The Phenomenon: A brief review

In the next few hours a new documentary film about unidentified aerial phenomena—a.k.a. UFOs—and close encounters is going to be released. It's called The Phenomenon, by director James Fox. I have had the privilege of watching it a few days before launch, so I could share my views on it with you. What follows are my unbiased opinions. I am under no contractual obligation to issue a review and have no financial stake at all in the film or this review.

James Fox has clearly been working on this film for years, following his previous documentary on the subject, Out of the Blue (2003). As we have come to expect from him, The Phenomenon is a serious, cautious, level-headed work. James's strength is not so much in breaking news on the subject, but in thoroughly examining—under the light of reason and evidence—what is already known, filtering out the abundance of garbage, gullibility, hysteria and nonsense that, unfortunately, prevails in this field. Just like before, he serves us a distilled summary of what is reliable and significant—yet no less astounding—about the phenomenon.

In addition, James has once again proven himself able to dig one layer deeper than the rest, exploring the subject from more telling—albeit non-traditional—angles. His revisitation of the 1966 Westall school incident in Australia, and the 1994 Ariel school event in Zimbabwe, are cases in point. Both are examples of close encounters involving dozens of witnesses. In both cases, the narrative clearly transcends the common storyline of aliens from another solar system dropping by for some kind of research purpose. James has managed to bring back the direct witnesses of these events, decades later, and re-interview them with the insights of today. This was just about what I had wished someone would do; and he did it.

The most significant part of the movie is—without a doubt, in my mind—the examination, at the Stanford School of Medicine, of metal samples collected from alleged UFO visitation sites by respected researcher Dr. Jacques Vallée, over decades of investigation. This is the much hoped-for hard evidence. An analysis of the atomic structure of these samples was conducted with a state-of-the-art ion beam microscope, which yielded surprising results: the isotope ratios in these samples are unlike anything known to occur on Earth. Such a finding may sound too highbrow to be significant—especially in light of the much more incredible claims routinely made in this field by suspicious characters—but it certainly is. In fact, my only criticism against the film is that James—perhaps in a concession to mainstream tastes and expectations—hardly explores the finding in the final cut. The subject was left behind just as I thought we were warming up to it. Perhaps we will read more about it in academic publications, but I confess to have been annoyed at the brevity of the coverage of what was perhaps the one truly new news in this film.

If your interest lies in new UFO and close encounter cases never before reported, this film is going to disappoint you. Breaking news is not what James is trying to achieve here. But if, instead, you are looking for a more thoughtful review of previously reported cases, then this is for you. More than probably any other subject of general public interest, the UFO field is fraught with nonsense, charlatanism, fraud, gullibility, wishful thinking, and in-your-face idiocy. Although I have always been interested in the subject, I very quickly become nauseated by what I find each time I dare dip a toe in it. James's movies, however, are refreshing; they represent a breath of fresh air in a foul-smelling mad house. This is the great value of his and Vallée's efforts: a welcome injection of reason and honesty in an otherwise toxic space.

In this context, The Phenomenon subtly and unpretentiously distills what is credible and significant in the long history of unidentified aerial phenomena and close encounters, serving the viewer a clean platter, freed from trash and nonsense. James has left out not only the nonsensical or questionable cases, but also the nonsensical or questionable elements of the cases he does cover. Parasitic claims and 'witnesses' that feed on otherwise credible events are, to my relief, nowhere to be seen. This judicious filtering clearly involved a lot of care and thought, having been accomplished discretely, elegantly, without furor. Indeed, it is delightful the see the film's narrative steer clear of every mine in the field. What is left may not be as spectacular as the vivid imagination of charlatans, but it remains extraordinarily interesting for the more discerning and levelheaded tastes. The value of this documentary thus resides as much in what it doesn't say as in what it does say. Such discernment makes it rather unique.

