Mysticism and the epistemology of consciousness

  • Thread starter Canute
  • Start date
  • #36
Paul Martin
Hi Rade,

Thank you for considering my comments.
Rade said:
Here I will discuss what I think is the most important issue, why I think (not sure) we disagree at a fundamental philosophic level.
I will be happy to discuss this issue.
Rade said:
Why do I hold that "existence is primary ? It has to do with an experience I had at ~ 11 years old, known as the "existential moment". . . What I experienced is not what you and others have talked about on this thread, the feeling that "all is one".
I should explain at this point that my experiences and my path to the conclusion that "all is one" are not typical. Nor, do I expect that Les, or Canute, or anyone else is any more "typical" than you or me. We are each unique. The bad news is that that uniqueness makes it difficult to find common ground for communication. The good news is that we each have some different input to contribute and we each have a lot of room to learn from everyone else.

In my case, I had the "existential moment" you describe when I was about 5 years old. I distinctly remember the exact spot, and posture, and orientation I was in at that moment (I was facing East Southeast kneeling over a petrified wood stump with my forearms resting on the stump). After that, I had three or four "religious experiences" from either being knocked unconscious, having a high fever, or in the last case, under the influence of nitrous oxide in the dentist's chair. The earliest of these experiences gave me the direct "knowledge" that there was a greater part of existence in which time ran differently and separately from ordinary earth time, and at the extreme, time was at a dead stop altogether.

The last of these experiences (the dentist's chair one) left me with the extremely vague recollection that I had been guided through several levels of reality in which I was able to "see" or "know" exactly how all of reality worked and how it all got started. I also remember that when coming out of this altered state of mind, the amount of knowledge I was able to retain from the experience was SEVERELY reduced at each level as I dropped back down to our normal physical level. It was like millions or billions of orders of magnitude of reduction, so that I was left with only a glimmer of a hint of a suggestion of a vague recollection of some of what I had previously known. Those few details of what I remembered got me started thinking about the possibility that "all is one" as I vaguely remembered knowing. Since then, I have tried to make logical sense of that hypothesis, and I have never been able to find an argument that would cause me to doubt it or to abandon that hypothesis for any other.

I don't know if that qualifies me to be a "mystic" or not. I certainly don't claim to know anything for sure. I do not meditate, even though I did go through the TM course, which I paid for with my own hard earned money, hoping that it would cure my borderline hypertension. It didn't, and I didn't find any other benefit that was worth the time I was spending meditating, so I quit doing it. (I fixed my hypertension by petting our cats more regularly and by working on fun projects.) In my view of meditation, I think that there are two basic approaches to life as suggested by Plato (or maybe someone else) and those are the active life or the contemplative life. Of course in practice we all have a mix of these two in some proportion.

But as I see it, the extreme contemplative life would be to meditate so often and so completely as to withdraw from this world to the point that your body would die. And, in my view, you would then be in that state of Nirvana, or in that timeless void, or actually be that timeless void. That would be great and I think it will be great, but I plan to postpone it until after I have experienced a little more of the active life.

I think that the way to lead an active life is to give every moment the benefit of your best conscious thought, in order to try to understand what is going on here in physical reality -- all the way from the laws of physics to the strange behavior of humans -- and to formulate your plans of action with the same deliberate thoughtfulness. (I retired from IBM so I spent 30 years seeing those "Think" signs at every turn on every wall. That might have helped condition me toward this attitude. :)) I see that job, of thoughtful action, as literally being the work of God. That is, in my view, "God" is that ability to consciously think that we use in trying to understand and alter the world. I believe that it is that very ability that is responsible not only for the evolution of human culture but for the evolution of biological organisms and the evolution of the entire physical universe as well. I think it is profoundly important.

That is probably more philosophical background on me than you wanted or needed, but I just thought it might help to let you know where I'm coming from before we get down to the root issue.
Rade said:
If I read you correctly, you hold that "consciousness" is the ultimate metaphysical reality, whereas I hold that "existence" is of ultimate primacy.
I think you are correct that this seems to lie at the heart of whatever disagreements we might have. But I think the problem is more semantic than anything else.

