It is a curious fact that we have successfully used our minds to penetrate profound secrets of the physical universe, but when it comes to grasping the nature of our minds, we are baffled. This is the famous mind-body problem, the ‘hard’ problem being to account for our consciousness, which is utterly unlike anything physical. The mind, it seems, has a hard time trying to understand itself.
In this essay, I describe how I evolved my view of the subject, which is deeply at odds with mainstream physicalism. Without putting a label on my view, there were two crucial steps I took, theoretical and empirical.
First, a comment on the word empirical – it comes from a Greek verb that means ‘experience’, but the modern trend has been to use it only for sense experience, which is too narrow. All kinds of experience are possible, including dreams, out-of-body states, hallucinations, visionary trances – the whole range of reported mental experiences.
Certain experiences I had were decisive in helping me form my concept of mind. Very few people are concerned with trying to understand the nature of their own minds; we all use our minds constantly but rarely reflectively. This shouldn’t surprise us. Our brains evolved to help us survive and replicate in a material world. To wonder too much at the mysteries of being could be extremely hazardous. To do so represents a study called philosophy of mind, one of a subset of problems that come under the heading of metaphysics.
The question about the nature of our minds is not only fundamental but riddled with controversy. Nor is the topic inconsequential, as I suggest in my conclusion. But here is the problem – in an age of advanced physical science, a certain default conception of mind has jelled into a state of uncritical acceptance. Although people constantly use mental terminology – the problem is on my mind, I dreamt of my dead aunt, I remember the first time we met, I am afraid to take the exam, I felt that was a beautiful piece of music, etc., etc. – the mainline view has taken the form of physicalism. According to this view, our mental life is in one way or another reducible to some set of physical conditions, especially if they are brain-based. Talk of mind for many who subscribe to physicalism is pegged as folklorish. It’s talk of something that either doesn’t exist or if it does is some kind of puzzling illusion without any real effects on anything. My instinctive response to that self-satisfied conceit: bullshit!
I first became conscious of this situation when I was in graduate school at Columbia University. I recall one day casually mentioning to a fellow student that from time to time I had psychic experiences. My friend looked at me rather wide-eyed and said: “But that’s impossible! It would imply dualism!” Evidently, it was official. I could not have had the experiences I said I had. I realised there was a choice: ignore, deny, indeed destroy my own experience or reject the mainline dogma that my fellow student had blithely repeated.
One thing I learned from this exchange: the counter-intuitive anti-mind position is entrenched in the prevailing ‘educated’ culture. It often seems necessary to have a jolting psychic encounter before one comes out and opposes the reigning dogmas. Neuroscientists who have near-death epiphanies make strong witnesses willing to come out and challenge mainstream materialism.1
After graduate school I continued to have psychic experiences that were officially forbidden, telepathic and precognitive, as well as incidents of unexplained physical events, and even some that pointed toward postmortem survival.2
All these are officially forbidden because they contradict the materialist creed; they imply the independent reality of mental occurrences and therefore perhaps of a mental world. But most outrageous is anything suggesting people survive bodily death. The official standpoint wants us completely and totally dead.
I knew I wasn’t the only person in the world to have psychic experiences. So I met others who had been in the metaphysical twilight zone, began to read the vast literature on the subject, and got to know contemporary researchers.
All of this information and all the persons involved in this largely extra-institutional field of study altered my perception of reality. I learned to see myself in a different light. I often had dreams that I lived in a house with rooms I didn’t know I had, rooms that opened up into wild landscapes. I would often wake up feeling both uneasy and exhilarated. I was confident I had hardly begun to know myself. And here is one coup I can boast of: I learned to resist feeling nauseated when I listened to know-it-alls pontificate about the non-existence of things I knew by acquaintance.
I taught college level courses on psychic phenomena and found that virtually all my students were able to write reports – given highly specific criteria to guide them – on cases of apparent psychic performance they were able to dig up from their immediate social environment. Add the constant appearance of such phenomena as themes in movies, TV, fiction, art, and now everywhere on the Internet – and finally, and scarcely a minor matter, the whole of history, especially the so-called ‘religious’ history of humankind, is oozing at every pore with all that officially forbidden psychic, spiritual, and mystical stuff and its attendant physical weirdness. The most extraordinary case I came across was the ecstatic, Joseph of Copertino, a full-spectrum thaumaturge, and in my eyes, a neat mock-up for a postmodern Superman.3
How the massively profound and mysterious experience of the human race can be squeezed into the pint-sized intellectual apparatus of reductive physicalism, beats me. To insist on such a tyrannically constricted peep-hole into reality is a war-crime against the human spirit. The main point: my own experience and the experience of countless human beings blatantly contradict the little jail-house worldview of reductive physicalism. So much for that initial, but for me, decisive first step in talking about the nature of mind: as it should, experience trumps theoretical obsession. On now to theory.
