Sunday, December 11, 2011


All living systems show two opposing tendencies: the tendency to creative discovery, and the tendency to conservative rigidity. Every living system exhibits both tendencies but in widely differing proportions. Moreover, the relation between the two tendencies is not symmetrical: it's fair to say that while creativity requires a modicum of conservatism, too much of the latter can and often does stifle the former completely.

There is, clearly, a difference between making a living and having a life.
Human life is, indeed all sentient life is, to a very great extent about making a living. But if that's all it is about, then such a life is seriously impoverished, however successful the living. Making a living implies, as it does in the natural world, specialisation. For better or for worse, one becomes to a great extent what one does. We become some identifiable type of human function in the course of making our living. We are urged, as children to be something. We do this with greater or lesser degrees of coherence. We become doctors, lawyers, factory-workers, toilet-cleaners, musicians, artists, astronauts, beggars, tycoons, thieves and so on. Each of these functions implies a degree of specialisation and normally, the more complete the specialisation, the more successfully the function is performed. But if this success is the reward of specialisation, the price paid is very often the loss of plasticity, the loss of adaptability, the loss of creative formlessness, creative infinity. We all know of people who are so completely formed (or deformed) by their professional activity that they cannot stop performing that particular function. The lawyer adopts litigious attitudes in his relations with his family and friends. The teacher remains a pedagogue, even between the sheets. The doctor cannot stop diagnosing illness and so on. To a greater or lesser extent, we all become a function of our role in life. To a greater or lesser extent, our minds are structured by our function. Our function turns into a mental carapace.

We think of knowledge as liberating, but it can turn into quite the reverse. While learning expands the mind, knowledge can frequently limit it. To a greater or lesser extent, we become a function of our knowledge and see the world through the spectacles that our knowledge imposes upon our minds. This sort of functionalisation happens not only with respect to specialised, professional knowledge, it also happens with respect to beliefs of all kinds as well. The mind operates according to the categories set by the beliefs and functions and may be unable to stand outside of them. Often such functionalisation of the mind – though necessary to making a living – results in rigidity of attitude, all kinds of orthodoxy, dogmatism and occasionally, bigotry. The efficient and successful performance of a function often correlates with the degree to which the mind in question is ‘orthodox’, ‘dogmatic’ or ‘bigoted’. Less than whole-minded commitment diminishes efficiency. The result of all of these limitations on the human mind is a diminution of both the world inhabited and of the self that inhabits such a world. When it goes too far, functionalisation is a matter of living as a part self in a part world, living as a fragment in a collection of fragments. Such functionalisation, when yoked to the paranoid emotions of the ego can become a negative, damaging state in which each specialised individual pursues individual goals to the detriment of others. When belief in the thing-ideology and the fragmentation it engenders intervene to reinforce this negative development, the individual becomes the famous cog in the machine and the result is quite simply catastrophic. Dehumanised units interact mechanically with each other according to the forces generated by the immediate tensions to which they are subject and humanity disappears.

The mind is always in danger of becoming no more than a function of its beliefs and when the ego is in control of those beliefs, its craving for power is such that, to talk mythically for a moment, it ousts God by assuming his role. There are only these two possibilities, given the propensity of the mind to become functionalised by its beliefs: either the ego fuses with the self and the self recognises its dependence upon an overarching meaning to which it is subservient, or the ego sees itself as sole authority, the sole origin of meaning in the universe and abolishes God in order to take his place. By ‘God’ here is meant no more than a meaning to the universe that is not simply that of the ego. God’s place is taken by the ego’s claim to godlike knowledge and what goes with it, god-like control. The scientific ego is the last refuge of anthropomorphic religion; here the ego has fused with the anthropomorphic god. The ego as quasi-divine lawgiver arrogates to itself the omniscience and the omnipotence of the monotheistic deity. Its mechanistic universe is ruled by laws that it has itself created. These laws are forced upon the rest of mankind by so-called ‘proof’, a form of violence that is generated by nothing more authoritative that what appears self-evident to the ego and that thus frequently means no more than ‘true because I say so’. What is self-evident to the ego is what it makes itself, namely its machines, either the literal machines of technology or the intellectual machines of theory. So the whole business of ego-authority goes around in a circle and the authority of ego-based intellection is simply the mechanical propensity of the ego. This is as close as the ego gets to the status of ens causa sui. It is an indication of the vacuous nature of an attitude that declares that parts are more important than wholes: the ego as part imagines that it is entitled to legislate for the whole and for no good reason than that it both desires to do so and lacks the ability to conceive of any power above itself. Since the ego can only work with machines and since the machine is necessarily a demonstration of its own validity, the ego imagines that the mere appeal to machine models will be exclusively authoritative.  The functionalisation of the intellect makes every thus functionalised ego infallible in its own eyes. The result is both a cacophony of little tin gods shouting at each other and a leaden knee-jerk consensus that is the essence of orthodoxy. Daily human life is analysed in terms of a range of mechanical problems. These problems are provided with mechanical ‘solutions’ by a variety of tin-pot deities. The result is that daily life becomes, increasingly, a perpetuation of the very problems that the solutions were intended to solve. The reason for this is that the root of the problem lies within the ego and its reductive, mechanical methods: the rationalistic ego is, in the words of Karl Kraus, “the disease of which it thinks itself the cure.”
Just as the ideology of mechanism imposes a mechanical conception of the processes of nature and just as the thing-ideology imposes a fragmentary view of reality, so the functionalisation of the person succeeds in rendering all human beings mechanical and fragmentary as well. It must be said that the success of the ideology is as notable here as it is in the scientific sphere. It must also be said that the catastrophic effects of functionalisation on the human self are as extensive and profound as the effects of mechanical modes of understanding on the environment. The two go together and complement each other perfectly: the practical policies that result from mechanical models cooked up by a myopic, hidebound science are implemented with robotic efficiency and soulless disregard for the fine balances of nature by the truncated ego- and persona-dominated beings to whom they appeal. The greatest danger in the human realm today is the possibility that this combination of mechanistic ideology, mechanised society and mechanised personalities will supplant, by virtue of their very simplistic efficiency, all other ways of viewing our world.   If this happened and if centralised political power on this planet were of this cast, it would be time to bid good-bye to all those vague but precious notions, such as ‘environmental ethics’, ‘human rights’, ‘the freedom of the individual’, ‘the sanctity of life’, ‘the mind’, ‘the creative imagination’, ‘the human spirit’ and so on, which make the functionalised ego sneer, but without which we humans would be a lot nastier and certainly less creative than we are. These concepts already have a difficult time of it, but they survive because decent, unprejudiced people know they are valuable, even though there is no room for them in the officially scientific view of things. The day this language goes on the wane and begins to disappear from public discourse in favour of the efficient language of function and technique, that is the day humanity will begin the first stage of its congealment into a stagnating or self-destructive species.
It may well be that the human species will split into two, the one continuing to grow and develop, the other, like the coelacanth settling down to long-term stability. It may be that that process has already begun. Whatever the case, the functionalisation of the human person strangles creativity, reduces the range of the personality to that of a routine-ridden calculator and chokes off that indeterminate, unpredictable, innovatory input into the world that is the essence of our interaction with our environment. How then does the wholly functionalised mind operate? It operates, primarily, by adhering with almost evangelical fervour to the implementation of a certain procedure, a certain method, a certain algorithm: it computes. The specific nature of the functionalisation is given by the role, the persona. The energy for the sometimes almost fanatical zeal for method is provided by that would-be divinity, the ego. The combination of functional efficiency and ego-ambition is one of the most potent in the human world today; and it is this combination that could result in the imposition of the universal totalitarian machine portrayed in literature and film from Plato’s Republic to Skinner’s Walden2, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the ghastly visions of the Matrix films and of all those other popular stories of ultimate societal mechanisation. The extent to which such scenarios are viewed positively or negatively depends upon the degree of mechanisation of the personality doing the viewing. The point of view adopted here is the following: far from representing a positive view of the future, such nightmares are wholly negative since they represent attempts to achieve, for whatever agency or ideology it may be, a control over humanity that will lift it out of the creative mainstream of evolution and consign it to the class of no-longer-developing creatures. And that – at least for humanity as we know it – would be a very bad thing indeed.
So how does functionalisation of the person work? It works by developing, to the detriment of the self as a whole, the rational, methodical aspects of the intellect – the left-brain aspects, in the language of brain-mythology – and by linking these so firmly with a certain role within a certain organisation or a certain type of organisation, that the person concerned is entrapped and enslaved - bought, body and soul. It becomes incapable of thinking outside of a certain box or outside of certain boxes. This role is defined as a series of procedures for which the person has responsibility. This sense of responsibility is cemented by many types of reward, financial gain, status, power, influence and the like, that are craved by the self-worshipping ego. The old animal passions that stoke the ego –  territoriality, aggressivity towards any competition, self-importance, self-regard, vengefulness, greed, and the like, on the one hand – and the distortions that result from the truncation of the self from its own depths – paranoia and schizoid dissociation of intellect from emotions, on the other – create an extremely efficient, intense but dangerously unstable state of mind that is a diminution of the human. It is a diminution of the human because it constitutes a loss of that distance and ‘beyondness’, a loss of the finite-infinite tension, that always characterises the relation of the self to its own products: the infinite self externalising itself in finite productions. The functionalised personality is pure persona, pure ego and the robotic attitudes that go along with this are deeply pathological, however ‘normal’ they may be considered in our western industrialised societies. The instability of a functionalised personality depends upon the strength of those creative forces of renewal that are part of the birth-right of the self, and on the degree to which the function has conquered or subjugated them or otherwise keeps them in check. In certain functionalised personalities, the function cannot keep the transformatory forces in a state of repression and they break out (often in a ‘mid-life crisis’) either in positive or in negative form, either as creative innovation and departure, or as destructive illness. Both of these latter types of dissolution of the function are relatively rare. The functionalised person usually has too much to lose by allowing cracks in the persona to appear. Those who do allow such slippage either achieve something radically different from their functional prowess or else they suffer some kind of breakdown and consequent demotion or disgrace. 
The functionalised person in short is a mechanised mind. Small wonder, then that it tends to develop conceptions of the mind that are mechanical. Its first level of programming is that of the theory of three-dimensional space, one-dimensional time, and reality as a collection of three-dimensional solid, persisting objects. This basic operating system of the mechanised intellect, laid down in early childhood, is then reinforced by the acquisition of language and becomes the basic set of assumptions used to approach the world of experience. The next level of programming comes from education and depends upon the degree to which the personality concerned adopts mechanised attitudes and mechanised thought-patterns from the milieu in which it grows to maturity. Those persons possessing a facility for procedural matters, algorithmic thought-patterns, convergent, rule-governed thinking of all types will tend to flourish in an educational milieu where such things are valued and where proficiency in them is rewarded. Educational success, throughout, will have been measured in terms of the efficiency with which the person convinces the educational authorities of its ability to conform to received standards of excellence. The ‘passing’ of examinations, generally no more than the reproduction of rote-learned factual information or the manipulation of procedural technique, will further reinforce the sense of achievement of the already deeply functionalised intellect. The next layer of programming, however, is probably the most vital, and it is this level that completes the process of functionalisation: it is the level that is laid upon the person by professional activity. The need to achieve economic independence and the ego’s desire for status, drive the already functionalised personality towards social roles that it can fill with the aid of the mental procedures and ideological assumptions thus far internalised. The personality is drawn into a net of forces that provide all manner of feedback loops, which further functionalise the mind: daily routine, reward, fear of demotion, economic necessity, social pressure, reputation, authority, deadlines, competition and so on. The person becomes entirely bound up in the routine of such an existence, entirely dominated mentally by it and entirely devoted to its partial values. The result is often either a hard-nosed and ruthless personality who sees only the achievement of those immediate goals that are imposed by the role played, or else a stressed and harried personality whose perpetually stimulated fight or flight mechanisms operate internally and inappropriately to burn up the body itself. 
The thing-ideology and the philosophy of mechanism drive the procedures and values of the major educational institutions. These, in turn, foster the functionalised personality. These personalities achieve eminence both in the educational institutions and in the other organisations to which they apply their abilities. The mechanised, functionalised values and the ambitious, energetic ego are highly prized in industry and commerce because they maximise growth and profit. Governments perceive this maximisation of profit as the highest good of a country and therefore foster all the values, procedures and abilities that conduce to its further maximisation. Educational policy, economic policy and all other sorts of planning then become dominated by the mechanical outlook and the immediate goals of the functionalised ego. The result is a drive towards the mechanisation of society from its roots to its most authoritative institutions, from parenting to governing, from manufacturing to entertaining, every activity is governed by procedure, by method, by algorithm; and the intrinsic, indeterminate creativity of the human mind that is responsible for every positive cultural acquisition is lost.
This tendency of western societies to foster the training of more and more functionalised persons generates a conception of human identity that equates it entirely with the persona, with the social role. The successful person is ‘something’ in society, i.e. a recognisable definable thing. Personalities are regarded as achieving a state in which they are ‘finished’, ‘formed’, ‘rounded off’. The implication seems to be that once a recognisable social role has been achieved and filled efficiently, then the person has, as it were, peaked and can go nowhere else. The person thus functionalised is entirely identified with the brain with which it is associated and this brain is considered as a sort of computing device that has been programmed to operate in a certain way. The functionalised person and the mechanised mind see only mechanism and function; they are self-confirming theories. Inevitably, when the efficiency of this computing device begins to wane, the person is regarded as waning along with it and hence judged to be of little use, little worth and, like a clapped-out  machine, suitable for the scrap-heap. The person is regarded as diminishing along with its diminishing efficiency. The value of such a functionalised person is precisely the extent to which it can fulfil its function efficiently. Once this goes, the person has no further value. Thus the old, the sick, the handicapped, the diminished have no value in terms of functionalised personalities. How long such diminished persons will continue to be tolerated in a given society depends upon the extent to which non-functionalised persons and non-functional conceptions of personal value are maintained. It requires very little for a society to be so devoted to mechanical values that it begins a process of reification, objectification or depersonalisation of the persons it regards as somehow inappropriate to its aims. Thus totalitarianisms of all kinds have systematically persecuted those they considered inappropriate in this sense, i.e. not susceptible to being functionalised in the approved manner. Behind all of these totalitarianisms has always stood some rigid, orthodoxy, mechanically applied, some mechanistic, algorithmic conception of human life and of the most efficient manner in which to live it. The mechanistic-deterministic-materialistic ideology that still governs the west and the thing-ideology that now constitutes its only authoritative view of the world, are steadily creating a functionalised population that not only cares nothing for the indeterminate core of the human self, but also fails to understand that it is the origin of all that is positive in human culture: purpose, value, creativity, meaning, and all those forces that foster the constant achievement of complexity in diversity that has characterised the history of human culture. The victory of the functionalised personality would perhaps spell the end of that history; it might spell the ‘end of history’ altogether, in Francis Fukuyama’s phrase.
The antidote to functionalisation is not to be found in its demonisation or in any set of measures designed to achieve its abolition. Functionalisation produces many benefits. It focuses the intellect with the intensity of a laser-beam and this intensity of vision permits an attention to detail and an unsurpassed analytical ability that are both of great value in the solving of all manner of ancient human problems – disease, hunger, ignorance, privation, and suchlike. On the other hand, it is clear that unchecked functionalisation produces its own set of problems – intolerance, insensitivity, short-termism, myopia of all kinds, diminution of the person and so on. The solution therefore would seem to be some means of maintaining the benefits of functionalisation while reducing its deleterious effects. This can only be done, it seems, by fostering two mutually opposing manners of thought. The self has to be seen as potentially governed by contradictory sets of principles. Once again, the solution to a fundamental conflict in human life is not the stressing of one side to the exclusion of the other, but rather the balanced maintenance of both elements of the tension. The procedure-obsessed, methodical, algorithmic aspects of the personality have to be counterbalanced by its informal, indeterminate, unpredictable aspects and the two have to be seen as one.
In circumstances where functionalised thought-patterns rule the roost – as in contemporary western civilisation – individuals will tend to see method as the essence of thought. When you have no creative ideas, you fall back on a method. The logical procedure, the mathematical procedure, the organisational principle, the managerial method, the recipe, the formula, the formalism, the routine – all of these will be seen as ends in themselves and not as provisional thought-patterns, essentially subject to review and modification. In addition formal patterns of thought will be regarded as somehow complete and in themselves completely authoritative. Formal thought will be considered to generate its own internal principles from its own formal structure. The form will be accorded absolute status. No attention will be paid to the status of the self as always above and beyond its own formal thought, as the indeterminate and indefinable origin and creator of all formality and as the authoritative user and manipulator of such formalism rather than merely its slavish operator. It is therefore only in the affirmation of the self’s intrinsic indefinability that such a viewpoint can be achieved. The finite, limited aspects of the mind have to be seen as dependent upon an infinite and unlimited background. The essentially extra-systemic nature of the self has to be affirmed. Once the self is seen as dominated by particular procedures, particular formalisms rather than as being essentially above them, the self is on the road to mechanisation and functionalisation. Where thought is largely driven by repeatable formulae, intelligence has to be seen as the intrinsically indefinable essence of the self and the indeterminate source of the determined structures it creates. Intelligence has to be regarded as the unformalisable origin of all formality. Intelligence is only formalised when it manipulates a formalism. As the origin of all formalisms, it is intrinsically superior to them. This is not mystification, it is simply good mental hygiene. Though they are among our most intimate experiences, we have no clear idea how the innovations of the human intellect take place. We have no formal procedure for the achievement of creative advance. We have no way of formalising the production of new structure by the human mind. Thus we have to accept the gifts of our own creativity on trust. It is in that sense that the essential nature of the self has to be considered to be indefinable and indeterminate. Thus any fostering of the functionalisation of the intellect – and such is vital if the intellect is to achieve and to master any field – has to be offset by an inculcation of the essential inviolability of the self, the essential ‘beyondness’ or infinity of the self, the essential, indefinable value of the self. It is perhaps in the use of the traditional language of ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ that such a view had been and is currently maintained in our society. But such language is on the wane and its vocabulary lacks resonance. We have to find an equally powerful language that renders the same service as the traditional but now discredited concepts. The language of physics is perhaps now in a position to do this for us, particularly where it points up the spurious nature of the distinction between parts and wholes.   If there is no ultimate separation between the sub-atomic particle as a local manifestation of energy and the entire energy-field of the entire universe, then a similar lack of separation can be assumed to obtain in respect to the human being. If the universal energy-field is imbued with its own universal meaning and ultimately governed by an indeterminate source of all creativity, then our connectedness to this source must surely be the antidote to the deleterious effects of our own tendency to functionalisation. But we have to choose this connectedness.
The functionalised human being is the fragmented human being, the part human being, the human being who is, by virtue of the loss of wholeness, cut off from the world as a whole, from the self as a whole and from humanity as a whole. Such a fragmented human being is responsible for all the ills of the human world today. Such human beings are doubly dangerous in that not only are they alienated and intrinsically distorted, they are also in ignorance or even in denial of the fact. This combination of mental distortion and refusal to understand the distortion is at the root of the cultural malaise of the west and at the origin of its disastrous collective behaviour.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


