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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Facing Facts

When I start a science or philosophy book that looks interesting, I first read the introductory chapters and then the concluding chapters. Sometimes I even read backwards--paragraph by paragraph. This gives me an overview, tells me if the work fits in with my own life's project, and helps me decide if I want to read the whole book.

Thus I just read The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, by Thomas Metzinger. I kick myself for not discovering and reading this book earlier. It's already 5 years old! And yes, even though much of the work in the middle Part Two "Ideas and Discoveries" I have already discovered, I am reading the whole book because of the frame he sets in the introductory chapters and because of the lessons in ethics and further inquiry he establishes in the conclusion.

It is especially those lessons in ethics that tie into my life's project as I stated in the Introduction to this blog: Is there an ethic with standards to which all humans can appeal in a culturally pluralistic, politically fractious, economically indeterminate, philosophically postmodern/post-enlightenment world? International institutions presume it. World peace and prosperity demand it. The future of humanity depends on it. Yes, it is a matter of cooperation, choice, and consensus. But how do we get there?

We are in the third phase of a Consciousness Revolution, according to Metzinger: the first was understanding the conscious experience itself. Philosophy, from ancient Greece on, through the Cartesian turn to nineteenth century empiricism and idealism and on to twentieth century pragmatism and phenomenology, is indicative of this phase. The second, being driven by neuroscience, is the understanding of the Ego, the first-person perspective, the "tunnel" from the organism to its environment in which we come to understand the workings of the brain that makes us conscious.  The third phase is deciding what we want to do with this knowledge. This is the normative phase; and as Metzinger shows it is a dangerous one for our species.

In the development of human consciousness we might discern (in dialogue with Metzinger and others) stages with a caution that these are not stages in the sense of distinct and bounded grades but rather points in a continuum:

1) Embodiment: this is where the embrained organism achieves a whole body image and so a sense of inwardness as it takes signals from the environment in relation to feeling of pain and pleasure. This stage is shared with most sentient animals but more so with higher mammals.

2) Subjectivity: this is where the embrained body attends, is directed to objects in the environment, and achieves a perspective. A PSM (phenomenal self model) is constructed, a sense of Ego that is a tunnel to a world, an integration and ownership of feeling with the ability to suffer and enjoy. Certain higher mammals share this stage with humans.

3) Reflectivity: the organism with a self-model recognizes other selves; through symbolic interactivity the body chooses and manipulates objects and creates culture. On the base of body-image and self-model, the brain develops the thinking model. Whereas the second stage is that of naïve realism where the behavior of encountering the world and others is totally transparent or invisible, in reflection there is awareness not only of body and self, but also of symbolic activity through which humans come to terms with their encultured world. This consciousness seems to be solely available to modern humans or homo sapiens sapiens.

4) Transcendence: Does the continuum of consciousness go further where the consciousness model itself is achieved: a sense of universal empathy and cognitive infinity? Does this connect to the Consciousness Revolution we are now undergoing? 

Metzinger's corrects me. I now understand that while consciousness is necessary for thinking (e.g. symbolic activity), thinking is not necessary for consciousness--except of course for mature and healthy human consciousness. I began my own study of consciousness with an examination of symbolic activity, which begins with embrained body gestures in interaction with caregivers, siblings, friends, and teachers.  Metzinger marshals the evidence for the continuum of consciousness and for a pre-symbolic consciousness and world through his analysis of out-of-body experience, phantom limbs, and dreams and in the studies of mammals and earlier humans who do not use symbols to think or are only in very early use of symbols. Nevertheless, I would argue that in human communication, evolution achieves a new level of consciousness.

But I agree that the newest stage of consciousness emerging through the new science and philosophy creates a dilemma for the human prospect--which I have tried to capture in my project for a New Ethics. Many of us now realize that there really is no Santa Clause. The previous explanations of religion and philosophy are myths conjured by humans struggling for meaning in an uncertain, random world.

But now more than that, we realize that we ourselves are not clear and distinct entities but rather images and models shaped by our brains to protect our organisms. Consciousness, including the Self or Soul, is not an entity. We delude ourselves by separating or reifying consciousness as an object. And the world and its objects with all their qualities are real only insofar as they are useful fictions of the brain dealing with the signals of its environment. All our experiences have neural correlates (which we can manipulate). There are no purposes in life or ways to happiness except those that we decide.

This knowledge leaves us with a void, a “disenchantment of world” through rationalism and capitalism as described by Max Weber and a “disenchantment of the self” and perhaps of other selves as described by Metzinger, so that we might fall into a profound sense of nihilism and depression which is more than clinically psychological, but also social and political.