There are several ways of thinking about "ultimate metaphysical reality". One way is as the most basic ontological "stuff" of which everything else consists. Another is the original state of reality if it even had an origin. A third one is the fundamental premise that must be made in order to begin formulating an explanation for anything. I think our differences simply amount to different choices among these.
Rade said:
I disagree with Descarte--I "know" he is not correct as well as I can "know" anything--that is, I know that I do not exist because I think, I JUST EXIST
I agree with you here. Descartes got it backward: I exist, and then I think. But I think both you and Descartes overlook the most important question begged by his cogito: What, exactly, for Heaven's sake, do you mean by "I"? What is this thing that can think? Can thinking exist without a thinker? Or does some thinker have to exist in order to have thought? If so, what exactly is that thinker?

In our ordinary human experience and in the ordinary interpretation of things, the claim is made that the brain is the thinker and that thought cannot exist outside the brain. It is the very departure from this idea that got you to questioning how anyone can hold a contrary view and prompting me to respond.

The problem I have with this customary view is that thought would be impossible prior to biological development, and thus thought would not be involved in the early physical universe. This means that the universe would have to arise without the benefit of design, which seems to me to be a hard problem, and it means that consciousness would have to arise from matter somehow, which is the "Hard Problem" currently being discussed. If we posit consciousness as primordial, then we have identified a designer responsible for choosing the extremely improbable initial conditions for the universe, and we also have solved the problem of consciousness appearing in organisms (the one consciousness simply drives them the way we drive cars or Mars Rovers.)

So, to fix Descartes' problem, the thinker, i.e. consciousness, is primordial. So it, by hypothesis, is the first entity to exist. At some point later, i.e. "after" it has existed for some time, it can know, or realize, that it exists. I think your experience is simply a recollection (in Plato's sense) of that initial existential moment. Incidentally I think that the term 'realize' tells us a lot. I used the term above in the sense of having the knowledge suddenly "dawn on" the thinker, but it can be interpreted in the other sense as well. By realizing existence, it makes the fact real. That is, the fact of existence is really something. And I mean it is "really something" in both senses of that! What I mean is that the realization that there is a difference, or a distinction, between existing and not existing, is new knowledge which emerged in reality. This knowledge began to form the basis of an organized collection of other knowledge, which, as well as I understand it, is the basis for the foundation of physical reality as described both by George Spencer-Brown and by Dr. Dick. As Bishop Berkeley described, all of physical reality is nothing more than an extremely complex and sophisticated system of such thoughts. I think he was right in spite of his critics.

So, let's go back to the question of, What is the "ultimate metaphysical reality"? Using my previous analysis of this phrase, I would say that the most basic ontological "stuff" of which everything else consists is that ability to think, or simply consciousness. And the original state of reality assuming it even had an origin was simply the existence of that ability to think without any thoughts having yet been thunk. And finally, the fundamental premise that must be made in order to begin formulating an explanation for reality is that there is some notion of existence so we can even talk about what that consciousness was doing extremely early on. In this last sense, I'd say you are correct: "existence is primary". I think we only have semantic disagreements. Of course we may have chosen different hypotheses about what that "I" actually is.

It's been fun talking with you, Rade, but I've gone on long enough. I've got some other "fun projects" that I want to attend to.

Last edited:
  • #37

Your post deserves a detailed response but for sake of all the other things I ought to be doing I'll try to skip through it a bit superficially. We agree on many things but I'll focus on where we disagree.

Your use of capitalization startled me. Just last week I thought of the same idea of capitalization to clear up a confusion which has popped up several times on PF between me and others and which always seems to get dropped without resolution.
Capitalisation is commonly used in the mystical literature for this purpose. As you say, it avoids a lot of confusion.