As a matter of fact, although UFO and close encounter cases have obvious scientific significance, I believe they have even more metaphysical significance. I say this because the phenomenon seems to defy not only the limits of our technology, but also the laws of physics and—even more significantly—the laws of logic. Many of these reports are absurd, their very absurdity speaking to the sincerity of the witnesses and the courage of those who are now making the hard evidence available, as well as acknowledging the bewilderment of the highest instances of government. The Phenomenon does include what many of you will consider headline-making new admissions by well-known, high-ranking government officials and politicians. But for me this is not the cream; the cream is how the cases reported consistently instantiate the seemingly absurd features I discussed in my book, Meaning in Absurdity, where I cover the UFO and contact phenomena from an angle you are certainly not used to: nonsensical flight paths and movements, weird angles of attack in flight, alleged telepathic communications more akin to spiritual experiences than encounters with explorers from another planet, illogical behavior on the part of the 'visitors,' etc. There is much food for thought in there.

It is this absurdity of behavior so often seen in the phenomenon that makes me believe that its relevance is as much metaphysical as it is scientific. Here we have nature behaving in a way that defies its own known laws and our very logic. The phenomenon is telling us something important about the nature of reality and ourselves, rather than the exploratory interests of aliens from another star system. And it is under this light that I invite you to check out The Phenomenon. For the more significant hints about the nature of reality are to be found not in the headlines, but the subtle aspects of what is, most definitely, a very strange phenomenon indeed.

Reason or covetousness? On academic philosophy

I have a Google Alert calibrated for more-or-less relevant occurrences of my name in Internet traffic. The idea is to remain aware of what people may be saying about my work, so I can adjust my communication strategy accordingly. Every now and then, however, some pearls pop up in that alert; things that aren't really relevant in and of themselves, but which betray the ways in which I am impacting different segments of society and culture at large.

Yesterday I got an alert about a 5-month-old philosophy thread on Reddit, which probably came up again because of some recently-added comment; I don't know, I didn't see it 5 months ago, but it doesn't matter anyway. The point is that someone had originally posted there asking whether there were proper rebuttals to my arguments and positions. I didn't read through the thread, but the first words of the first response caught my eye. I quote:

There are no rebuttals of his work specifically not because he can't be refuted, but because he's not considered in academic circles, and not even amateurs care to do so.

Despite being blatantly false, this is very interesting: it betrays a telling kind of frustration. The original poster and some others didn't seem convinced by such a demonstrably wrong answer, and pointed to my many academic papers and thesis, as well as the attempts to rebut me—in print—in the academic literature. They then got the following answer:

You seem to be under a strange illusion that acquiring a PhD is itself something making one relevant to anyone, and that publishing articles in no name journals is considered of any relevance. Publishing books is also of no relevance. Nobody is engaging with him. He's not part of the currently popular topic spaces and their discussions.

Apparently nothing at all is of any relevance, except the opinion of this particular poster. The frustration this paragraph exudes betrays so clearly what the actual feeling and motivation here are. Indeed, if I were to point out that I've published in heavy-weight journals—such as the Journal of Consciousness Studies and SAGE Open—or remind the poster of the fact that well-known academic philosophers—such as David Chalmers—have cited my work in print, or that others—such as Philip Goff—have gone out of their way to engage me multiple times in public, or that yet other academics—such as Keith Frankish and Michael Graziano—have had heated exchanges with me also in print, or that I've been invited to debate well-known philosophers and public intellectuals—such as Suzan Blackmore, Michael Shermer, Leonard Mlodinow, Tim Crane, Nancy Cartwright, Peter Atkins, etc.—or that I am constantly on demand for interviews in all kinds of media, including television, etc., I am sure the poster would simply move to the next fallback 'argument': that none of these people are relevant in academic philosophy. Of course, for what is actually aggravating the poster is precisely the fact that I am a very visible and thus far undefeated philosopher, despite not being an academic. How dare I be influential without holding an academic job? What does this suggest about academic philosophy today? How dare I, doing philosophy as—until very recently—a hobby, accomplish so much while many 'real' philosophers labour in utter obscurity? Though human and understandable, these feelings are certainly counterproductive.

Indeed, that some seem to react to what I have accomplished with covetousness—as opposed to the objectivity that academics are expected to embody—is both a serious problem and a missed opportunity for desperately-needed change. As I discussed in the professional blog of the American Philosophical Association recently (so much for invisibility in academic circles), many academic philosophers have abandoned reality and now spend their time playing entirely abstract conceptual games of no relevance to you and me. But they still insist that what they do is 'real' philosophy. Again: this is a problem; it is regrettable, lamentable, and needs urgent correction. Academic philosophy is funded by public money paid out of our taxes. As such, it must be relevant to us. But is this really the case today?