Certain theoretical steps freed me to form a picture of mind more in tune with my experience. Ideas of William James, Irwin Schrödinger, and Carl Jung combined to get rid of an oppressive assumption. As long as I saw my mind and interior world as solely an outgrowth of my brain, my existence seemed that of a doomed outlier, a creature tainted to the core by contingency and suffering from severe causal impotence.
William James, however, offered an alternate view of what might be going on. In a lecture on immortality he gave to a Harvard audience at the end of the nineteenth century, he was faced with trying to account for a variety of human experiences that made no sense in light of the new scientific materialism, according to which everything mental must be some kind of secondary side effect of the really real stuff, the physical. James showed that we are free to assume that consciousness does not emerge from the brain at all. We may in fact assume that brains transmit but do not create consciousness. Consciousness may be a reality, or dimension of being, in and of and even for itself. Mind, not derived from anything physical, does interact with the physical. So we can grant all the mind-brain correlations of neuroscience, without assuming that mind is brain-born or brain-derived.
The idea used to illustrate this is a radio or a TV set: what is heard or seen through such machines originate from somewhere outside the machines. The machines (our brains) are detectors, transmitters, transducers of signals, energies, but from elsewhere; brains are not creators of anything and minds are not machines.
I – my mind – is affected by my body; I can also affect my body, even my brain, and it turns out that the brain is more plastic than formerly assumed. By effort and practice one’s mind can appropriate parts of the brain to reconnect and recapture a lost function. But then brain disease can impair mental function. However, evidence shows that people with impaired brains sometimes recover their mental capacities just before death. This seems to show that impaired brains suppress but do not destroy mental function and content since the latter may reappear as death disentangles mind from brain.
The big point learned from James is that although we live enmeshed with and through our brains, our personal mental life is part of a pre-existing and larger reality. The irreducibility of the mind to the brain that James’s view entails has been reiterated in a different form in recent times with talk of the so-called “hard problem” enunciated by David Chalmers. Virtually everybody nowadays agrees that the reduction of consciousness to the physical is not even remotely conceivable.
Now to a big idea. It seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that consciousness, if not brain-derived, is then a given, a basic part of the basic furniture of being. As far as the mainline view, with a little help from James, we have just turned it upside down. Instead of reducing and eviscerating the substance of mind, we have assigned it a much wider and more fundamental place in nature.
There’s a second move I made toward the radical liberation of my mental life. Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, declared that mind is and can only be numerically one. There is nowhere in the world of mind that you can carve out pieces so as to make mind plural, as you could a sheet of paper or a carbon atom. This doctrine of the one mind, which inspired Schrödinger, can be traced back to the Hindu Upanishads,
The one mind that is filtered through my brain is bound to create the illusion of isolation and separateness. We then naturally identify with our bodies and unique personal perspectives, so the differences between you and me are real enough. And yet, the more deeply we enter ourselves, the more we merge toward the oneness of our humanity that lies in our common consciousness. Simply as a practical point I would say: The way toward the oneness of humanity is not by forcing uniformity but by not fixating on our uniqueness. We can celebrate diversity without neglecting the underlying oneness of spirit.
Another teacher that helped free me to place mind at the centre of my worldview was C. G. Jung. According to Jung, we live from moment to moment and from first to last in a psychical world of images. The stream of interweaving mental and bodily imagery that we experience, punctuated by episodes of more but different kinds of dream imagery, is our existential milieu. There is no exit from this infinitely complex and nuanced world of subjectivity. Jung’s psychical idealism in which the psyche is composed of images is literally where it’s at. It’s impossible to exit from our subjectivity. This, however, does not imply solipsism. In fact, it suggests a much wider range of communication potential. According to the physicalist, however, we have no deep communal mental or spiritual roots; we are separate bodies driven wholly and solely to consume and replicate.
Thanks to my own experience, and helped by fellow travellers, I fought my way free from the suffocating worldview that would have imposed itself on me, if I had let it. Aware now of the primal status of my inner reality, of its numerical oneness in Schrödinger’s Upanishadic sense, and of its self-existence and pervasiveness in nature, I’m in a better place than I began, with the albatross of physicalism off my back. Once we expand our concept of mind, the range of the possible increases exponentially. The idea is not just to think this but to embrace it as we embrace somebody we love.
