Subject, object, and instincts

(The subject matter of this post has been elaborated upon much more extensively and precisely in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Cave paintings at Altamira, produced at a time when human instincts were, perhaps for the first time in history, starting to become self-reflective. Source: Wikipedia.

I'm on a roll today, and want to elaborate more on the contents of my previous article. Particularly, I want to explore how we could interpret, or perhaps even explain, the notions of subject, object, and instinct on the basis of the metaphor developed there. I will organize the remainder of this post in the form of questions and answers. Note that you will need to have read my previous article in order to make sense of the below.

Who are we, as subjects, in the context of the metaphor? We are the liquid mercury ocean of Mind. As such, there is only one Subject. Our differentiated individualities are an artifact of different segments of that single ocean rising up and coiling around themselves. Our individual egos are associated to each individual coil.

What is my individual life, according to the metaphor? Your individual life is a set of subjective experiences. As such, it is a set of ripples propagating through the folded coil of the ocean of Mind that corresponds to your particular point-of-view within reality. As these ripples propagate through the coil, they are recursively reflected on the surface of Mind, like the images in two mirrors facing each other. Such recursive amplification of these particular ripples renders all other ripples on the ocean of Mind as nearly imperceptible as the stars at noon. Yet, all ripples on the entire ocean of Mind are your experiences, available in your consciousness, since you are the only subject that exists.

What are the objects of the world that I perceive around me? According to the metaphor, all that there is is a single ocean of Mind and the ripples of experience that propagate through it. As such, there is no separate, truly objective, autonomous world 'out there.' The illusion of objects arises as an artifact of folded consciousness: Objects are merely the recursively reflected images of ripples in the ocean of Mind. It is the recursive reflection that creates the illusion of something separate from Mind. If there were no reflections, all experience would be unambiguously subjective, though lacking self-awareness. According to this notion, even your own thoughts are objects, for they are themselves recursively reflected in Mind. This, indeed, seems to match our personal experience, given our ability to judge and critique ourselves.

How can the metaphor explain instincts? Instincts, if interpreted broadly, are the non-reflected ripples in the ocean of Mind. As such, instincts are the experiences of unfolded consciousness. All the ripples propagating through non-folded segments of the ocean of Mind are conscious experiences unaccompanied by self-awareness. In other words, these are true experiences of the one Subject, but the Subject is not aware that It is having these experiences; these are perceptions perceived, feelings felt, but not known to be perceived or felt. As such, what is unique about instinctual experiences is that they are not themselves objects of thought, the way experiences in folded consciousness are. Note that this notion equates instincts to the unconscious, which is not very far from the position held by Jungian psychology.

What if there were no ripples? Then there would be Mind, but without experiences. There would still be a Subject, but the Subject would 'live' in a bottomless abyss of nothingness; a great void. I don't mean this in a negative way, but am simply following the logical implications of the metaphor. Note that, if this is true, then the underlying 'medium' of existence is fundamentally emptiness. Experiences are simply disturbances on this 'medium' of emptiness; 'emptiness dancing,' if you will (when I arrived at this conclusion, I finally truly understood what Adyashanti meant with the tittle of his book).

So where is Nature going with it all? Perhaps these local coils of self-reflecting Mind that we call people, animals, and other conscious entities represent the current status of a teleological process in Nature whose ultimate goal may be the formation of one single 'cosmic coil' wherein all ripples in the ocean of Mind will be amplified in a self-aware manner. Perhaps nature is an evolutionary laboratory wherein Mind is experimenting, trying to iteratively find a solution to a problem that itself has not been articulated; the answer to a question that is itself intuited, but not yet known.

Categories of consciousness

(The subject matter of this post has been elaborated upon much more extensively and precisely in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Infinite recursion using mutually-facing mirrors. Source: Serendip.