History isn't encouraging either: most of the most influential philosophers weren't academics, and some were even overtly critical of academia, such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (I am tempted to mention Kierkegaard here too, but will refrain from it so to be conservative with my examples). Moreover, as discussed in my latest book, Decoding Schopenhauer's Metaphysics, when academic philosophers venture to interpret what their 'amateur' but influential counterparts were trying to say, the result is often a catastrophe of misrepresentation. When you've become disconnected from reality, it's hard to see what those struggling with reality are saying.

I can't change academia. What I can and am doing is starting and heading a foundation that will try to do some of what academic philosophy has been failing to do. And I bet we will be largely successful. Once that becomes clear, my hope is that the example will encourage academic philosophers to be more connected to life and reality, therefore becoming more relevant to you and me.

The risk, however, is that it may trigger the infantile mentality displayed by this Reddit poster, thereby leading academic philosophy to drift even farther away from social relevance, so as to defend whatever status it perceives itself as having. This is, in fact, my fear: that attempts to stimulate academic philosophy—from the outside—to return to the real and relevant may backfire, triggering academics to try and differentiate themselves even further from those that are actually doing relevant work. This will end up in further entrenchment, isolation and irrelevance.

I pray things won't unfold this way.


GUEST ESSAY: Philip Goff’s error: A review of his book, 'Galileo's Error'

By Stephen Davies 

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, where it was extensively reviewed and critically commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in it are those of its author.) 

Galileo Galilei. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 
British philosopher Philip Goff describes how early Italian scientist Galileo Galilei sought to explain the whole world quantitatively, and so decided to take the qualia associated with the world—such as the colors we see, the flavors we taste, the aromas we smell, the textures we feel, etc—and place it within consciousness, away from the matter where it was previously believed to be.

Before Galileo, redness was thought to be in the object perceived as red; sweetness was thought to lie within sugar. Galileo decided that these experiences of the qualities of the physical world, such as sweetness and redness, were instead to be found within the mind of the experiencer, leaving matter to be home for quantitative properties only, such as mass, momentum, velocity and the like.

What Galileo didn’t do was create a new form of consciousness dedicated to the perceptual qualities associated with the physical world. Instead, he took those qualities and placed them within our preexisting understanding of consciousness; the same consciousness where we experience emotions, thoughts, imagination, and other endogenous experiences. He simply moved into the mental domain something that had hitherto been assumed to reside in matter.

This way, sensory qualities associated with the physical world—such as redness and sweetness—were assumed to originate in the circle of mind, not that of matter. The intersection of the circles—the experiential perception of the physical world—was where these then came together.

In the overlap of the circles of mind and matter we, for example, see and taste a sweet red apple. The apple belongs in the physical world and can be described completely quantitatively in terms of size and shape and weight etc. In turn, the experience of redness and sweetness belongs in mind and can be described qualitatively by the experiencer, but not reduced to numbers.

The point here is that the circle of mind was already assumed to be there and the sensory qualities of the physical world were merely added to it. As such, the circle of mind was made bigger.

Goff’s error is to then create a metaphysical explanation for mind and matter that is based upon just this one particular intersection of mind and matter; that of the physical world and the qualities of sensory experience associated with it. He ignores altogether the rest of the contents of mind—such as thoughts, emotions, imagination, etc.—that do not arise from sensory perception.

Goff’s theory is that matter, as described in purely quantitive terms, is the entirety of consciousness in action; consciousness is nothing more than the intrinsic nature of these physical quantities and matter is what consciousness does; it is the extrinsic appearance of consciousness.

This is a huge and costly error, for he has conflated Galileo’s one addition to the contents of consciousness with the whole of consciousness. Maybe the experienced qualities of sensory perception are the inherent nature of the physical world, but there is no reason whatsoever to restrict the whole of consciousness to such a limited role. There is a whole host of other contents of consciousness that has little to do with sensory perception. Goff seems to lose all of this in his account of reality.

