Reply To: Daniel Dennet's claim that consciousness is an illusion

  • Rodney Marsh

    May 8, 2023 at 2:09 am

    Thanks for the wonderful, information in this thread – the videos and the discussion… From the literary end and the Wisdom traditions end I wish to add perspective on Danial Dennett’s views…

    Marilynne Robinson in “The Givenness of Things” (2015) writing on Humanism says “… the spirit of our times is one of joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own.” Then, astoundingly it seems, notes “the antidote to our gloom is to be found in contemporary science.” But NOT, it seems in Neuroscience, because the data gathered is seen to represent the “the whole of reality” and so “seem predisposed to the conclusion there is no “self.” Then says, “But to take a step back. It is absurd for scientists who insist on the category “physical,” and who argue that outside this category nothing exists, to dismiss the reality of the self on the grounds that that its vulnerabilities can be said to place it solidly within this category. How can so basic an error of logic survive and flourish?” I suspect this rejection of the (ludicrous) materialistic reductionist reasoning was written without any familiarity with Iain’s writing. But who would endanger their scientific career by naming the elephant in the room…

    ‘Our talent for division, for seeing the parts, is of staggering importance – second only to our capacity to transcend it, in order to see the whole’ (IG). Seeing the whole and the bits. So Robinson, “But for these scientists it is a business of nuts and bolts, a mechanics of signals and receptors of what no more need be known. Their assertions are immune to objection and proof against information. One they dismiss and the other they ignore”. But then, what would a novelist (from the Humanities!!!) know about hard Neuroscince.

    ‘The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of explaining why any physical state is conscious rather than nonconscious’ (IEP). This problem seems to be intractable to the nuts and bolts approach of the LH. However, we can use a different attention to approach the problem – to question what is meant by ‘physical state’ & to ‘see the whole’ – and once we do that and take a RH approach to reality (Part III ch 20-26) the hard problem does not disappear but is changed by being absorbed into the ‘mystery’ of eternal becoming. What will emerge?

    I had been thinking about the ‘self” from the Wisdom end of thinking. It seem mistaking the map (bits) for the terrain (whole), is a ubiquitous sin. Time for Dennett and Dawkins and others to repent (metanoia – change your mind & go in a different direction). Here is what I wrote in an afternote of my essay of education.