One of the most dangerous features of our culture is our loss of a sense of connection with totality, our almost autistic obsession with yet more detail. We are unhoused and alienated in the very universe that gave rise to us. Increasingly, we think and behave as if we had only ourselves to thank for our existence. The problem lies with the nature of our understanding that views reality through the narrow slit of empiricism. We possess a bewildering array of facts about the cosmos, but the more we know, the less of a connection we have with it. Blaise Pascal was right to be spooked by the cold vastness of space. The more science tells us us about the universe, the more futile it appears.  What’s more, we believe that this purely factual, thing-obsessed conception of the universe delivered to us by scientific geeks is a healthy state of affairs as opposed to that of the religious or mystical consciousness that sees itself as fundamentally keyed into an intelligent universal process.

The self has to operate in the context of a superordinate whole. This superordinate whole can be many different structures at different times. It can be a family, a church, a football crowd, a company, a government, a school, a factory, a committee and so on. But fundamentally, the self has to feel itself at home in the universe. It has to recognise itself as a stakeholder in the universe, rather than just an accidental cog in some small, arbitrary machine in some obscure corner of the world. People can and do find significance in their membership of all kinds of organisations, from a group of regular drinking-pals to the Catholic Church; but fundamentally, when the self takes into consideration every aspect of its existence, its arrival on the scene as a result of long and ancient natural processes (natural selection, heredity etc.), its birth, its short span of conscious life and its inevitable death, it cannot prevent itself wondering about its place in the whole pageant of events that we call the universe. It is in the nature of consciousness so to think. This locating of the self coherently within the universal process is identical with the impetus to do philosophy, as already noted, and is central to what we mean by the phrase ‘the meaning of life’. The self has to feel itself at home in the universe rather than merely desperately building a little home for itself in a particular social group, a particular town, a particular country, a particular social role and so on.

Of course, the vast majority of humans are too preoccupied with the daily business of making a living ever to give a thought to their place in any grand scheme of things. Indeed, the culture of celebrity, through which our civilisation expresses its principal values of egoism and possession, is designed to keep people in a state of suspension of self in which the meaning of their existence is provided vicariously by those they admire, while they themselves serve the economy as various types of wage-slave. The culture of celebrity convinces people that the sense of life is essentially to be seen in terms of fulfilling an enviable social role supremely well. Since most people are unable to achieve this they have to contemplate it in others, the rich, the famous, the powerful; and the media reinforce this practice by their constant harping on the doings of these people to the exclusion of almost any other issue. Newspapers, television-screens and radio-broadcasts are dominated by the antics of famous actors, politicians, musicians, sportspeople, crooks, writers, captains of industry, the rich and indeed any other kind of individual who appears to have a claim to eminence of any sort. The non-eminent thus have no significance for the media and only get into the newspapers if they distinguish themselves or are distinguished by some event or act that propels them to celebrity-status, however briefly. The significance of so-called ‘reality TV’ is ostensibly to repair the gap between celebrity and non-celebrity. That it fails is only in part due to the personal mediocrity of those who go in for this sort of self-exhibition. It fails more seriously because the distinction between celebrity and non-celebrity is a symptom of a wider failing in our society: namely, our inability to discover the essential dynamics of the self. We lack the means to understand ourselves and appear to believe that narcissistic egoism is the summum of human existence.

Eminence of any sort is a function of the supposedly enviable social role of the person concerned, for the meaning of existence in the modern west is seen only in these terms. Once one has identified a range of human types as abstractions, which is what the thing-ideology does for the human species, once one has fragmented the human species into identifiable types, then the sole meaning of human existence becomes the filling of a representative role, defined in terms of a particular function. Then, since the filling of an identifiable social role is the only meaning to life, the prevailing belief is that the more enviable the role (in terms of popular notions of 'success'), the more meaningful the life. Any notion that the self could have a unique importance, a unique destiny, quite separate from its social function, its ego, its persona, its external relations with other persons and the like, is completely lost.

