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

  • Don Salmon

    May 8, 2023 at 2:54 am

    Hi Rodney:

    All beautiful thoughts. Of course, you’re coming at this from a very different “place” (non-place, if you like) than Peter. It will be interesting to see how he and others see this.

    When talking with people who accept the idea of a purely physical reality – over 50+ years – I find initially taking a very logical/analytic view can be very helpful (I personally think it’s a very LH way to look at things to talk to much of a LH way and RH way – paradox intended – so I tend to steer away from that as well).

    But I’ll just add – I think you may separate the intuitive and analytic a bit too rigidly. I’ve been particularly intrigued by the effort/Grace conundrum you find in all traditions. I think Culadasa (neuroscience professor and Buddhist meditation teacher) gave the simplest integration – “awakening is like an accident. You can’t make it happen but you can make yourself accident-prone.”

    Hence, in Vedanta, we have sravana (listening), manana (thinking, yes – thinking!) and niddhyasana (where thinking stops and intuition begins). Swami Sarvapriyananda has a nice down home way of saying it: “STEP 1: did you HEAR me” (like kids say, “I heard you man”) STEP 2: did you GET IT’ and STEP 3: is it REAL to you?

    But in the Jesuit contemplative tradition, in much of the Kabbalah, even in Zen, most people don’t know it but there are centuries of awakened Zen masters who have written extensive commentaries on Dogen’s writings.

    “Practice” of course is paradoxical. You can’t practice to be what you already are. If you approach this through intellect you’ll end up like the centipede trying to count its legs. But if you let go and go into the heart, you can meditate, pray, do rituals, study, create meditation gardens and all the rest and it’s not a problem at all.

    Finally, I’m REALLY interested in hearing Peter or anyone else’s attempt to describe a scientific experiment that could provide evidence for the existence of something purely physical. Rodney, I think you gave the answer as to why this is impossible, but I think there’s a profound experiential effect – perhaps paradoxically – when you patiently work through it logically.

    I remember SEEING this intuitively all in one moment, when I was 17, and just SAW there was nothing but God. But I kept getting tripped up when I read materialist philosophers.

    Then one day, 17 years later, in 1987, I was reading a book which calmly pointed out that there really are no “laws of nature” – it’s an abstract concept we impose upon the infinite variety of experience. It just hit like a ton of bricks. The whole facade of science as an explanatory mechanism completely fell apart and never came back together. I spent 8 years with 600 world class philosophers, scientists, and other intellectuals on the online Journal of Consciousnss Studies Forum, and despite all I know as a psychologist about defense mechanisms, I just never got over how something that COULD be so simple and SO obvious was completely invisible to such otherwise brilliant people.

    I just wrote a note to a NY Times science writer, Peter Overbye (I think that’s how you spell his name). He just published an essay musing on how satisfying it was to contemplate the end of the universe, when all life has passed and there is a purely physical reality.

    I wrote him a note, first praising his essay, then noting that about 95% of neuroscientists believe all we know of the “universe” is a construction of the brain, yet the same 95% are convinced that whatever the universe is apart from our own consciousness, nobody knows – except we KNOW it’s purely physical, no mind, no consciousness. I added in a postscript after challenging this, that when I suggest perhaps the entire universe exists within consciousness, this does NOT mean it only exists in our own brain!

    And of course – and I’ve seen this hundreds, maybe thousands of times, after explicitly writing this – he writes back and says, “Well, I have to believe the universe exists outside my brain.”

    Fantastic! This is like the story Iain tells of the patient he had with a right hemisphere stroke, who lost the use of his left arm. Iain came to see him in the hospital one day, and saw in him bed, his left arm limp. He said, “How’s the arm doing?”. The patient cheerily responded, “Oh, fine.”. Iain talked with him a bit, trying to see if there was some way he could convey the true condition of the arm to him. Finally, Iain walks over to the patient, lifts the arm and says, “Ok, try to hold it there after I let go.”

    Of course, Iain lets go and the arm drops back with a thud back to the bed. Upon which the patient exclaims, “Oh, THAT arm. That arm belongs to the guy in the bed next to me.”