Idealism does not. Idealism correctly sees the experience of physicality as what it is: a particular type of the many possible experiences within consciousness (in Kastrup’s Analytic Idealism, this arises as a result of dissociated aspects of consciousness).

Consciousness is not exhaustively described or understood in terms of sensory experience—there is so much more to it! Goff’s panpsychist metaphysics in Galileo's Error is meant to account for all of matter and all of consciousness but is based on—and therefore can only account for—sensory experiences of physicality.

When setting up his theory, Goff uses the word 'consciousness' when he is actually referring to just a particular type of conscious experiences. He then says that his theory explains the role of consciousness and says it is the intrinsic nature of matter. But now he suddenly means consciousness as the whole contents of consciousness and the conscious subject.

We are not just beings that have experiences of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. On what grounds can you coherently argue that all conscious experiences are just the intrinsic nature of the material aspects of these five senses?

In Idealism, consciousness can exist without matter, without an experience of physicality; these are optional extras. For Goff, reality is one coin with one side that is matter and the other side is consciousness; they are inextricably linked as two aspects of one thing. Matter has no intrinsic nature without consciousness and consciousness has no extrinsic expression without matter. There is no possibility in Goff’s metaphysics for consciousness without matter; it is tied to and limited by the physical world.

Goff’s panpsychism is borne out of materialism. He uses consciousness to fill a gap in materialism, the gap of the intrinsic nature of matter. Idealism puts consciousness first and foremost and matter is wholly subservient to it. For Goff, matter is still in the forefront, still limiting what consciousness can be. This is why he fails to provide a metaphysics that truly accounts for consciousness beyond mere sensory perception.

Copyright © 2020 by Stephen Davies. Published with permission.

Various open-ended meditations: storms, hope and renewal

It's not really my style to write a post about multiple subjects that have only tenuous connections with one another. I tend to prefer focused, coherent meditations about a given topic of importance to me, which lead to clear conclusions. Yet, the last time I defied my own instincts and wrote a rather open-ended, 'mixed bag' post, it somehow shot straight to the position of most popular essay in my blog; ever. Clearly, you found value in my spontaneous meditations, so here is another one, for what it's worth.

GUEST ESSAY: Daniel Dennett’s brain: deluded or deceptive

By Stephen Davies

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, where it was extensively reviewed and critically commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in it are those of its author.)

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.
Philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett has a theory that if I deny it, he will say I don’t understand it; if I posit an alternative theory, he will say I am quite simply wrong, mistaken. He is without doubt a supremely confident, persuasive and intelligent interlocutor. His must be an impressive theory—it couldn’t possibly be "the silliest claim ever made" (Strawson), could it?

So what exactly is his theory? He starts off demonstrating how the brain plays tricks on us. We see things that literally are not there. They are illusions. We experience illusions that are ostensibly brain-generated.

Okay, so far so good. Let’s just remind ourselves that this theory is assuming the brain’s fundamental role in experience. This is a choice. The correlations between experience and brain states are there; we then choose a side from which to explain such correlations. The argument is that we experience brain-generated illusions because the physicalist chooses the side of the brain as the primary one.

What do allegedly brain-generated illusions tell us about why we have any subjective experience at all? Precisely nothing

The trickiest thing the physicalist needs to account for so as to justify choosing the brain isn’t merely the huge variety and subtlety of conscious experiences we have; it isn’t merely the great complexity and sophistication of abstract thoughts we have; it isn’t even the profound meaning and emotionality that we experience.

No, the trickiest thing for the physicalist to account for is why we have any experience at all: Why is there the experience you are having right now of being an experiencer? Why doesn't your brain operate functionally correctly but 'in the dark'?

The content of your experience is irrelevant to this question. I’ll repeat this: the content, the particular experience, is irrelevant. It is possible to have subjective experiences that are simple, basic, bland; experiences at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum to the most complex, emotional and meaningful. These bland experiences are just as mysterious.

Equally, we can have subjective experiences that are illusional, delusional, magical and fantastical. And at the other end of the spectrum we can have shared, veridical, consensual subjective experiences of insight, clarity, and perspicacity. The illusory nature of an experience makes no difference to the fact that we are having an experience nonetheless.

The particular content of your experience is irrelevant to the question: Why do we have any subjective experience at all?