Now the contention here is this: that the sense of human life has to do precisely with not identifying the self with the socially dependent ego or persona, but rather with the self’s own place in the universe as a whole. The persona, i.e. the social function, is only a means to a particular practical end in a particular specific context and no more, though it is usually a means of bolstering the self-regard of the ego. It does have its purpose, but this purpose is a temporary part of the developmental process, like all stages of education. Neither ego nor persona have any intrinsic relevance to the self as such; they are the causa efficiens in the self's growth, but their relevance is to the social structure in which they are rooted. The intrinsic and unique self, on the other hand, is completely dispensable to this social structure, since only the function – the social contribution, if you like – is of any value. The philosophies of Utilitarianism and Marxism realise this and exploit it to the full – which is why they are universally regarded as inhuman. Now the self is precisely not identical with the ego, persona or societal function and incapable of identifying itself in any way but temporarily with these. The self requires a destiny and an identity that go beyond social ambition and the social structure altogether. The persona and the ego inhibit the development of the self precisely to the degree that they begin to dominate the personality. The essence of the personality, however, and the focus of any meaning to life is the self.

The self requires nothing less than the ability to see itself as creatively part of the universal creative process of nature. Nothing less will do. Less than this is not satisfying to the self, despite its awareness of its own lack of importance; and it is for this reason that throughout the ages, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, from the I Ching to the modern horoscope, people have persistently sought to account for their lives, as a whole, in religious terms or quasi-religious terms, terms that located all the separate contexts of their daily life within the total context of the world as such. These terms functioned by invoking those agencies that were thought to be responsible for maintaining the entire order of nature, whether they were conceived as recognisably divine or not.  It is for this reason that morals and values have persistently been considered to be dependent upon the divine, or at least on some universal co-ordinating agency, rather than on any immediate social context that a person may be committed to and that thus may have a claim to be valued. Only the myopia of the thing-ideology has blinded us to the sense and value of these traditional attitudes. It goes without saying, that so-called ‘divine command ethics’ is merely a mythological distortion of the essential insight that true morality is a matter of the individual’s place in the cosmos.

The model of the universe with which we operate nowadays sees it as a complete process in which many types of apparently independent systems cooperate to produce a world containing all the staggering variety that we are able to witness. It is, however, the notion of process rather than object that is important, since coherent processes amount to something, go somewhere, achieve something and contribute meaningfully to a superordinate process. We see the fifteen-billion-year history of our universe as an integrated process, but we are incapable of working out whether it is a coherent, co-ordinated process, that is to say whether it amounts to anything, or not. Indeed, we deny actively that this knowledge could in any way be possible, because the cognitive criteria of our science do not allow it. We think that it is impossible because for us, reality is no more than a bunch of inanimate objects. Meanings, purposes, values - these are unreal. We deal with this ignorance imposed upon us by the thing-ideology by convincing ourselves that in all this process, in which nothing seems ultimately to endure, there are nevertheless stable entities that do not simply pop into existence and go out of existence or transform themselves into quite different things. Our ability to identify at least some stability in the universal flux reassures us in some small way. These stable entities are the ultimate ‘things’, the building-blocks of the universe and the rules or laws that govern their motion. So we elaborate a view of the universe as a collection of identifiable three-dimensional objects, all of which are made out of some ultimate three-dimensional objects that hang around for much longer than any others. We cling to these ‘ultimate’ things with a kind of desperation.  Thus we come to regard these fundamental building blocks as ultimate reality in all the change and as a consequence we come to regard ourselves as no more than collections of these fundamental building-blocks. The process that is our self loses all significance because it is not seen to endure. It has no stability. It has no substance. It appears and then, after shifting inconstantly, disappears almost immediately and nothing seems to impart to it the enduring identity of the tangible thing.

Small wonder, then, that we are unable to see ourselves as parts of the universal process. But the really depressing feature of our supposed understanding of the cosmos is that despite our instinctive awareness that something staggeringly meaningful is going on and that the universe looks as if it is a gigantic put up job, we are unable to allow ourselves any suggestion that the whole system might be intelligently coordinated. And so we are left with an improbable tale of countless improbable accidents piled upon countless improbable accidents which just happen to get things exactly right. This so-called 'Anthropic Principle' is the most mysterious feature of our current scientific understanding of the world and all attempts to deal with it scientifically lead only to yet more improbability.

The Big Bang (which just happened to get the initial conditions for our cosmos spot-on) produced the first generation of particles. The second generation suns just happened to have the capacity to produce the particles that make up our world. (It was the emergence of carbon at that stage that convinced the atheist Fred Hoyle of the intelligence of the universe.) The processes by which our planet came into existence just happened to be a consequence of the external dynamics of these particles. The organisation of matter into living systems then just happened to be another consequence of the same dynamics (though it is not, because the information of the genome has no chemical explanation). The emergence of consciousness – again, something that just happened – we see as a product of still the same dynamics. Our lives, our societies, our entire human world just happens then to be a product of the same dynamics. The staggering series of accidents that we believe produced us and our specifically human world have nothing at all to do with the nature of that human world, with what is of value in it and with what makes it precious to us. The universal process seems to our science completely different from ourselves and to have no possible relevance to the self. The self relates to other selves; and the universal process that produced selves – so runs the thing-ideology – has no resemblance to the self and its concerns at all. It is not surprising then that we view the whole universal process of the universe as completely irrelevant to us, as completely foreign to us - just another bunch of things to be used. No wonder that we see the corollary to this as true, as well, namely that our lives, our preoccupations, our values have no relevance to the universe as such. No wonder, either, that we are fragmented and alienated and that we retreat into the ego, from where we see the significance of our lives as lying in what we do every day or in what we aspire to do every day and as having no significance outside of these activities. 

We never pause to ask ourselves, however, whether these beliefs held by modern man are not deeply misguided, deeply harmful and deeply wrong. The simple truth is that they are; but the conspiracy of the modern democratic, industrialised society, sedulously fostered by politicians, pundits, journalists, academics and educators, is to suppress every possible belief that militates against the thing-ideology and that militates against the conviction of governments and industries that only an existence devoted to the production of yet more things has any sense. Modern democracies and modern industries are obsessed by the production and consumption of things and yet more things. That is the only activity that has any measurable value and meaning within the view of the universe imposed by the thing-ideology. In a world in which things are, at least initially, randomly thrown together by the forces of nature and by chance, the essence of the human meaning seems inevitably to be the control of the universal collection of things and the consequent production of different things by means of our conscious intention; otherwise consciousness is completely meaningless and quite superfluous. Our identity and our view of ourselves is now bound up with the ever more frenzied production and consumption of things. We are things. Our main purpose is the frantic production of yet more and yet newer things; and all the organisations that constitute human society have the sole purpose of generating still more things. We have to generate more things than our competitor. We have to possess more things than our neighbour. We are drowning in an ocean of things and as we produce them in ever greater quantities, we cut ourselves loose from the sustaining universe and pollute both it and ourselves with the by-products of our hard work, our ‘industry’ our ‘growth’, our thing-production.

The power of this social aspect of the thing-ideology is so great that one begins to wonder whether there is not some greater significance to it that we overlook completely, some ‘cunning of reason’, to use a Hegelian phrase. Perhaps, if we think holistically and teleologically for a moment, the universal process of evolution may require this distortion for the achievement of some creative leap forward, just as the profusion of the Cambrian explosion of species was required for the later production of robust and complex survivors. That may be the case, but one still has a duty to combat the injurious effects of this fragmentation and the concomitant reification of the self because those who suffer from and are damaged by it – and they are a significant number, if not the majority – do not necessarily have to submit to it. They certainly do not have to believe the ideology that supports it. The world as a whole, the planet, the ecosystem would obviously be far better off if human beings adopted a more integrated and harmonious relation to the natural systems that spawned them and upon which they depend. We see ourselves as foreign to nature, as apart from nature, as superior to nature in intellect even, but as inferior to nature in our transience, as locally dominating and exploiting nature, but as being finally defeated by her (short of making ourselves immortal!); but this is only because we see nature as fundamentally nothing more than a collection of insensible things, whereas we are things endowed with consciousness, which is intrinsically more valuable than things. This jumble of half-baked beliefs about ourselves and our world divorces and estranges us from the world to such an extent that we are incapable of understanding it despite all our science. That is the principal reason why, as it were, we pelt our mother with filth.

The confusion in our own view of ourselves – things, yet not things – shuts us out of the cosmos. If we could see ourselves and our consciousness as intimately woven into the universal process, such that every aspect of our being, mental and physical,  is rooted in an aspect of that universal process and every event of our lives is both influenced by and has an influence upon that universal process, we would be a little more careful and a little more concerned to know more about the nature of our connections with that universal process. This cannot be achieved by considering ourselves as just one more thing – however mysterious, paradoxical or anomalous – amid a universal collection of things. We have to be able to understand the manner in which we are integrated into the whole and the manner in which the processes of our individual life chime harmoniously with the whole. We have to understand how what we consider to be merely a collection of alien things is in actual fact the dynamic, intelligent milieu in which we have come to be and which is not in any sense alien to us but intrinsically related to us. It generated us and it has a place for us. We have to be able to see what we call ‘matter’ as of the same kind of subtle, ambiguous stuff as ourselves, not as some inert, brute ore from which chance and necessity have absurdly extracted us. We have to be able to see mind as a universal property of the universe as a whole, from its tiniest filaments to its entire, coordinated flow.

We now believe in the ‘emergent properties’ of wholes; and that is the only handle we can get on minds. But maybe we are seeing them in the wrong light: in a causal light. We are so wedded to the notion of antecedent cause, that we think that the so-called emergent properties of a collection of parts are caused by the aggregated properties of those parts. Of course if the parts are not present, then the whole effect will not be present, right? Well who knows? It may be that the levels of complexity achieved by material systems merely permits the expression of antecedent properties, particularly with respect to mental properties. If reality is inherently intelligent, then maybe any system resulting from evolution is merely the expression of a particular aspect of that intelligence. This is the way we view the cultural formalisms that express our own increasingly complex thoughts: we can conceive of relativity, quantum physics, multi-dimensional space, black holes and all the rest because we have the language to express these notions. The language does not cause the notions, the notions do not emerge from the language – at least scientists would not thank us for saying so. The content of these thoughts existed before we evolved the language to discuss them. If we admit that possibility then it is not difficult to admit the possibility that the states of mind which ‘emerge’ in the human exist prior to the evolution of humans and come to expression because the human body and its brain have come to exist. Since emergent properties characterise the evolution of matter in our universe, it is possible to see emergence at all levels as the evolution of form adequate to the expression of pre-existent content. Perhaps there are higher mental states beyond ours that require large numbers of humans for their expression and  maybe that is why the human race as a whole has emergent properties such as large-scale cultural and societal phenomena. If we extrapolate this logic to the universe as a whole, then it may be that a network of life-bearing planets is connected by an emergent property that binds together a galaxy and so on up the scale. We do not have to view this sort of phenomenon as causal, such that, for example, a deity is generated post facto as an emergent property of the universe - though this has been speculated. There is nothing shocking in the thought that the material universe is the medium of divine self-expression. This sort of speculation is inherently no more ridiculous than the speculations concerning the emergent properties of termite-hills, crowds, economies or the process of the evolution of species. It is speculation, but something like it is needed to break the choking stranglehold of the thing-ideology. Something like this is needed if we are to make real and satisfying sense of our lives in the universe we observe.

In order to obtain a better understanding of why this is of vital importance, we will have to look a little more closely at the functionalisation of the intellect and of the person.

Friday, December 9, 2011


Most ethical theories stop at one or other of the restricted dimensions that make up the whole context of human life. They stop at the individual, as in egoism, or at the societal, as in Utilitarianism or they restrict themselves to the cosmic as in religious or divine command ethics. Why thinkers on matters ethical feel obliged to choose one of these or why all of them should not be taken into consideration at once is something of a conundrum. But then, perhaps it’s not as surprising as all that, since humans have consistently shown themselves prone to take a restricted view of themselves and of their world. But our imagination will not allow us to stop short and be satisfied with some restricted view. The basic issue is that of doing the best with the mind: this ultimately involves establishing a creative tension between the three principal dimensions of human consciousness, the individual, the societal and the cosmic. It is impossible to draw boundaries between these three, but increasingly one or other of them is neglected, as is the manner in which they interact. It is clear that the question ‘what is good for humans?’ can not be answered by any individual or societal recipe for happiness alone, though in contemporary society that is in effect what is happening. The cosmic dimension is more and more regarded as irrelevant. But we neglect it at our peril. We locate ourselves in the cosmos and our happiness is bound up with what we take to be its character. Locate us in a cosmos that intelligently brought us forth and that has a place for us and we are at ease. Locate us in a cosmos in which we are anomalous and alienated beings for whom there is no place apart from that which we carve out for ourselves and we become brutalised and brutal.