    Does the individual ‘self’ exist?141 This question mimics the question “Does God exist?” These questions are left hemisphere framed category questions based on the presupposition that only ‘things’ exist. Neither the self nor God exist as an object within ‘what is’ and they cannot be dismembered and forensically examined by some separate self-consciousness (ie: me). There is no ‘view from nowhere’, when examining the experience of being and becoming. The material/machine model of reality is not a view from nowhere and is not capable of independently examining lived reality with a view to answering the above ontological questions. Descartes thought that ‘thoughts’ (parts) exist, so a ‘thinker’ (whole) must exist since ‘non-material thought’ must be caused by a ‘thinking me’. He was wrong. This is ‘materialistic’ reasoning and has led Western Philosophy down the ‘ghost in the machine’ rabbit hole and set up more than one ‘hard problem’ to amuse Western philosophers for hundreds of years. McGilchrist has clearly shown that no aspect of reality, when re-presented as a machine with parts to be examined, can live. Such ‘bits’ can only participate in reality when they are re-presented to the RH to be integrated into the flow of life. ‘Dem bones’ (concepts, thoughts, maps or models of being), do not and cannot live. The body/mind category, when applied to a living person, can never describe or understand the experience of a lived life in any meaningful or adequate sense. The rule is that life can only be lived, never examined. Only in the abandonment of a left hemisphere examination of experience (though it is still true that the unexamined life is not worth living). For ‘dem bones’ to live they must first die, then, after disposing of all analysis, words and concepts, return to the open, receptive, unknowing, empty attention to what is (this is living ‘the examined life’). It seems to be a Divine command that only when we say, “…our bones are dried up, our hope is gone, there’s nothing left of us”, then, and only then, will God say, “I’ll breathe my life into you, and you’ll live. Then I’ll lead you back to your own place and you’ll realise that I am God. I’ve said it and I’ll do it. God’s decree.”142 Living as ‘me’ is the examined life, not thinking about my experience of living. With respect to the existence of the ’self’ (or individuated ’soul’ or ’spirit’), the fact that the map is not the terrain (= the ego is not the self) cannot be used to argue that the terrain (self) does not exist. In “The Matter with Things” Iain McGilchrist has provided a wonderful map to reality, but only a reader, through participation in ‘the flow of becoming’ that their individuated unique life is, can ’know’ life. This, of course, as McGilchrist shows, has always been known and taught. After all, the “Buddha did not say, “You don’t exist.” He only said, “You are without self… Your nature is nonself”. Both the concepts of ‘non-self’ and ‘self’ are themselves only notions, words, concepts by which we attempt to systematise and understand our life. These concepts are a locked gate when approaching the experience of reality. As the Buddha said, “We only have these notions, and we suffer because of them”.143 The mystical traditions (apart from Buddhism), emphasise the existence of a ‘true self’ sharply distinguished from the gaggle of false ‘selfs’ we carry with us. These delusions of the ’self’ must die if we are to live. Then when ’trueself-noself’ encounters its own place in what is, there ’enlightenment’ flows. Here there is no separate self-consciouisness only ’pure consciousness’. “We become like the eye that cannot see itself, that sees all”144. For the Oneing of ’self’ with ’being’, Christian mystics speak of union with God – a Oneness at the centre of our image-of-God-true-self with the Being and Becoming of God. Hindu teachers emphasise ’enlightenment’ (Moshka) when the ‘true self ’ (Atman) is released from the cycle of existence (Samsara) to know “I am Brahman“145. All traditions agree that the ‘false-selfs’ must die (be decreated) for the non-self = true-self to emerge. When the non-self and true-self (the image of God self, referred to above) become one there is enlightenment, union with God, Nirvana. This ’state’ is not, however, stasis. Neither is it some ‘thing’ or ‘no-thing’. Rather it is a participation in the flow of being. So, Thich Nhat Hanh (Buddhist tradition) says, “Emptiness does not mean nonexistence. It means interdependent coursing, impermanence, and nonself”146 (McGilchrist could have written that!). Ramana Maharshi (Hindu tradition) regards the central task for each life is to answer the question “Who am I?”. To discover an answer to “Who am I?”, Ramana takes a via negativa or apophatic way (perhaps Daniel Dennett could try this?). After negating options and deciding ‘not this’, ‘not that’, He asks: “I am none of these, then who am I? … that Awareness which alone remains – that I am.”147 For Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, this (image of God) centre is “a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth … which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. [It] is the pure glory of God in us … It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”148 These three traditions concur that the no-self and the self are found together in the ’nothingness’ and ’emptiness’ of ’union’, ‘enlightenment’ and ’pure consciousness’. 149

    141 I wrote on the question of the ’self’ before being informed by reading Mc Gilchrist’s answer to the question: “Should you be yourself?” in ch. 21 of The Matter with Things. Readers would be well advised to read his account for a broadly informed view.

    142 ”Dem bones Dem bones Dem dry bones, Hear the word of the Lord.” …finishing with, ”Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around. Hear the word of the Lord.” Song based on Exekiel 37. Quotes from Ezekiel 37:1-17 (MSG).

    143 Quotes from Your True Home –The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh Compiled and edited by Melvin Mcleod

    144 “The Way of Attention” by John Main OSB in The Hunger for Depth and Meaning, ed. by Peter Ng (Singapore: Medio Media, 2007), p 196. Sam Harris makes the same point in “Waking Up – A Guide to Spirituality without Religion” He quotes Douglas Harding’s experience described in On having No Head as “… an unusually clear description of what it’s like to glimpse the nonduality of consciousness.”

    145 ”Whoever knows the self as “I am Brahman,” becomes all this universe.” Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 Ātman (Hinduism) – Wikipedia, Brahma is both creator of all things and all things created – ”This Being (neuter) entered all beings, he became the overlord of all beings.

    That is the Atman (Soul, Self) within and without – yea, within and without!” — Maitri Upanishad 5.2 Brahma – Wikipedia. Sounds a bit like panentheism to me.

    146 Your True Home –The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh Compiled and edited by Melvin Mcleod loc 110

    147 “1. Who am I? The … body …, I am not; the … senses …, I am not; the five (organs)… functions speaking, moving, grasping, excreting, and enjoying, I am not; the … airs, (in-breathing, etc.), I am not; even the mind which thinks, I am not; … the residual impressions of objects, and in which there are no objects and no functioning’s, I am not. 2. If I am none of these, then who am I? After negating all of the above-mentioned as ‘not this’, ‘not this’, that Awareness which alone remains – that I am.” Who Am I? (Nan Yar?) The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi

    148Quotes from Christ lives, alleluia! — Living Water ( Also, ”Benedictine monk John Main also described this centre beautifully when he wrote that it is in our hearts that Christ prays day and night. “I can describe it only as the stream of love that flows constantly between Jesus and his Father. This stream of love is the Holy Spirit.”