Daniel Dennett describes how, from a physicalist perspective, the correlations of brain activity and illusory subjective experiences—when we see things that are not there—show us that these are brain-generated illusions. What does this tell us about why we have any subjective experience at all? Precisely nothing. The veracity of the particular contents of those subjective experiences is irrelevant.

So Dennett can only make use of these assumed-to-be-brain-generated illusions by saying they are analogous to what he thinks is happening with regards the question of why we have any experience at all. We will shortly look at what his argument by analogy is, but it is important to be clear that it is an analogy. There is no direct evidence here.

A non-subjectively-experiencing brain cannot experience the illusion of being subjectively experiencing anything because illusions, too, are subjective experiences

That the analogy itself involves the brain and subjective experiences might lead some to think that there is something more than analogous reasoning going on. But there isn’t. Dennett's analogy holds no more evidential power than if it were about gold and rainbows, or about trains and steam. The analogy is not the thing being tentatively explained.

So what is Dennett’s explanation as to why just having a brain means we also have any experiences at all? He says experience is an illusion, a magical trick, analogous to the magic tricks the brain performs when we fall for a visual illusion. He is arguing that the subjective experience you are having right now is a trick of your brain just like the visual illusions that your brain performs.

Actually I’m not sure that he realises this is merely an argument by analogy. I wonder if his confusing choice of an analogy involving aspects of the thing to be explained has actually confused him to think the analogy is the actual explanation. He actually does appear to be arguing that subjective experience is another trick of the brain, just one more trick alongside the visual tricks.

This is a perforce false step for Dennett because the analogy breaks down, it simply doesn’t work. For Dennett not to see this he must either be being deceptive or have confused himself; maybe he actually believes visual illusions are the same as the supposed illusion of having any experience at all.

Another reminder as to why it can only be an analogy: the veracity—or lack thereof—of your subjective experiences is irrelevant to the question of why we have any subjective experience at all; for illusions are also experienced. The explanation of visual illusions cannot simply be copied and pasted to answer the question of why we have any experience at all.

A non-subjectively-experiencing brain cannot experience the illusion of being subjectively experiencing anything because illusions, too, are subjective experiences. The brain has to either be a subjectively-experiencing brain or a non-subjectively-experiencing brain. If it is the former then this is what needs to be explained by the physicalist. If it is the latter, then it can have no experiences at all, including experiences of illusions of being able to experience.

Dennett attempts to explain the actuality of subjective experience by saying it is due to a non-subjectively-experiencing brain having the subjective experience of an illusion that it is subjectively experiencing. When confronted with the glaringly self-contradictory nature of his position, slippery Dennett says, "I’m not saying subjective experience is an illusion, I’m just saying it isn’t what you think it is." He says things like "You cannot possibly know what the true nature of consciousness is merely through introspection. I have proven how wrong introspection can be."

In the face of the absurdity of Dennett’s position, maybe we should reconsider the initial choice: that of trying to explain subjective experience in terms of the brain. Instead, maybe it’s time to account for the correlations between brain states and subjective experience by taking the latter to be the primary side

This is just restating his argument: you are a non-subjectively-experiencing brain tricking itself into having the subjective experience of the illusion that you are having a subjective experience. But if the brain can have a subjective experience of any kind, even if it is a trick, it still needs to be explained how the non-subjective-experiencing brain can perform a trick that leads to subjective experience.

And here the question remains, as unexplained and as mysterious as ever: How can the allegedly non-subjectively-experiencing brain be responsible for subjective experience?

In the face of the absurdity of Dennett’s position, maybe we should reconsider the initial choice: that of trying to explain subjective experience in terms of the brain. Instead, maybe it’s time to account for the correlations between brain states and subjective experience by taking the latter to be the primary side. This avenue of exploration has already proven to be a fruitful one that does not end up in the confused contradictions of Dennett. I encourage all to make the journey.

Copyright © 2020 by Stephen Davies. Published with permission.

GUEST ESSAY: The onward path of a dissociated alter

By Ben Iscatus

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, where it was extensively reviewed and critically commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in it are those of its author.)

Upon dying, Dave, being a believer in a certain brand of metaphysical idealism, was looking forward to being absorbed into the Universal Mind, perhaps to re-emerge at some other time and place as a new dissociated alter of that Mind.