It is notoriously difficult to state what is the good for human beings. It is difficult to define this good. The problem here lies with our desire for definitions or rather with the kinds of ‘thing-like’ definitions we desire. This being the case, it is probably easier to say first what is bad for humans. We won’t bother with metaphysical notions such as ‘evil’, for there is little need for these outside of a religious context. It is much more convincing to point out in what way the thing-ideology imposes certain defective beliefs that are bad for us; for make no mistake about it: the thing ideology is bad for us. Once we have done that, we can show why we no longer need to put up with these defective beliefs. If what is bad for us is the consequence of a defective set of beliefs and a defective set of assumptions, then arguing or imagining ourselves out of those assumptions may well open the way for counteracting their effects upon our minds. Once we have outlined what is bad for us, logically the absence or maybe the opposite of these things could be good for us.
So what are the bad effects of the thing-dogma?

One of the chief sources of damaging disruption to natural systems is the injection into the system of defective, inappropriate or irrelevant information. For example, viruses constitute defective information as far as our bodies are concerned and their disruption of the body is obvious to all. Cancers arise from a kind of defective information. Similarly, many of the problems and discontents of western culture arise from defective information, defective beliefs. Richard Dawkins was right in this to the extent that his ‘memes’ can be extremely resilient and extremely deleterious. He was wrong in thinking that he could isolate a certain category of memes – the religious ones – and show that these are uniquely damaging. It is not the holding of this or that particular belief in human culture, that makes it damaging, it is the use made of it.   It is the case that the scientific dogma according to which Dawkins operates is a damaging meme precisely because of its monopolistic domination of areas of life over which it has no right to pronounce. Thus the bad effects of the dogma are those that suggest that human life is meaningless and worthless, that despite the deepest convictions of the human race, its most universal conceptions of the value and purpose of human life are utterly misguided and untrue.

Of course it is bad for humans to suffer poverty, disease, oppression and so on; and there are enough people around the world suffering from these. But to a great extent, these problems are exacerbated by the moral bankruptcy of the developed west. The concern here is with this latter and not necessarily with societies at other stages of development. A basic assumption is that getting the self right in the west will do much to produce improvements to the global situation. So the goal here is to address the spiritual and moral malaise of the west and not so much the consequences of this malaise in the rest of the world. It is to attempt to change the view that human beings have of themselves as things. To see a human being as a thing is to deprive him or her of all value and meaning; and it is precisely these two features of human life that we wish to bring back into the foreground of discourse. In the west a set of damaging assumptions concerning human life that grow directly out of the thing-ideology impacts directly on our psychological health. These assumptions and the beliefs constructed on them have inflicted on us the intellectual and moral malaise from which we suffer. This has in turn afflicted us with a whole range of disorders that are the direct result of what are not only defective and oppressive beliefs, but also now redundant beliefs.

Some of the assumptions and beliefs that are bad for us are listed here. The list is not exhaustive.
It is bad for humans:

- to be told that whatever they may think they are merely things;
- to be told that however they may feel they have no freedom;
- to be bossed around by dogmatists or subjected to this sort of totalitarianism;
- to be made to believe that they are machines and as such, robotically determined;
- to be told that their mind is an illusion or a delusion;
- to believe that any notion of a soul or spirit is even more of an illusion;
- to believe that only external relations are possible with others or with the world;
- to believe that they have only physical, external ‘material’ relations with any reality;
- to be told that as isolated objects they are fundamentally alone and cut-off;
- to be made to believe that their lives have no intrinsic structure or value;
- to be told that only things have value for them;
- to be made to believe that their lives have no purpose;
- to believe that the universe around them is a senseless machine;
- to believe that the universe is an uncoordinated jumble of things;
- to believe that nature is governed only by chance or necessity;
- to believe that human intelligence is a freak of nature and without context;
- to believe that they have no stake in the order of nature;
- to be hectored into believing that their intelligence excludes them from nature;
- to be alienated and terrorised by any or all of the above.

It requires no great insight or subtlety to see that morality in modern western societies is deeply problematic. Philosophy, particularly of the Anglo-Saxon variety has pronounced ethics impossible because values are not things and moral ‘oughts’ cannot be found in nature as one finds rocks, trees, clouds, turtles, galaxies, viruses and other things. Since in our culture the only authoritative sorts of sentences are those that describe things and since in the examination of things, nothing like a value can be detected, sentences that describe the way things ‘should’ be are pronounced to be meaningless expressions of knee-jerk likes or dislikes, mere noises like ‘yuk’ or ‘yum yum’. It has never occurred to the luminaries who thought up this piece of philosophical nonsense that the problem lies with matters of methodology, with midworld, that is to say with a particular use of language and not with the absence of value from the world as such. The empiricist dogma pontificates grandly that only sentences describing things are meaningful and therefore talk of values is gibberish. But value is intrinsic to the world and to all its systems. It’s just that the concepts that designate such value have to be holistic concepts and not reductive ones. Language is particularly well adapted to talking about objects; but this is the weakness of language and it should not blind us to the primacy of values.

Pronouncing ethical statements to be meaningless because they are not reducible to properties of things is about as intelligent as someone’s pronouncing a move in chess illegitimate because, firstly he doesn’t admit to the existence of chess, but only to that of tiddly-winks, and, secondly because the move does not conform to the rules of tiddly-winks. There is a gaping hole in the intellectual fabric of the west and that is its inability to talk the language of wholes. The question, ‘what is the good for humans?’ is therefore a very western question, because it implies some identifiable thing called ‘good’ that can be isolated, as an electric charge or a pungent odour can be isolated along with all other partial things and defined. Thus the good for humans has variously been called ‘happiness’, ‘pleasure’, ‘power’, ‘wealth’ or some such ultimate irreducible thing that can be obtained, like any other commodity, by some mechanical procedure or other. According then to the logic of the thing-ideology, this ‘good’ is deemed to be obtainable for all humans by the application of a set of rules, just as a chair can be obtained from a tree by following a distinct procedure or set of prescriptions.

True to the reductionist methods that dominate intellectual life in the west, we can conceive of the good only in terms of identifiable goods, even to the point of taking that word quite literally: the good is goods. We should have the courage to turn this cast of mind around and invert the reductive spirit in ethics. We only pursue our manic focus on parts because of our prior understanding of wholes. Indeed, the concentration on parts is actually in the service of the understanding of wholes, though we tend to forget this. We understand instinctively that health and happiness are good for man, but we mislead ourselves in identifying those states altogether with what we imagine are particular attainable examples of them. Just as health is not the optimum condition of any one organ, but the complete and harmonious functioning of the entire body and mind, so happiness is not the acquisition of any one aspect of the whole range of potentially agreeable things. We want to know when we ask what is good for man, not what might give him pleasure or satisfaction, what might gratify or entertain him, what might enhance his self-love or increase his feelings of self-worth. We want to know what happiness as a whole, on the analogy with physical health, may entail for the human being as such. We shall therefore ignore the individual goods and try to understand the holistic conception in virtue of which every individual good, from the acquisition of an object to the experience of oceanic ecstasy is understood to be of value.

Western ethics, apart from suffering from the handicap of having been pronounced ‘nonsensical’ by western philosophy, suffers also from the Greek and Judaeo-Christian input that the Middle Ages bequeathed to us. In Ancient Greece, the fundamental ethical question was thought to be ‘what is the best kind of life for a human?’ or ‘how does the individual human flourish?’ The answer to this question was thought to be found in the acquisition of a particular kind of technical know-how; for Plato it was knowledge of the Forms, for Aristotle it was the development of adaptive patterns of behaviour called ‘virtues’ or ‘excellences’. For the Jew and the Christian, however, the fundamental ethical question was rather ‘what does God command me to do?’ And these ‘commands’ were understood to be codifiable rules laying down the best kind of life. These two conceptions of the good life are vastly different, but they had one thing in common: both the Greeks and the Judeao-Christians busily went about trying to establish a method for obtaining the right kind of knowledge in question. As always when humans apply their reason to such matters, however, this led to reductive definitions and punitive prescriptions.

So while the Greeks taught that a certain kind of learning resulted necessarily in the individuals' becoming ‘good’ in the sense of ‘successful’, or ‘well turned-out’, and in their ‘living and faring well’, the Jews and then the Christians, following the monotheistic notion of a divine set of rules for everything in the universe, set themselves the task of clarifying these rules, imposing them on everyone and enforcing them. (And Islam, as a latecomer, is still trying to do this.) Now while the Christians retained the Greek conception of the good life for human beings, considering it simply as complete conformity to the will of God as interpreted by the authority of the Church, in post-Enlightenment Europe God dropped out of the picture and the ego took his place. The good life for a human being became a life of desire-satisfaction and the rules turned into a procedure for ensuring that the desire-satisfaction of every individual member of a given group did not damage the mode of desire-satisfaction of the majority.

This grotesquely impoverished notion of ethics combined the worst of both the Greek and the Christian views on matters ethical. It designated the individual as a unit of pleasure-seeking and announced that, since no one unit has a greater right to pleasure than any other unit, the pleasure-seeking of each unit had to be controlled in such a fashion as to ensure that the greatest amount of pleasure was obtainable by the greatest number. There was of course no compellingly authoritative reason for this at all. It was simply a hang-over from the old Greek and Christian ideas that the good was to be obtained by some sort of procedure and constituted some sort of knowledge; and this knowledge was assumed, particularly by Bentham and his Utilitarians, to be available by scientific means. It was to be acquired by means of the so-called ‘felicific calculus’. Since the search for factual knowledge was deemed to be the amassing of the finest-grain unit facts and combining these facts according to some rules, the same was thought to go for ethics. The ‘facts’ were those that the ego deemed to be the facts of human nature, namely that each human being, as a kind of atomic unit of humanity, was motivated by an entirely selfish desires for kinds of pleasure. Bentham believed that all the individual satisfactions could each be given a score and that on the basis of some ill-defined arithmetic these scores could reveal some optimum state of society, just as the properties of atoms combined them together to form a world. This caricatural conception of human life remains the dominant ethical theory in the west today – albeit without the wacky mathematics – and is an indication of the extent to which, in desperation, westerners are liable to believe the veriest nonsense merely because they have no other means of intellectual control of reality than the thing-ideology.

What, then could the alternative be? What alternative view could we develop of the good for human beings if we ditch the thing-ideology and learn to speak the language of wholes?  The reductive language of fragments that is imposed upon human beings by the thing-ideology suggests to each individual that he or she is completely cut-off and alone as an object among objects and has only external relations with other individuals or atomic units and all the other ‘ills’ resulting from the thing-ideology listed above. The result of belief in this fragmentary view of life is that each individual feels obliged to exploit every situation as an opportunity for personal gratification, since there is no other value. This personal gratification has no other substance than the obtaining of certain types of commodities. The ethical ideal of the average western individual is thus officially viewed as the acquisition and consumption of a certain sum of these commodities. Of course, an extra ethical dimension is bolted on to this in a completely irrational manner, which states quite flatly that one person’s acquisition and consumption of commodities must not damage another person’s chances of obtaining and consuming commodities. There is no particularly moral justification for this from the basic ideology, which is purely egoistic, but it is bolted on nevertheless, because even the thing-ideology has to recognise that ethics has a group dimension that it would be absurdly inefficient to ignore.

