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.

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