Can't argue with that. :smile:

First, I have always been a little bit uneasy with Nagel's 'what it is like'. It just seems that we could come up with a better characterization of what we mean, but it is also clear that nobody has done so yet. Taking the characterization literally, it says that consciousness is a metaphor. We are saying that We are conscious of A if and only if We know that A is like B
This seems to be a misunderstanding. By 'what it is like' is meant A knowing what A is like, not A knowing what B is like. Of course, when we describe 'what it is like' we must use metaphors and analogies, but in immediate experience knowing what A is like is knowing what A is like, not B or C. So I'd say your definition "the ability to know" is not fundamentally different to "what it is like", since we cannot know what it is like without being able to know.

You have a much better grasp of Rosenberg than I do so I won't comment on that part of your post. I find his theory too complex to grasp. I agree with equating individuating sentient beings to natural individuals, but either I disagree with his ideas about effective and receptive properties or I haven't understood them, or both.

As I see it, the mysterious "communication link" i keep talking about between Mind and brain is exactly what Rosenberg calls a "carrier".
Makes sense. But is there a need to to posit a carrier if Mind and mind and brain are ultimately all the same thing?

With the possible exception of the word 'duality', I think We now do agree on the key definitions and I think We agree on most of the rest.
I agree. But the issue of dualism is for me so fundamental that until we resolve that one I feel our agreement will be a bit superficial. Perhaps one of us could start a thread on dualism/nondualism.

And I think the only way to remove the sloppiness is to revert to mathematics and develop these ideas as formal systems. You have gotten My hopes up that Spencer-Brown has already got a start on this, but I don't know enough about his work yet to be sure. I would very much like to know more about it.
Yes, I find it very useful to relate all this to formal mathematical systems, and in fact find it quite impossible to separate metaphysics from mathematics. I'd argue that GSB did a lot more than make a start and that he got to the end. But again, perhaps that's one for another thread.

Concerning the definition of 'duality', it is not really important to Me. I don't care whether people call me a dualist or not, and i don't use the term, or any connotations of it, to try to express My ideas. I feel the same way about the term 'God'. Both terms seem to have such very different meanings to different People, that unless they are carefully defined first, I think it is a mistake to use either one. So I try not to.
I've got a feeling we misunderstand each other when it comes to dualism. You say it is not an important issue, yet it is a vital issue for mystical writers, which suggests a significant difference in views.

Concerning Buddhism, because of your suggestions i have now completed two courses covering the subject. I have been fascinated by what I learned. The net of it is that I can interpret Buddhist doctrines, or sutras, to be completely in accord with My own cosmological views.
Was the lower case 'i' deliberate? :smile: It seems to me also that your view is nearly consistent with Buddhist doctrine. However, the concept of nonduality is so central in Buddhist cosmology that it cannot be skated over. This is something we might discuss at length sometime.

On the other hand, I can identify what you might call "sloppiness" or "confusion" in each one. I learned that these same problems were identified by later Buddhist thinkers who founded new schools that fixed the problems. To my surprise, as I learned about these "fixes", I found Myself in agreement that they were an improvement on the previous notions.
I'm not sure how you would have reached this view. Can you give examples? It's very hard to find instances of sloppiness or confusion in the sutras, and I've never heard any Budhhist suggest that there are any.

But, with one exception, I think we can come to understand and explain everything that exists. That one exception is the problem of the ultimate origin of the ultimate ontological entity. That one, I think we have to leave open.
I'm not so sure about that, but maybe.

Buddhists themselves don't have a single view on these things, so We can't assume that They have the "correct" view.
The appearance of different views is usually superficial. Do you have examples of different views on anything important.

I think We should feel as empowered as Anyone to think these things through trying to make sense of them. After all We are Brahman.
Quite agree. It's the only way to make sense of them.

If We attribute all free will to the One consciousness, and recognize that the One acts out that free will through us, then everything makes sense.
I sort of agree. However, as far as I can tell, in Buddhism and Taoism what is fundamental does not act at all.

You mentioned quite some time ago in our conversations that we might disagree on the issue of freedom. Here, I can see that we do. If what you said here is a precept of Buddhism, then i would have to say that they are wrong. In My view, the personal 'freedom' so valued in materialist societies, if exercised by Mind, is the most precious and important feature in all of reality.
OK, but you are assuming that this freedom is exercised by Mind. I'm suggesting that it's exercised by mind.