One other reason for the utilitarian inhibition of egoism is also, of course, the mechanistic need for predictable organisations: society in utilitarian ethics is viewed as a well-oiled machine – since everything else in nature is an efficient machine – and it would seem that pure egoism as a social principle could not work very well. It becomes evident from an understanding of this fragmentary approach to reality, that not only can it not really deal intelligently with the dynamics involved in the relation of individual to group, it cannot understand human life in any way at all, because human life is only comprehensible as a series of integrated systems that go from particles to cells, from cells to organs, from organs to the body, from the body to social groups, from social groups to cultural groups, from social and cultural groups to the world, from the world to the totality of nature and the cosmos; and without some way of integrating all of these systems, it is impossible to grasp what is good for the individual human being and for the human group. It is as arbitrary to cut off the ethical questioning at the societal or cultural level of systems as it is to declare that it belongs to the individual alone. Every human being is aware that questions concerning the good for humans go from the individual through the societal to the cosmic without any obvious boundaries and they do so because it is in the nature of human self-consciousness to situate itself in these contexts and to understand them holistically.

Some sort of realisation is dawning that a holistic language and a conception of complex feedback loops is needed with respect to recommendations concerning human behaviour, for example in the ecological movement, but it needs to be much more consciously and much more systematically developed in conscious opposition to the fragmenting effects of the thing-ideology. The ethical phenomenology of the human race has to be considered as an emergent property of the most complex thing in the whole known universe, namely the human being, not just singly, but as a whole species. And let us remember here that these properties are called ‘emergent’ by us only because our habit of looking at every whole in terms of what we identify as its simplest parts makes wholes challengingly mysterious. Each sub whole of relevance to the human being, from sub-atomic particle to planet, has to be regarded as essentially and fundamentally connected both to the immediate subordinate whole and to the immediate superordinate whole and, thereby, to the totality both at the micro and at the macro scale. There is a flow of information from all levels of the system to all other levels. The flow of information is from what we call ‘the simple’ to what we call ‘the complex’ and from the complex to the simple. In reality, there is no such thing as the clear distinction between ‘the simple’ and ‘the complex’, for the simple can behave in complex ways and the complex in simple ways. There are no ‘fundamental building blocks’ to nature, no ultimately ‘simple’ bits, the properties of which, along with the rules of their combination, govern all phenomena. Wholes at all levels have irreducible emergent properties that cannot be understood reductively. Parts are only apparently parts; they are in fact either sub-wholes or superordinate wholes depending  on the point from which one views them; and this relation of parts to whole is an essential property of the entirety of the biosphere, and, we must assume, of the universe as a whole.

The life of the individual human being is set in a nested series of systems, each of which has to be considered as a whole that is not reducible to its parts. Moreover, each whole has either to be viewed as a sub-whole within a superordinate whole, rather than merely as a part of that whole, or else as a superordinate whole the parts of which are its sub-wholes. As for the wholes relevant to ethics, there is the body, to begin with, then the family, then the various larger social groupings, after which comes the ecosystem of the planet and thereafter the universe as a totality. The idea that the individual human could somehow seek integration into the universe as a whole is not as barmy as it sounds when one realises that according to the de Broglie interpretation of the individual particle, each particle reflects the whole universe in the information encoded in the wave-potential that accompanies it. Imagine, in order to put a bit of reality on this abstract notion, what is indeed the case: the light from every visible source in the universe, the light that encodes the information concerning every object in the visible universe, is present at every point within the universe, for every part of the visible universe can be observed from every other part. Thus every ‘part’ of the universe that we experience is present in every other ‘part’. The information governing the entire universe is present everywhere in the universe, holographically present, if you like. A human being can not be fully human without feeling ‘at one’ with each of the systems of which it is a sub-whole. The good for a human being is therefore a living sense of belonging to each of the systems in turn in which its life is set, from body to universe. The link between each of these systems is information-processing or intelligence, the intelligence specific to the level in question. The old notion of man as the microcosm mirroring the macrocosm returns in new guise if one considers the notion of ‘self-similarity’ in chaos-theory. It is one of our deepest instinctive conceptions of ourselves that suggests to us that the relation between our creative minds and our earth-bound bodies might be a dim reflection of the relation between the physical cosmos and the universal intelligence that animates it.

The intelligence of the individual is not just brain-function, it is rather an aggregate function of the indeterminate information that accompanies every particle of the individual’s body, a function of the complex information-bearing field that fundamentally is each apparent part and that is connected to the indeterminate intelligence of each superordinate system above it. The information-bearing field that is each apparent part unfolds itself to us in ways that are peculiar to our particular ability to experience. We experience a world of separate things – that is our brain-imposed handicap. But our experience can be trained to broaden itself and become an experience that the self has of fields, of the universal field. We can experience the universe as universal light, universal energy, universal intelligence, and its various phenomena, ourselves included, as bound forms of these. This is a kind of myth, and will be rejected with cries of “juvenile idealism” or something similar. But the mechanistic dogma is a myth, too, and a destructive one. The holistic myth proposed here is the sort of myth that is needed to counteract the corrosive and fatal effects of the mechanistic-deterministic thing-ideology.

It is a consciousness of the integrated totality of the universe, in which the individual has a stake and a role, that has the potentiality to combine all the disparate elements in ethical theories as diverse as Utilitarianism, Natural Law ethics, Kantianism, Virtue-Ethics, Divine Command Ethics, Situation Ethics, Egoism, Prescriptivism, Anarchism and so on. It can combine deontological and consequentialist notions. It can combine prescriptive and descriptive ethics and abolish the spurious distinction between cognitivism and non-cognitivism. It can do these things by the simple expedient of not restricting knowledge to knowledge of parts. The forces that forge the many moral codes that exist and that have existed in human groups have the purpose not only of connecting the individual to a system, but also of revealing and imparting to individual life a structure, a purpose, a sense, a 'meaning' if you like, that is inherent to it and not simply imposed for the convenience of this or that power-hungry authority. Whatever the Existentialists may have said about the lack of a human essence, there has to be an essence of the human in order for life to function, though this essence clearly is not identifiable with any one aspect of human existence. It is precisely the doctrine of meaningless that has given rise to the existential notion of absurdity and to the view that fundamentally ‘anything goes’ except where the majority has decided – on the basis of its superior power – that in the interests of its comfort, certain things will be forbidden. The good for humans is therefore substantially the opposite of everything proposed by the thing-ideology and is found in a rediscovery of the ancient values of spiritual connection with universal meaning. That it is physics that can begin to make these things comprehensible demonstrates that we are not dealing here with mere mystification, but rather with intellectually serious matters of vital importance that we have no reason any more to obfuscate with any half-baked ‘scientific’ dogma.

When one has got rid of the pusillanimous notion that the only good for humans is vegetable health it is fairly easy to see that what is good for humans is the same as what makes their existence meaningful: it is being dynamically and permanently aware that the self-conscious mind is integrated into the cosmos and thus actively involved in its ceaseless creativity. There is no more consummately meaningful, no better life than to be in creative partnership with the creativity of the cosmos. To create, to be creative, for us humans is to be created, even if we know it or not. The cosmos is infinitely varied and infinitely complex because it is a process of constant creation. We have a stake in this perpetual creativity whether we understand this or not. Clearly, it is better to understand our status as created creators than not. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011


The belief that we as individuals are each a brain, a chunk of matter, a complex 3D object and nothing more is an article of faith in our materialistic culture, dominated as it is by our physicalist science. It is confidently declared by pundits and popularisers that 'of course' the mind equals the brain. But does it? It’s more likely that this belief is no more than a methodological prejudice, a comforting ploy of the ego to affirm its own mastery of the situation. We all believe that our minds are distinct from our brains, so we might as well give the thought its head and see where it takes us.

It may seem counter-intuitive to consider the mind as ontologically distinct from the brain – as a different sort of existent, but it is just as counter-intuitive to try to consider the mind and its events as mere movements of particles. The 'brain-mind identity' theory is a recent belief deriving from our obsession with things and a little reflection shows that no-one actually holds it very seriously – except, that is, when people are getting on their theoretical hobbyhorse. We all think as dualists, but that may be because our brains and our language can only deal with objects. It is unlikely that our brains can handle the whole range of reality; but in addition to handling objects, our minds can also conceive minds and it is futile to dismiss this ability as misguided fantasy. On the one hand, our entire culture rests on the primacy of the object; but on the other it also rests on the primacy of the individual and on the dignity of the self as a mental entity, whatever that might mean. The confusion is obvious and deeply-rooted, impacting on our legal and moral discussion no less than on our science and our religion. So it's probably time dissenting voices were heard again, since taking the self seriously, though still unfashionable in academic circles, is a perfectly legitimate approach to the mind and its development. Thy physicalist talks only of objects and claims to believe that only objects exist; those who talk of minds know with more immediacy than they know anything else that minds exist - it's just that they have constantly to remind themselves when talking of minds that, despite the way it sounds, they are not talking of objects.

The mind is part of our experience, so treating it as if it were a mind, rather than an object, is good empiricism. Calling mental experience 'delusory' is actually bad empiricism. Of course this raises ontological problems, but they are not solved by pronouncing the mind to be 'mere matter'. It raises epistemological problems, too, because as soon as we stop regarding the mind as an object, it becomes correspondingly more difficult to be 'objective' about the mind. But prejudging the nature of reality and declaring minds to be impossible because they are not objects is simply daft. It’s time we grew out of this childish simplification. Giving the self its own ontological status, therefore, is just good mental housekeeping. Taking the difference between the self and the brain as fundamental (as Popper and Eccles did in their book The Self and its Brain) involves pursuing the ontological distinction wherever it might lead; and one direction in which it leads is that which takes us towards considering the self and its properties introspectively. This might be decried as subjectivism; but it is possible to remain objective and strictly empirical about subjective experience. It just requires a bit of caution and a lot of culture.

The brain is like any other organ of the body, a chunk of stuff that can be treated as a mechanism. As it ages, its mechanical properties inevitably begin to decline. It becomes sclerous and calcified. It creaks and groans in protest at the years of routine tasks it has been required to perform. Its circuits, once so plastic and impatient to learn, become, with advancing age, rigid in their resistance to the new and in their tendency to repeat and repeat the actions they performed in the past – particularly if these actions produced pleasurable or empowering feelings. Then the whole thing starts to wear out and shut down. The brain begins seriously to fail and its control over the body becomes less and less efficient. But even in these circumstances those circuits that have been of significance in the life of the empirical individual, whose brain it is, may intensify their autonomy and generate obsessions and manias in the mind of the individual concerned. Old people can become ‘set in their ways’ and also prone to develop ever more eccentric, incomprehensibly egoistic or outwardly weird behaviour, as the diminishing brain circuits that are left to them occupy more and more of their mental economy and dominate more and more their behaviour. The spectacle of a demented old person half naked and shouting in public about a confused mania with some incomprehensible link to past experience is not calculated to inspire optimism about the process of ageing. But we do not necessarily have to age in order to become obsessive in all sorts of unedifying ways: if we fail to develop as selves – that is to say grow ‘spiritually’, for want of a better word – , brain-circuits that have provided us with pleasure or satisfaction in the past, however trivial, will come increasingly to dominate our waking life and may lead to the kind of obsessive nastiness that is observable most clearly – by virtue of the exaggeration – in the psychopaths and deviants that plague our society with their insanitary idées fixes.

But is this dismal tale altogether a negative one? My deepest belief is that it is not. The reason for this is that the negative developments in the brain may be accompanied and outweighed by entirely positive developments within a self that is increasingly independent of the brain.  The brain is the seat of the ego, the organ of survival, of accomplishment in the world, of reproductive success of increasing power and of all the other areas of interest to the growing and maturing human individual. The main function of our brain is to guarantee the survival of our individual body long enough to enable us to reproduce our kind. The focus of the conscious brain’s activity is the egoistic programme and egoism is its natural mode of functioning. But all of this is destined to be slowed by decline and finally to fizzle out altogether. So it is what remains after the brain has been programmed for success and then worn itself out in the pursuit and possible achievement of this success that really matters to the individual. And it’s the real individual we’re talking about here, not some social role or persona.