Moreover there is a growing gap in the consciousness of world residents that rivals and even connects to the gaps we are noting in wealth, education, technology access, and economic and political development. For cnly a relatively few are in touch with the latest discoveries of neuroscience and have time and inclination to think about them. And they are mostly the people with higher education, access to technology, and in more economically developed nations with dwindling populations. Nevertheless, the word is getting out to the many through newspaper op-eds, journal articles, movies, blogs, TED Talks, high school and college courses, and books, lots of books and their reviews.

We respond to the dilemma of our new knowledge and consciousness in diverse ways:

1. We deny what science is telling us and we sequester those who enlighten us. We reject the facts of evolution and neuroscience which contradict the beliefs we have been given. We fight those who by teaching this heresy are corrupting our youth and should be eliminated. We reassert the beliefs that we consider absolute and inviolable. We hang on to the consciousness of naive realism and fundamentalism. Or

2. We flee from the depressive effects of the new science through the manipulation of our experience by drugs or by electronic stimulation or by expansive distractions. We use the new knowledge and its technologies to alleviate the pain and suffering of our loss of faith. Or

3. We accept the implications of the new science. We accept that we are here now with others without purpose, that all we have is the pleasure and enjoyment of the moment without further meaning. We take what we can get often by using the illusions of those who believe in higher meanings or those who flee from the pain of further knowledge. Or

4. We celebrate the opportunities of the new consciousness and work with others to probe it further. We create new self-critical expressions of faith and derive meaning in the process and fellowship of inquiry. We foster our evolved desires to be, to be with, and to know despite or even because of their risks and our limitations. We acknowledge our personal and collective limits, illusions, and self-deceptions. We take responsibility and assume the power to re-create ourselves and our society here and now in order to reduce suffering by reducing cruelty and enhance our species by fostering empathy.

Often in past  reflections that express my own quest for faith that transcends our limitations, illusions, and self-deceptions, I have referred to Pascal's wager. I rejected his wager as a game theory by which we bet to believe in God and follow His commandments as contained in His revelations in Scripture and his Church because the consequences of non-belief (eternal damnation) are far worse. I saw the wager as weakness, as rejection of the courage to be and to know by rejecting the facts of our existence.

I don't believe that there is a universal Cosmic Consciousness, an independent and personal Mind or Spirit to which all evolution is intending, e,g Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Point. I don't believe it because it contradicts the evidence of evolution and of scientific experimentation. I admire T de C's writings as poetry that illuminates the desire that evolution has created in our brain and our own "unrestricted desire to know" (Lonergan) or "beginning of infinity" (Deutsch). My awe of this capacity and desire can only be expressed in poetry. My own experience of this desire and capacity, my own transcending consciousness, is best described as "religious." It is at certain moments ecstatic or transcendent in which I feel myself at one with every one and every thing that is. I don't believe in this transcending experience of consciousness. It just is. Although my expressions of it, whether poetic and religious, my scientific explanations for it through evolution and brain research, and my own interpretive philosophy of mind, are surely part of my contemporary belief system.

This belief system is capturing our culture. And it is under attack by those who want to hold firm to their own belief systems with their doctrines and rituals, with their  ethics and laws and especially by the belief systems that preserve naïve realism in thinking and fundamentalism in religion. We who are trying to advance the new science and its conclusions and culture are in the minority, have higher education, and live predominantly in economically developed regions of the world. We are considered elitists, progressives, infidels, and corrupters of youth, sometimes threatened by pre-modern domestic and foreign reactionary terrorists. Despite these misguided attacks, we too need to criticize our belief system and its postmodern culture. We need to be aware of unintended consequences of a "progress" in science and technology that is truly destroying our earth, our neighbors, and ourselves and bringing unnecessary suffering into the world. I know that if I am faithful to the human experiment, I will continue to critique and modify that belief system without being defensive or reactionary.

But back to the wager. Suppose there were a universal Cosmic Personal Self-contained Consciousness, the Alpha and Omega of all being, initiator of the Big Bang and Fulfillment of the Multiverse. But since I see such a belief as a new Creation Myth and reject it’s reality based on my understanding of and willingness to face the facts, will She be disappointed in me? Would She reject me when I am simply trying to be as honest and open to reality as I can be?

I continue to try to learn without prejudice and without uncriticized beliefs. I do not believe in unembodied consciousnesses outside of time and space. I act not for some eternal reward or to avoid some terrible pain. I realize that there is no permanent Rollie Smith who is in touch with Universal, Infinite Being.

But I do act with faith in the unknown. I do know that if I give up my faith, I give up my quest, my consciousness, and my existence--as well as yours and the consciousness of all my loved ones and of all those whom I would like to love and whose love I want to enjoy. So that is my wager of faith beyond belief. I realize that my faith may be unwarranted; and it is in fact not guaranteed (that's why it's faith). I realize that my faith is perhaps a brain-induced self-deception to keep the species going. But I also make it my decision.