Now and then we should take time out to acknowledge our teachers, the ones that made a difference in the progress (or regress) of our life-journey. Let me recount how I escaped from a serious mistake inflicted on me by the uncritical reception of scientific materialism. This, more than an intellectual mistake, is also an existential disaster.
Ideas of William James, Irwin Schroedinger, and Carl Jung combined to free me from an oppressive assumption. As long as I saw my mind and interior world as essentially an outgrowth of my brain, my existence seemed that of a doomed outlier, a creature tainted to the core by contingency and suffering from severe causal impotence.
James offered an alternate view of the possible. In a lecture on immortality he gave to a Harvard audience at the end of the nineteenth century, he was faced with trying to account for a variety of human experiences that made no sense in light of the new scientific materialism, according to which everything mental must be no more than a physical derivative. James showed that we are logically free to asume that consciousness does not emerge from the brain but is what it is and irreducibly so.
How could that be possible? We are free to assume that the brain transmits but does not create consciousness. Consciousness may then be thought of as a reality, or dimension of being, in and of itself. Mind would not be derived from anything physical but it does interact with the physical. So we can grant all the mind-brain correlations we’re acquainted with (all of neuroscience), without assuming that mind is brain-born or brain-derived.
The idea used to illustrate this is a radio or a TV set: what is heard or seen through radio or TV originates from somewhere entirely beyond those machines. The machines are detectors, transmitters, transducers of signals, energies from elsewhere; they are not creators of anything and we are not machines.
This is a step in a new direction. I can think of my conscious world as part of a larger mental world and not merely some flickering offshoot of my brain. With that decisive reconception, the aperture on my universe suddenly dilates.
There’s a second move I made toward the radical liberation of my mental life. Schroedinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, declared that mind is and can only be numerically one. There is nowhere in the world of mind that you can carve out pieces so as to make mind plural, as you could a material sheet of paper or a carbon atom. This doctrine of the one mind can be traced back to the Hindu Upanishads, which was Schroedinger’s inspiration.
The one mind that is filtered through my brain is bound to create the illusion of isolation and separateness. We then naturally identify with our bodies and unique personal perspectives, so the differences between human beings are real enough. And yet, the more deeply we enter ourselves, the more we merge toward the oneness of our humanity.
Another teacher that freed me to think of my mind as the sole conduit to what people call God, the divine, or the transcendent was C.G Jung. According to Jung, we live from moment to moment and from first to last in a psychical world of images. The stream of interweaving mental and bodily imagery that we experience, punctuated by episodes of more but different kinds of dream imagery, is our existential milieu; there is no exit from our subjective selves. Jung’s psychical idealism in which the psyche is composed of images is where we all are. Show me a person who is outside his subjectivity and I’ll show you a dead body.
Aware now of the primal status of my inner reality, of its numerical oneness in Schroedinger’s Upanishadic sense, and of its self-existence and pervasiveness in nature, I’m in a better place to kick back and offer up my ramblings on the twin mysteries of human existence: immortality and transcendent being (the next post).
The point I want to drive home is tactical. Once we expand the concept of our mental scope and capacity, the range of what we may think of as possible increases exponentially.