As he was drawn towards the light, which he interpreted as expanding from his dissociated state into association with All-That-Is, a thought occurred to him: if a dissociated alter is the rational, self-reflective part of All-That-Is, and the nature of All-That-Is without self-reflective alters is rather akin to a crocodile with instinctive behaviour... then how did the apparently thought-out laws of nature originate? How could the rational, mathematical laws of physics, chemistry and biology precede the existence of self-reflective alters? 

This thought was enough to repel him from the light and send him to the Summerlands, which he supposed must be a place of continued personal dissociation for those alters who had the will to continue as they were, but no longer had the need to metabolise their dinner.

In the Summerlands he met a nice girl who appeared to be a perfect soulmate, and he would have continued long in this relationship, probably until his desire for more answers to the ultimate nature of being became stronger than his long, lazy dream of heaven.

After a while, however, Dave was visited by a wise looking man with a beard who invited him to attend an interview with two others. The three sat behind a table, and stared at him with benign reassurance as he stood in front of them. He wondered if this was some symbolic representation of how the number three represented the triune nature of reality, but the thought was cut short.

"Dave," said the man with the beard, "it's time for you to go back. To be reborn."

"I think not," said Dave. "I've only just got here. And in any case, I'm never going back."

The bearded man sighed. "We're here to persuade you or, if that fails, to tell you. It's our will that you return."

"Your will? Well so what? Why should your will trump mine?"

The three men briefly morphed into reptilian creatures (crocodile snouts), then reverted to their benign appearances. "Well it's like this. We are more powerful than you. You might call us gods, or... demons." They then demonstrated their power, by having him pinned to the opposite wall by an unopposable force. For an unbearable instant, a pain like being penetrated by red hot needles pervaded his whole being.

Dave felt a cold horror.

The bearded man informed him: "We get our pleasure from observing and vicariously experiencing your lives, so you have to go back. It's like you getting pleasure from watching a horror flick or a war film. But of course it's much better. Feeling your emotions, laughing at your primitive thoughts." He laughed like the Predator at the end of the film of that name. "But we also get pleasure from telling you what you want to know and experiencing your reaction. Naturally all of it will be erased, like your other memories of who you are and what you have been before. So ask away."

"Why me?" Dave croaked.

"You are sufficiently interesting to us. You're one of our group of participants. A good range of feelings and thoughts. You're coming on nicely."

"I would rather be... extinct... than obey you."

"Extinction is not an option. If your will were strong enough, you could resist. But it's not."

"It is. I insist it is."

"Look. We could simply torture you—you know, like you humans torture cows and pigs on earth. Look on the bright side: at least we don't eat you." They all laughed again. "But it would be much easier to bring that girl you've grown to love in here and torture her. Shall we do that? Shall we give her exquisite pain and make her soul scream in horror? And shall we reincarnate her in a barbarous war-torn state?"

"No! No!"

"So you'll go back. Any more questions?"

Dave felt sick with fear. "Why is the Universe not more benign?"

"It is what it is because we are what we are. You did well to question how there could be rational laws before rational creatures came into existence. The fact is, there couldn't. We are from an earlier universe. We imagined and created this one."

"But that means there's infinite regress: who created the earlier universe before you came into existence?"

"That one had a different type of consciousness. It was metacognitive from the start and it allowed its alters free rein. We're a free threesome and we chose to create this universe."

"When I go back - will it help me if I'm of service to others?"

"Oh no; giving others a sense of entitlement or gratitude keeps them in the game. Loving your enemy, hating him - it all serves us." He smirked.

In despair, Dave said, "What about meditation?"

"Ah, meditation is excessively boring to us. If you do that for thirty years, we might release you and bring in someone more interesting. But you're much too full of lovely faults and doubts. We thrive on those."

As he was on the point of reincarnating, passing through the waters of Lethe, a voice penetrated the last barriers of Dave's dissolving identity: "You only experienced all this because it was the natural outcome of your deeper beliefs. The Universe is rational and consciousness enacts laws of cause and effect. Your beliefs were the cause, your experience is the effect."

"But I did believe in a benign Idealism."

