Does it matter whether all is in consciousness?
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
Computer simulation of a forest of neurons, CC BY 2.5. Hermann Cuntz,
PLoS Computational Biology Issue Image, Vol. 6(8) August 2010.
In an earlier article in this blog, I summarized my metaphysical position in two brief paragraphs. That has led to two misunderstandings, both of which derive from this point: Although I say that all reality is in consciousness, and that there is no universe outside, or independent from, subjective experience, I also do not deny that reality exists independent of personal psyches, like the human psyche. I maintain that empirical reality is an experience of an impersonal mind, which I like to call 'mind-at-large' in honor of Aldous Huxley. As such, empirical reality isn't created by personal psyches, and would still exist as an experience in mind-at-large even if there were no life in the universe.
The first misunderstanding that may arise from the above is to think that mind-at-large experiences empirical reality in just the way we, as personal psyches, experience it. I've addressed this error in my previous essay. The second misunderstanding is to conclude that there is no difference between this impersonal mind-at-large and a material world fundamentally outside consciousness, since in both cases reality exists independent of personal psyches. Nothing could be further from the truth! Allow me to elaborate.
There are two lines of argument to address this. The first one is philosophical and rigorous: when we say that our personal psyches are merely segments of a broader mind-at-large, all we are doing is extrapolating a known and empirically undeniable ontological category (namely, consciousness itself) beyond the space-time limits we ordinarily associate with it. But when we say that there is a whole universe outside consciousness, we are inferring a whole new ontological category, and one that is unprovable. These two things aren't equivalent by any stretch of the imagination. Here is a rather dramatic analogy to help you gain some intuition about this: In order to model the early universe, we extrapolate across space and time the validity of the laws of physics known on Earth today; doing so is obviously different, and much more reasonable, than inferring an unprovable flying spaghetti monster to be behind all things!
The second line of argument rests on the different implications and practical applications of these two alternatives:
- If all reality is in consciousness, then your consciousness is not generated by your body and, therefore, there is no reason to believe that your consciousness will end when your body dies. Your body is simply the image of a particular state of consciousness you experience when you are alive. When you die, that state of consciousness will change, perhaps quite dramatically. Changes in your state of consciousness, however, happen all the time: when you wake up suddenly from an intense nightly dream, your consciousness changes its state rather dramatically as well. Now, would we live life differently — perhaps in a less anxious, more present and grounded manner — if we knew that death isn't the end of consciousness? If the fear of death were no longer viable as an instrument of social control or economic gain, what would the practical consequences be for our culture, economy, and society at large? And if you knew that your consciousness isn't going to end when you die, wouldn't you be interested in investing a part of your life in preparing yourself for the transition — so it isn't traumatic — and perhaps for what might come next?
- If all reality is in consciousness, then your physical body is also in consciousness, not the other way around. As such, your body is the image of psychic processes unfolding in what depth-psychology has come to call your "personal unconscious." I consider the word "unconscious" a misnomer, as I explained in another article, preferring to call it "personal obfuscated consciousness" instead. Be it as it may, the implication is clear: your physical health isn't merely 'connected' to your psychic state; it is your obfuscated psychic state! I discussed this at length in an earlier essay, but the gist is that this opens up an entirely new avenue for treating physical illness through forms of suggestion, clinical psychology, and many other treatments currently considered alternative or even fringe. Indeed, the implication is that medicine could advance beyond acknowledged limits by adopting a holistic mind-body approach, whose impact on our health and well-being are hard to overestimate.
- If our personal psyches are merely localizations — alters — of mind-at-large, then, at bottom, our psyches are fundamentally one and the same mind. This opens the door for so-called psi phenomena, like clairvoyance and telepathy, to be credible and entirely natural. If the a priori bias against parapsychology were to disappear, what could science discover in this field? What practical applications could arise as a consequence of more widespread and better funded parapsychological research? In what variety of ways could that impact our personal lives, and those of our loved ones?
- If subjective experience is fundamental in nature, and not merely an epiphenomenon derivative from the mechanical behavior of matter, then our feelings and emotions carry much more weight and relevance than otherwise; they are much more significant to our sense of who or what we are, what reality is, as well as to the meaning and purpose of our lives. If love is actually fundamental, and not merely a side-effect of material chemicals suffusing your brain, wouldn't that make a difference as far as how you look upon your relationships? If your sense of calling or purpose is fundamental, and not merely the result of chemicals in your head, wouldn't that make a difference as far as the decisions and risks you take in your life to try and make your dreams come true? Wouldn't we, as a culture, have to take another look at current psychiatric best-practices if we acknowledged our feelings to be real, and not merely the mechanical outcome of chemical imbalances to be corrected with drugs?
- Here I invite you to complete this list with your own thoughts. There are many more significant implications and practical applications of acknowledging mind-at-large to be the ground of being, as opposed to inferring an unprovable material universe outside consciousness. I am sure you can think of some, and perhaps relate them in the comments section below.
Notice that none of the implications and practical applications listed and discussed above would hold under a materialist metaphysics; that is, under the notion that reality exists fundamentally outside and independent of consciousness. I hope, therefore, to have permanently debunked this absurd idea that acknowledging a form of impersonal consciousness to be the ground of reality is, somehow, equivalent to inferring a whole unprovable universe fundamentally outside consciousness. These are anything but equivalent metaphysical views.