two sides of a coin, or, better, like the shape and substance of a tennis ball. You can’t separate the shape from the substance of the ball, but shape and substance are definitely distinct).
So, for example, if someone has a kundalini experience, they may feel a rush of energy up the chakra system . . . but to say that the energy flow is consciousness is to mistake the object (energy flow) for the subject, for what perceives (consciousness) the object. Note the two importantly distinct words in the phrase “feel the rush of energy . . . ” On the one hand there is the “feeling” (or the “feeler”), on the other, there is what is being felt or experienced (the energy). Even our way of talking about it reveals that we detect a distinction between feeling (consciousness) and what we feel (energy). Yes, the two go together, but they are not the same. Unity, or unification, or holism, does not equal identity. To say that one aspect of reality (say, consciousness) cannot be separated from another aspect of reality (say, matter-energy) is not to say both aspects of reality consciousness and matter-energy) are identical.
Consciousness, I am suggesting, is neither identical to energy (monism) nor is it a separate substance or energy in addition to physical matter or energy (dualism)-it is the “interiority,” the what-it-feels-like-from-within, the subjectivity that is intrinsic to the reality of all matter and energy (panpsychism or radical materialism). If you take a moment to pay attention to what’s going on in your own body right now, you’ll see-or feel-what I mean: The physical matter of your body, including the flow of whatever energies are pulsing through you, are the “stuff” of your organism. But there is also a part of you that is aware of, or feels, the pumping of your blood (and other energy streams). That aspect of you that feels the matter-energy in your body is your consciousness. We could express it this way: “Consciousness is the process of matter-energy informing itself.” Consciousness is the ability that matter-energy has to feel, to know, and to direct itself. The universe could be (and probably is) full of energy flows, vortices, and vibrations, but without consciousness, all this activity would be completely unfelt and unknown. Only because there is consciousness can the flow of energy be felt, known, and purposefully directed.
Problems with The Perennial Philosophy
The Perennial Philosophy, variations of a worldview that spans millennia and cultures, is essentially the ontology of idealism. Idealism states that only pure spirit or consciousness is ultimately real, or that spirit/consciousness is the source of all reality-including the entire material world. Our question is: If reality begins with pure spirit or pure consciousness how does it become matter? It seems we have two broad possible solutions. Either
(1) Maya Hypothesis: The material world is an illusion (maya), made up of
“dream stuff” with no reality independent of mind; or
(2) Emanationism: The material world issues forth from spirit and is, so to
speak, a dense form of spirit.
The Maya Hypothesis
If we go with option (1)-matter is illusory-then we are still left with the problem of accounting for the persistence of realism as a pragmatic necessity for biological survival, and for psychological sanity. We just don’t live as though the material world is an illusion (we wouldn’t survive very long if, for instance, we treated trucks on the highway or poisonous substances as mere illusions). Even enlightened beings must “follow the rules” or suffer the consequences. (Certainly, the literature is full of accounts of gurus, sages, shamans, psychics and assorted other gifted folk defying the laws of nature as understood in Cartesian-Newtonian science. But these accounts are noteworthy because they are anomalies. It is precisely the anomalous nature of such reports that requires explanation. The fact remains, that even these people, most of the time, act as though the physical world is real. Why?). So the maya hypothesis is pragmatically problematic for idealism (even if it may be philosophically irrefutable).
However, if we take option (2)-matter emanates from spirit-the situation is problematic even philosophically. If matter is “devolved” spirit, a dense concentration of spirit, soul, or mind, we have either (A) a covert materialism or (B) a covert dualism.
Let’s take (A): If we accept that the maya hypothesis is problematic, then we may assume that realism is true in some sense. Matter is real; it really is physical. But if matter is real, if it is really physical, and is a devolved form of soul and spirit, then spirit, too, must in some way be physical. Option (A) leads us onto one horn of a dilemma, namely, spirit is physical-even if it is a very, very subtle form of matter-energy. But this is not at all how spirit is portrayed in religious and philosophical idealism, for instance in the cosmological model of Plotinus or Hindu models where nirguna Brahman is the ultimate, without all qualities and attributes.
However, if we wish to avoid option (A)-the covert materialism of physical spirit-we end up on the other spike of the dilemma. Option (B) leads us to say that if both spirit and matter are real, that spirit really is spiritual and that matter really is physical, then at what point in the devolutionary process, and just how, does spirit impress form on matter or “impregnate” matter? It is the old problem of interaction familiar from our attempts to make sense of dualism. And for a very good reason: Option (B) is covert dualism. Clearly, “option B” is not really an option for idealism
(spiritual or psychic monism) because it involves a dualism of spirit and matter.
It seems, then, that idealism leaves us with three moves:
(1) Maya Hypothesis: Either we go all out and stick to our guns and assert that only spirit is real, all else is maya (leaving us with the problem of pragmatic realism); or
(2) Covert Materialism: We admit that it is a subtle form of materialism (which is a fundamental contradiction of idealism); or
(3) Covert Dualism: We accept that it is a form of covert dualism (which contradicts idealism’s assertion that only spirit or consciousness is real).
As presented, this critique amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of idealism, impaling it on the horns of a dilemma. If there is a way out, it will depend more on a leap of epistemological faith than on any empirical evidence or logical reasoning. It may be, for example, that the above analysis which appears to deconstruct idealism, only appears to do so because I am trapped in the very illusion I am attempting to unveil. It may be that with a different epistemology, with a different way of knowing beyond my senses and my rational faculties, the paradoxical nature of idealism would be experienced as wholly non-mysterious. Or that even if the mystery remained, I would “see” that that is just the way it is. But if we want to talk about or explain idealism, we remain at the level of expository discourse-and here, pragmatism and rationality still count. Philosophically, idealism is stuck.
Bergson, H. (1911), Creative evolution. Trans. A. Mitchell. New York: Dutton.
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