"Too superficially; too intellectually."

"How do I make it deeper?"

"If you really want to believe something at the core of your being, you have to live it. You have to embody it."

So Dave went back.

Copyright © 2020 by Ben Iscatus. Published with permission.

GUEST ESSAY: Consciousness, animals and human responsibility

By Benjamin Jones

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, where it was extensively reviewed and critically commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in it are those of its author.)

Over the last few hundred years most scientists and philosophers have laboured under the conviction that consciousness is merely a by-product of unconscious matter—many have taken it even further and discredited the existence of consciousness altogether. Due to this belief in the fundamentality of matter we learned to implicitly rank consciousness in hierarchical levels based on the level of complexity of the physical structure within which we believe it to be housed. Humans, we believed, have the greatest level of consciousness. Animals less so—with smaller animals having the least—and the rest of nature, well, it’s all simply inanimate. This view of the world naturally leads to the disregard of animals and nature. I often reads things along the lines of, “ravens are very intelligent creatures you know,” or, “science has discovered that trees have intelligence,” or, “ground breaking discovery—squirrels have feelings!” The fact that we say these things as though they are new discoveries shows just how far we have detached ourselves from reality.

Recently I walked past a caged parrot in a garden. The cage was large as far as cages go. The bird had plenty of toys and ropes to swing around on. The owners, I’m sure, think it is a very lucky bird indeed. And yet it sounded like it was screaming. Not singing, or calling, but screaming. This bird was distressed, lonely and confused. This was self-evident to me (and also to my dog, it seemed).

How then, are the ‘owners’ of this bird oblivious to its suffering? Are they also unaware of its beauty, its innocence, its aliveness? Do they think it irrelevant that in the wild these birds are majestic, social, singing, playing, celebratory expressions of life? And even if they weren’t, how can we ever come to cage life?

​I wanted to free the parrot but was unable to get to it, and anyway it would have only died if I did. Perhaps that would be better: a few days of freedom over a lifetime of captivity.

That evening I was on Peta UK’s website and discovered that in 2017 alone over 9 million animals were used for the first time in experiments in the EU. A further 12.6 million were used to breed or simply wasted away in cages. How did humanity became so ignorant and dismissive of animals and nature? It is simple, we forgot our nature—which is intimately one with all things. Let me try to explain.

Modern human life has become a constant battle to keep out all that is potentially threatening or uncomfortable about nature. The conceptual mind has become our ruler, but it is merely a small part of our encasement and therefore can never touch the truth of life.

William Blake once wrote, “every bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, encased by the five senses.” What is this ‘world of delight’ he speaks of? It must be beyond the five senses because otherwise it could not be ‘encased’ within them. It must be something shared by Blake and the bird because they are both present in the experience. And its ‘delight’ must be inherent within itself, not reliant on the world of the senses.

In religion its name (although misused over the centuries) is God, in spirituality its name is pure consciousness or something similar, in direct experience its name is joy, or freedom, or expansiveness, or love. It is not a special state to be reached but the underlying essence of every experience; the source and substance of the apparent ‘encasement.’

This ‘world of delight’ chooses to forget its unbound nature and becomes apparently encased within a finite experience—the five senses in this example. We could say that emotions, feelings, and conceptual thought also appear to encase it.

As human beings we have the potential, often unrealised, of experientially discovering this ‘world of delight’ as the very nature of experience. This can happen through enquiry, spiritual practice, or spontaneously. Indeed it also happens at many times throughout our lives in the form of happiness, joy, love, beauty, truth, or anytime we experience the gap between or the ground beneath thoughts and feelings.

There is nothing to suggest that animals don’t also have this potential, after all they are just as much an expression of this reality as we are. It seems self-evident, however, that their way of realising it is not through enquiry or exploration, but—as is also the case with humans—in the relaxation of aspects of the encasement which happens in the natural course of life; basically through the relaxation of the body-mind, which allows the peaceful delight at the source of experience to be recognised. On the flip side, when the body is hungry or in pain or in fear, the ‘world of delight’ is obscured by the tightening grip of the encasement.

Since we have this potential—the potential to discover our nature beyond the apparent encasement—and also, on a more everyday level, understand the necessity and ways of making this encased experience as pleasant and enjoyable as possible, we therefore have a great responsibility towards animals.