There is good evidence to suggest that spiritual growth throughout a life seems to protect the person in some measure from the effects of brain-wear. In ageing, the individual, if he or she continues to grow as a self, naturally detaches him- or herself progressively from the egoistic accomplishments of life, from its dominant preoccupations and turns inward towards the self. It is at that point – precisely when the brain is beginning to decline – that the ego can be relegated to the back seat and the self is able to assert itself, as long as the retrieval mechanisms are not irrevocably damaged. At this point, the self can use the vast store of knowledge and experience stocked within the brain as so many reasons to abandon the life of the organ of success in preference to cultivating the life of the individual self. It is at this stage of life that altruism – that mysterious phenomenon of human community – is understood for what it is: the dawning awareness of the self that it is a vaster mental terrain that that of the ego.  Sometimes this happens earlier in life as a result of a crisis – a near-death experience or something similar – but it happens most naturally as a result of ageing.

The positive side of ageing is generally invisible to those who see only its wear and tear. As brain-dominated egos (or as ego-dominated brains) we’re so obsessed by judging others according to their value to us, that we often forget that they have a value to themselves and that this may increase as their value to others decreases. This value of the self to itself is utterly different from the value of the ego to itself and wholly independent of the value of an individual’s brain power to others. The essence of self-awareness can be seen as the growing consciousness of the self as part of the universal intelligence of the cosmos. Given that the development of the self seems to separate itself from and even to go against the functions of the brain, there is no reason to suppose that the self may not continue to develop beyond the point at which degeneration of the brain has seriously interrupted the individual's ability to communicate with the outside world. The moral and spiritual accumulation of the self requires, as Kant pointed out, that the self in question have no term set to this development.

Many aspects of the empirical personality, many of its accomplishments and habits, many of its most treasured intellectual and emotional possessions, including language itself, have to be abandoned in the process of ageing; but in abandoning these, the self discovers what is intrinsic and essential to it. Old age is the stage of life in which contemplation may take over from action and goal-directed thought; indeed, if it doesn't there's something wrong. This is the stage at which the self discovers that though its brain is determined, time-bound, space-bound, hidebound and destined for inevitable decline, the self is not necessarily any of these. It is the stage at which mind-thinking begins to diverge from brain thinking - though in certain creative individuals, this divergence may have happened much earlier. The self realises as it detaches itself from the brain with its egoistic routines and habits that it is possibly undetermined, spaceless, timeless and polyvalent. The sense of liberation is immense. Old age is often a period of cheerful gallows humour, as the ego declines towards its inevitable demise. The self begins to develop a hunch, if it continues to grow, that it is not only keyed into the universal intelligence of the cosmos, as pure, unexpressed potential, but that its continuing stake in the cosmos is assured. Of course, pursuing the logic of such a process, the individual becomes aware that the brain not only will die, but actually has to die in order for the self to be released; but the wise of every age have known that death, far from being the end, is a kind of return to the point of departure that makes possible the liberation of the essential self. Cavafy’s fine poem Ithaca is a description of this separation process. In this liberation the brain is merely a facilitating mechanism that has served its purpose and, having done so, become irrelevant. We are unable to speculate intelligently about the manner of the self’s persistence, but the accumulations during the period of physical life assure us of its reality and give us some inking of its onward course. The consignment of the ego and its ambitions to oblivion seems to be an important precondition of this unfolding of the self.

For those human beings who find it impossible to transcend the ego and who remain exclusively attached to the activities of their adult life, to the memories of pleasures going back to their childhood, to the feelings of accomplishment, power, reproductive success and so on, nothing remains to them in ageing but the re-excitation of those brain circuits that provided them with the experiences of such things. If such individuals never acquired the spiritual distance, the mental disengagement from the physical, the discovery of the no-thingness of the essential self, that is at the heart of all authentic aesthetic, spiritual and religious or mystical experience, then their fate is sealed and they are destined to decline as selves along with their declining brain. On the other hand, the development of a spiritual dimension to the self seems to guarantee that separation from the brain takes place (the earlier spiritual development began, the easier and more effective this separation will be) and the self acquires the ability to contemplate the decline of its body with equanimity as the awareness takes hold that it is only after the death of the body that the full scope of its potential can be realised. The ego can only mourn, as its infrastructure, the brain, begins to decline and as its highest values – those of fostering its own advantage – look increasingly vain. What more pathetic spectacle than that of the wealthy tycoon desperately trying to extend his empire and increase his wealth as death beckons? For the self that has abandoned egoism, however, the sense of accumulation, of expansion from the centre, that characterises a life devoted to the cultivation of spiritual values, has at its core the conviction that such an accumulation not only will not, but cannot be truncated. The death of the brain along with the death of all that the brain does best is then understood as an essential element in the process. It is as the brain and the ego fall away that the oceanic consciousness of the self is free to expand.

The brain is responsible not only for our obsessive, automatic behaviour, but also for our ritualised actions, our habitual actions, our skilled actions, in short, for all of our typically egoistic human behaviour and for most of what people conventionally consider to be the essence of their personality. In fact, none of that is intrinsic to the essence of the self but getting rid of all this stuff is obviously challenging, since it feels a bit like the threat of extinction and is therefore anxiety-inducing. Nevertheless, the practice of death (Plato’s melete tou thanatou) involves nothing less than this, and getting used to the process is probably indispensable to a decent old age. Those who fail to develop a spiritual non-egoistic life risk fizzling out along with their brain. Spiritual consciousness is post-intellectual, post-linguistic, post-human. But it is the culminating stage of a coherent process of human development that is similarly described in numerous old traditions. It is on the whole vouchsafed to the old, firstly because in the young it would be a handicap – principally to earning a living, though ascetic passions may arise spontaneously at any age –  and secondly, because a great deal of experience, skill and time are required to acquire distance from, and growth out of, the brain.

The human self requires a brain and a programmed brain in order to develop a full self-consciousness. The development of a fully functioning ego is vital to the process of transcending that ego. The self emerges not only out of the experience of an individual lifetime, but also out of the entire evolutionary history of the species that lies stored up in the brain. In common with all natural transformations, the husks of former stages of existence, though they were necessary at the time, fall away and become redundant. So it is with the brain. Far from being the essence of our self, it is simply the essence of our humanity and the support structure of our ego; and as such it has to wither away as the self moves beyond mere human life and transcends the human condition. Getting stuck in the brain and failing to move beyond the ego, for whatever reason, failing to develop a spiritual self can thus be regarded as the greatest of disasters for the individual, since with the death of the brain, the individual who has not developed as a self may turn out to be truly dead. The possession of an under- or undeveloped self is almost always advertised by a stridently vociferating ego. But the ego is literally going nowhere. The ego lives and dies with the brain and the energy field that defines the physical boundaries of the brain and thus of the brain-dominated personality will be absorbed into the entire energy field of the cosmos anyway, just as an eddy in a fast-flowing river gradually fills and disappears. The panic-stricken resistance of the ego is powerless to stop this. The self, on the other hand, feels no resistance at all to the prospect of reabsorption, indeed, it desires nothing else.

So for those who may feel stuck in their brain and fed up with their ego, several stiff drinks, or a dose of some mind-expanding substance may loosen the bonds and give the self a bit of elbow-room; but  these effects are of limited value. There's no substitute for the development of the creative persistence of that unfathomable but entirely non-egoistic frame of mind that is frequently referred to – however inadequately – in phrases such as 'a sense of awe', 'aesthetic contemplation', 'mystical awareness', the 'oceanic experience' and so on. Such phrases may strike the empiricist in us as outlandish, pompous or simply absurd, but they nevertheless point to an archetypal experience of the emerging self that we do well not to ignore. The entire cultural history of our species, with its florescence of religion, art and science, is a record of the struggle of the post-human self to liberate itself from the limitations of the evolved human brain. Culture itself is an indication that the evolution of our species has left the realm of the purely physical and moved into the realm of the immaterial. Every tendency of our species is towards the loosening of the dark embrace of matter. To have some inkling of the manner in which the brain has exhausted its usefulness to us is to experience the completest liberation of the self that is possible this side of death.


Common sense is popularly considered as the infallible guide to life, the universe and everything; but this is emphatically not so. The human animal is a creature that is in a type of conflict with itself that leads it to believe many contradictory things. This conflict is sometimes referred to as a moral conflict – ‘the things I want to do I don’t do, and the things I don’t want to do I do’ – and accounted for in terms of friction between social pressures and individual freedom. It is clear that what is of benefit to the individual is not necessarily of benefit to the collective. But it seems odd to suppose that the human animal would invent and go on inventing something – culture, society – that is in conflict with and even militates against its essential nature, unless there is an impulse to do so that determines behaviour in ways that are not strictly ‘selfish’ for want of a better word. But then, the conflict is not only moral, it is also intellectual. Guilt – and some would call it ‘existential guilt’ – is a feature of our species, but so is the intellectual need of members of successive generations to call into question what the previous generation believed. So rather than trying to find cultural factors or genetic factors supposedly responsible for this conflict, it is much more reasonable to speculate that the dissonances we experience as a species are rather down to a much more primordial tension that is inherent in our own nature. I am going to stick my neck out and call this:

the conflict between the brain and the mind.

It is not very fashionable to postulate a distinction between brain and mind, no more fashionable, indeed, than the distinction between body and soul. The ‘brain-mind problem’, so-called, is solved by those seeking scientific respectability by the simple expedient of denying the existence of the mind, or calling it a mere ‘epiphenomenon’ of the brain – something like the hum of an electric motor. I have no need of scientific respectability and care not a fig for fashion, so I’m going to argue for what strikes me as the clearest explanation for the essential conflict at the heart of human mental activity and declare that it’s down to the (creative) tension between the brain, and the mind that uses it. We could call this the conflict between the self and its brain. The materialistic objections to taking the mind seriously have evaporated as physics has developed: we simply do not understand what we mean by ‘matter’ any more. There are clearly levels of reality beyond the material and there is no point in asserting that mind cannot be considered a reality in its own right and studied phenomenologically. This is the line to be taken here. We shall assume not only that mind is distinct from brain but that mind is the more basic phenomenon and that mind makes use of brain for its expression. The mind, on this view, is a more capacious concept than that of the brain and the phenomenology of the mind is correspondingly more complex than that of the brain. For physicalism, brain event a and the ‘corresponding’ mind event a’  are one and the same. But there is no particularly good reason for this apart from a correlation that we do not understand. Brain event a may give rise to mind event a’; but equally, mind event a may give rise to brain event a’. Brain event a may exist without any mind event at all; but equally mind event a might exist without any brain event at all. Mind events might thus be prior to and more complex than brain events. If this view has any merit at, it becomes possible to see how the brain might be a source of limitation on the mind and how the mind might be a possible means of transcendence of the brain. The brain may merely focus the mind; and the mind may well expand the brain.

 The brain, we are told, is an engine tinkered together by the long peregrinations of our evolutionary past including those of the evolutionary past of all of our non-human forebears. This brain, in common with every other organ of every other creature, has been sculpted by all the dramas, tragedies, adventures, catastrophes and accomplishments of our long evolutionary history; and, in common with brains of other creatures, it is an impressively effective but sometimes unruly agent. But if we were no more than the sum total of the operations of our brain thus evolved, we would be creatures without conflict, like our non-human cousins, whose brains allow them to live in the same manner generation after generation without inner discord. Far from being impelled to live life in a certain way and no other, we (modern) humans find it impossible to live like our parents. We announce to ourselves that there is no essentially human life at all and that we are whatever we decide to make ourselves into. We imagine we are completely free to do this, even though, at the same time, we may hold the doctrine of total behavioural determinism by the brain.