I want to discuss two big ideas in relation to this expanded concept of mind. The first is the question of life after death, a perennial belief or at least hope of humankind. No doubt that if the prevailing view of mind as some blurry side-effect of living brains is correct, afterlife or immortality talk would have to sputter to a stop. My story is not quite so grim. I can at least report that a large body of evidence exists suggesting that some people survive death with their personalities intact.4 The vast majority of competent scientists and generally educated people are ignorant of this evidence, and seem to lack the curiosity (or the courage) to look into it with an open mind.
I will make one specific point about the idea of consciousness after death. If physicalism were true, we’d have to say no to life after death. But physicalism is false, as anyone with a mind can prove with thoughtful self-scrutiny. So the question remains open. If the model suggested here is true, and consciousness does not ‘emerge’ from the brain – if in short the brain does not create but transmit consciousness – then brain-death would not entail consciousness-death. This move will not guarantee there is a heaven. But the scene has shifted to a sunnier living-room, a room with bay windows that look out upon what seems a magical and enticing forest. Consciousness after bodily death assumes a new mantle of possibility. In light of the evidence collected by researchers, a country of new thought awaits explorers with honest minds and rich hearts.
Given the premise of a primary mental reality, as put forth here, there is another big issue related to rejection of the mainstream view of mind. In the world traditions, besides the idea of life after death, we find ideas of divine agencies – of spirits, angels, demons, gods, goddesses, and so forth. The so-called new atheists have tried to demolish religion, but the critique is shallow, intolerant and too sweeping. They mostly have nothing to say of interest about the core spiritual beliefs that revolve around the mystical experiences of religion.
Expansion of the concept of mind as one and transpersonal, based on our discussion of James, Schrödinger, and Jung, helps us understand how certain religious ideas might arise: for example, the belief in agencies listed above, along with the belief that humans can interact with these higher ones, however named or described. Different cultures and individuals perennially engage the transcendent mind we have described, always in diverse ways, using diverse vocabularies, rites and myths. While happily granting all this, we also assume there is the transcendent one mind, the one underlying consciousness that seeps into our experience through our uniquely conditioned brains and cultures. This too is real and may be thought of as the matrix of all transcendent experience.
In short, while materialists are forced to condemn the whole of ‘religion’ as nonsensical and pernicious, once we acknowledge the reality of transcendent mind, we can appreciate the positive content of all the religions. But we can – must – also carry on a critique of the violently stupid and anti-human offshoots of religious psychopathy.
I think that a good deal of anti-religionism can be as narrow and destructive as the warped religionism the critics love to attack. This leads to my final thought regarding my evolution toward this highly expanded (and radically democratic) view of mind. My views are broadly shared by a significant portion of scholars and thinkers, living and dead. But at this point we are a minority, a voice in the wilderness of self-destructing neo-liberalism,5 and at a time when physicalist metaphysics and practical materialist ideologies are triumphant almost everywhere on the planet.
To take a single but revealing example, consider the amount of money the US invests in its military budget. Of the $1.11 trillion dollars of federal discretionary spending, the US in 2015 consumed 54% or $598.5 billion dollars on the military budget, equal to the next seven largest military budgets, China, Saudi Arabia, etc. Now here is my strange-sounding question: How much of the discretionary spending goes to research on what happens to people after we kill them? The answer, of course, is nothing at all. More than half the national treasure is spent on producing and sustaining an unprecedented world-dominating military machine, with tentacles in the 800 bases planted all over the planet.
This may be an odd way to point out how our civilisation operates, but it’s only one example of how materialist values are acted out to the detriment of life everywhere. What’s clear is that the default option is military not diplomatic, force rather than persuasion. Another example is the way the pharmaceutical industries are edging talk (and therefore mental) therapy out of existence.6 Our entire capitalist-consumerist economy privileges materialist values such as limitless profit and gratification of appetite over justice and self-mastery. Materialism today is not just a philosophical position. It is an attitude, a disposition – a cancer metastasizing in human society. It needs to be not just intellectually refuted but excised from the entrails of a morally corrupt culture.
1. See, for example, Eben Alexander’s challenging Proof of Heaven (2012) and Marjorie Woolacott’s equally compelling Infinite Awareness (2015), both neuroscientists with experiences that helped them realise they were misled by their mainstream teachers in the field of medicine, as I was at first misled by the mainstream current of thought.
2. See, Soulmaking (1997), also consciousnessunbound.blogspot.com
3. The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation (2016)
4. The literature on this is vast but the reader might begin with Irreducible Mind (2007), Eds. Ed Kelly, Emily Kelly.
5. See Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Naomi Klein, Abbe Martin, etc. much that is instructive is available online, especially YouTube.
6. See Peter Goetsche’s Deadly Medicines and Organized Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare (2013).
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