"If one thinks that his infinite Spirit does the finite work which nature does, he is a man of clouded vision and he does not see the truth."

Bhagavad Gita
Chap. 18

I think it is clear from human history, that to the extent that humans think for themselves, their condition greatly improves.
Hmm. I don't find this to be at all clear. But perhaps I'm reading the wrong meaning into the sentence.

In my view, all the discussions surrounding the notion of duality are nothing but sophism.
Great. At last we have something we can really disagree about.

I don't think anything can be learned or gained by precisely defining 'dualism' and then taking stands on implications of that definition. That is not to say that there aren't logical problems (which I think you might call metaphysical) with any proposal for cosmic origins. In fact, as i have consistently said, I maintain that each and every proposed explanation for the origin of reality, whether it is string theory, religious creationism, some mythical epic account, or any other philosophical, religious, fictional, mythical, whimsical, logical, or psychological account, will have exactly the same problem: whether reality had a beginning or not, and if so, how did it get started, and if not how can we explain its existence.
This is just the point. These problems do not arise is nondual cosmologies. Lao-Tsu, the Buddha, Spencer Brown et al, they all claim to know the truth about our origins. Indeed, knowing this is necessary as a basis for knowing anything much, according to the mystics, for to know what one is one has to know how one originates. As Lao-Tsu says, knowing the ancient beginnings is the essence of Tao.

As you said, the concept of duality plays no part in My view of reality and I don't think it ever will.
Wanna bet? You won't be able to explore Buddhism and yet avoid this issue, It is the key to everything. Buddhism is sometimes called the 'Middle Way' view. The reason for this cannot be understood without an understanding of duality and nonduality.

For example, to understand Buddhist docrine it is necessary to understand the nonduality of Samsara and Nirvana, the unity of appearances and reality. And only by understanding nonduality is it possible to see how metaphysical questions like "Did the universe have a beginning or not?" can be resolved. Crucially, the central mystical experience is one of nonduality, and it is the principle or fact of nonduality that lies at the heart of the mystical doctrine.

"If we ask definitely ‘What is Brahman?’ the answer in modern terms would be: ‘Brahman cannot be defined because it is Infinite. It is beyond thought and beyond imagination. It is nothing in the mind and nothing outside the mind, nothing past, present or future. These are only conceptions in time and space. But the nearest conception of Brahman we can have is to say that it is a state of consciousness beyond time when SAT, CIT and, ANANDA, Being and Consciousness and Joy are ONE.’ We thus have the Mandukya Upanishad that explains the paradox that Brahman is all, and Brahman is nothing, or no-thing."

Translators Introduction (xl)
The Bhagavad Gita
(Trans. Juan Macaró, Penguin, 2003 (xviii))

"When we encounter the Void, we feel that it is primordial emptiness of cosmic proportions and relevance. We become pure consciousness aware of this absolute nothingness; however, at the same time, we have a strange paradoxical sense of its essential fullness. This cosmic vacuum is also a plenum, since nothing seems to be missing in it. While it does not contain in a concrete manifest form, it seems to comprise all of existence in a potential form. In this paradoxical way, we can transcend the usual dichotomy between emptiness and form, or existence and non-existence. However, the possibility of such a resolution cannot be adequately conveyed in words; it has to be experienced to be understood."

Stanislav Grof
The Cosmic Game

I'd just add that it is my understanding that although this resolution, the nonduality of existence and non-existence, something and nothing and so forth, cannot be adequately conveyed in words it can nevertheless be discussed in terms of the principles involved. But only by getting to grips with dualism and the extent to which it infects our thinking. It seems correct to say that in GSB's mathematical model of the universe it is specifically dualism, the making of false distinctions or 'indications', that is responsible for our existence as human beings.

Thank you for the enjoyable discussion.


Suggested for: Mysticism and the epistemology of consciousness

  • Last Post
  • Last Post
  • Last Post