Even a rudimentary knowledge of the history of our species should suggest to us, without invoking an immaterial self, that our mental evolution seems to require at the very least some ability of the brain as a system to modify itself, to stand outside of itself, as it were, and to criticise its own functioning.  It is as if the software running on the computer, so to speak, were built so as to be able to re-write itself on a regular basis. We seem as a species always to be rubbing up against what our brains impel us to do and finding stratagems that we think might be in some way better – or at least different. That doesn’t much look like mechanistic determinism and perhaps the ballooning of self-conscious awareness in our species is the irruption into what appears to us as material nature of the universal non-material levels of reality. If we take the existence of the human mind seriously – rather than trying to explain it away – then there is no reason at all why mind should not be considered to be a universal feature of realty. The emergence of this reality into the natural world in the form of self-consciousness can no longer be assumed to be an impossibility, as it was on the basis of now discredited conceptions of the material constitution of the world. We don’t necessarily have to go into the realms of Hegelian speculation concerning the absolute spirit and its emergence into consciousness in the human being; but we can postulate that universal intelligence achieves consciousness in the human individual thanks to the complexity of the brain, and that this brain, far from being a perfectly  adequate instrument for the expression of this universal intelligence acts as a restriction against which such intelligence constantly struggles. This restriction is, it seems, vital to our creativity and our ingenuity. It is in that sense that we suggest here that human beings might be in conflict with themselves and that this conflict emerges most visibly in that battle between our soaring imagination and our common sense.

This contradiction at the heart of our being should make us reflect that while we might be determined by our brains, there is clearly something else going on both in our individual consciousness and in the human species as a whole. The conflict of which we speak is of the very essence of what we are and is closely related to our restless drive towards accomplishment. It is responsible for the fact that we have moved in a very short time – speaking in evolutionary terms – from being no more than savannah-dwelling bipedal ape-like creatures to being, in our own eyes, masters of the universe. Our volcanic creativity, our use of language and mathematics, our technological inventiveness, our political evolution, our poetry and religion – all of these features of our history are connected to the central conflict of our being. So what is the nature of this conflict? The suggestion here is that it is down to a tussle within the human species between the swelling cerebral mass, as a survival-machine produced by evolution, on the one hand, and the emergence into human consciousness, on the other, of a level of reality that can only be described as ‘intelligent mind’ and that may for all we know be as essential a feature of the universe as matter. It may well be that the brains of mammals had to reach a certain level of complexity before this became possible, but whatever the case, there is a chasm between the human species and all other species that is to some extent explained by the nature of the brain, but that is best explained by the operation of the mind. We do not need to assume a dualistic structure to reality, with inexplicable interactions between two apparently irreconcilable realities, since current theories of physics do not exclude the operation of the mental in the non-material world of the sub-atomic in ways that cannot be explained by a purblind insistence upon the primacy of the three-dimensional object.

If this thesis is true, then we have to assume that brain-thinking and mind-thinking can be prised apart. Intuitively, this seems possible. But the difference between brain thinking and mind thinking is perhaps most clearly evident in the phenomenon of ‘common sense’. Human common sense is demonstrably a brain function: it is the way we are impelled to think before we start to reflect on our thinking, before we are even conscious of thinking. Common sense is what appears to humans to be obvious, self-evident or completely reasonable. For example, there are many perceptual conclusions that we draw about the world that are ‘obvious’ to us. It is ‘obvious’ to the common sense view that the universe is composed of three-dimensional objects. It is ‘obvious’ that the world is flat. It is ‘obvious’ that the sun goes around – or at least over – the stationary world from the east towards the west. It is ‘obvious’ that space has three dimensions and time is infinitely linear. It is ‘obvious’ that the moon is the same size as the sun, and so on. Additionally, there are many other common sense conclusions that we draw that have a moral character and are more subtle. It is ‘obvious’ that I owe a greater duty of care and have a greater moral responsibility towards my relatives than to non-relatives. It is ‘obvious’ that strangers are to be treated with suspicion. It is obvious that potential sexual partners are in themselves attractive. It is ‘obvious’ that aggression from you is to be met with aggression from me. It is ‘obvious’ that I should strive to maximise my sphere of influence, my power, my possessions. And so on. These ‘obvious’ matters are of relevance at the forefront of consciousness, but there are a host of other less conscious to unconscious determinants – some of which emerge when we discover perceptual illusions, for example – that nudge us towards conclusions that we find self-evidently correct and that we refer to as ‘common sense’. It is only when we begin to think about our thinking that these determinants become clear to us, we become aware of the brain’s influence upon us, and we become able to modify our behaviour or our knowledge in the light of our own freedom to criticise our common sense. The growth of culture can almost be seen as our transcendence of the brain as we become ever more skilled in criticising its operation and our consequent liberation from our common sense.

Common sense is clearly very fallible and may be dangerous once we adopt lifestyles more complex than those of hunter-gatherers. What was obvious to our ancestors served them well; but as we move away from the earth-bound, low velocity lives they led, we think about our thinking in a way that demonstrates our ability to think beyond the strictures of our brains. What is obvious now is that human civilization has taken the species beyond the sort of response to our environment that we observe in non-human animals, that all of these matters that are ‘obvious’ to our common sense view of the world are in fact far from obvious at all and are in other frames of reference mistaken. Modern physics has substantially destroyed our common sense perceptions of the world around us and centuries of moral and political evolution of our societies have extensively modified our common sense moral perceptions, too, since many of them were unjustifiably discriminatory. So although we still ‘know’ certain things of a perceptual and moral character – and know them with greater certainty the less aware we are –  we may now have to accept on the basis of rational argument that we don’t know them at all, that they arose out of mere brain ‘prejudice’ and that we are indeed mistaken. 

The world is not flat. Space is not three-dimensional. The world is not composed of three-dimensional objects, my family is not inherently more deserving than strangers, aggression is not obviously best met by aggression or vengeance, sexual attraction is a trick of the brain and it is not self-evidently true that I should always seek to maximise my own advantage. These things are ‘false’; and the fact that generations of human beings have thought otherwise does not change that.

So what is going on? What is going on is that our brains deliver to us a perceptual interpretation of the world along with certain patterns of thought and patterns of behaviour, on the one hand, that were useful to our survival as animals among animals, and our minds, with increasing awareness, find these perceptions and patterns of thought to be inadequate, on the other. This conflict is of our very essence and the view taken here is that it indicates the split in our being between mind-thinking, on the one hand, that is free to criticise and modify its mode of expression, and brain-thinking, on the other that is not. Brain-thinking is the hard wired bit of our mental economy. Brain-thinking will always impel us to pursue those types of behaviour that the brain has evolved to equip us for. We will behave like the elk with its enormous antlers and continue to use our adaptations in ways that lead to the development of even more effective versions of these assets. But like the elk, we will discover that these adaptations can be a handicap. Then, in contrast to the elk, our imagination will reveal to us where our advantage has turned into a hinderance and allow us to resist the promptings of our brain and its common sense. Our imagination will suggest to us ways in which we may liberate ourselves from the determinations of our brain. It is this creative transcendence of our innate thinking, we suggest, that is the indication of an intelligence at work in us that is not explained by the functioning of our brain alone.

Now while this intelligence may not have an evolved physical organ of expression in each individual human being, it does have an organ of expression in the totality of cultural institutions of the human species. It is this cultural organ – what Popper calls ‘World 3’ and what we have called ‘midworld’ – that permits the expression of universal intelligence through the human species as a whole and through the individual where this individual is, in turn, cultivated.

Clearly, our common sense reactions to the world are those reactions that evolution has programmed into our brains as a result of our struggle for survival. So our common sense is down to the unreconstructed activity of our brains that operates unopposed in the absence of education and continues with considerable power even where education has brought it to consciousness. It seems clear that brain-thinking does not require consciousness at all. In common sense it is, as it were, as though we were following the ordinary gradient of brain-activity. In common sense we experience the mechanisms of our brains acting according to their own structure. In our common sense conclusions, insofar as these enter our critical awareness, we ‘catch our brains at it’ and are able with increasing mental distance to criticise these conclusions. We ‘catch our brains at it’ in all sorts of situations where we may think that we are acting on reflection but where in fact our brains are thinking and acting autonomously. This is certainly the case in the affective aspects of our lives, in our sexual activity, in our motivation to find food, in our need to maximise the sphere of our power and influence and so on. But it is also the case in our perceptual interpretation of our immediate environment, in our locomotion, our judgement of space and time, our conclusions as to the suitability of a certain type of movement within a certain terrain and so on. 

But the most treacherous operations of our brains in the exercise of common sense are found in our chains of reasoning based upon common sense premises and then extrapolated to frame a general principle. For example, we may reason that since our immediate environment seems full of three-dimensional objects and nothing else is detectable by means of our senses, then there is nothing else in the universe. We may reason that since we can get to the top of a tree by means of a ladder, the use of a much longer ladder will get us to the moon. We may argue that since the world is clearly composed of three-dimensional objects, thought just has to be a three-dimensional object. We extrapolate all the time on the basis of common-sense premises and then discover subsequently that such extrapolations are illegitimate. Only after much trial and error do we finally reassess and possibly abandon our common sense conclusions. It is for this reason that the confident empiricist should temper confidence and hasty judgement with caution and perhaps a little imagination. Empiricism is common sense elevated to the level of the absolute and even common sense should tell the empiricist that thinking like a human being is not necessarily any more absolutely valid than thinking like a tadpole. (The comparison comes from Socrates.)

It is clear that as a species we have always been engaged upon a long process of modifying or abandoning patterns of thought that were given to us a priori, as it were, by the structure of our brains. We have as a species gone beyond the dictates of our brains in all manner of ways, both perceptual and moral. But we have also gone beyond our brains in our tendency to call into question and abandon our own extrapolations from common sense. What, for example, could be less commonsensical than the discoveries of quantum theory? Or how could an evolutionarily determined brain come up with the ideas of the Big Bang, black holes or other exotic states of matter far beyond the scope of any creature’s experience? So the question is: how does this process of ‘going beyond the brain’ come about? How do we ‘catch our brains at it’, catch ourselves thinking according to wobbly brain-supported assumptions, spot the fallacy and correct it? Animals cannot go beyond their brains. They are stuck with their brains and compelled to follow what they dictate. The elk has to carry on with its competitive behaviour that led to the disproportionate growth of its antlers and thus perhaps damage its future prospects, particularly if it gets stuck in a thicket while fleeing from wolves. The poor elk is stuck with that fate. We are apparently the only species that habitually criticises its own evolutionarily determined patterns of thought and modifies them where they appear to come into conflict with an expanded conception of reality. How do we do this?

The answer that occurs most insistently is that the human self-conscious mind is somehow ‘outside’ of or ‘beyond’ the brain and able to modify its activity from this outside vantage-point. Of course such a conclusion will draw howls of rage and ferocious opposition from all sorts of quarters, not least from the materialists and behaviourists. But the simple riposte to their arguments will often be that their ferocious opposition is more often than not based upon common sense and that they are not therefore going to win the argument by simply asserting what the brain compels them to assert. The empiricist dogma, that only what is experienced by the senses is known, is patently false. There is no longer any point or any justification in the assertion that what cannot be experienced by the bodily senses has no reality. Since that is so, we are entirely justified in following our own intuitions about our minds where rationally they take us. The empiricists will assure us that thoughts of God or transcendent minds are merely the brain-determined craving that our species has for coherent stories about and coherent meanings to our environment. But the view here is that empiricism is brain-determined common sense and probably misguided. Stories of gods and universal meanings arise because of our access to universal intelligence and not from the structures that our brains have evolved in the course of their evolution. 