The most obvious responsibility we have, and one which everyone is capable of, is refraining from doing things which we know cause pain, discomfort, fear, confusion and anything else which makes the experience of this apparent encasement fraught with suffering and apparently absent of the ‘world of delight.’

Sadly, this is a responsibility which human’s have neglected. Whether this started with Christianity’s arrogant disregard for other beings, and whether it was accentuated by modern Materialism’s conviction that reality is fundamentally inanimate, is not clear to me. But this doesn’t excuse or fully explain human disregard, ignorance and sometimes downright maliciousness towards animals and nature in general. It goes much deeper than our past conditioning and worldviews. It stems from our lack of understanding of ourselves; it stems from being so obliviously confined within our own encasement that we forget our shared essence with all existence; we forget the ‘world of delight’ which life truly is.

We haven’t always been so separated from nature’s reality. For tens of thousands of years humans lived harmoniously, reverentially and inclusively with all around us. Pagans, native Indians, and many other ancestral cultures had a deep intuitive knowing of their inherent oneness with nature’s reality. They may have eaten animals but they did so with respect and reverence and therefore lived as a part of the great movement of life.

We learned to define ‘intelligence’ as ‘intellect’ and group this so-called intelligence in with levels of consciousness. The subsequent confusion leads us to believe and feel that anything which doesn’t have the faculty of conceptual thought is a lower level of consciousness.

Modern human life, on the other hand, has become a constant battle to keep out all that is potentially threatening or uncomfortable about nature. The conceptual mind has become our ruler and we therefore regurgitate old habits, ideas, paradigms and theories in the hope that it will bring ‘progress.’ But the conceptual mind is merely a small part of our encasement and therefore can never touch the truth of life; it can never provide us with the intuition and knowing which will end our abuse of animals and nature; it will never infuse the world with the ‘delight’ of its essence.

Along with the relegation and classification of consciousness on fundamental and relative levels respectively, we learned to define ‘intelligence’ as ‘intellect’ and group this so-called intelligence in with levels of consciousness. The subsequent confusion leads us to believe and feel that anything which doesn’t have the faculty of conceptual thought is less intelligent, and more subtly so, a lower level of consciousness.

If we take our own experience—instead of limited research and theoretical models which often bear little relation to experience—we can quite easily discredit the belief that consciousness or intelligence is based on conceptual thought. If you took away all conceptual thought from the experience of this moment would consciousness (the simple act of being aware) lessen? Quite clearly not. Now imagine or remember a fearful situation, in which thoughts are often greatly diminished or not present at all: what is left? Does the feeling of fear within the body disappear? What about if you were locked in a room for prolonged periods of time: would not being able to conceptualise your situation make it a desirable or neutral one?

Of course not! Granted, conceptual thought adds greatly to our suffering, fear and even physical pain, but it by no means makes up the totality of it. Those who are capable of caging birds must, on some level, believe that if they had the same intelligence and consciousness as the bird then they would be happy locked in a room for their whole life. They must, on some level, believe that the bird is less capable than they are of feeling emotion, physical discomfort, loneliness, despair, confusion, stress, claustrophobia and so on; they must, on some level, believe that these qualities of experience are reserved only for those who have conceptual thought and thus—in their view—more consciousness and intelligence.

This leads to my point: the responsibility we have towards animals and nature is not that of ‘learning’ new things about them, but of rediscovering what we have forgotten; it is not to do more and more research—which is often at the expense of animals and nature anyway—in order to create new theoretical models, gain limited knowledge and make ‘discoveries’ which common sense could have told us of in the first place; no, our responsibility lies not in separating and elevating ourselves even further from the reality of nature into conceptual thought and analysis; it lies, instead, in re-immersing ourselves in that reality, merging into it once again and reconnecting with our awe, reverence and intimate love for this great dance of intelligence.

Behind the veil of separation we have thrown over reality there is a great ‘world of delight.’ Why not let this be the basis of all our endeavours? Maybe then we’ll also become birds cutting the airy way, encased in the five senses but also intimately one with the infinite sky.

Copyright © 2020 by Benjamin Jones. Published with permission.