I wanted to share with you today the draft of an idea that I have been thinking about recently. Please keep in mind that this is a draft and, as such, I may change my opinion about it going forward. The idea is to explain the different categories of conscious experience that seem to exist. The first category is what I will call (1) folded consciousness: This happens when you experience something while being aware that you are experiencing it; in other words, when you are conscious that you are conscious ... that you are conscious, as if consciousness were folding in on itself. In Jungian terminology, this would correspond to egoic consciousness, which Jung referred to simply as 'consciousness' (an over-restrictive and now outdated use of the word). It is the main modality of consciousness that we experience in our modern lives. The second category is what I will call (2) unfolded consciousness: That's when you have experiences but are not immediately aware that you are having such experiences, like the feeling of moving specific muscles when riding a bike. One could imagine, for instance, that animals like cats and dogs have more of this kind of unfolded conscious experience than we do. The third category is what Jungians, perhaps inappropriately, call (3) the 'unconscious.' These are experiences that seem to happen outside of consciousness altogether and to have a life and history of their own. However, when 'unconscious' experiences emerge into folded consciousness, we register them as familiar memories, not as new experiences; like forgotten dreams that, when suddenly remembered, are unambiguously known to have been experienced in consciousness. This shows that these 'unconscious' experiences were, in some way, taking place somewhere in consciousness all along, even though we weren't immediately aware of them. As such, the so-called 'unconscious' is in fact merely a strange category of consciousness. What I want to briefly explore in this article is a geometric idea that attempts to explain how these three categories of consciousness emerge.

Let us start from category (1): Folded consciousness. What is peculiar about it is a kind of infinite recursion of self-referential awareness: When you read this article, you are not only aware of what you are reading, but you are also aware that you are aware of it. As a matter of fact, you are aware that you are aware ... that you are aware of the article. This infinite recursion takes place in finite time in our minds, much like Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Another metaphor for this is the effect you get when you place two mirrors facing each other and reflecting each other's images: The images seem to immediately form a tunnel of ever smaller mirror frames forming arches into infinity.

The mirror metaphor suggests a geometric analogy for what is going on: The 'surface' of consciousness seems to fold in on itself until it faces itself like two mirrors facing each other. Indeed, we could think of consciousness as an ocean of reflective liquid mercury. In this analogy, experiences would be ripples, waves, or any form of disturbance on this otherwise perfectly calm and flat mercury ocean surface. Now, imagine a segment of this mercury ocean rising as a thin and flexible sheet of mercury (a la the alien water probe in the movie The Abyss) that can bend, twist, and fold; imagine it coiling up around itself so each part of its surface faces another part of its surface head-on, the same way that each point on the internal surface of a hollow cylinder faces another point of it. Now, since liquid mercury is reflective like a mirror, these mutually-facing surfaces will infinitely reflect the ripples and waves propagating through each other. This is folded consciousness, which represents our normal state of egoic awareness. The folding of self-reflecting consciousness is an amplification mechanism for certain classes of experience. Not only that, it allows us to think about our thoughts; a unique form of awareness. Unfolded consciousness, on the other hand, corresponds merely to the ripples and waves propagating through unfolded surfaces of the liquid mercury ocean, which are not reflected; not amplified. These ripples and waves are still conscious experiences available to each one of us, but without the reinforcement of infinite recursion and without self-awareness.

Liquid mercury. Source: Wikipedia.

The question now is: In the context of this analogy, how do we explain the 'unconscious,' our third category? My thinking on this hasn't quite converged yet; I'm still studying, pondering, and experimenting with myself. The hypothesis I have been playing with is this: There is no fundamental distinction between categories (2) and (3); perhaps only a difference in degree. The contents of the 'unconscious' are indeed in consciousness. However, the strength of folded consciousness, when present, is such that the 'unconscious' fades away, analogously to how the stars, even though still in the sky, fade away when confronted with the glare of day. The infinite recursion in the opposing mirrored surfaces of a fold acts like a light canon pointed straight into the eyes of awareness: Its glare makes everything else nearly impossible to see, even though the 'unconscious' is right there, fully conscious, all the time, just as the stars are still just as bright in the middle of day.

When different parts of the ocean of consciousness fold in on themselves, creating the glare of infinite recursion, every ripple in the ocean of consciousness that is not captured into a fold fades away in comparison. In ordinary language, these other ripples become 'forgotten.' The glare of infinite recursion, while shinning light and reinforcing particular, localized ripples in the ocean of conscious experience through self-referential awareness, also causes the amnesia that makes all other ripples as invisible as the stars at noon. This way, the folding of parts of the ocean of consciousness in on themselves provides a localization mechanism for consciousness; it creates localized and limited points-of-view in the ocean of Mind, which is perhaps the very source of individuality. Perhaps we are each a small part of the ocean of consciousness that rose up as a thin sheet and coiled around itself. The tighter each coil folds around itself, the more limited and localized experience becomes, but the more clearly it is perceived. Such notion ties in neatly with the hypothesis that our brains are like whirlpools of consciousness, which I discussed extensively before. Indeed, a whirlpool is a folding of the stream of consciousness in on itself, along a specific dimension. To make this analogy more solid and complete, one would have to postulate a hyper-spatial, most-likely fractal geometry to accommodate a sufficient variety of hierarchical, hyper-spatial foldings that accounted for human experience. I have been thinking about that lately.