The empiricists can not have it all their own way: if thoughts of God are just aberrations of the brain, then so are thoughts of universal scientific explanation. For us it is a blind alley to explain any aspect of the extraordinary effects of human creativity by pointing to this or that bit of the brain. Our creativity and the imaginative flights of fancy that are at the heart of our cultural accomplishments, are more intelligently seen as the emergence into human consciousness – admittedly still in primitive and often distorted form – of the universal intelligence that generates the cosmos. Moreover, this notion of universal intelligence gives us a sheet anchor to our minds when the business of criticising our brains and our common sense calls into question our cherished assumptions. The empiricists, who must equally criticise common-sense assumptions, have no compass thereafter to guide them on what has to be a trackless mental sea. That is why the empiricists are sometimes so ferocious and why they insist on the exclusive and absolute value of empiricism. The alternative seems to them to be pure irrationality. We at least are able see rationality as universally valid because it is rooted in universal intelligence.

Our creativity arises in our minds and not in our brains. We know all sorts of things that run counter to common sense and that nevertheless turn out to be truer than the conclusions of common sense. To take a simple example: whereas Euclidean geometry was regarded for many centuries as corresponding to the essential nature of reality, non-Euclidean geometries dreamt up out of sheer mathematical exuberance  by Gauss, Riemann, Lobachevski and others turned out to correspond much more precisely to our expanding conception of reality and facilitated the development of Einstein’s theories of Special and General Relativity as a result. Euclidean geometry is based on the ‘obvious’ properties of three-dimensional space, delivered to us to by our brains. And yet we have the ability to think up, in purely abstract ways, exotic properties of a world we have not experienced but suspect may just be possible. That such properties later turn out to be applicable to new features of the material world unsuspected by our common sense is nothing short of miraculous. The fundamental issue here is that of human creativity. We get beyond our brains by means of our creative thinking and we do it with such consistent success that to claim this merely as one part of the brain talking to another simply fails to convince. The prophets of naturalism, materialism and determinism will all claim that creativity is simply brain activity turbocharged by feedback loops created by language or by cultural pressure. Where it is not so determined, they believe, creativity is largely accidental. But both language and culture are themselves the results of human creativity over generations and therefore cannot be called upon to explain creativity. As for the ‘accident’ theory, in which creativity arises out of random brain-activity, this is a declaration of ignorance and mere desperation – the scientific equivalent of the unconvincing ‘god-of-the-gaps’.

Determinism, brain-determinism simply does not work as an account for human creativity. The easiest and clearest way to account for the manner in which humanity has consistently and massively altered the functioning of its own thought, transcended its common sense, is to suppose that the mind is a broader, larger and more complex phenomenon than the brain and that it is the action of the mind upon the brain that drives it to transcend its own limitations while continuing, in many respects, to be tied to them. There is clearly a two-way process going on: the brain becomes ever more practised in its functioning as a result of experience; but this conceivably allows the mind enhanced scope. The mind can be presumed to be far more complex than the brain, just as all possible, but as yet unknown, mathematics is more complex than existing mathematics. Such complexity could not of course be squared with the notion of mind as an ‘emergent’ property of the brain, for emergence, though permitting interactionism, leaves the mind less, and not more, complex than the brain it uses and from which it supposedly emerges. The only reasonably respectable conception of mental reality that could allow the mind to be more complex than the brain is that of panpsychism, according to which mind is a property of the universe at large and as such predates the emergence of any brain, human or otherwise. And indeed a conception of the universe that includes intelligent mind as one of its fundamental properties is not inherently difficult to accept any more. It is only difficult to accept is if one is ideologically committed to one or other – or all – of the various eliminative theories that since the eighteenth century have striven to exclude mind from the universe, first in the form of a deity and then in any form at all, including that of a human mind.

A universe in which intelligent mind is a fundamental property may well strike us humans as against common sense and thus as inconceivable, but it is not more against common sense than quantum theory and its inconceivability is a result of the limitations of common sense anyway – limits that we transcend with great regularity. So inconceivability and common sense are no objections to a theory of universal intelligent mind. Moreover, it is not as inconceivable as all that, since we know from our most intimate experience, and against common sense, what is implied by the word ‘mind’ and we have direct experience of the interaction between mind and the material systems that make up our bodies. Extrapolating from our own mental experience to the universe at large is now more justified than extrapolations to the universe at large of human common-sense intuitions concerning matter. We do not need, moreover, some unsatisfactory dualistic theory to make the idea of universal mind comprehensible to ourselves. The world of physical matter is quite complex enough to include in it mind-like levels of reality. The old idea that matter had to mean three-dimensional objects has gone forever. Matter is now understood much more in terms of energy fields than in terms of three-dimensional objects. There is, therefore, no reason at all, why intelligent mind should not be an energic feature of the entire universe just as intelligent mind is a feature of the human being. The world of three-dimensional objects arises out of a level of reality in which there are no three-dimensional objects and that level could conceivably be not one, but a multiplicity of levels, - let’s say a hierarchy of ever more subtle fields –  on one or more of which mind could operate.

So the distinction between brain-thinking and mind-thinking is by no means a wild or fantastical idea. The brain is only a three-dimensional object in terms of our common sense and in terms of the capacities of the sensory-cognitive apparatus bequeathed to us by evolution, and we are learning to be ever more critical of all of this. It is not reasonable to claim, as dyed-in-the-wool materialists do, that thoughts are objects. It is, however, perfectly reasonable to believe that thoughts are what we think they are – i.e. thoughts – and to suppose that the history of human culture has been a progressive liberation of the mind and of human consciousness from the limitations of the brain. If we had been stuck with our brain and nothing more, we would arguably be still living in the manner of our hominid ancestors. The explosive development of human culture and human consciousness is well accounted for in the speculative theory that the increasingly complex brain produced by evolution permitted the emergence into human consciousness of the universal mental levels of reality. If what we understand as the ‘matter’ of the universe is more a creation of our sensory-cognitive apparatus than objective reality, and if this material character of the macroscopic world arises out of a distinctly non-material substrate, then our brains, too, can be understood as arising out of a non-material substrate, an energy field or something analogous. Such conceptions are entirely within the bounds of modern physical possibility. Mental activity will thus always correlate to observable brain activity, since the two – the mental dimension and the physical – are aspects of a single reality that in turn is part of the intelligent, mentally active universe. But correlation is not the same as causation; and it is no more reasonable to say that the empirically observable electro-chemical activity of the brain causes the thoughts than it is to say that the thoughts cause the electro-chemical activity.

Common sense has to be taken with a large pinch of salt. The brain imposes all manner of mental habits upon us that we do well not to trust, when it is a question of understanding reality. Reality has to be our guide, not fashionable theory. And whatever else we may know or not know, we know that our minds are real. Much of scientific advance has involved overturning common sense notions and there is no reason to suppose that this will not continue as science becomes deeper and investigates ever deeper levels and wider vistas of phenomena. Science is still too closely linked to common sense. The philosophy of naturalism and its related ideologies of determinism and materialism arose from a too uncritical reliance on common sense and therefore on the natural gradient of the brain. Science, when it comes of age, will take us ever further from our brains and ever deeper into the mental reality that we are only just beginning to appreciate. But we may have to take mental reality more seriously first. Technology is taking us ever further from the limitations of our bodies and there is no reason to suppose that science will not do the same for that bit of our bodies we call the brain. 

Materialism is dead. Determinism is dead. And there is now no longer any reason to cling to the ideology of naturalism. The mind is the most difficult entity for science in its present form to understand, precisely because science is still too dependent on common sense. The self-conscious mind is even more difficult to understand. Science will have to grow up and evolve new methods for dealing with the immaterial. But this is not something to fear; nor is it something radically alien, since art has been dealing with it for centuries. On the contrary, a liberated science holds out the possibility of vastly enhanced understanding and vastly expanded vistas of reality. If such intellectual developments eventually rehabilitate the idea of a deity, then so be it. The idea of a God is only to be feared if it is shackled to the common sense of the human brain and all the primitive obsessions that arose from it, its tribalism, its territoriality, its xenophobia, its naïve three-dimensionalism and all the rest. The modern atheists rely entirely on their common sense to deliver their truth. The truth is that the brain has never delivered any more than a convenient, survival-related truth. The search for truth is an activity of the mind and that mind, once honestly considered, leads inevitably to the thought of a universal intelligence.

It is completely obvious that we are limited beings with a limited conception of reality who are still struggling with the straightjacket of the brain upon our thought. The question is whether we are definitively imprisoned within those limits or whether there is a way for us to transcend them. I have tried to argue that though our brains are determined, evolutionarily circumscribed structures, our minds give us access to levels of reality that are not merely material, and therefore we may legitimately hypothesise that we do have mental access to levels of reality from which our brains  exclude  us. Thus the interaction between mind and brain on the historical level has led to an expansion of our capacities in all areas, because we rightly suspect that more is going on in the universe than our brains give us cause to believe. Below the sub-atomic level of reality, we have no indication from our brains of anything at all: reality shades off into a mysterious fog or foam of energy. There is no reason, however, why the hierarchical levels of reality to which we do have access – macroscopic objects, microscopic objects, atoms, sub-atomic particles etc. – should not be supported by any number of additional structured levels beyond the sub-atomic, as David Bohm suspected. 

The structure beyond the levels of the sub-atomic would provide ample accommodation for the presence and operation of any number of entities that are unknown to us from our sensory experience of the world but that might be grasped to some extent by us on the basis of our own experience of the mental. We perceive the world in a particular way; and empiricists will assert boldly and with breezy optimism that there is nothing else to reality other than what we experience in that way. That they are mistaken in this is clear not only from non-scientific culture but also from the progress made by particle physics. They can also clearly be seen to be mistaken from the simple observation that they have no account to give and therefore no understanding to offer of the phenomenon of mind unless they reduce it to a thing. Their account of mind is an eliminative one: they can only deal with mind by denying its existence because there is no sensory access to it. They can only study mind by murdering it first. Less ideological thinkers, however, see clearly that as limited beings, limited by the capacities of our brains, we are right to suspect that more is going on in the world than we can understand by empirical means. 

The hunch that members of the human species have always had that something is going on in reality beyond what we perceive, is a legitimate ground for speculation concerning structures in reality that are not given to the experience vouchsafed to us by our brains. The easiest conclusion to draw is that our mental access to levels of reality beyond the physical is an avenue of communication between those levels and ourselves. It may well be after all that we have a connection with what has traditionally be called ‘the divine’ through our mental experience. After all, we can postulate that our bodies are in causal contact with all the other matter in the universe, so why should we not suppose that our minds are similarly in contact with a universal mental reality? It is for this reason that one does well to take the deliverances of the brain cum grano salis and to allow the hunches of the mind concerning the complexity of reality to provide a very much expanded conception of the world than that of the merely empirical.

Common sense is thinking according to the limitations of the brain. Poets, prophets, philosophers and imaginative scientists have always suspected that there is more to the world than meets the eye –  and brain –  and indeed followed strong hunches as to what that ‘more’ might be. There is no reason why we should bow to the bullying dogmatism of the empiricists when the world patently is so much more wonderful than they allow and becomes yet more so with every new discovery that expands our consciousness. Expansion of consciousness and spirituality are related concepts. If spirituality means anything at all, then it involves some aspect of humanity that is not tied to the empirically observable brain. The brain dies and decomposes - that is the universal lot of evolved creatures. That much we do know. If any spirituality that may be achieved simply died with the brain, it would be a waste of time to pursue and accumulate it. All the religious traditions of the world suggest that spiritual growth involves progressive departure from those patterns of behaviour that seem to be programmed into the brain of the species. Spirituality is a matter of increased individuation – or perhaps it should be ‘dividuation’ – and a diminution of those features of the personality that are merely human. It is a departure from the attitude to the world governed by common sense. We are no longer justified in dismissing the fact that humanity has always suspected the mind and body to be separable with the former providing the locus and focus of onward growth. There is no reason to assume, except on merely common sense grounds, that the death of the body annihilates the gains made by the mind. Such a possibility is entirely compatible with our present understanding of the world and of the information that structures it.