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9/28/07


Mind Shadows      Neurons, Baby, Neurons All The Way Down: Consciousness According to Douglas Harding, Blaise Pascal, Antonio Damasio, Daniel Dennett, & Rumi

A mystery envelopes us, you and me; it cannot be explained. How is it that these words on your computer screen can reach from my mind to yours? Science can describe certain processes, light on the retina inverting the words' image, optical nerves transmitting images to the occipital area turning them right-side up, but the fundamental question remains. How can my "I" speak to your "I" ? That is, I am the world; how can you be the world also? On the other hand, you are the world: how, then, can I be it?

Therein lies the old philosophical puzzle of the one and the many. Blaise Pascal put the problem differently. When he looked at the world, he said that he found infinite variety and objects limited by space. When he looked inside he saw nothing but vast, limitless space. The boundary of his skin presented a puzzle to him. If contained by flesh, then how? If not, then how?

Douglas Harding was also puzzled by the question. A British officer in World War II, he feared his impending death as he awaited a battle with the Japanese. During his intense stress he had a strange experience of headlessness, from which he wrote his small classic, On Having No Head. From that experience he developed methods to demonstrate that whatever you behold "out there" is limited whereas you the perceiver can not be apprehended and are limitless.

Over the years I have scrupulously studied scientific explanations of consciousness, and find writers such as Damasio, Dennett, and Pinker fascinating. Still, they inevitably leave something out. One of them, Dennett, is triumphal in his omissions, insisting that it's neurons, baby, neurons all the way down that explain consciousness. His is a case of physicalism triumphant, at least in its proclamation if not in its reality.

In this view, consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, arising out of neurons in parts of the brain. Emergent phenomenon. No, sorry old boy. Instead, consciousness is another reality from the reductionist science that explains it as emergent. Consciousness requires consciousness to give itself identity. Explained by a prior cause, neurons, it remains unidentified. Why? Because consciousness is a separate reality from the brain, one that is ontologically distinct. This is wholly unsatisfactory to a reductionist, for it seems gobbledygook. It lacks precision.

But then I am not a reductionist. In terms of Dennett, I can't get there from here. So much in our understanding lacks precision. Black Holes, Worm Holes, Strong Forces, Weak Forces, Dark Matter, Quarks, Gluons. For me, the case quite simply is that we perceive only a tiny fraction of what we call reality. Physics has replaced "vertical" with "up and down." That is an admission that the other word, "vertical," was merely an abstraction for our experience. We don't have reality, only a model of it. What does a bumble bee feel when it dances, communicating to another bee? We will never know. In electromagnetic radiation we discern without instruments only one octave of a spectrum consisting of more than sixty octaves, including radio waves, infra red, ultra violet, X-rays, and gamma rays. Make no mistake, I am no obscurantist. I am all for explanation. But in reading Dennett, I just can't get there from here and know that I never will.

What I am left with is my puny brain, and its nexus with my consciousness. I have reason and I have feeling and reason alone can never get near the world that I experience.

In Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio observes that our highly vaunted reason rests on feeling. People with frontal lobe injuries seem perfectly normal. They can converse with you, exchange pleasantries, reason things out. But they can't make decisions. A trip to the grocery store can become impossible because emotion provides no impulse to reach for the car keys. The clearest reason is twinged with feeling. From Kant to Einstein, there is no escaping the connection. Who knows what marvelous thought structure was spun out of a fleeting memory of a mother's kiss?

A little poetry, then. It reveals our feelings to ourselves. Where logic plods, it soars. A sonnet attributed to Rumi, a Sufi poet, addresses the one and the many issue. It speaks to a different reality, one beyond all the appearances of the world. No, it does not offer explanations, but it reminds us of what Yeats said, "Man can embody truth but he cannot know it." Here in this poem we are, you and me, and our confusion in the world:

What is to be done, O Muslims, for I know myself not,
Neither a Christian am I, nor Jew, nor Magian nor Muslim.
Neither of the East am I nor West, nor of the land, nor sea;
Nor of nature's quarry, nor of heavens circling above.
I am not made of earth or water, not of wind or fire;
Nor am I of the Divine Throne nor of floor carpeting,
Nor of the realm of the cosmos, nor of minerals.
I am not from India, nor China, nor Bulgaria, nor Turkistan;
I am not from the kingdom of the two Iraqs, nor from the earth
of Khorasan.
Neither of this world am I nor the next; nor of heaven nor hell;
Nor from Adam nor Eve nor of Eden, nor paradise or its porter.
My place is the placeless, my mark the markless;
Not either body nor soul for I am myself the Beloved.

Rumi, Diwan-i Shams-i Tabriz

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