So there you have it: A first, draft, partial attempt to interpret the different categories of conscious experience according to a single, coherent, metaphorical framework that also explains the emergence of the individual; the emergence of particular points-of-view in a single ocean of reflective Mind. Then you might ask: If our individualities are just illusions caused by the amplifying effect of local folds in the ocean of consciousness, how do we regain awareness of the Whole? I could see two possibilities: Either all local folds and coils disappear, so we return to a flat and undifferentiated ocean of consciousness where all ripples of experience are equal in lacking local amplification and self-awareness, or the entire ocean of consciousness takes on one single mega-fold where all ripples in it are equally amplified through infinite recursion, and global self-awareness becomes possible. I, for one, like to imagine the latter as the universal telos.

The physical body

The anatomy lesson, painting by Rembrandt. Image source: Wikipedia.

If reality is a projection of mind – a collective dream – it follows that the body itself is a projection of mind. In an earlier article, I talked about the brain being a specific pattern in the flow of consciousness, which I compared to a whirlpool in a stream of water. One could thus see the rest of the body as the peripheral flow of consciousness that helps maintain the specific pattern we call the brain. As such, it is consciousness that 'does' the body through imagining it. Continuing on with exploring the implications of this hypothesis, upon my physical death my consciousness will stop 'doing' my body. Indeed, one could even define physical death as the process by which an individual and (partially) differentiated conscious point-of-view of Mind stops imagining its respective physical body. Yet, a corpse will stay behind, at least for a limited amount of time. How is that possible? If my mind stops imagining my physical body, why doesn't the latter instantly vanish with a 'puff'?

Carl Jung recounted two dreams he had, in which it became clear to him that his empirical self – that is, his body and ego  were imagined by his true, unconscious Self. In the first dream, he saw a UFO in the sky that looked like a magic lantern. It sped through the sky and stopped about sixty or seventy yards away, pointing straight at him. Jung recounts (in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, page 355): "I awoke with a feeling of astonishment. Still half in the dream, the thought passed through my head: 'We always think that U.F.O.s are projections of ours. Now it turns out that we are their projections. I am projected by the magic lantern as C. G. Jung. But who manipulates the apparatus?'" In an earlier work titled Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, Jung had postulated that UFOs were psychological projections whose round, triangular, or lenticular shape represented the archetype of the Self – that is, our true, whole, integrated personality (often called the "Higher Self" in spirituality circles). Therefore, the dream suggested to Jung that his body and ego were projections of his true Self.

In another dream, he was hiking in the hills when he chanced upon a wayside chapel. He went in and saw a yogi in deep meditation. When he came closer, he realized that the yogi had his own face; the yogi was himself. He then awoke with the following thought (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, page 355): "'Aha, so he is the one who is meditating me. He has a dream, and I am it.' I knew that when he awakened, I would no longer be." Yet, when the yogi awoke, on 6 June 1961, Jung's body was left behind in our empirical world. Who was meditating that into existence?

Alan Watts explained the underlying intuition here in a very cogent and concise manner. He wrote in The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, page 79: "The death of the individual is not disconnection but simply withdrawal. The corpse is like a footprint or an echo  the dissolving trace of something the Self has ceased to do." Watts is right on. Yet, his explanation leaves one question open: If the corpse is an echo of something the Self is no longer imagining, where is it echoing? What is the medium where the dissolving traces of an image no longer imagined still reverberate?

Perhaps it reverberates in the minds of those still in the dream. You see, when many minds (in the sense of many points-of-view of Mind) contribute to a collective dream, the images being dreamed-up acquire a special kind of 'momentum' associated to their sharing across minds, as I discussed in Dreamed up Reality; they seem to gain a life of their own, independent of any individual mind. Such momentum prevents sudden discontinuities from arising in the dreamed-up storyline. This may actually explain why the 'puffing' of things in and out of existence only happens at the microscopic, quantum level – well-away from our conscious awareness  and not at the level of tables, chairs, and people. So when a person's Self stops imagining the person's body, the image of the body persists as an echo in the minds of all other people still partaking in the collective dream of physical reality, so there is continuity in their storylines. Still, as any echo, the body image dies out slowly but inexorably, for its main sustaining force  the coherence continuously imparted on it by the imagination of its own Self – has withdrawn, leaving the body image at the mercy of entropy.

As an image, the corpse is part of those who stay, not of the one who departed.