On how the world is felt
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
|George Berkeley, perhaps the first rigorous Idealist in the West.|
In my previous 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 arises from the above 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. I will address this misunderstanding in my next essay in this blog. The second misunderstanding, which I address below, is to think that mind-at-large experiences empirical reality in just the way we, as personal psyches, experience it. In other words, if I see a wooden chair in my room, I might conclude that mind-at-large experiences that chair in just the way I do: as a four-legged object with brown color and certain grainy patterns on it. This would certainly be a misunderstanding of my philosophy, and probably false! Allow me to elaborate.
My philosophy entails that the brain we can see and measure is simply how personal experience looks from the outside. In other words, neurons are what our thoughts, emotions and perceptions look like when another person views them from the outside. They aren't the cause of thoughts, emotions or perceptions, but simply the image of the respective processes in personal consciousness. For example: a neuroscientist might put a volunteer in a functional brain scanner (fMRI) and measure the patterns of his brain activity while the volunteer watches an erotic movie (this has actually been done!). The neuroscientist would have precise measurements showing a clearly discernible pattern of activity in the volunteer's brain, which could be printed out on slides and shared with other neuroscientists. The patterns on those slides would be what the volunteer's first-person experience of arousal look like from the outside. In other words, the patterns on the slides would be the image of processes in the volunteer's personal consciousness; the footprints of those processes.
But the image of a process is not the process, for exactly the same reason that footprints are not the gait. Yes, the image correlates with the process — like footprints correlate with the gait —but it isn't it. Patterns of brain activity are certainly very different from the first-person experience of watching an erotic movie and feeling aroused. As a matter of fact, slides from a brain scanner aren't arousing at all, are they? The image of a process does carry valid information about the process, but it isn't the process, for the same reason that patterns of brain activity aren't the experience of feeling aroused! Firing neurons are the footprints of our feelings, but watching neurons fire in another person's head feels utterly different from having the experience of arousal yourself.
Now — and here is the key point of this essay — the same rationale must be applied to mind-at-large. When we watch the world around us, what we see is the image of conscious processes in mind-at-large, just like firing neurons are the image of conscious processes in another person's psyche. For exactly the same reason that feeling aroused is completely different than watching someone else's brain, the first-person experience of mind-at-large will feel completely different than watching that chair in your room. Mind-at-large doesn't experience a chair the way we do, for the same reason that our volunteer inside the brain scanner doesn't experience patterns of firing neurons! The volunteer experiences arousal, not firing neurons. Do you see the point? Tables and chairs — and all empirical reality, for that matter — are the image of conscious processes in mind-at-large; but they aren't the processes themselves. The chair is merely the way the processes look from our point-of-view; the footprint of what is happening in mind-at-large. When we look at the world around us, what we see are the images of conscious processes that completely transcend our ability to visualize from a first-person perspective. We see the footprints, not the gait. At every waking moment of our lives, just by looking around, we are witnessing a profound mystery.
As my readers know, I often use the analogy of mind-at-large being comparable to a stream, while we, personal psyches, are whirlpools in that stream. Under this analogy, our perceptions of empirical reality are ripples from the broader stream that penetrate our respective whirlpools, our sense organs being analogous to the rim of the whirlpool. This way, what we perceive are ripples, not the active processes in the stream that generate those ripples in the first place. The ripples are the footprint, not the active conscious processes in mind-at-large.
An entirely analogous rationale is well-known in depth-psychology: dreams are the image of processes in the so-called 'unconscious' psyche (a misnomer, but never mind); the footprints of the 'unconscious.' Dreams are what those 'unconscious' processes look like from the perspective of the ego. They are images that correspond to 'unconscious' psychic activity, but the 'unconscious' activity in and by itself remains just that: 'unconscious.' The analogy with empirical reality and mind-at-large is perfect: empirical reality is merely our 'dream' of the activity in mind-at-large.
In conclusion, it is a mystery to us, as localized psyches — whirlpools in the stream — how the conscious processes unfolding in mind-at-large actually feel like from the perspective of mind-at-large itself. That we can look around and see a world rich in patterns says no more about the subjective experience of being mind-at-large than watching images in a brain scanner says about the subjective experience of arousal. Bishop Berkeley, perhaps the first really cogent and rigorous Idealist, used to say that empirical reality was an experience in the 'mind of God,' his time's appropriate term for 'mind-at-large.' Borrowing from his terminology, it would be fair to say that we, as human beings, cannot ordinarily know how God experiences the world, even though the whole world is an idea in the mind of God. We cannot know how the world is felt by God, for the same reason that a neuroscientist cannot know what arousal feels like just from looking at brain scans. Yet, when we contemplate the magnificence and incomprehensible magnitude of the stars and galaxies through our telescopes, we are essentially looking at a 'scan of God's brain'!
I acknowledge my responsibility for having probably misled many of you into the misunderstanding I've tried to correct above. Although I always try to choose my words carefully, accurately and rigorously, in my effort to make my writing easier and more accessible I commit inaccuracies. When I wrote that empirical reality — including tables and chairs — is experienced by mind-at-large, I didn't mean to imply that it is experienced in the way we experience it. I apologize for the potential misdirection and hope this essay corrects any misunderstanding.